Whereas "Pet Sounds" is perhaps the Beach Boys' most powerful record, "Sunflower" their most united effort and the "SMiLE" sessions their most creative period (or, at least, Brian Wilson's most creative period), "Love You" may be their most real ... if slightly goofy ... release.
The album offers a snapshot into Brian Wilson's world. After years of depression, hiding from the world, dealing with drug abuse and psychological problems, Brian emerged (with the help of the infamous Dr. Landy) and produced "15 Big Ones" and this album.
Did he get active too soon? Perhaps. Were there great ideas that could have become his best works with more time, production and patience? Sure. But that doesn't take away from the beauty and starkness of these diamonds in the rough. "15 Big Ones" has some fun cuts, some interesting glimpses. But "Love You" is impossible to ignore.
When I first heard the "Love You" material, it was on their "30 Years of Good Vibrations" box set.
It was different.
I hated it.
Listening to "The Night Was So Young" and "I'll Bet He's Nice," it was so raspy ... I couldn't conceive of how the Beach Boys could have done this.
And it wasn't just the sound. The lyrics were baffling. Seriously, what happened to the group that did "Don't Worry Baby" and "God Only Knows," and countless other classics? Where were the beautiful lyrics? There's nothing on this album that recalls "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (though a couple of songs are more adult, though slightly simplistic, updates of "Kiss Me, Baby"). Instead, the lyrics are more sophomoric and occasionally macho. What the heck was going on?
I thought to myself, "Wow, no wonder they aren't on the radio anymore. No wonder everyone ignores them. No wonder they don't get much modern appreciation from critics. Burnouts."
I grew up. I learned. I listened more. And when I tore the ear muffs off and actually listened to the stuff, wow, it meant a lot. It was gorgeous. It was stark. It was humbling. It was embarrassing. It was funny. It was simple.
"The Night Was So Young," "I'll Bet He's Nice," "Let Us Go On This Way," "Mona," "Solar System" and "Airplane" are among my favorite Beach Boys songs. They're examples of Brian Wilson's childlike simpleness with lyrics (Solar System/gives us wisdom), his humor (his reference to Phil Spector in "Mona" shows his love for the producer in a cute way), his ability to communicate complex feelings in simple ways.
Even the album's less amazing tracks have their own charms (Johnny Carson gets a Beach Boys song! C'mon, isn't that almost worth the price of admission, even though the song itself is ... um ... not that essential). The Beach Boys even do a new car song that has lyrics that definitely veer into the suggestive ("Honkin' Down the Highway" and the lyrics "Take it one little inch at a time now / til we're feelin' fine now / I guess I've got a way with girls").
What I came to realize is that beauty doesn't have to be sophisticated or perfect or always pleasing to the ear. Sometimes beauty is honesty and effort, producing material despite difficult situations and feelings.
But it isn't just empathy and understanding that makes the album worthwhile. You don't need apologists revising history, or alchemists making gold out of lead. The material on this album strikes the listener, and the talent of Brian Wilson ... of finding that hook and melody that catch your ear and hold your attention ... proves to be as strong in 1977 as it was in 1966.
No Beach Boys group album released after "Love You" really breaks new ground. From the "MIU Album" on, the group went down the path of the old sounds. There are great songs to come, and there are a few decent albums, but the innovation ends here. After this, it's easy-listening harmony pop with the occasional hook. That's not bad, and I'm not complaining ... but the Vegas years were on the horizon and the man who composed "Good Vibrations" was increasingly disengaged and marginalized.
So take it for what it is, "Love You" is a challenging and refreshing work. It sounds nothing like a product put together by the same group that brought you "The Warmth of the Sun," but the album's most beautiful moments hit the same emotional buttons.
An open mind, unbiased ears and a bit of time make all the difference in the world with this album. I'm living proof.