On late Beach Boys classics like Pet Sounds, Wild Honey and Sunflower, Brian Wilson created a tableau of Southern California heartbreak, the sound of footloose surfer boys flailing through the loneliness of growing up. On Imagination, his second solo album, Wilson revisits this same formula. Lots of Nineties bands, from Spiritualized and Yo La Tengo to Air and the High Llamas, are finding inventive ways to build on his old sound. But if Wilson has any idea that this is happening, he’s keeping it to himself. As he sings in the leadoff cut, “Your Imagination,” he’s taking “a trip through the past/When summer’s way out of reach.” You can guess what “reach” rhymes with, can’t you?
Wilson’s voice has held up beautifully, and he sings every note on Imagination, multitracking his own harmonies. The sound strongly recalls Pet Sounds; unfortunately, the songs aren’t anywhere near as good. Like most rock & roll visionaries, Wilson thrives on teamwork, and this time he doesn’t get much help from his friends. His rural Illinois neighbor and co-producer, one Joe Thomas, doesn’t add anything fresh either in the songs or in the sonics, and a legend like Wilson could find snazzier collaborators than J.D. Souther and the keyboardist from Survivor. But Imagination perks up when Wilson gets ahold of decent tunes like “Your Imagination,” “Dream Angel” and “Sunshine.” He writes a touching elegy for his late brother Carl in “Lay Down Burden” and also remakes a pair of Beach Boys oldies, one you remember (“Let Him Run Wild”) and one you don’t (“Keep an Eye on Summer”). Imagination isn’t essential listening, even for Brian Wilson cultists, but it proves that when the mood hits, he can still sing the summertime blues.