I only bought one CD this week.
My usual average is about four, and sometimes I buy as many as eight or nine, but this week… one. I didn’t plan it, it was just an accident of the calendar. And it was just a trick of fate that the one album I wanted this week was Brian Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun.
I say this because my normal propensity towards buying lots and lots of new music leaves me little time each week to fully absorb each new nugget I bring home. But this week, I’ve had days and days to listen to nothing but That Lucky Old Sun, and I’ve been grateful for them. I have probably heard it 15 times by now, and I suppose the first of many nice things I plan to say about this new album is that I’m nowhere near sick of it. I’ve tried listening to other things, in fact, and I’ve come back to That Lucky Old Sun again and again.
I really didn’t expect that would be the case. Quite honestly, I’ve been dreading the release of this album ever since it was announced, and living in fear of it for a month, especially as I watched the release calendar take shape and realized I’d have nothing else to write about this week.
What do I mean? Well, in order to answer that, I have to delve into Brian Wilson’s incredible history, and talk about his masterpiece, SMiLE. Wilson, as everyone knows, led the Beach Boys through one golden-throated good-time single after another in the early ‘60s before evolving into possibly the greatest pop genius America had yet produced.
In the beginning, they were the “no. 1 surfing group in the country,” as the cover of their second album, Surfin’ USA, proclaimed. But it was always the harmonies of the Wilson brothers – Brian, Carl and Dennis – with their cousin Mike Love that set them apart. “I Get Around,” for example, is a very simple little song, but the vocal arrangement is amazing. Beach Boys songs were all about sun, surf and fun, and practically created the image of southern California as a surfer’s paradise. It was a formula, but it worked, and the band did it well.
But then, in 1966, Wilson unveiled the songs that would become Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ ninth album, and nothing would ever be the same. Pet Sounds is, in a word, perfect. It’s a sumptuously arranged, sad and beautiful pop record, and it includes a few of the greatest songs ever written, including “God Only Knows” – that song alone would have earned Wilson a place in the pop pantheon. This was not mindless surfin’ fun, this was deeply considered music, the work of a master.
Emboldened by his success with Pet Sounds (and challenged by the Beatles’ Revolver, released the same year), Wilson started working on his masterpiece, a “teenage symphony to God” called SMiLE. This album would take the pop-as-orchestral-composition leanings of Pet Sounds further – it would be a seamless suite of sometimes zany, sometimes heartfelt songs that would stretch Wilson’s talents as producer and arranger. It would have been astonishing.
But it didn’t happen. At least, not in 1967, when it was supposed to.
Wilson finished “Good Vibrations,” the first single, and it was released to great critical acclaim. But under pressure from his bandmates, his label and others, Wilson crumbled, and left the studio sessions unfinished. In May of 1967, SMiLE was called off. The Beach Boys continued on, but never made another album like Pet Sounds. And Brian Wilson slipped into depression, drugs and mental illness, none of it helped by his relationship with controversial therapist Eugene Landy, and didn’t come out of it until the 1990s.
Wilson’s music suffered tremendously in that time. He contributed to Beach Boys projects, but only sparingly. His first solo album, self-titled and released in 1988. was weak, save for the fantastic “Love and Mercy.” His second proper album of new stuff, Imagination, came 10 years later, and wasn’t a lot better. It seemed we had lost one of our only true geniuses, as Wilson struggled just to be happy from day to day.
So the news that a reinvigorated Wilson, at 62 years old, had decided to finally finish SMiLE was met with understandable skepticism. Hell, I was certain it would be crap, especially considering the mediocrity of Gettin’ In Over My Head, Wilson’s 2004 solo disc. Sadly, that album contained some of Wilson’s best songs in more than 30 years, and they were no great shakes. Could Wilson finally drag himself out of decades of depression, overcome his paralyzing fear of the music on SMiLE, and deliver?
Hell yes, he could. The finished SMiLE, released near the end of 2004, is quite simply one of the best albums ever made, by anyone. I do not say that lightly. It is joyous and brilliant and melancholy and goofy and complex and perfectly arranged. It is the work of a fearless young composer, finished and spit-shined by his grand master elder self. And if you don’t want to take just my word for it, look at the album’s Metacritic page. It scored an impossible 97 out of 100, and is the site’s highest-regarded album ever.
The triumph of SMiLE has a lot to do with the obstacles Wilson was working against – he had to crawl back into his 1967 mind and complete a long-lost project that had grown mythical in its stature, he had to conquer his own terror in doing so, and he had to whip his ruined voice into shape to sing the complex melody lines he’d written as a 24-year-old. It should not have worked. It worked magnificently.
The problem is this – as soon as the glow of SMiLE faded, the eternal question of “what’s next” began cropping up. How do you follow up one of the best albums ever made? Do you even try?
I’m not sure I would have, if I were Brian Wilson. Having vaulted over the biggest musical and personal hurdle of my life, I think I’d probably have taken it easy for a while, retired to an island somewhere. As a Brian Wilson fan, I can think of nothing more dreadful than him following SMiLE with album after album of withering returns, blasé and mediocre records like Gettin’ In Over My Head.
And so I shivered a bit when I heard earlier this year that Wilson had premiered a new work in London, a 38-minute suite of songs meant as the successor to SMiLE. I literally shivered. When I then heard that Wilson was recording That Lucky Old Sun for release in 2008, my heart stopped. Here was What’s Next, and would it live up? Was SMiLE a creative rebirth for America’s greatest living songwriter, or was it an aberration? Could a 65-year-old Wilson possibly compete with his 24-year-old self? Would it even be fair to judge this new album against SMiLE?
See? Paralyzed with fear. I bought That Lucky Old Sun on Tuesday, and took it home, performing ritual prayers over it. “Please don’t suck,” I chanted. “Please don’t suck.”
