A friend suggested on Twitter a few days ago (when I started writing this, which was several weeks back due to a spot of ill health) that I should write a blog post looking at the unreleased Brian Wilson solo album Sweet Insanity, and thinking about it this actually makes a lot of sense. My books on the Beach Boys didn’t cover the unreleased material, as most of the interesting material that used to be only available on bootlegs has become legally available over the last decade or so, but there are still four major Brian Wilson projects that remain unreleased and thus not covered in those books — the 1977 album Adult Child, his mid-eighties sessions with his old sixties collaborator Gary Usher, the 1990s sessions with Andy Paley that have been bootlegged and released under the titles “The Paley Sessions” and “Lanydlocked” (not to be confused with “Landlocked”, a different bootleg of much earlier material), and this, a completed solo album rejected twice (in two different track lineups) by the record company in 1990/91.
Sweet Insanity has something of an undeserved bad reputation. At the time of its recording, people still expected that Brian Wilson was capable of producing music of the quality of Pet Sounds and Smile on a regular basis, but was being held back by the other Beach Boys. Since his 1977 masterpiece The Beach Boys Love You he’d only had control (arguably) of one album project — the 1988 solo album Brian Wilson, which isn’t Pet Sounds or Love You good, but which is a very strong album. People saw that as a comeback effort, and expected the next album to build on it — instead it’s something of a downward step. It’s only a minor step down — it’s still a decent record, all things considered (especially in the second version, which is what I’ll mostly be looking at here), but it’s just not The Great Brian Wilson which people were expecting.
However, with twenty-eight years’ hindsight, we can see a bit better what Brian Wilson’s *actual* capabilities at the time were, and what they have been since. In that time, he’s been responsible for five albums of new material (not counting the unreleased Paley material). Only one of those — 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun — is a bona fide masterpiece. Of the rest, Gettin’ In Over My Head splits opinion (with me thinking it’s pretty good and everyone else thinking it’s godawful), as does No Pier Pressure (which *genuinely* splits opinion — I’m in the roughly fifty percent of listeners who loathe it, while the other fifty percent love it), everyone seems agreed the 2012 Beach Boys reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio is quite good, and Imagination is pretty much universally panned.
With that context, we can see that post-1977 Brian Wilson is actually in pretty much the same position as most of his peers — you could put his solo work against, say, Paul McCartney or Neil Young’s last half-dozen solo albums and see the same ratio of great and awful.
Looked at in that context, rather than in the context of breathless expectation of a new Smile, Sweet Insanity comes into focus as, actually, a listenable enough album.
There are, however, a couple of other points about the record which have counted against it, and which need to be addressed. One of those is the presence of the song “Smart Girls”, which we’ll get to when we look at that song, but the other is more serious. At this point, Brian Wilson was largely under the control of the supposed psychiatrist/actual abusive monster “Dr” Eugene Landy, who among many other things tried to insert himself and his girlfriend into the songwriting and production process — Landy had songwriting credits on almost all of Wilson’s eighties output, though most of those credits have later been removed.
There is some evidence that Landy had more input in Sweet Insanity than he did with Wilson’s other work — in particular the lyrics to the song “Brian” are essentially an attempt at justification of Landy’s treatment of Wilson, and it’s entirely possible that those were written by Landy and/or his girlfriend Alexandra Morgan.
And given the extent of Landy’s abuse (his “treatment” caused far more damage to Wilson than Wilson’s original mental illness and drug addictions were causing) many people, understandably, regard the Sweet Insanity material as uniquely tainted. This, in turn, causes them to under-rate the album musically.
As with much of Wilson’s solo material, it’s also difficult to attribute authorship — more so here than most. Wilson is a uniquely collaborative artist, and some of this material dates from his 1980s collaborations with Gary Usher, other material was worked on with Andy Paley (who is one of the few collaborators to work with Wilson who can write both lyrics and music, and who can write in Wilson’s style), and Landy and Morgan stuck their grubby little fingers in as well.
