After Smile was finally completed and released, I expected Brian Wilson to settle back into a comfortable retirement with occasional one-off shows – having completed a record that took him 37 years, it would have been only right. And at first, this seemed likely. His touring settled down into a routine of ‘greatest hits’ shows, and his only release for the next few years was a very nice but hardly ground-breaking album of Christmas songs.
But then, last year he was commissioned to create a new suite for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall (the venue where he’d performed his first UK shows and where he’d premiered Smile. For the core of this, he took eight songs he’d written with his touring keyboard player, Scott Bennett, co-wrote one new song with Van Dyke Parks, and got Parks to write narratives linking sequences. With Darian Sahanaja and Paul Mertens reprising their roles as assistant arrangers, the result is one of Brian’s most collaborative – but also most personal – works.
I’ve written about the result before – both straight after seeing the first live performance of the resulting work, and after obtaining copies of the demos – but today I finally got a copy of the actual CD, so I can hear the completed work the way it was meant to be heard.
The first thing I want to say is that in my previous writing about That Lucky Old Sun I have rather minimised Scott Bennett’s importance – when I wrote those pieces, we didn’t have any songwriting credits for the new material, so I had no way of knowing who wrote what, and given that Bennett was the only unknown quantity while Wilson and Parks are two of my all-time favourite songwriters, it seemed reasonable to credit Wilson and Parks with much of the better material. However, it turns out that Bennett wrote or co-wrote some of the best lyrics on the album, and he definitely should get a lot of the credit. In fact, there’s a lot of wordplay in these songs – some of which I’d wrongly credited to Parks, and more that I didn’t even notice until seeing the lyrics in print – that makes me consider Bennett the second-best lyricist ever to work with Wilson (just after Parks, and ahead of Tony Asher and Mike Love). I’m a lot more interested in hearing Bennett’s solo work after this.
Having said that, this is a Brian Wilson album – and it’s a Brian Wilson album that fits in with his other work with Van Dyke Parks – you really can listen to Orange Crate Art, Smile and That Lucky Old Sun as three parts of a trilogy.
It’s a mature work – and it looks back a lot at Wilson’s earlier work – but it’s the work of someone who’s got a new lease of life. It’s the most exciting music I can imagine hearing from someone Wilson’s age (the last time I said that, several people pointed to Scott Walker, but while his latest music is by far the best stuff I’ve heard from him, it doesn’t have that visceral thrill. This is an old man making music with the spirit of someone a third of his age). In fact, according to the electronic press kit which comes on the bonus DVD with the CD, it seems that the more down-tempo elements of the album were added at quite a late stage because people listening to the music felt it was ‘too poppy’. Personally, I think the ballads are for the most part the weakest things on the album.
The references to Wilson’s older work that do turn up tend to be friendly nods to the past, too, rather than just ‘remember this older song? Wasn’t that great?’ It’s a subtle distinction, but a real one.
In discussing the album track by track, I’m going to ignore Van Dyke Parks’ narratives. This doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – on the contrary, they hold the album together and turn what would otherwise have been a merely good record into a great one- but they’re not very distinct things in themselves and not very susceptible to review.
One more thing to note before I start in on the track-by-track analysis – many people say, with every new Brian Wilson release “Wow! Brian is really back this time, not like all the other times I said he was back. His voice sounds better than in decades!”, and this has become like the boy who cried wolf – there’s only so many times anyone will buy a mediocre album that’s been hyped up by obsessive fans before they assume the artist in question has permanently lost it.
For the record, I have never before said that a new Brian Wilson album of new material was anything more than ‘pretty good’. Other than Orange Crate Art and Smile, both of which are special cases, Brian Wilson hasn’t released a new album that even approached greatness in my lifetime, much as I’ve been hoping otherwise for the last thirteen years.
So when I rave about this album, it really is because it is *that good*. And when I say that Wilson’s voice is the best it’s been in decades (partly because for once he’s singing within his current range rather than trying to hit notes he stopped being able to reach in his late twenties, but also because he’s actually engaged with the material) I mean it (he’s still not a great singer in any conventional sense, but his voice reminds me of Leonard Cohen or someone now, getting a lot of expression from a limited instrument).
The album starts with the title track, That Lucky Old Sun, an abridged version of the old standard, reharmonised by Wilson and with a gorgeous orchestral arrangement by Paul Mertens which brings out the song’s similarities to Ol’ Man River. It’s funny, but this is a song I’d never really noticed before Brian Wilson brought it to my attention, even though I own versions by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Armstrong and probably half a dozen other singers. It’s a great song but not one I’d really picked up on.
Morning Beat, the first song proper, also brings in many of the themes that will recur throughout the album. I was slightly worried when this started at the premiere, because it starts out like Brian on autopilot – the opening “maumamayama Glory Hallelujah” is a backing vocal line he’s been talking about using since the mid-1970s and the riff is clearly yet another variant on Shortenin’ Bread, a riff that’s obsessed him even longer than that.
