It’s funny what hearing the album far removed from its initial (release) context can do right? I love The Beach Boys and they have some dreadful albums – and I love those too. But I had never heard “Love You” until nearly 40 years after it was released, I reckon. That makes a difference.
Also, I’m already a fan and have already heard the bootlegs and demos and solo albums and the dreadful things they have officially released. And I know the story around Brian Wilson and his mental health. So all of that helps inform my decision to “love” this album.
But I can also run with a tagline like, “Imagine bridging the gap between Phil Spector and Daniel Johnston in one album” and that helps give a big (loaded) idea to any prospective new listeners. And you couldn’t do that back then.
All people had to go on at the time was things like a review from Patti Smith (yes!) which suggests Wilson to be “[seemingly] frozen forever within the light bubbly aura of a birthday party”. Which, actually, is a brilliant description of him and of how he’s been, arguably, or how his music has seemed, ever since this album.
It was going to be a Brian Wilson solo album – and was going to be called “Brian Wilson Loves You” and it was when the Beach Boys were floundering somewhat and Brian was using the latest analog synths to cut scratchy-voiced demos that felt like kids songs and novelty ideas. And he was finding his feet in a sense, and freeing his mind, or un-jelly-ing it…
But to listen to it knowing about his fragile mental state and where that’s taken him and how he’s been (on/off perhaps) in the years since is to have a whole other experience.
So I can say that I legitimately love hearing this album – even though it has lines like, “if Mars had life on it, I might just find my wife on it!” (from the song called Solar System no less – “Solar System brings us wisdom” goes the chanted refrain). Or maybe because of it.
Wilson singing about Johnny Carson is excruciating. And I always like to think that these cringey moments are the true test of fandom. Are you really a Beatles fan if you skip Maxwell’s Silver Hammer? You might think so. But the answer is you’re not. No way. I’m not saying you need printed lyric sheets all over your walls (well, you’re certainly allowed to take those sorts of things down after you turn 21) but you have to have a curiosity around the worst of a band to really love and enjoy the best.
That’s been my way of thinking anyway.
And there are rewards. I’ll Bet He’s Nice is really rather lovely after all.
But you haven’t lived – as any sort of Beach Boys fan – until you’ve caught yourself singing along (more than once) to Love Is A Woman.
There’s a serious matter to discuss around this too. The album is basically Brian Wilson having a breakdown on a mixtape he’s making for his band to use to bolster their fading rep since it’s sold on the merit of being composed and conceived by the same mind that made the earlier triumphs. Which basically set in motion the breakdown.
But it’s not.
But it is.
And I don’t really want to delve any further there. Because I’m not at all trying to make light of his mental instability. Quite the opposite if anything. But it’s not my right to suggest answers. I just listen to this and try to image the scenario. It’s utterly heart-breaking to me. Quite, quite distressing.
And music that comes from that place has always been a balm to me.
These mundane song-ideas (“Ding dang, ding and a ding dong!”) and corny arrangements are so truly – desperately – autobiographical. It’s like those home recordings Daniel Johnston would go on to make. But Brian Wilson wondering about the planets or documenting his viewing of late night TV is more honest than those songs about girls and cars and surfing that put him in the luxury of this position (financially) and the sadness of this position (mentally).
There’s more truth in here.
Or at least I feel like I can believe that.
But I’m sure there are far more people that call themselves Beach Boys fans that either hate or ignore (or maybe just don’t know) this album than those proclaiming it any sort of genius, or necessary stop on the side of the road.
Well, whatever – those fairweather fans probably skip Octopus’s Garden too!