Thursday, February 4, 2016

Song of the Day #266 - The Beach Boys - Surf's Up

Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave...

Last night I was reading some stuff I had written a long time ago, and I saw the phrase "young and often", which I remembered was a reference to some lyrics, but I couldn't remember which ones. I just knew that it was "young and often spring you gave", but nothing else. And I felt a really powerful, but indistinct, sensation, that was close to nostalgia but not directly, just the realization that I had forgotten something that, when I remembered it, would be very nostalgic. It was great, because unlike many other songs that I remember just little melodies or rhythms from, here I had actual lyrics, so I was confident that the mystery would be easily solved. But because of that confidence, I felt okay sitting there and trying to "work it out" on my own, knowing that I could alleviate myself if it ever became to frustrating. It was almost a letdown when it occurred to me that it was "just" the Beach Boys, not some obscure thing that I had managed to forget, not some secret that my self of 4 years ago had over my current self, but an institution of a band, one that is present in nearly every facet of modern popular music in some level of influence.

But then I realized... if I was really thinking of it in that sort of "dismissive" way, then far too long must have passed since I actually sat down and listened to the music. I have periods where the 2011 Smile Sessions and Pet Sounds enter a stage of permanent rotation rarely seen outside of Joanna Newsom, but I guess the last one hadn't been for awhile. And here we are. And here we might be for a few weeks, who knows. Wait no a new Young Thug mixtape is coming out tomorrow hahaha I guess we'll just enjoy this while we can.

Talking about this song in any sufficient depth would involve looking at it in the context of the multi-song suite that builds up to it, and really the entire album before, and the entire album after - the fact that this was just going to be the halfway point blows my mind. And, along that line of thinking, you'd have to get into the unreleased legendary ura-history of the album, and how it basically broke Brian Wilson, and the rivalry with The Beatles, and the greater climate of art/psychedelic pop/rock and how those four terms conflate into a hurricane of impossible meaning... It's all very fascinating stuff, but maybe beyond our scope.

So instead I'm gonna take the easy way of just relating my personal history with this song, and maybe you can relate to it, and maybe you won't, who knows. When I was a kid, I read Pitchfork's "200 Greatest Song of the 1960s", which is a pretty sick list imo, showed me a lot of stuff that I hadn't heard of at the time, and #1 on it was (spoiler alert) "God Only Knows", and the writeup talked about how it had a legacy that outpaced it, and sure I had heard it before, and knew Pet Sounds was pretty respected, but stuff like "the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded" was beyond the scope of what I had heard any reputable source say about basically anything. And Dominique Leone pokes fun at the silliness of these bold statements in his writeup, but doesn't really dismiss them, doesn't dispute them. After all, they still put it at #1, right?

It really stuck with me. It didn't become my favorite song or anything, but it felt like there was some metric, some important metric, one that I couldn't name or wholly grasp, but loosely sensed, where this song was hands down better than anything else... when I listened to it, there were certain things I felt that I could not attribute to any specific thing I could point to, and I assumed that they were byproducts of this mysterious quality reaching a point unheard on other tracks. It was a good feeling, even if it was kind of a nonsense feeling.

But now we arrive at the legendary "Surf's Up", which I had maybe heard in some form before, but encountered on the 2011 Smile Sessions release with proper anticipation... that is, I went in with an active belief that "God Only Knows" was the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded. And at first I was impressed, overwhelmed even. The churning and rough, but somehow also fragile percussion - "like jewelry", Wilson describes on a later studio outtake... the dynamism of it, the almost cinematic structure, calling back through the more "focused" suite to the sprawling epic that was "Heroes and Villains". The first hint at something more on "Are you sleeping?" and then a redoubled effort in the earlier mode... and when, on the second repetition, with the "Brother John", you ease into the second section, ah. This must be root of my love of Mark Kozelek's transitions, that feeling of weightlessness.

The second section, with its story of a lonely man on the streets of New Years, so full of both apocalyptic despair and immortal hope, it's almost too vivid to bear, it's literally painful to picture. And the way it cascades around you in that engrossing rubato, matching the beat of your heart... it's like, oh, it's clear now. They lied to us. Or they got it wrong. It wasn't "God Only Knows" after all. It's "Surf's Up". For sure. The revelation coincides perfectly with the introduction of the title... that stanza, oh my lord:

Surf's up, mmm-hmmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmmm
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children's song

For a second there, the same second in which you discover that this is in fact the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded, and you can understand exactly why that is the case, you also understand perfectly these lyrics... I don't think I could explain them now. And after that is the outro. It feels like a reward for your understanding, for your internal structuring that let you appreciate this as some pinnacle. Like you've constructed this path up some mountain, and you've finally found the way to the top, and then this just launches you into the clouds... It may seem unfeasible for me to remember how I felt so clearly when I first listened to this album, but it comes back to me so clearly, every single time.

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