Billed as reunion and released in conjunction with an ambitious summer-spanning 50th-anniversary tour, That’s Why God Made The Radio is the first album by anything resembling a classic Beach Boys lineup in decades. The last such effort, released between the deaths of Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson, was 1989’s Still Cruisin’, a pathetic attempt to cash in on the soundtrack hit “Kokomo” that was padded out with a cover of “Wipeout” cut with The Fat Boys and greatest-hits tracks that had recently appeared in movies. In the lawsuit-filled years between then and now, two parties played tug-of-war for The Beach Boys legacy. On one side: Brian Wilson, whose reputation as a troubled, wounded genius grew in the ’90s and ’00s, years that found him earning acclaim by revisiting classics like Pet Sounds and completing, sort of, its unfinished follow-up, Smile. On the other: Mike Love, who kept the Beach Boys alive as a smiling oldies act playing surf hits to nostalgic crowds beneath fireworks and waving American flags.
That’s Why God Made The Radio brings the old band—Wilson, Love, Al Jardine, and longtime collaborators Bruce Johnston and David Marks—back together without letting a clear winner emerge. The album-opening “Think About The Days” provides a reminder of the vocalists’ unearthly harmonies, and the title track drops some wide-eyed lyrics about the magic of music over a melody and production inspired by the group’s classic mid-’60s output. Like most of the album, it sounds like a passable imitation of the past, but only that. Producer Joe Thomas, a Wilson collaborator since the ’90s, gets a co-writing credit on most of the tracks, and the best bits of Radio sound like a fan finally getting to play with all the toys. It’s a respectful approach, let down too often by sub-par material like the reality TV-inspired “The Private Life Of Bill And Sue.” But at least that song has one foot in the present rather than the rosily remembered past; the track “Beaches In Mind” might have been a better, or at least more accurate, choice for the album title. (Sample couplet: “If I have my say we’ll be back again / where the good times never end.”)
And yet the album summons up some of the old magic when the group gets ambitious on the three-song album-closing suite of “From There To Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway,” and “Summer’s Gone” (co-written by Jon Bon Jovi), which taps into the melancholy that’s always made The Beach Boys so much more than a Johnny Rockets-ready nostalgia act. Whether or not there will, or even should, be another Beach Boys album remains an open question, but winding down with the sweet, resigned harmonies that end this album wouldn’t be the worst way to go.