God Only Knows

Faith, Hope, Love, and The Beach Boys

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Jeff Sellars
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , December
     180 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When most people think of the Beach Boys, they imagine anthems of surfcars, and bikinis. However, songwriter-producer Brian Wilson’s genius isn’t limited to odes to the sunspark plugs, and summer love. Jeff Sellars’s collection of eight essays investigates the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual themes in the tunes of one of rock-n-roll’s most beloved groups. Various authors from diverse fields apply a mix of interpretive lenses, including Transcendentalism, existentialism, and process theology. The unique commentary on songs and albums from the angle of faith, hope, and love gives both new appreciation for familiar oldies and hidden masterworks, and also provides insight into the critical theories employed through concrete examples. The book is strongly recommended for students of music history, pop culture semiotics, and religious studies as well as a general interest audience. 

Mary McDonough’s chapter “Searching for the Perfect Wave” explains the neuroscience of music, which stimulates the brain more than any other activity (69-70). The auditory cortex perceives and analyzes tones, followed by the frontal regions processing structure and expectation. Blood flow increases, and the mesolimbic system produces the opioids and dopamine involved in feelings of pleasure and reward. Rhythm, key, pitch, and lyrical imagery influence alertness and emotional reactions. Music can be used as a therapeutic tool in the treatment of depression, pain management, stroke, autism, and dementia (72-73). McDonough advises that the up-tempo beats and famed harmonies of the Beach Boys are particularly effective medicine, especially with their message of adventurefreedom, and good times

The Beach Boys are equally infamous for their family conflicts, legal battles, and Brian Wilson’s long struggle with mental illness, drugs and alcohol, and an unscrupulous doctor. Dave Perkins’s chapter “Dire Wave” finds the distress and estrangement of modernity reflected in the introspective lament, “’Til I Die.” He suggests the song represents the meekness and desperation of “Everyman” in a time when the divine radiance that once animated and enchanted the world is dim (52). The promise of technological progress and glamorous commodities are no security against the darkness of the abyss; the artist in pursuit of truth and the cure for suffering has the rare courage to go where others will not go in search of light and the fugitive gods (53). Perkins argues, “By creating this song while experiencing and enduring the abyss and singing what Heidegger called a ‘holy song’ in the world’s night, Brian achieves the status of valid artist … Despite his shortcomings and despite his frailty in the face of the abyss, by fulfilling his higher purpose as an artist in destitute times, Brian transcends the superficial status of hit maker, rock star, and celebrity” (56). Brian’s personal concerns mirror universal concerns in a clear-sighted moment of contemplation amidst the blur of internal and external chaos (58). Brian returns from the abyss with no advice or warnings; his response to the encounter with the void is resilient creativity. Perkins writes, “The act of creating is perhaps Brian’s greatest answer to the existential questions of his time, his exemplification of living fully in spite of fear and anxiety” (64). For Brian, music is spirituality and the studio like a church. 

Brian’s prowess rapidly matured through the height of Beatlemania in 1964-65 and reached a peak in 1966-67 with Pet Sounds, Good Vibrations,” and SMiLE (which was abandoned for almost forty years). In “Emersonian Individualism and the Quest for Wholeness,” Thomas M. Kitts admires Brian’s innovative chord progressions and rich production values that elevated pop music to a sublime art form. Pet Sounds revealed an aspiring yet vulnerable auteur willing to risk commercial success to express personal preoccupations and poetic vision. Kitts approaches the album track-by-track and observes a bold statement about youth and love that moves from impatience through repentancerestlessnessdespairconfusionrespitemelancholyfrustrationcynicismalienation, and loss. In “Apocalypse of Love,” Austin J. Roberts regards Pet Sounds as an instance of creative immanence and a mysterious disclosure of the sacred in the secular. 

Three chapters focus on SMiLE, the legendary lost record that was reconstructed and released to commercial triumph and critical acclaim in 2004. Originally titled Dumb Angel, Brian intended the album as a “teenage symphony to God” (3). The opening track “Our Prayer” sets the tone for the musical and lyrical narrative that follows. Brian developed a modular technique to capture instrumentation, melodic phrases, and vocal chants that could be combined, layered, and arranged into motifs and movements. In the chapter “Wonderful Thing,” Steve R. Guthrie shows how Brian was experimental, spontaneous, and expansive as he explored Americana, innocence, and humor. William Walker’s chapter “Surf’s Up” proposes that the centerpiece of the opus, a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, “unexpectedly demonstrates a robust sensitivity to the transience, relative impermanence, and futility of history and human ambition” (93). David Zahl’s chapter “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” compares the rock-n-roll attitude of pose and confidence to Brian’s awkwardness and failures, an authenticity that also enables sincere expression of heartfelt sentiment and pure joy. 

Jeff Sellars’s chapter “‘I See Love’” highlights five songs from Sunflower, an obscure album in the Beach Boys discography, as examples of love as a way of perceiving the world. “This Whole World” communicates this perspective with simple lyrics, complex modulations, and intricate vocal arrangements. “All I Wanna Do” unequivocally offers support in an uncertain world and the feel of the song awash in echo, delay, and reverb creates a sense of loyalty emanating from the depth of the ocean of existence. “Forever,” written by Brian’s brother Dennis, stretches love beyond physical eros to a promise of agape. “Our Sweet Love” extends this concept in chromatic key changes and metaphorical comparisons of the finite as symbolic of the infinite. Music and lyrics create an intimate experience, and Sellars warns that its special content is stripped of impact in analysis and critique. Therefore, add some music to your day and enjoy the sweet, sweet music. As Brian Wilson himself says, “Music is God’s voice” (9).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeff Sellars teaches philosophy, humanities, and religious studies in Northern California and Southern Oregon.


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