When the music of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys is discussed, it is invariably asserted that their most "cerebral" and important music was recorded around the time of "Pet Sounds", and in the period shortly thereafter (i.e. "Good Vibrations" the Smile Sessions and so forth). However, the song "'Til I Die", included on the group's 1971 album "Surf's Up", may well represent the zenith, and the logical conclusion, of what Wilson had been aiming at since 1965 or thereabouts.
"'Til I Die" has nakedly existential lyrical content, and is ethereal to an almost otherworldly degree. I have heard it described as a mantra as much as a song, and I can see why. The inspiration apparently came to Brian Wilson during a night-time visit to the beach. At once, it conjures up the notion of the utter insignificance of each one of us in the grander scheme of things, hence the references to "a cork on the ocean", "a rock in a landslide" and "a leaf on a windy way", and it all ties in with the songwriter's other ruminations about loneliness and alienation.
It is quite pertinent that this track is regarded by many observers as Brian Wilson's last great song. It signifies almost a settlement or reconciliation of the territory which had been explored. Was this the end of the journey which had begun around the time of "California Girls"? It is significant that this was purely a Brian creation. Input from, or collaboration with, other people would have tainted the purity of the emotions being expressed here.
The song can be interpreted as an expression of resignation, despondency or helplessness, but it can also be seen as a "coming to terms" with the realities of existence. This multi-levelled meaning is one of the things which makes "'Til I Die" so compelling.
Songs about spiritual or cosmic concerns run the risk of being trite or pretentious, but "'Til I Die" pretty much hits the spot. It does not outstay its welcome, having lyrical conciseness and a complementary rhythmic base. The complexity of the harmonies and the melodic nuances merit repeated listening.
It is well worth a listen even for non-Beach Boys fans, and for non-music fans for that matter.