Was in transit today, so herewith, a review of latest Brian Wilson record.
It’s a funny thing about the legend of Brian Wilson: his genius is partly based on an album he never made. Versions of the Beach Boys’ unfinished epic, “Smile,” have been released, but the mythology behind the album– scuppered because of Wilson’s waning drug use and mental health, and exacerbated after a visit from Paul McCartney, who played him parts of “Sergeant Pepper”– clouds what it is and what isn’t. We know about Wilson’s harmonic reinventions and the masterful songwriting on “Pet Sounds” and a few other records, but we’ll never be able to measure the full length of his contribution to modern music because of “Smile’s” missing piece. As a result, most of his subsequent releases stand like figures at the mouth of a cavern, swallowed by the depth of what’s missing, rather than what’s there.
Over the last two decades, Wilson’s recorded output has come in more starts than fits; a good thing in that the singer appears to have found some balance and contentment in his once-tortured life (there are few musicians who struggled through the transition out of the summer of love the way Brian Wilson did). On those recordings, Wilson’s default setting has been to 50s nostalgia and romance: your uncle trying on an old, two sizes-too-small, greaser jacket and deciding it suits him best, which it probably does. When the setting changes, however, the singer finds himself trying new things for the sake of trying them: your uncle in a Daft Punk helmet or leather chaps. Whether this also suits him depends on who’s looking. Most Beach Boys fans are your doting aunt and whatever her husband does is okay with her, even when it isn’t. The rest of us aren’t so sure.
Typically, “No Pier Pressure” is a mixed bag, although it’s less delicious Licorice All-Sorts than a stale bag of Bits N Bites found under the chesterfield. The most promising– and breath-taking piece– is the first track on the album, “This Beautiful Day,” but its gorgeous sunscape is gone before it begins, lasting only 1:25 in length. A few other songs– “Sail Away” and “Saturday Night”– possess, if not the thrilling melodic ride of Wilson’s best work, than, at least, it’s small sense of joy and enthusiasm. The album ends with “The Last Song,” a long sleepy ballad that tries pulling the album to its full height: tympanies pounding, cymbals crashing, and strings and pianos roaring before the piece fades. Wilson sounds great here, his sugar-cane vocals cruising across the pulp of the arrangement.
But these excellent moments seem more excellent compared to the lack of excellence on the rest of the work. One song, “Runaway Dancer,” made me question whether a rogue track from a nondescript dance record had squirelled its way into my playlist, while another, “Our Special Love” (with Peter Hollens) starts with glorious and classic Wilsonesque harmonies before sliding into what sounds like cold, auto-tuned singing: a reckless affect applied by co-producer Joe Thomas to a singer with legendary pitch. There’s a throwaway instrumental– “Half Moon Bay”– that pales against Wilson’s previous instrumental work, and if “On the Island” was meant to marry the sweetness of guests She and Him to Wilson’s reverie, instead they sound like cousins resigned to perform in a family act at a reunion they wish they hadn’t attended. One of the album’s songs, “Whatever Happened,” asks “What’s going to happen to me?” and, because of the mixed results of the recording, it’s a question that “No Pier Pressure” never answers. The album has its share of failures, but because Brian Wilson will remain a fascinating musician, this might be the biggest failure of all.