The Beach Boys' post-1966 catalog is littered with LPs that barely scraped the charts upon release but matured into solid fan favorites despite -- and occasionally, because of -- their many and varied eccentricities. Surf's Up could well be the definitive example, beginning with the cloying "Don't Go Near the Water" and ending a bare half-hour later with the baroque majesty of the title track (originally written in 1966). The album is a virtual laundry list of each uncommon intricacy that made the Beach Boys' forgotten decade such a bittersweet thrill -- the fluffy yet endearing pop (od)ditties of Brian Wilson, quasi-mystical white-boy soul from brother Carl, and the downright laughable songwriting on tracks charting Mike Love's devotion to Buddhism and Al Jardine's social/environmental concerns. Those songs are enjoyable enough, but the last three tracks are what make Surf's Up such a masterpiece. The first, "A Day in the Life of a Tree," is simultaneously one of Brian's most deeply touching and bizarre compositions; he is the narrator and object of the song (though not the vocalist; co-writer Jack Rieley lends a hand), lamenting his long life amid the pollution and grime of a city park while the somber tones of a pipe organ build atmosphere. The second, "'Til I Die," isn't the love song the title suggests; it's a haunting, fatalistic piece of pop surrealism that appeared to signal Brian's retirement from active life. The album closer, "Surf's Up," is a masterpiece of baroque psychedelia, probably the most compelling track from the SMiLE period. Carl gives a soulful performance despite the surreal wordplay, and Brian's coda is one of the most stirring moments in his catalog. Wrapped up in a mess of contradictions, Surf's Up defined the Beach Boys' tumultuous career better than any other album.
AllMusic Review by John Bush