Don’t you just love those records that no matter how many times you return to, throughout the years and with more musical knowledge, still manage to sound unlike anything else? Such is the case with Love You (1977) for me, The Beach Boys‘ 21st studio album. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily better than the works of contemporary artists or even when compared to the rest of the band’s ’70s output. What I mean is that it still sounds like an album that could’ve only come out in those specific circumstances, never to be duplicated or imitated. A lot of that has to do with its backstory.Love You marked the return of Brian Wilson as commander-in-chief — he is credited with not only writing and arranging all the songs, but also with playing every single instrument himself. And while we tend to understate his involvement in the ’67-’75 era (he still wrote most of Wild Honey and Friends, as well as produced 15 Big Ones top-to-bottom), it is also true that in many ways Love You picks up where Pet Sounds left off. Only that years of drug abuse and reclusiveness have taken their toll on Brian — the angelic falsetto of the ’60s has now become a guttural rasp, while the meticulous, symphonic soundscapes are replaced by raw, demo-like synth textures.
This is why Love You may take a few listens to truly start making sense. Hearing the first side open with a blast of what has often been described as “farting synth” noise and the second side with Brian’s rough croon may come as slight shocks at first. But multiple listens reveal that both “Let Us Go on This Way” and “Solar System” are ingenious pop compositions, with Brian’s talent for instantly memorable melodies and tricky chord changes still there. Lyrically, lines like “Going to school isn’t my fondest desire / But sitting in class you set my soul on fire” or “If Mars had life on it / I might find my wife on it” are quirky to the core yet somehow still so appealing. Brian’s never been much of a lyricist, so he uses this unprofessionalism (in a traditional sense) to his advantage — each line is delivered in a conversation-like manner, seemingly coming straight from his heart and talking directly to the listener.
What other 1977 album would have its author write a song in which he details how much he enjoys Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show? It sounds as if Brian watched the program and then literally went in the studio and recorded the first thoughts that popped into his head. Or what other artist would let his admiration for another (“I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector”) shine through with such little self-consciousness in a song (“Mona”)? And maybe “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together” would have benefited from a more technically gifted singer instead of Brian’s actual wife; but then we would’ve lost that natural, honest chemistry between the two. We seem to get to know Brian as a person better than ever before, with all the good, bad and weird sides.
But even if you’re not a fan of this new approach, there’s always ballads like “The Night Was So Young” and “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” with construction and harmonies that are so very gorgeously Beach Boys. Or “Good Time,” a 7-year-old Sunflower outtake that somehow both feels out of place (because of the voice and instrumentation) and fits perfectly (due to the lyrics and general playful atmosphere). Love You as a whole is no doubt a flawed album, far removed from the polished, everything-in-its-right-place approach of Pet Sounds, or even Sunflower, but these imperfections quickly become part of its charm, making the album a totally fascinating and enjoyable glimpse into the mind of a genius (arguably) past his prime.