Brian Wilson’s Genius, Demonstrated In One Transcendent Song
This article is from our friends at Trunkworthy
A groundbreaking biopic, a legacy of hit records, a triumphant show at the Greek Theater, and yet Brian Wilson is still a profoundly misunderstood and vastly underrated artist. “Surf’s Up” should change that.
We don’t talk about the things we hate at Trunkworthy, but we do hate nostalgia. It organizes the past to neatly fit in comfortable little boxes, filtering out complexity and conflict in the name of simplicity and stereotypes. It reduces a group like the Beach Boys to a handful of feel-good oldies fun and frothy enough for a summer day but would never make anyone think that there are songs beyond their greatest hits that rank with the most astonishing music made in the 20th century, full stop. It’s our view that Brian Wilson, the composer/arranger/songwriter that served as the Beach Boys’ creative core, is pop music’s most deeply misunderstood genius. His life and art is so complex that his daring, mind-bending biopic, Love & Mercy, required two actors to convey the boy-genius who drove himself mad creating the highest musical art of the ’60s and the shattered, lonely man left behind in its wake. And if we had to whittle down our case for Brian Wilson as one of the greatest composers to ever record music down to just one song, it would be “Surf’s Up,” the masterpiece intended to wash the taste of those sunny, striped-shirted, fun-fun-fun radio hits out of the public’s mouth once and for all.
It’s more than a song, it’s an existential prayer that asks you to close your eyes, open your mind, and let every instrument, every voice, every echo wash over you and elevate you. It’s sorrow transformed into hope through the joy of enlightenment and the sight of God. It’s about the life you’re left with after daddy takes the T-Bird away. It goes beyond any definition of pop music that existed in the ’60s, and the full expression of the potential Leonard Bernstein saw when he featured Wilson in a TV special not long before this song was conceived. 50 years later, the song’s ambition, ultimate beauty and relative obscurity is still hard to comprehend.
When Brian Wilson started “Surf’s Up,” he was working at a level that was literally beyond the comprehension and abilities of the greatest artists of the era. Classically trained musicians were overwhelmed by the complexity of his arrangements, requiring several takes just to get their parts down. The structure of the song was so far removed from anything on the radio that Wilson hesitated to release it at all, knowing that it would fail as a single. Its lyrics, by Van Dyke Parks (a dizzyingly talented and creative force in his own right), touch on French literature and Tennyson in an impressionistic dismantling of the surfer-boy image Wilson disdained and (rightly) felt prevented him and his music from being taken seriously. Beginning in 1966 and finally completed in 1971, the song took nearly five years to finish, with equal parts human artistry and technological tinkering allowing “Surf’s Up” to find its way to the very end of an album that has only recently found its audience. Like so much of the music we evangelize for at Trunkworthy, “Surf’s Up” is only showing its influence decades later, with Mojo Magazine recently naming it the single best song of the Beach Boys’ career and Pitchfork calling the album one of the best of the ’70s and citing its impact on Stereolab, Sufjan Stevens and Super Furry Animals. But forget the influence, forget the overdue acclaim and just listen. It’s arguably the greatest work by one of music’s greatest artists and the reward for listening is what it does to your soul in the process.
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