In 1971, The Beach Boys released an album that was markedly different form their initial, sunny surf rock conjuring pristine beaches dotted with multi-color surfboards and bronze boys in swimming trunks. Surf’s Up is more sophisticated in lyrics, and their signature vocal harmonising is refined to the point where multiple contrapuntal melodies effortlessly weave in and out of each other.
A quirky piano melody and guitar open the album, unraveling an environmentalist pop song. Despite the tired topic, the dense vocal harmonies give the song some originality. Long Promised Road is more somber in its lengthy introspection of the pains of growing up, yet is made fresh with the unexpected, bright chorus. Despite the odd theme, Take Good care of Your Feet is well-constructed and full of all sorts of interesting nuances and sound effects. Disney Girls (1957) is a soft ballad ruminating the ideal life, before such a fantasy suddenly becomes a reality in one of the most memorable sections of harmonising.
Student Demonstration Time is just what its title suggests. Grittier, with a blues and big band tinge, the lyrics refer to several prominent protests in America, and The Beach Boys suggest “you better stay out of sight.” Feel Flows is full of cryptic poetry amidst a simpler arrangement and sound. The lengthy, King Crimson-esque solo and psychedelic guitar also show Brian Wilson’s continued interest in music beyond the pop industry.
Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A welfare Song) is also as the title suggests, while A Day in the Life of a Tree is another environmentalist song, but with more subtlety. The arrangement is again simpler as childishly innocent lyrics are sung against the melancholic sublimity of the organ chords. Background vocals build the song towards something that would potentially have been spectacular had they not finished unresolved. ‘Til I Die is a reminder of how insignificant one human life is within something so much bigger surrounding them, and the song finishes with vocal lines seamlessly flowing through one another. The album closes with its title, a four-minute epic seeing erratic thematic changes and busy vocal harmonising where one line ends as another starts.
Surf’s Up shows The Beach Boys grown up and veered towards expressing themselves within a greater diversity of musical styles. At the same time, their sound is refined and vocal harmonising impeccable.