Album review: The Beach Boys' 'That's Why God Made the Radio'
One of the more difficult tasks for a critic is to assess an anticipated new work by a legendary act, one beloved by generations not only for its transcendent sounds but the ways in which it helped define an entire region at a key moment in its history.
To wit, the Beach Boys' “That's Why God Made the Radio,” the band's first new album in 16 years and one that celebrates the archetypal Southern California group's 50th anniversary. With 12 songs about life, love and the passage of time delivered through themes that the group has returned to repeatedly over the years — summer fun, perfect moments in the sun and co-founder Brian Wilson's odes to loneliness — the release is a Beach Boys album through and through.
And though uneven, the group's 29th studio work (including 2011's “The Smile Sessions”) contains a number of elegant, shockingly beautiful moments that not only do justice to and expand on the sound of Southern California in the 1960s but serve as a bittersweet and at times heartbreakingly brilliant coda to five decades in music.
Beach Boys fanatics understand the importance of this record, one in which co-founders/cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love returned to Ocean Way Studios along with longtime members Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks to attempt to recapture the magic that has made them to this day the top-selling American band in Billboard/SoundScan history.
The record is much more a glimpse in the rearview mirror than a look at the road ahead, and at its best, as on “Isn't It Time,” “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer's Gone,” the Beach Boys capture their magical essence and add to their already towering legacy. At its worst, as on “Daybreak Over the Ocean” and “Beaches in Mind,” the band conjures not the spirit of the summer but of Jimmy Buffett's run-down Margaritaville.
As indicated by its title, “That's Why God Made the Radio” resides in a world where guys and gals on spring break still spend hours “cruisin' the town, diggin' the scene,” a nostalgic place where, as the quintet sings in beautiful harmony on “Isn't It Time,” they “can't forget the feeling of the magic of that summer in love.” They sing these songs within music that fits more in with the Boys' obvious debt to Dion and the Belmonts than to Phil Spector's “wall of sound” production technique that drove their classic albums “Pet Sounds” and the recently completed “The Smile Sessions” into the stratosphere. Which is to say, much of “Radio” relies on smaller arrangements and the group's trademark vocal group harmonies, still relatively intact though showing understandable signs of deterioration.
The entire album would be much less effective were it not for the brilliant three-song suite that closes the record. The conclusion of a theme teased at the album's start with a Wilson-penned instrumental, “Think About the Days,” the final nine minutes of “Radio,” divided into the songs “From There to Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer's Gone,” are as exquisitely rendered as anything in the group's catalog. That they also feel like a perfect career-ending benediction certainly adds to the album's weight, but even had the recordings been created at the band's 1966 prime, they would be a vital piece of the Beach Boys' legacy.
The Beach Boys
“That's Why God Made the Radio”
Three stars out of four
— Randall Roberts