Albums You Should Own – I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times

This week’s Albums You Should Own is hamstrung a little by my presence in the US. I haven’t brought the vast majority of my record collection with me, for obvious reasons, and I don’t like writing these things without re-listening to the album in question. So this one is going to be about a less obscure album than the last few, but a good one – Brian Wilson’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.

In 1995 Brian Wilson was considered even by his most ardent fans to be a washed-up failure. Since the Beach Boys’ eponymous album of ten years earlier, his musical output had consisted of one pretty-good solo album in 1988, an unreleased and not-very-good follow-up, a couple of terrible singles and a single track on the Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin’ album, all of these more than six years earlier.

But rather astonishingly 1995 was to be the biggest turning point in Wilson’s career since 1966. To start with, MOJO magazine voted Pet Sounds the greatest album of all time, causing one of those occasional resurgences in the album’s profile that happens every few years. There was also a general wave of popularity for id-60s pop music at the time, caused partly by the Britpop boom in the UK and partly by the release of the Beatles’ Anthology series. So the time was ripe for a comeback. But rather startlingly, unlike the earlier ‘Brian is back’ campaigns, this time Brian actually did come back.

The end of 1995 saw two new albums from Brian Wilson. While neither contained any new Wilson songs, that was still more than the previous decade had seen. One of these albums, Orange Crate Art, his collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, I’ve dealt with in an earlier post. The other, however, while breaking no new artistic ground, is a rather lovely introduction to Wilson’s work.

In the mid-90s Don Was was busy trying to work with every legend of rock music he could. He produced the Rolling Stones’ Stripped, a Jerry Lee Lewis comeback attempt, and while he couldn’t do the Beatles, he did the next best thing and produced the Backbeat soundtrack. So it was probably inevitable that he would try to work with Brian Wilson. The result was a black & white documentary, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, designed to show non-fans why musicians so often refer to Wilson as a genius.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack album for some reason misses the three best musical moments from the film, all intimate round-the-piano performances. One is Wilson and Parks sat at the piano together performing Orange Crate Art, but the really special performances are Brian at the piano with his brother Carl (also of the Beach Boys) and mother Audree, singing God Only Knows and In My Room (heartbreakingly, both brother and mother would be dead in a little over two years from the film’s release).

What is released, however, is essentially that most 90s of artifacts the Unplugged album. While these aren’t actual live performances, they’re ‘as live’ – Brian overdubbed his lead vocals onto otherwise straight live cuts. The arrangements are subtly different from the originals – more ‘commercial’. The interesting edges have been smoothed off, and a glossy AOR sheen applied, that makes the music much less compelling for those like myself who are as interested in Wilson’s unique arranging skills as they are in his songwriting. While there’s nothing as actively distasteful as the arrangements on Wilson’s 1998 Imagination album, there’s nothing at all striking about them either – everything’s acoustic guitar, piano, drums, and not much else.

But there’s still the songwriting, and the vocals. Wilson’s vocals here are strained – he’s not been a ‘good singer’ since the late 60s – but that’s not really the point. What he is, is someone who believes in the song he’s singing like no-one else. He can communicate the feeling in a song better than any other vocalist I can think of.

And the songs are impeccably chosen. Almost hit-free, they’re instead chosen from the very best songs he’s ever written, and this short album does manage to do what Was wanted, to explain why Brian Wilson is a genius.

The album opens with Meant For You, originally from 1968’s Friends, a little 51-second piece of beauty, before going into This Whole World. This Whole World is the greatest pop single that was never a hit. In under two minutes the song sums up everything positive about pop music, with a dazzling, extraordinary race through almost every key and harmonic ambiguity imaginable, never settling on one tonal centre for more than a bar or two. Just gorgeous.

The rest of the album continues like this, going through obscure Beach Boys classics like Let The Wind Blow (from 1967’s Wild Honey album) and Wonderful (a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks from the Smile album which may well be the most perfect song ever written), as well as remakes of the two best songs from his first solo album. But the best thing on it is a song that wasn’t recorded for this album, but 19 years earlier.

Still I Dream Of It was from a bunch of songs written during the time of the Beach Boys Love You album, and originally intended for the unreleased album Adult Child. A full studio version from 1977 had been released on the Good Vibrations box set a few years earlier, but the version on here was Brian’s solo piano demo.

Written during a time when Wilson’s mental illness was at its worst, but his compositional ability was still as good as ever, Still I Dream Of It is the howl of pain of a scared little boy crying for his mother, and for a world that makes sense, but filtered through the sensibilities of a man with an absolute command of music. The lyrics are almost incoherent – Wilson never being the most verbally articulate of men at the best of times – but heartbreaking in their implications:

Time for supper now, day’s been hard and I’m so tired I feel like eating now
Smell the kitchen now, hear the maid whistle a tune my thoughts are fleeting now
Still I dream of it, of the happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love
And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above

Young and beautiful, like a tree that’s just been planted I’ve found life today
I’ve made mistakes today, will I ever learn the lessons that all come my way?
Still I dream of it, of that happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love
And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above

A little while ago, my mother told me Jesus loved the world
And if that’s true then why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl, and find my world?
Til then I’m just a dreamer

I’m convinced of it, the hypnosis of our minds can take us far away
It’s so easy now, to see someone up there high in heaven’s here to stay
Still I dream of it, of the happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love
And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above.

Hearing these lyrics, both childlike and childish, sung by a man who was at the time in his early thirties but sounded more like someone in his late 60s, with a voice prematurely ravaged by alcohol and cigarettes, recorded on a crackly old cassette, is one of the most emotionally intense musical experiences I’ve ever had. And getting just a couple of minutes of the pure, unfiltered power of this music makes you grateful for the gloss and sheen and emotional distance that comes from the more ‘professional’ sounding tracks surrounding it.

Brian Wilson’s music communicates to me like no-one else’s does, and if you’ve yet to understand why the man who’s best known for I Get Around and Surfin’ USA commands any respect at all, you could do a lot worse than tracking down this album or the film for which it is a soundtrack.

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