It’s been a late-game rally for eternal teenager Brian Wilson, the boy genius-turned-Great American Artist who, by his own measure, just wasn’t made for this world. After three more-or-less lost decades in the wake of Pet Sounds, few expected 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents Smile — and even fewer 2012’s intermittently great Beach Boys reunion album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, with Wilson’s wistful joy back at the helm. No Pier Pressure began as songs for the next Beach Boys LP, but when the group ran aground once more, Wilson called in a quirky mixtape’s worth of young collaborators, and it became something else: The sound of a famously cloistered artist finally leaving his room.
The outreach was smart. Wilson casts a huge shadow — even punk rock owes him, via the Ramones — and his influence on a new generation of nostalgists, choral-pop harmonists, psychedelic sound-scientists, and orchestral-rock geeks is profound. And his best music has always come from working with independent-minded peers, like Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks. So it’s telling the highlights here are not mere vocal cameos, but true writing collaborations. “Guess You Had To Be There,” a wry comment on Sixties nostalgia (and a melodically delicious celebration of it), was penned with next-gen country It Girl Kacey Musgraves. “Well, I guess you had to be there/All we wanted was more/There were winners and losers and people passed out on my floor,” she sings conspiratorially, while Wilson delivers the glorious hook. “Saturday Night,” sung by fun. frontman Nate Ruess, tightropes between cliché and pop timelessness, a Wilson stock-in-trade.
There are missed opportunities — the She & Him track is slight, and a rumored Frank Ocean team-up is sadly absent — and a few too many retreads (the “Sloop John B”-ish “Sail Away”), although the harmonies do sound grand with Al Jardine and other Beach Boys teammates on board. Still, No Pier Pressure stands as Wilson’s most forward-looking solo LP.
The old-school pinnacle is the album’s elegiac closer, “The Last Song.” A version was reportedly tracked with Lana Del Rey, but she’s not here. Instead, Wilson’s voice, alone and shipwrecked, rises above a bed of piano and strings, ghostly harmony vocals flickering around him, until a mob of them come together in a huge orchestral final-chorus flourish. “Don’t be sad,” he sings, with zen-like equanimity, “there was a time and place for what we had.” What a time it was. But, hey, there’s no time like now.