Brian Wilson was deep into writing songs for a new Beach Boys album when Mike Love pulled the plug on the group's 2012 reunion tour. "It was a shock," Wilson says. "I was so proud of how the Boys were singing. Then it just ended."
For a while, Wilson let the music go: "I was writing for the Boys, so I thought, 'What am I gonna do without them?'"
But last year he got the idea to bring in guest singers to finish the songs. Wilson had loved working with female vocalists since his early Beach Boys days, when he'd moonlight producing tracks for girl groups like the Honeys, which featured his first wife, Marilyn Rovell. He invited some of his favorite young singers to Ocean Way studios in Hollywood, including Lana Del Rey, Kacey Musgraves and Zooey Deschanel. Frank Ocean rapped on "Special Love," though the track remains unfinished and may not make the album. A track with Nate Ruess from fun. was more successful: He "sounds a little like my brother Carl," Wilson says.
Today, Wilson sits at the console at Ocean Way, recording Musgraves' vocals for "Guess You Had to Be There." He sips wheatgrass juice and munches on a chocolate doughnut. The song is lighthearted and fun, but the session didn't start that way. "Kacey said, 'Boy, he really tells you when he doesn't like your pitch,'" says Wilson's manager.
Wilson is often passive in social situations, but in the studio he barks instructions to musicians and creates complex vocal arrangements on the spot. "When it's good it's good, when it's not – do it again," he says. "But after three tries, Kacey nailed it. I like the way she just slides over the notes – she has a very cool sound."
"Brian's really on it," says Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, who also plays bass on the album (which is due out this fall). "I was knocked out by a couple of songs on that last Beach Boys record – 'Summer's Gone' ranks with his greatest work. I didn't expect that he's got a whole other album of stuff on that level."
The tracks come from all over the place: "Summer Means New Love" is a remake of a 1965 Beach Boys instrumental; "On the Island" is a space-age bossa nova with Deschanel; "Danny Boy" is a harmony-drenched take on the old standard, which features Jeff Beck on a track salvaged from aborted Wilson-Beck sessions last year.
"Last Song," the album's centerpiece, is a heartbreaking ballad that was recorded in two versions – one with a haunting vocal by Del Rey and one with Wilson's lead vocals. The song recounts his sadness about the Beach Boys' dissolution. "It started out being about lost love," says co-producer Joe Thomas. "But after the tour fell apart it became more about a missed opportunity for Brian and the guys to ride into the sunset together."
"I got really choked up playing bass on that track," adds Was. "There's something about Brian signing off with it, saying, 'This is it, this is my last song.' It's really intense. If 'Last Song' turned out to be his last song, can you imagine? Wow. That'd be some coda."
This story is from the July 31st, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.