The songs from Sweet Insanity that were later rerecorded for Wilson’s Gettin’ In Over My Head album all had Wilson solo writing credits on that album, so in the absence of better information I’m going to assume that all songs were written by Wilson alone unless I know something to contradict it, but in places I will probably mention when something sounds like a Paley-ism. My ears are not infallible in this matter, though, as we shall see.
There were two versions of Sweet Insanity completed, and both have been bootlegged. I’m here dealing with the second version of the album, which I think is far superior (and is also available in higher sound quality) but I’ll also look at the end at the songs that were included on the first version of the record but not on the second.
The particular bootleg release I’m using to source all of this is the “Brian Wilson Sessions vols 1 & 2” release, which has the second album lineup as its first twelve tracks, and which also features the tracks from the first version and a large number of other tracks.
Concert Tonight/Someone To Love
The album opens with a few seconds of a capella multi-tracked Brians singing “concert, concert tonight, doo doo”, which is an excerpt from what was, on the first version of the album, a much longer song (see below). After this it goes into “Someone to Love”, an uptempo pop/rock song.
And here we see exactly what kind of record Sweet Insanity is going to be, both the good and bad. It starts with some of the worst examples of eighties “sonic power” drums I’ve ever heard, before going into a backing track which is almost entirely layered keyboards and high-frequency digital percussion (with baritone sax honking in the chorus). And here we see the paradox of the production on this album — for the most part, this sounds *exactly* like everything that Brian Wilson has done in the last forty years when given complete control of the production or when working with a collaborator who allows him to take the lead in the production — he tends to avoid the lush, layered productions of the sixties (where he’s returned to that sound it’s generally been because he’s been working with his current backing band, who will often do a lot of the filling-in of details for him — he seems to be too eager to move on to the next thing to want to do all the work himself), but also to avoid traditional rock instrumentation.
When you listen to The Beach Boys Love You, or the unreleased Adult Child (other than the orchestral tracks on that album), his tracks with Gary Usher in the eighties, his fist solo album, his work with Andy Paley in the nineties, or the demos of That Lucky Old Sun before Paul von Mertens added the orchestration, there’s a consistent thread there — all of them feature almost no guitar or bass, tons of layered keyboard (often including synth bass), a mixture of drum machines and hand percussion but little in the way of conventional rock drum kit playing, and often the addition of a baritone sax to fill out the lower end of what is otherwise a very high-frequency arrangement.
By contrast, it’s easy to see a pattern in the music where, whatever the credits may say, Wilson has not been given control. It tends to feature far more conventional instrumentation, and in particular to feature much more use of the drum kit. In particular, Wilson has basically *never*, in his nearly-sixty-year career, used cymbals or hi-hat on record. That’s a slight exaggeration — one can find examples of both here and there — but given the choice, one thing that Wilson has always done, and one of the very few consistent characteristics of his productions in all stages, is to take the parts that in a traditional rock song would be played on cymbals or hi-hat and to assign them to tambourines, shakers, sleighbells, and other hand percussion. If you hear a cymbal on a Brian Wilson track, nine times out of ten that’s a sign that someone else had their hands in the arrangement or final mix.
(This started primarily as a limitation of the way recordings were made in the 1960s — cymbals would cause too much leakage into other mics when recorded in a live room with the other instruments, while quieter hand percussion would allow more fine-grained control of the sound — but it’s a limitation that Wilson turned into a hallmark of his work. There’s also very little of the standard kick-snare rock backbeat in his drum parts).
And so here, what we have is something that sounds exactly like a latter-day Brian Wilson production, until the chorus, when a terrible eighties drum sound comes in, and plays an absolutely bog-standard eighties rock drum part, which has no parallel in any of Wilson’s earlier music.
This is probably, overall, the best of the uptempo tracks on the album, but it’s still not great. It is, however, catchy and hooky, and shows Wilson singing enthusiastically (if not especially melodically).
