For 20/20, the Boys tried to present something for everyone. “Do It Again” is an excellent retro single, with the upside-down drums leading into a “classic” chorale. “I Can Hear Music” is also a wonderful track, but it’s a cover of a Phil Spector composition and production. Then there’s “Bluebirds Over The Mountain”, which tries to marry a calypso song to something more contemporary (as noted in the nightmare strings). It’s an approach better suited to “Be With Me”, another line drive from Dennis. His newly found magic touch doesn’t quite carry to “All I Want To Do”, which is mixed so badly that you can’t make out the lyrics or the chords, but is probably the first recording by a mainstream band to include a field recording of coitus, simulated or not. “The Nearest Faraway Place” is a Brian Wilson instrumental—except that it’s contributed by Bruce Johnston, his onstage replacement.
Perhaps in the spirit of “Sloop John B”, they go all out for “Cotton Fields”, a Leadbelly song that wasn’t any better when Creedence did it a year later. (Personally, we like the rendition John Lennon did on the radio a year before, when he sang of how his mama used to “smash [him] in the cradle”. “I Went To Sleep” is another list in the style of “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”; it’s mostly a setup for “Time To Get Alone”, which Carl gets to sing, giving it a little boost. The jaw-dropper on the album is “Never Learn Not To Love”, of which the liner notes neglect to mention began as a song by Dennis houseguest Charles Manson. (For what it’s worth, Axl picked a better song for “The Spaghetti Incident?”) As elaborate as that is, the big finish is given over to a couple of Smile refugees. First, there’s “Our Prayer”, a gorgeous Gregorian-style fugue for voice. That is given as a lead-in to “Cabinessence”, possibly the prettiest song from the ill-fated project, leaving another teaser for what could have been.
So there’s a strong start and a strong finish, but everything else in the middle of 20/20 only reveals just how unfocused the band was. Undeterred, they carried on, but not with any less struggle. Proof comes in the bonus tracks to the original, then deleted, then restored two-fer disc of the album (which also included Friends). “Break Away” was another flop single that might have done better at another time than the summer of ’69. One clue could be that it was written by their dad. (The 4 Seasons would have nailed this in ’64.) They hoped to begin the ‘70s with a fresh start.
The Beach Boys 20/20 (1969)—2½
1990 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus Friends album and 5 extra tracks