Carl Wilson’s voice is one of the finest in rock and roll history. Fact. Best heard soaring on such songs as I Can Hear Music, Darlin’ and of course the daddy of them all God Only Knows; he had a pitch-perfect voice for The Beach Boys’ “symphonies to God” [sic].
But the “Carl song” I probably return to the most often is Feel Flows from Surf’s Up. It’s almost like a song-within-a-song-within-a-song: A meandering psychedelic jam within a jazz-flute odyssey within of course, a pure and perfect pop song. Add to this a coating of sugary effects-laden production and the result is a song that big brother Brian describes as “wonderful”.
The later-period Beach Boys seem to be criminally under-appreciated. Post Pet Sounds and the (in)famous Smile, few albums seem to get a look in. But there are some great, great songs there. This is one of them.
I made my way to this song via the standard route. First came the surfing, Hot Rods and California sunshine songs of innocence. Then came the truly awesome (in the original sense of the word), introspective masterpiece that is Pet Sounds. Quite simply one of the greatest recordings there has ever been – and ever will be.
After this, I bought Sunflower/Surf’s Up and in my youthful naivety, I was quite underwhelmed after the perfection of Pet Sounds. Because of this, I kind of understand why the Beach Boys later work is underrated. Brian Wilson lost his mind, lost his creativity, lost his genius and the music world moved on. But the Beach Boys didn’t give up. And I didn’t give up with the Beach Boys.
This song was the turning point in my appreciation of their later work. The sound of it was unlike anything I’d heard before. This was pop, Beach Boys pop, but then again it wasn’t. It was… different. There’s something intangible about Feel Flows and I guess that’s the very essence of what makes it so good.
A jet-engine effect intro makes way to a typical late-period Beach Boys organ and reverb heavy percussion. Without any hesitation, Carl’s vocal begins with a melody so sweet and perfect, on first listen it’s hard to believe that you’ve never heard it before.
Simple chords provide the bed for opaque lyrics, unusual arrangements and instrumentation, and best of all, the use of reverse echo on Carl’s voice. A ghostly doppelganger of a vocal, gatecrashing each line early with sighs of beauty. The warmth of the verses lead to the questioning tones of the chorus and the rest of the Beach Boys make their entrance with their trademark harmonies.
The instrumental middle section is astounding. Heavy guitars collide with the bass and sporadic vocal cries; while an ethereal flute solos above like a bird circling high overhead. A sense of anticipation builds as you know this section is coming to an end but it just hangs on that… little… bit… longer… then the verse chords return on a suitably warped piano. Carl and the boys’ ‘kitchen sink’ method is not over yet as an early Moog synth joins to lead us back to the vocal:
“Encasing, all embracing wreath of repose” – what a lyric! The way the words rhyme, flow, sound and fit together is unlike anything I’ve read or heard before or since. In my eyes, it certainly beats the beauty of the phrase “cellar door”, so beloved in phonaesthetics. But I’m damned if I have a clue what it means. It doesn’t matter:
I can’t work out what the whole song is about and I don’t want to know what it’s about. The feel of the song as a whole is much more important to me, and the feel flows.