But a minute or so into the song it becomes clear how different this album’s going to be from much of the sub-par material that’s characterised Brian’s output since the late 70s, because this song is filled with ideas. Normally, Wilson’s solo songs have had one single melodic idea, not especially well developed, but on this album there are several different melodies in each song – and usually each one of the ideas is good enough to build an entire song around itself. In this case, the song starts out as a Shortenin’ Bread based rocker, but then a new section (“I’m listening to the morning beat”) comes in, at the same tempo but going off in all sorts of odd directions, before returning to the normal verse.
But then the song takes a complete left turn, going from guitar rocker to clip-clop percussion and orchestra, in a middle eight that references Kurt Weill’s September Song, before going back into the verse again, and then ending with an abbreviated version of the “I’m listening” section, this time done as staccato punches rather than played straight through. And all this in just two minutes and fifty four seconds.
On previous albums, Wilson has sounded like every song has been a struggle against writer’s block – every idea must be stretched as far as it can go in case he never gets another one. This album, though, has him throwing out ideas with the profligacy of a twenty-year-old, confident that however many he sticks in there, there are plenty more where that came from. (It’s odd that this isn’t usually the pattern with older artists – one would have thought that as the pressure of time became more obvious, it would seem more necessary to get as much done as possible).
The lyrics, meanwhile, are serviceable by themselves, but do, seemingly casually, manage to introduce pretty much every recurring concept for the rest of the album. Other than the sun and the idea of rolling round heaven (both brought up in the title track), this introduces California and specifically LA, the night/day cycle, stars of both the celestial and celebrity kind, sleeping and waking, the sea, rhythm, beats, diamonds, distance, smog and clear air – all of which will recur over and again.
After a narrative section, we go into Good Kind Of Love, the only song Wilson wrote entirely by himself on the album, and God it’s beautiful. Lyrically (and very slightly melodically) it’s reminiscent of Friends Of Mine by the Zombies. Mertens’ orchestration is the star here – he’s an unsung hero of Wilson’s recent work, writing parts that are nothing like anything that appears on any Beach Boys record, sounding more like mid-twentieth century European concert music, but make perfect sense with Wilson’s chords. Unfortunately, one of my favourite parts of the orchestration – a nice little woodwind countermelody – appears to have been removed between the live performances and the eventual recording (either that or it’s been buried in the mix – I’m not listening on great speakers).
But this is one of those Brian Wilson songs like Soulful Old Man Sunshine or This Whole World that’s almost impossible to describe in terms of normal song structure, having a melody that twists and turns continually so there’s a smooth flow through the track but you suddenly realise after a few seconds that it sounds nothing like it did just a moment before, going through very slow free-tempo sections, upbeat Spector/Motown-esque sleighbell choruses and more, with skittering strings and mooing horns. It’s just wonderful, and I defy anyone to listen to it without a big grin on their face.
Forever My Surfer Girl is one of the weaker songs on the album – it actually sounds like it could have come off a later Beach Boys album, sounding like someone trying to sound like Brian Wilson by reproducing his tics – all Be My Baby drums and descending bass – along with referencing his past a little too heavily. It’s also one of the few places on the album that Wilson tries to hit notes he really can’t hit any more, sounding frankly bad on the second line of the choruses.
But even here there’s several different musical ideas – the main verse/chorus, a very nice middle eight, and a short repeated piano part that I *know* comes from something else I can’t place (in my head it’s part of a song on Orange Crate Art, but I can’t place it precisely even after listening to the entire album to see if I could hear that part). It’s not a great song, but it’s decent and pleasant.
(I’d probably also feel slightly more positive about the song were it not for the fact that I wrote an essay ‘proving’ that Wilson’s music is all about goddess-worship before the premiere of the suite, but it wasn’t published until afterward – and in the meantime Wilson was on stage singing “a goddess became my song”, rendering my point moot).
After this comes my personal favourite song of the album – Live Let Live. Originally written for the film An Arctic Tale, it’s been reworked here with new lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, dealing with the smallness of humanity and with a ‘save the whales’ message that actually works, rather than being heavy-handed moralising. A gorgeous little waltz, I don’t know what it is about this song that makes me love it so much, but all I can say is that when I hear the line “I got a notion we come from the ocean and God almighty had his hands on the water” my heart literally stops on the ‘God almighty’ (amusing, since the song, like so much of this album, talks about fast heartbeats).
The music to the chorus line (“Live let live not die”) is the same as that for Sail On Sailor (“Sail on sail on Sailor”), but even given the rather downbeat nature of the lyrics it communicates a hope and love of life where the previous song was more about struggling on pointlessly.
On any other Brian Wilson album post-Love You, this song would have overshadowed the rest of the album to such a ludicrous extent that the rest of the album would have been rendered unlistenable. Here it’s ‘only’ the best song on the album.
Mexican Girl, which follows, has been described rather harshly by David Quantick as ‘the most generic song ever written about Mexico or a girl’. There’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s also interesting just because this kind of music is very far from anything Wilson’s done before, all mariachi horns and Spanish guitar. There’s also a couple of fun lines in there – “you cast a net on the day we met” and “hey bonita muchacha, let me know that I gotcha”. It’s far from the best thing on the album, but it’s fun and funny and catchy.
