If you’ve read one of many biographies about the Beach Boys and their troubled leader Brian Wilson, you know there’s been enough bad blood between them to generate several litigious wipeouts. With all lawsuits now behind them, the surviving lineup — Wilson, his cousin and legal adversary Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnson and early Beach Boys guitarist David Marks — reunite for their first album of new material in 20 years; the first since Carl Wilson’s death in 1998, the first since ’77′s Love You to bear a Brian Wilson production credit, and their first substantial work since the death of Dennis Wilson in 1983.
But how does a brotherly harmony band continue in the wake of such inharmonious personal discord, and with just one brother? The answer lies in a record born out of compromise. That’s Why God Made the Radio bridges the Love/Jardine/Johnson team behind nostalgia-intensive Beach Boys concerts and the far more productive Wilson team. His large and exacting band recorded the rightly lauded 2004 version of Smile, and has toured behind it, as well as a lush live rendering of Pet Sounds and Wilson’s similarly intricate ’08 solo album, That Lucky Old Sun. Although augmented by studio pros and Beach Boys touring drummer John Cowsill, Wilson’s band supplies much of the accompaniment; the only Beach Boy credited with playing an instrument here is Marks, and he’s typically joined by several other guitarists.
Most of the material is written by Wilson and Joe Thomas, who helped helm Wilson’s 1998 solo album Imagination but is more successful as a TV producer. Their lyrics are heavy on lightweight remembrances of sun, fun, and surf, but there’s also a wince-inducing nod to tabloid celebrities (“The Private Life of Bill and Sue”) set to a “Kokomo”-esque Caribbean lilt, and a similarly inane social commentary track, “Strange World.” More troubling is the obtrusive presence of studio processing on some vocals. Whereas the wordless opening cut “Think About the Days” accurately recreates the angelic harmonies of yore, “Spring Vacation” buzzes with the inhuman hum of Auto-Tune — the last thing a fan wants to detect on a Beach Boys record.
The album’s most successful stretch is its last three songs. “From There to Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway,” and “Summer’s Gone” offer an autumnal payoff on an album otherwise akin to the Beach Boys’ summery early hits. Presented in a Pet Sounds-like suite, this triptych opens with Jardine suggesting that he and a beloved escape to a seaside retreat. Wilson then realizes that he might better face the setting sun alone. Watching the waves, he accepts his mortality while dreaming about shared yesterdays. This final stroke makes the rest worthwhile.