After the collaborative optimism of Sunflower bombed commercially, The Beach Boys created Surf’s Up; a more disjointed and darker effort. Dennis contributes no songs and, while Brian contributes material, he has less impact on the record as a whole, and the album is much more uneven, with material of varying quality contributed by the different band members.
The absolute low point is ‘Student Demonstration Time’, a politically aware Mike Love composition with a rote musical backing. The opening line “I do them when I’m down in the tub/With avocado cream they’ll take a rub” is enough to sabotage any pretence at seriousness on ‘Take A Load Off Your Feet’, while Brian’s ‘A Day In The Life of a Tree’, with manager Jack Rieley on lead vocals, is heartfelt but bizarre. Johnston’s nostalgic ‘Disney Girls (1957)’ could have come straight off Sunflower, but it would have been a highlight of the record. Carl’s first serious efforts at writing, ‘Long Promised Road’ and ‘Feel Flows’, are both absolutely gorgeous; the former with a beautiful bridge, the latter with stream of consciousness lyrics and an ambient atmosphere. Most stunning of all are Brian’s two closing compositions; ”Til I Die’ is a simple and brutally effective reflection on mortality (“I’m a rock in a landslide/Rolling over the mountainside/How deep is the valley/It kills my soul”). ‘Surf’s Up’, a leftover from 1966’s legendary Smile sessions, features one of the most amazing melodies penned by mortal man, the initial section ascending to heaven delivering Van Dyke Park’s impressionist lyrics and Carl’s vocal, before falling into delicate introspection.
Surf’s Up may be frustratingly inconsistent, but the best songs are so amazing that anyone interested in Brian Wilson’s work will need to hear it.