Water Builds Up
One of the earlier songs written for the album, this was originally presented to Gary Usher during the mid-eighties sessions that became known later as “the Wilson Project”. Usher had liked the verse of the song, but not the rest, and so had created a Frankenstein track, “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car”, which combined a totally unrelated chorus and lyrics by Usher that were… unpleasant. (“I only know it’s time for body contact/I’ll never be satisfied touching you with my eyes”).
This version reverts to Wilson’s original idea — a song about how when you’re stressed the pressure can build up inside you until you feel like you’re going to explode — and also to Wilson’s original song structure, dropping the terrible chorus to “Let’s Go To Heaven in My Car” and restoring a chorus that has a melodic and rhythmic relationship with the verse.
Some have cited this as an example of the Landyfication of Wilson’s lyrics at this point, but I can’t agree. The fact that Wilson had famously been having mental health problems for more than twenty-five years at this point would make it inevitable that he would occasionally deal with them in his songs, and even if this is a little more on-the-nose than, say, “Til I Die” or “Breakaway” (and, to be clear, it’s nowhere near as good as those two — this is mid-quality Wilson, which is still pretty good, but nowhere near the level of his best work like that), it’s still perfectly reasonable that he’d be writing about his stresses.
Indeed given that Landy’s propaganda was based around the idea that Wilson was completely better thanks to him, it seems unlikely that Landy would have suggested writing a song about how Wilson was still suffering.
This is moderately good for Wilson, but we have to remember what that means. His first solo album, Brian Wilson, had also been full of “moderately good for Wilson” material, but other than that the last time we’d had more than a track or two of decent (released) Brian Wilson songs was 1977. In that context, this is a continuation of the 1988 comeback.
Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel
This is far and away the best song on the album, and is one of those chosen to rerecord for Gettin’ In Over My Head in 2004. However, while it’s a great song, it’s not one that has ever been done in a definitive version. The song was apparently written in 1981, and has been through many different recordings, each of them with slightly (or sometimes substantially) different lyrics and arrangements — there were two different studio versions recorded for Sweet Insanity, plus a piano demo (far and away the best of the multiple versions), and the remake from 2004 has its good points as well.
But all of these seem to be grasping at a Platonic ideal version that is outside of Wilson’s grasp, and all are deeply flawed. In the case of the Sweet Insanity studio versions, they seem to be trying to make it into an eighties style power ballad, a style which simply doesn’t fit the song at all. The dynamics of the chord changes and melody suggest something soft and gentle, but the production keeps trying to pull it up into something soaring and grandiose.
Leaving that aside, though, the song itself is one of many, many, songs Wilson wrote over the years which deal with the theme of an unattainable woman who for some reason the singer has attained, and who doesn’t realise how much better she is than him. “Don’t let her know she’s an angel/Don’t let her know that you see/Don’t let her know that she’s touching me/I’m scared that she’ll want to leave me”.
There are variants of the lyric, and here I prefer “want to leave me” to “want to go free”, despite “go free” sounding better with the melody, because the masculine insecurity that Wilson deals with here (and in other songs) can very easily become a toxic, controlling, one. It’s easy to read lyrics like “I know I’ve fooled and deceived her/tricked her in love with me” as being about a romantic version of impostor syndrome — and this is clearly the intention of the song as a whole, in its multiple versions — but it’s also entirely too easy to read them as a simple admission from a manipulative control freak. Depending on which set of lyrics one looks at for different lines, and how one chooses to interpret them, this is either a desperately vulnerable admission of awe at the singer’s own good fortune, or a quite horrifying confession of psychopathic levels of manipulation.
