We should, of course, be grateful that Brian Wilson has finally released his debut solo album, a mere twenty-one years after he scrapped his intended magnum Beach Boys opus, Smile, and retreated into a bizarre twilight zone of drugs, paranoia, self-doubt and familial intrigue. We should also be indignant that a genius as rare as Wilson’s, however psychologically handicapped, was left to wither and wander for so long, put to no useful purpose other than periodic exploitation by the Beach Boys as a creative crutch and promotional tool. In the six short years that his musical faculties were in peak bloom — 1962 to 1967 — Wilson transformed rock & roll as radically and irreversibly as his archrivals, the Beatles. Yet he really became a legend before his prime; his double whammy of ’66, Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” — arguably his greatest studio triumphs — portended a musical vision and promise that sadly went unrealized.
Brian Wilson is a stunning reminder of what pop’s been missing all these years. It is also the best Beach Boys long player since 1970’s Sunflower, although Wilson is the only Beach Boy on it. The songs are full of sunshine choirboy harmonies and sing-along hooks, while the rich, expansive arrangements echo the orchestral radiance of Wilson’s spiritual mentor, Phil Spector. The album even climaxes with an elegant eight-minute symphonette, “Rio Grande,” in which Wilson and his chief collaborator on the album, harmony singer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Paley, re-create the muralistic sweep of earlier Wilson operettas like “Surf’s Up.” Indeed, the luxuriant melancholy of “Melt Away” and the bright, Spectoresque sparkle of “Little Children” make you wonder if Brian Wilson truly lost the gift of music and the will to create during his Dark Ages or if his muse was simply bored, forever laboring in the service of the Beach Boys.
The eerie similarity in tune and texture of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds, which was really a solo album in all but name, suggests the newly liberated Wilson has merely picked up where he left off two decades ago. That may seem like taking two steps backward to go one step forward, but this is backtracking of the highest order. “Little Children,” a previously unreleased Wilson song of early-Seventies vintage, is a bouncy sonic Xerox of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” with a melodic bridge lifted right out of “Mountain of Love.” The title song is an almost childish plea for world peace and universal distribution of TLC (“I was standin’ in a bar and watchin’ all the people there/Oh the loneliness in this world, well, it’s just not fair”) scored with whipped-cream keyboards and rainbow harmonies executed by Wilson and Paley with a reassuring warmth and impeccable accuracy that has Beach Boys stamped on every “oooh” and “aaah.”
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Yet just as Pet Sounds was a sweet ‘n’ sour mix of utopian wishfulness and troubled romanticism, the songs of innocence on Brian Wilson are laced with the unmistakable pain of Wilson’s personal experience. Amid the sumptuous vocal harmonies on “Melt Away,” Wilson winces with pain and shrugs with resignation, looking only to lose himself in love (“The world’s not waiting just for me/The world don’t care what I can be/I feel just like an island/Until I see you smilin'”). On the face of it, “Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long” is a wry slice of nostalgic yearning — note the oblique reference to the haunting Pet Sounds ballad “Caroline, No” (“Where did your long hair go?”) — set to a funky fuzz-bass strut and jangly timpani. Halfway through, though, Wilson turns the song into a kind of self-admonition: “I’ve been waitin’ to see that change in you/You can do it just the way you used to,” he declares with unexpected resolve in a high, firm tenor as the wistful cooing of the Wilson-Paley Overdub Chorale dovetails with a cushion of synthesized cellos.
At least time and trauma have not eroded Wilson’s commercial instincts. “Night Time” and “Walking the Line,” which features Terence Trent D’Arby in a vocal cameo, are tasty pieces of car radio ear candy in the ersatz-white-soul mold of Wild Honey. “Let It Shine” is a bland little bopper written and coproduced with ELO’s Jeff Lynne, but “Meet Me in My Dreams Tonight” is a jaunty kitchen-sink spectacular (vibes, glockenspiel, organ, piano, harpsichord and calliope — and that’s just for starters) topped with shifting contrapuntal harmonies à la “Good Vibrations.” Even more encouraging is Wilson’s willingness to pick up his impressionist sound brush again in “Rio Grande,” written and performed with Andy Paley. Raindrop electronics, corny campfire singing, a real-life bluegrass band and eerie vocal sections that alternately sound like howling winds and rolling currents all blend into a cohesive suite of pastoral surrealism that, although lacking any great lyric profundity, reaffirms Wilson’s unique grasp of textural alchemy and symphonic movement.
The only thing missing on Brian Wilson is a real statement of direction or purpose. Even at its best, the album is the sound of Brian Wilson, now in his mid forties, starting over. Still, as new beginnings go, it’s as full of promise as Pet Sounds was in its time. Although Wilson’s longtime therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, is credited on the album as executive producer (Landy tried to get some of his own lyrics on the album and, thankfully, failed), Wilson’s undeniable show of strength as a writer, singer and arranger implies that music is all the medicine he needs now. He’s also found an invaluable partner in Andy Paley, a veteran popster (the Sidewinders, the Paley Brothers) so well versed in Beach Boys lore that he ably simulates classic instrumental and vocal parts without lapsing into mimicry.
Which may or may not spell finis for the Beach Boys themselves. Wilson pays a heartfelt tribute to the blood ties that bind in the short a cappella piece “One for the Boys” — he and Paley stack golden harmonies in cathedral-like spires. But while the song has no words, Wilson’s tender lead vocal, which glides down into the lower registers with a nervous fragility, speaks volumes of both love and loss, as if Brian Wilson weren’t just “See you later” but really “Goodbye.” Wilson’s time, though, is long overdue, and this record shows that he is not only willing but able. Brian Wilson’s endless bummer, it seems, is finally over.