California Role is, I am assured, a pun on a type of sushi (tying up with the ‘perfect for fish’ lines in Live Let Live) as well as the ‘rolling around heaven’ that keeps coming up throughout the album. The lyrics have quite a cynical bite to them :
Every girl’s the next Marilyn
Every guy, Errol Flynn
Sometimes you’ve got to edit your dreams
And find a spotlight behind the scenes
Here in California, man I gotta warn ya,
Find a California role
But there’s also a sympathy in there – “You broke your hand punching the clock so you could heal your heart” and “If you miss your shot it doesn’t mean you won’t reach your goal”. And the uptempo cheeriness of the music takes much of the sting out of the lyrics (as does the filter on Scott Bennett’s voice when he sings the lead on the first two verses before Brian takes over – it lends a distance to the lyrics). This is another standout track – so far, the album has alternated the truly excellent with the merely pretty good.
However, the next song, Oxygen To The Brain is another of the better songs on the album. The opening ‘Open up, open up, open your eyes’ melody is one of Brian’s classic little nursery rhyme melodies, like the tag of Wind Chimes. It then alternates between slower, short verses about how bad Brian’s life used to be and long, fast choruses urging the listener to make the most of life and get ‘oxygen to the brain’. The lyric sounds like it’s mostly Brian’s work – he’s written many songs with the same theme – but the line ‘skip the vices versus get to the refrain’ with its multiple puns and its commentary on the structure of the song itself is far too clever for someone as non-verbal as Wilson, and must be the work of Bennett (it’s possibly my favourite single line in the entire album, but I love puns probably a little too much).
Ending with a reprise of the ‘open your eyes’ start, the song then goes into Can’t Wait Too Long a short note-for-note remake of a snippet of a longer Beach Boys track (recorded in 1967 but unreleased until 1990). This works well enough on the CD, but worked better when performed live – at this point various bits of footage of Brian and his two brothers (Carl and Dennis, the guitarist and drummer respectively of the Beach Boys, both of whom died young) were projected overhead while the band sang the only lyrics in this snippet – “Been too long” – and I’m sure that pretty much everyone there was in tears as I was.
After this comes Midnight’s Another Day. When this song was first released on Wilson’s website, before the first performance, I wasn’t at all impressed, primarily because the scansion was all wrong, but even without that it just didn’t really appeal.
I now see that I was completely wrong. While the scansion’s still out (I suspect because Bennett fell so in love with one of his puns – “When there’s no morning without ‘u'” – that he let it go in even though it didn’t fit the rest of the verses), I can forgive that for the way the bridge builds up from just piano and organ on the line “all those voices, all those memories” to what sounds like every single instrument in the world on “all these people make me feel so alone”. It sends shivers down my spine.
I must have had tin ears when I first heard this. In context, and with the orchestration, it’s beautiful. It’s far from the best thing on the album, but it might be the most emotionally resonant.
On the other hand, the appeal of Going Home still mostly eludes me. For some reason even the few negative reviews of this album have picked on this as the standout track – people have spoken about this track as Brian’s best in decades. While it’s a fun track – it references back to Morning Beat with its Shortenin’ Bread riff, and it also includes the ‘rock, roll’ backing vocals Brian’s been trying to find a place for for thirty years (he used them in things like his unreleased version of Proud Mary), and best of all it has harmonica by the great session player Tommy Morgan – it’s *just* a fun track, a leftover from Brian’s sessions with Andy Paley from the mid-90s, given new lyrics. Even so, it’s hard not to smile when the instruments drop out and the band sing, almost a capella:
At twenty-five I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes
But now I’m back drawing shades of kind blue skies
It’s a fun little song, and I’m glad it’s there, and it’s *great* live, but it’s not the best thing on the album.
Unfortunately, the closer, Southern California, is the weakest thing by far on the album. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad – it’s pleasant enough – but for an album whose other songs vary between ‘very good’ and ‘masterpiece’, ending on ‘not bad’ is a bit of a disappointment. To make matters worse, in the original live performances and demos, the song ended with a nice little fragment of vocal melody that came out of nowhere. Here that little fragment has been expanded into an entire new section of the song, and loses a lot of its appeal. The song ends up sounding scarily like the work of Bruce Johnston (Brian’s colleague in the Beach Boys, who has written the occasional nice song like Disney Girls (1957) but who also wrote I Write The Songs). The last “maumamayama Glory Hallelujah” is majestic though, and a perfect ending to the album. (It’s not the actual ending – there’s a tiny fragment stuck on at the end of the band singing ‘working in the sun all day’ – but it’s the real ending).
This is an astonishing, beautiful album that is much better than the sum of its parts. It’s amazing that at sixty-five Brian Wilson is finally starting to realise the potential he showed when he was twenty-three. I can only imagine what he’ll do next…