(One could possibly build a whole hypothesis around these lyrical variants, the input of “Doctor” Landy, and who may have written what. There may be some validity to that. I think what’s more likely, though, is that the various lyrical variants were mostly down to trying different lines for rhythm and sound purposes, and that other than the chorus Wilson wasn’t paying much attention to the meaning of the lyrics except in the vaguest way. I think the basic thrust of the lyric is honest, and is heartfelt vulnerability, and that the other meanings one can find are because Wilson is not a particularly verbal man and does not find expressing himself with words particularly easy)
But while the recording is not the Platonic ideal version of it, it’s still, in any version, far and away Wilson’s best song of the eighties, and a song that in itself made Sweet Insanity a worthwhile project.
Do You Have Any Regrets?
A very pleasant, if unexceptional, Latin-flavoured uptempo pop track, which for a while was one of the better known songs, if not performances, on the album, as Darian Sahanaja (of the Wondermints and later of Brian Wilson’s backing band) recorded a solo version of the song as a solo single in the 1990s.
The line “my guts are aching and my eyes are red/I reach for you in my empty bed” made a semi-reappearance in the later song “My Mary Anne” (which is to my ears a predominantly Paley song), where the line “my ears are ringing and my eyes are red/lonely tears and an empty bed” has a similar melody as well as the obvious lyrical similarity, and so one might imagine that this was a Paley co-composition, but I’ve never seen that suggested, and Paley has never been credited with contributing to the song, so we can probably take that as a valuable pointer to the fact that only the writers of a song know who did what (and sometimes not even them) and a reminder that my guesses as to authorship are just guesses.
This is a song that, I think, would benefit from a less fussy production. Sahanaja’s cover version is an improvement, but it’s a bit too ersatz-Pet Sounds, which I don’t think fits the song either. But while the eighties sonic power overpowers the track a bit, there’s definitely a good, if not great, song there.
Brian (Thank You)
This song is one of the most controversial on the whole album. It’s also one where the influence of Landy is most obvious. The lyrics talk about Wilson’s history of mental illness, and how “no-one cared/not my mother, not my brother”, and how now he’s doing better thanks to Landy “my cousins say I ain’t the same/criticise I’ve changed my game/They’re not happy ‘cos I’m different/more creative, independent”.
Very few people believe that it’s a coincidence that the mother, brother, and cousins in question were all, to varying degrees, trying to get Wilson out of Landy’s “care” through the courts at the time. Rather, it’s assumed that either Landy wrote these lyrics himself (entirely possible, as he did *try* to contribute lyrics to Wilson’s songs in the eighties, and it’s not like these show any particular inspiration) or was controlling Wilson enough that the lyrics Wilson was writing reflected Landy’s views.
Musically, the song is…adequate. It’s a perfectly competent piece of music, but not one that’s so great it’s worth listening to those particular lyrics, which are unequivocally the record of a man who is being coerced into praising his abuser. It’s also unlike most of the songs here in that it’s a straight verse/chorus song, with no middle eight or complicated bridges or anything like that. It certainly could still be all Brian’s work — musically there’s a slight resemblance here to the similarly simplistic “Cry” from his 1998 album Imagination — but one gets the impression that the music is as rudimentary as it is because he was writing at Landy’s direction.
This is one of those Beach Boys related songs (“Never Learn Not To Love” is another obvious example) where the circumstances of its creation cast such a shadow that it’s impossible to judge it purely on its musical merits, but I do think that it’s just… a song. Not as bad musically as some, not as good as many more.
More than any other song on the album, I’m convinced by the evidence of my ears that Andy Paley had a hand in writing this. The whole structure of the chorus, in particular, is so perfectly Paley that I can’t imagine him not having written this. The line “when I look into your eyes, my temperature starts to rise” sounds *exactly* like a lot of the material Paley recorded with his brother in the 70s.
Lyrically, the song is one of several on the album with slightly dodgy sexual politics (a theme that runs through Wilson’s eighties work, especially where Landy had a hand in things — see, for example, the Wilson/Love/supposedly-also-Landy “Male Ego”), with lines like “the chicks dig my vanity/thought it was your lucky night you’d won a chance with me”, and while the lyrics to the chorus are supposedly “you’re making me hotter”, the way Wilson pronounces the latter word makes it sound suspiciously like he’s actually singing “you’re making me harder”. And certainly the song is about sexual desire, which is an unusual subject for Wilson.
