I came to bury Robin Thicke, not to praise him, so maybe there’s some life left in the poor bastard after all.
The album is Paula. Thrown together in the midst of divorce, it is by all rights a complete stinker and a total embarrassment. And not because its subject is the faithful wife who ended their marriage after Miley Cyrus twerked all over his pinstripes (Marvin Gaye, you’ll remember, transcended his own painful divorce from Anna Gordy with the magnificent Here, My Dear), although given the context, you could be forgiven for thinking the man at home is everything he appears to be on record: a creep, a clueless misogynist and, final nail in the coffin, a big crybaby.
A public plea to an ex-wife where the subtext is obsession, the album is a tabloid headline. Yet publicity stunt it’s not (any good publicity hound would have released it on the Fourth of July). Call it art imitating life, Paula dives and crests in a way more streamlined pop music does not. Over the course of 51 minutes, constituting 14 often bizarre songs, Thicke serenades the one woman who won’t listen; declaring freedom on her behalf, he hits the road. By the end of the album he’s saying his goodbyes while forever pledging his love. His voice shot, he croons, he croaks, he cries, but nothing will help bring her back. It’s the unmistakable sound of a man hitting rock bottom. On the way down, he hits more than a few bum notes.
Laying himself bare, hashtags and all, he recalls none other than Brian Wilson following the loss of his sanity. The other members of the Beach Boys, who in 1976 were becoming concerned about flagging ticket sales, conceived an album intended to get their lead singer out of bed. The end product, a curious cult item known as The Beach Boys Love You, features songs about the solar system (“The constellations are stars that form animals”), star-crossed love (“If Mars had life on it/I might my find wife on it”) and a song to a child (“Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat her on her butt”). The sleeve notes commend Brian for his courage and generosity, while the album’s companion piece, the comfortingly titled It’s OK: The Beach Boys’ 15th Anniversary TV Special, contains a segment where Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, dressed as policemen, arrest Brian for “failing to surf.” In the skit he is dragged into the ocean still wearing his bathrobe.
The Beach Boys Love You, created in tandem with yet another shelved Beach Boys project tellingly labeled Adult/Child, gives us a man in an obvious state of regress. Utterly guileless about its silly subjects, it’s painful to listen to. And yet because it tells us something worthwhile about the damaged mind that made it–so readily it reveals its child-like innocence to the world–it’s also at times rather touching.
Robin Thicke’s psychology is more conventional than Brian Wilson’s, which renders Paula a less interesting document than The Beach Boys Love You. But the effect is something similar: puzzling, yet strangely compelling. Recommended to rubberneckers.
• Scenes From a Marriage by David Ritz
• Consumer Guide Album Review: The Beach Boys Love You by Robert Christgau