Although the word has been used frequently throughout his career, both justifiably and not so justifiably, Brian Wilson's new album is an artistic triumph. A song cycle in the same vein as Smile (which — though some may view this as heresy — pales both melodically and thematically in comparison), Wilson builds this one around the great 1949 ballad, "That Lucky Old Sun," originally popularized by Frankie Laine but covered over the years by most every great vocalist from Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. The song has always been beautiful but harrowing, almost like an old spiritual or akin to "Ol' Man River." Here, however, it's transformed into an ode to the sun, fitting into the theme of the disc which celebrates the Southern California of Wilson's youth as well as autobiographically examining his own life and career.
With the Beach Boys, Wilson created a mythological, romanticized view of California that still lives on today, despite the fires, riots, floods, overpopulation and TMZ/Paris Hilton culture that thrives more in modern times. There's even a song titled "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl," looking back at the first tune Wilson ever wrote as a teen (and an international hit a short time later), while "Good Kind of Love" re-creates the kind of glorious pop tune he was known for writing during those early years. In other words, to quote Bob Dylan, Wilson's still "writing melodies to beat the band." And "California Role," about the early film industry, is a distant cousin to "Heroes & Villains," complete with a Tin Pan Alley, old-time music hall vibe.
Produced by Wilson, the songs are collaborations between the maestro, Scott Bennett of his stunningly good current band, and longtime friend and Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who came up with the between-song spoken narrative and possibly the very form of this epic as well. But whereas Wilson was once a sum of his influences — including the much-touted triumvirate of Spector, the Four Freshman and Chuck Berry — the music here finds Wilson looking to himself for influence. In other words, Brian Wilson's main influence these days is ... Brian Wilson. That beautiful voice is no longer nearly what it once was — but the aged, sometimes ragged quality of the vocals is absolutely perfect here. That Lucky Old Sun isn't all celebratory: "How could I get so low? I'm embarrassed to tell you so," he sings on "Oxygen to the Brain" (which sounds like a mantra from the Dr. Landy era), recalling those dark "Lost Weekend" years. Near the end of the album, on "Goin' Home," he sings, "At 25, I turned out the light 'cause I couldn't handle the glare in my tired eyes."
Many of us thought Brian Wilson would be dead by 2008. We certainly had no expectations that he'd still be making music and, especially, music this good. So, yes, That Lucky Old Sun is a triumph — not only a triumph of the will but also of the human spirit. This claim has also been made numerous times during Wilson's career but this time it's for real: Brian is back!
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].