As with the rest of the album, this is another indicator that Wilson and his collaborators were at this point much better at creating ballads than uptempo rockers. But it’s also, as with the other uptempo songs we’ve heard so far, perfectly pleasant and competent. Not every song has to be a masterpiece, and this isn’t even trying to be, but it does what it’s intended to do and does so amiably.
The Spirit of Rock & Roll
Another track which originally dated from the Usher sessions, this was co-written by Tom Kelly, who also co-wrote “Like a Virgin”, “True Colors”, and “Eternal Flame”. This is another of the many songs that prove the adage that any song with “rock and roll” in its title written after about 1960 will have nothing to do with actual rock and roll. This is, instead, one of those horrific pieces of Boomer nostalgia which polluted the airwaves for much of the eighties, as a generation realised it was becoming middle-aged and went through a collective mid-life crisis.
This is an “all star” recording, with Bob Dylan singing two lines of the lyric, and with Belinda Carlisle and Paula Abdul (among others) on backing vocals, but the backing track is substantially identical to an earlier version which had been used for a TV special celebrating the Beach Boys’ twenty-fifth anniversary together. That version had been produced by Usher, and it’s likely that the same backing track was used here.
The all-star backing gimmick doesn’t really work, as none of the singers other than Dylan are identifiable, and Dylan himself was at a period where he sounded more like a bad impersonator copying him than he did anything else.
Brian Wilson rerecorded this as a solo track for the 2005 Beach Boys collection Songs From Here And Back, again coming up with something that sounded almost identical to this version (except without Dylan).
The song itself is one of a couple of real stinkers on the album — oddly so, since it was the one that had been worked on the longest, and had at several points been considered as a possible hit single. But there’s just nothing there — an unpleasant melody, nasty-sounding synth production, and Wilson straining for notes he can no longer hit.
Another track which was reused on Gettin’ In Over My Head, in a version that was largely similar to this one — the main difference was that on the remake, the line “you thrill me with your sweet insanity” was changed to “you thrill me with your sweet conspiracy”, and the line “my psychedelic muse” to “my ever-lasting muse”. Whether this was to excise lyrical contributions by Landy, or to remove references which Wilson himself found painful (obviously to mental illness, but Wilson also attributes his mental illness to his drug use, so he may well not be happy with the term “psychedelic”), has not been made clear.
As a song, this is (other than “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel”) probably the strongest thing on the album — a gorgeous little ballad with a nursery rhyme feel to it, especially on the fade out, where “rainbow eyes/I love you” sounds almost like a lullaby. It’s also a song which shows no sign of having been constructed to fit a commercial niche — this sounds like a Brian Wilson song, not like someone trying to sound like a Brian Wilson song, or like Brian Wilson trying to fit into a late-eighties pop scene which had no room for him.
The production on the bridges (“pretty rainbow eyes when you look my way”) is, like much of the album, a little too harsh, and the stop-time choruses are a little bombastic, but that’s just an artefact of the time period. If you can cope with that, then it’s an extremely pretty song, and along with “Water Builds Up” and “Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel” the emotional core of the album.
Another uptempo track, but this one is more fun than many of the uptempo tracks here have been. In this case, the song is a not-especially-disguised rewrite of “Heart and Soul”, the old Hoagy Carmichael song. Wilson clearly liked the idea of reworking that melody, as he also did it with another song, “Sweetie”, around this time. Other than the rudimentary middle eight, this song is a direct musical lift from Carmichael’s classic, but it bounces along enjoyably enough, though it’s hardly a masterpiece. And lyrically it’s one of the simplest things Wilson (not a complex lyricist at the best of times) ever wrote — “Love ya/Pretty baby I love ya/There’s no-one above ya/We’re gonna fall in love”.
