Great Songwriters on Great Songs: Matthew Sweet on “Til I Die,” by Brian Wilson

From Surf’s Up, one of the only songs with words and music both from Brian

This is Part 3 of our Great Songwriters on Great Songs Series, following
Part 1, Randy Newman on Neil Young; and Part 2, E of Eels on Randy Newman.

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Matthew Sweet. “I go to Brian Wilson for some reason. It’s got to be him,

Matthew Sweet’s got a new album coming out called Catspaw on January 15 of 2021. The first single from that album, “At A Loss” comes out tomorrow, November 6, 2020. 

From Lincoln, Nebraska, he went to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, where he seemed to become friends with every great musician then thriving in the underground music scene, including Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Chris Stamey of The dB’s. He played with indie legends Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight. His debut was Inside in 1986,  then came 1989’s Earth, and Girlfriend, his big breaking album  in 1991. ​Many great albums followed, including Living Things, Sunshine Lies, Modern Art and Under the Covers,  a three-volume collaboration with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. 

​He said his list of beloved songs has many by Brian Wilson, but chose this one above the others, “Til I Die,” from Surf’s Up, 1971. It’s one of the only songs ever by Brian for which he wrote the lyrics as well the music. Usually other lyricists, such as Mike Love, Van Dyke Parks and Tony Asher, wrote the words to his songs. This one was inspired by Brian’s confrontation with the immensity of the universe, as he told the author Keith Badman.   

“The ocean was so incredibly vast,” Brian said, “the universe was so large, and suddenly I saw myself in proportion to that, a little pebble of sand, a jellyfish floating on top of the water; traveling with the current I felt dwarfed, temporary. The next day I began writing `Til I Die,’ perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for The Beach Boys.”

Don Was said that Brian told him the chords for the song were created by the way they looked geometrically. “He essentially created this masterpiece by contorting his fingers into really groovy shapes,” said Was, who added,. “I’ve absolutely no idea whether this story has any basis in truth or whether he was just making it up on to entertain me.”

Matthew Sweet
“Til I Die,” by Brian Wilson

“I  think the best song ever written doesn’t exist, because the best song ever written is the one which is right for you right then but if I have to choose I realized that I’ve always been more amazed by songs that are melancholy and make me feel sad and moody. Immediately when someone says, `best song ever written,’ I go to Brian Wilson for some reason. It’s got to be him, if I had to pick, because he wrote so much beautiful music. 

“I think of a lesser-known song of his called “Til I Die” which is on the Beach Boys Surf’s Up album.  I believe that’s one of the songs that he did mostly on his own on that album. I even heard that people in the band lobbied not to have it on the record. 

“It’s almost discordant, with really complex chords but simple, repetitive movement. It’s got three verses – not a complex structure, like a perfect pop song structure, but it has this really intense vibe, where it’s basically about life and dying; he says he’s a cork on the ocean, he’s a leaf on a windy day.

“These images of his life being a little piece of nature seemed really profound. Songs where something is going on like that always seems great to me, and the music of the song says so much. You can make this melody an instrumental and,  even without the lyrics,  it would work. “

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This is Part 3 of our Great Songwriters on Great Songs Series, following
Part 1, Randy Newman on Neil Young;
Part 2, E of Eels on Randy Newma

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