Thirty-eight minutes later, I exhaled. And then I let out a whoop of joy. And then I pressed play again.
And I haven’t stopped yet.
Let me be absolutely clear right at the outset. That Lucky Old Sun is not SMiLE. Nothing else is, frankly. But remove that album from the equation, and Lucky Old Sun is Brian Wilson’s finest, deepest, catchiest and best work since Pet Sounds. It is a love letter to life, an examination of California culture and Wilson’s place within it. It is, in many ways, the most important album Brian Wilson has ever made, and he’s bravely met the challenge head on.
That Lucky Old Sun is a 38-minute seamless suite, as promised. Wilson has based it around the title song, a Louis Armstrong hit from his childhood, and its hook line – “That lucky old sun’s got nothing to do but roll around Heaven all day” – gives him the chance to mold the album around his two favorite subjects, California and God. He’s also incorporated four spoken narratives into the framework, written by SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
But the real wonder of this album is Wilson’s own contributions. Technically, there are 11 new Brian Wilson songs here, most co-written with Scott Bennett, although they all wrap together into a cohesive whole. And they’re great little songs. You can immediately hear the difference between a Brian Wilson going through the motions, and a Brian Wilson fully engaged in his work. Put simply, the songs on Gettin’ In Over My Head could have been written by anyone. The songs on That Lucky Old Sun could only have been written by Brian Wilson.
After stating the theme with the title song, Wilson kicks off the proceedings proper with “Morning Beat,” a simple rocker buoyed by the glorious “maumamayama glory hallelujah” refrain. I quite like this one and “Good Kind of Love,” a goofy little tune with a catchy chorus, but things really take off with “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl.” A sequel to 1963’s “Surfer Girl,” this is the first hint you get that this album is going to be about looking back and looking forward at once. It’s also a fantastic song, pure golden pop.
I can’t understate just how great Wilson’s backing band, including members of the Wondermints, is. Though these songs are less complex by far than SMiLE, they are no less intricately put together, and the band is up to every challenge Wilson throws at them. And they harmonize like a choir of angels. Even middling tunes like “Mexican Girl” come alive with this band, and gleaming gems like “Live Let Live” are wonderful to behold. Wilson’s voice isn’t what it used to be, and he sometimes has trouble hitting the notes, but he’s surrounded himself with generous musicians committed to doing justice to his songs, and making him sound good.
As much as I love the first two-thirds of That Lucky Old Sun, if it had merely gone on like that for all 38 minutes, I would have called it better than expected and filed it away. But the last third… I can barely find the words, honestly, I’m so moved by it every time I hear it. While much of the album sets the scene, the last six tracks give you the story, and it’s about Brian Wilson himself.
For the first time, Wilson has taken a long look at his lost years, and here, he bravely sings about them. It sounds like the final step in his recovery, the last few paces on the road to joy. “Oxygen to the Brain” is a delightfully goony fable about waking up, on which Wilson sings, “I wasted a lot of years, life was so dead…” Over a very silly (and very Wilson-esque) backdrop, he comes to: “I’m filling up my lungs again, and breathing in life…”
A snippet of old song “Can’t Wait Too Long” paves the way for “Midnight’s Another Day,” the emotional heart of the album. A gorgeous piano ballad, “Midnight” is a song of regret and recovery. “Waited too long to feel the warmth, I had to chase the sun,” Wilson sings, tying the record together with a master stroke. His voice is as strong as it’s been in years here, but its weaknesses only enhance the song – you really feel like he’s lived this piece. “Lost in the dark, no shades of gray, until I found midnight’s another day…”
Nothing, then, will prepare you for the pure and unrestrained joy of “Going Home,” the penultimate track. A monstrous boogie layered with Beach Boys harmonies, the song finds Wilson returning to California and breathing it in for the first time in ages. “I heard my sound, I found my smile,” he sings, cleverly nodding to his masterwork as the backing vocalists sing snippets from “Roll Plymouth Rock.” The bridge is a heart-stopper: “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…”
If the album had ended there, I would have been happy, but “Southern California” is an even better finale. It’s back to the piano, but this time, it’s sweet and major-key. Try not to get goosebumps at the opening lines – while the backing vocalists “ooh-ooh” like it’s 1963 again, Wilson sings, “I had this dream, singing with my brothers…” Both Dennis and Carl are gone now, and you can hear how much he misses them. The song is a lovely reminiscence, bringing the album’s themes together with a lovely flourish. “When you wake up here, you wake up everywhere,” Wilson sings, looking up at the lucky old sun as it rolls around Heaven.
Here’s the kicker: “Oh, it’s magical, living your dreams, don’t want to sleep, you might miss something…”
This, from the saddest man in pop music, the one who wrote “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “In My Room” and “Caroline, No.” The real theme of That Lucky Old Sun is that Brian Wilson is finally, after decades of struggle, a happy man. And I’m happy for him. This album is a joy to listen to, and was clearly a joy to make. Most importantly, it shows beyond a doubt that SMiLE was no fluke – it was the opening of the floodgates, perhaps the start of a renaissance for this gentle genius.
I’m trying not to oversell That Lucky Old Sun, but it’s hard – I love it very much. It’s not SMiLE, but it is one of the most conceptually and musically rich albums of the year, and what’s wrong with it pales into insignificance when stacked next to what’s right with it. Brian Wilson is alive and awake, breathing in life and making great music, and right now, I can’t imagine anything more beautiful. That Lucky Old Sun is a triumph, perhaps even more than SMiLE was – if a lesser work musically, it’s a deeper one personally, an emotionally bold album that sums up Wilson’s career, and looks forward to new wonders on the horizon.
It’s a beautiful thing. I feel as lucky as the sun to have heard it.
See you in line Tuesday morning.