It does, however, have one of the more enthused vocals on here. Which is not necessarily to say it’s one of the *better* vocals — but here Brian’s shouting jovially in much the same way as he did on The Beach Boys Love You (his eighties vocals are both less raspy, as he had given up smoking, and more pressured, presumably the effect of the stimulant drugs Landy was dosing him with, but here at least he’s very recognisable as the same man from those earlier recordings).
It’s far more enjoyable than it has any right to be, and is by far my favourite of the uptempo tracks on the album. Unfortunately this is the point at which the quality of the album takes a massive nosedive, and you don’t need to listen past this point.
Make A Wish
Another song that was chosen to be reworked for Gettin’ In Over My Head, this is a song where I can’t do much better than my description in the essay for that album:
“A song dating back to the Sweet Insanity sessions, and apparently inspired by the Make A Wish Foundation, this is a perfect example of the generic feelgood protest-generally-bad-things songs that were inexplicably popular for a few minutes in the late 80s. Apparently racial peace, equality, cures for all diseases, enough food for everyone, and love replacing hate would all be good.
Fair enough, one doesn’t look to Brian Wilson to provide coherent analysis of the structural inequalities that prevent those things happening, any more than one looks to Noam Chomsky to write catchy pop songs. But frankly Chomsky could probably come up with a better melody than this one.”
It’s dreadful, musically and lyrically, and the performance reflects that.
And this track, more than any other, is the reason that the album has the reputation it does. This is quite simply a track that is indefensible on any level.
To start with, it’s Brian Wilson attempting to rap. This is not something that should ever have seemed like a good idea to anyone, as it’s not as if hip-hop is a musical form with which Wilson has any affinity whatsoever (his attitude to it was summed up best, I think, by an interview about his 2015 solo album No Pier Pressure, where he talked about why Frank Ocean, who had been announced as a guest on the album, didn’t end up on it — “He didn’t want to sing. He wanted to do rap. He surprised us. We didn’t know. He wanted to talk a rap talk on the track.”)
In this case, though, the mere fact of Wilson’s lack of affinity with the genre is the least of the track’s myriad problems. For a start, there’s the subject matter, which is how “all the songs I used to write/talk about girls who weren’t too bright… but now I’m older I’ve seen the light/Intelligent chicks are dynamite”, and which goes on to use lines like “wouldn’t it be nice if PhDs were stroking me with hypotheses” and “big brains are awesome dude!”
Then there’s the melody, which is very similar to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme, but less catchy. And then there’s the samples. The samples are taken from earlier Beach Boys records, and dropped in without any concern for key or tempo, so on the line “wouldn’t it be nice if PhDs…” we just get the opening line of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” dropped in, and similarly for lines like “God only knows what I’d be without smart girls, hip-hop and poetry” and “smart girls are my inspiration, bringing me good vibrations”.
It’s a mess on every conceivable level — aesthetically, musically, culturally, politically — and the fact that it’s not actually the worst thing any of the Beach Boys has ever done musically says far more about the low quality of the band members’ worst work than it does about this particular excrescence.
There are some people who will try to defend this as Brian being “wacky” and his sense of humour, but while there’s some evidence of that — he does a variety of silly voices during the song, and does seem genuinely to be enjoying himself — it doesn’t seem likely to have been instigated by him. He’s not someone who was paying attention to the existence of hip-hop, and nor has he ever otherwise commented on his earlier songs being sexist — and, indeed, they’re not particularly, for the most part — some were objectifying, but really remarkably few compared to the Beach Boys’ peers, and certainly there’s no suggestion in any of the songs that the girls being talked about were less intelligent or capable than the men (rather the opposite in cases of songs like “Car Crazy Cutie” or “Fun Fun Fun”, which while hardly feminist masterpieces at least give their female protagonists a reasonable amount of agency).
This is the closing track of the album proper, and that fact as much as anything else may have doomed it in listeners’ minds.
Not technically part of the album, this was instead a non-album track that was included on a Disney charity album For Our Children, and was stuck at the end of some promo cassette copies of Sweet Insanity.
