The Beach Boys, Surf's Up

Much as the Santa Monica surf can be, Surf's Up is an incredibly uneven album from a band itself not noted for consistency, but at its peaks it is without peer. A sudden left turn into the nascent ecological consciousness of the early 1970s, the album's best moments are when it mixes innovative, richly layered musicmaking with subtle message and lyric symbolism. This is certainly not the case for the cloddish "Don't Go Near the Water," a terrible way to start the album, and "Student Demonstration Time," a counterculture grind that reeks of desperate irrelevance; nor does "Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" wear well with its hackneyed social message or the uninspired "Take A Load Off Your Feet," and it should not be considered a coincidence that none of these, save the last, had any involvement from Brian Wilson. Conversely, the final three were primarily or entirely his work, including "A Day in the Life of a Tree," the album's most intriguing track: its lyrics are transparent and almost laughably amateurish, penned by new manager Jack Rieley, but his quavery, faltering delivery against Wilson's stark and subdued arrangement makes it unexpectedly captivating. This goes double for "Til I Die"'s poetic symmetry and wall-of-sound shifting harmonies as well as the introspective title and final track, moody and circuitous but resignedly earnest, a metaphorical elegy for their surf rock days. I would be remiss, of course, not to mention the album's technical masterpiece "Feel Flows" with its sophisticated layer effect and a remarkable reverse echo double-tracked vocal from Carl Wilson, and the first (and only worthwhile) incarnation of "Disney Girls (1957)" later to be butchered by lesser covers and even Bruce Johnston himself. There is so much to like on this album that the low points are almost forgivable; although its vain attempts to invoke contemporary themes occasionally come off as forced, from time to time it still amazes me with its rarefied creativity and deep sincerity even if it can't manage to do so consistently. The 2000 CD reissue pairs this as a double album with the inexplicably less beloved Sunflower, a rare album for the band with its generally more uniform quality, but as such simultaneously lacking the inspired genius of Surf's Up's more outstanding moments — though, to be sure, the lugubriousness of its lesser ones as well. (Content: no concerns.)