It’s another of Wilson’s occasional forays into songs about the countryside (see for example “Back Home” and “Barnyard”), and it’s fine for what it is — a pleasant but inconsequential banjo-and-synths track. It’s a nice little uptempo thing, better than “Make a Wish” or “The Spirit of Rock and Roll”, but not an especially memorable track.
The following three songs only appeared on Sweet Insanity version one, and are included here for completeness’ sake. None of them are very good at all.
Save The Day
This is another song that was reworked for Gettin’ In Over My Head, with completely different, better, lyrics about a fairy tale. Indeed the song had been reworked once before that, as “Is There a Chance?” by Linda Thompson (the ex-wife of Caitlyn Jenner, not the singer formerly married to Richard Thompson)
The lyrics here are quite astonishingly abominable, fatuous boomer nostalgia that would seem out of place even on a MIke Love solo album — back-patting about how the sixties generation are the greatest ever and marched for peace and blah blah weren’t the sixties great and idealistic? — along with a call to that generation to carry on doing what they had been doing. “Don’t let your youthful dreams and visions fade away/Dust off your wild ideals and come on out to play/The power of love still can help us save the day”. It’s especially odd because of all the bands of their generation, the Beach Boys were the one who seemed to pay the least attention to the wider cultural and political changes of that decade (they seemed to finally notice that the sixties had happened in 1972).
And even worse than the backpatting message, the lyrics don’t scan with the melody at all. And the melody itself is pretty dire. There’s just nothing good here, and the most adequate parts of it were reused for the later, better, version.
The full version of the song which was excerpted for the intro to the album, this is a good example of the meaning of “less is more”. The song itself seems to be stitched together from bits of other ideas, thrown together more or less at random, and is in a tired eighties rock style. It seems to be an attempt at doing something similar to Wings’ “Rock Show”, but without that song’s structural integrity or sense of fun. Of the three songs dropped for the second version of the album, it’s the strongest, but that’s not saying very much.
This is another one which sounds like Paley might have collaborated on it — the “there’s gonna be a concert tonight/we’re doing it in stereo tonight” section sounds something like his work, though again not definitively so (it also sounds a little like some of Wilson’s other work, for example the “hey baby turn up the radio” section in the Spring version of “Good Time” has something of the same flavour to it).
Let’s Stick Together
And another song which was reworked for Gettin’ In Over My Head, the reworked version of this (“The Waltz”) came in for some criticism from people who expected Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics to sound like they did when he was in his early twenties, but was infinitely superior to this — if nothing else because “Back in that high school cotillion/Chances were one in a million” has the right number of syllables for the notes it corresponds to, while “You make me feel like a ma-an/Doing the best that I ca-an” doesn’t, and the latter is far, far, more banal.
Musically, the most notable thing about this is that it features a prominent accordion part played by “Weird” Al Yankovic. Wilson once claimed it was “the first rock and roll waltz”, which is true if you discount the thousands of earlier rock and roll waltzes, many of them written by Wilson. It actually has quite a nice melody, but that melody works far better on the Gettin’ in Over My Head remake, where Parks’ gently witty lyrics and Paul von Mertens’ mitteleuropean strings give it a much stronger context.
So overall, Sweet Insanity isn’t a great album. But it’s arguably as good as anything any of Wilson’s peers were putting out at the time. Paul McCartney, Neil Young, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and the rest were all putting out albums which were quite pleasant if a bit patchy and with some weak tracks on it. If it had been released at the time, Sweet Insanity would, I believe, seem like one of those. It’s only the fact of its non-release, combined with the awful personal circumstances Wilson was in, that led to a critical consensus that it was the worst thing he’d ever done.
Looking back with nearly thirty years’ hindsight, though — and with the full knowledge of all the horrific aesthetic crimes that were committed by various Beach Boys between 1978 and the present day — it seems a lot more reasonable. It’s quite nice. No more, no less.
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