[23 February 2009]
At this point in his long and storied career, 66-year-old Brian Wilson has nothing to prove. His fans would understand if he, like many of his contemporaries, cashed in by coasting through a disc or two of standards. Having secured his status as an American musical institution decades ago, Wilson created with the Beach Boys a unique orchestral pop vocal genre and contributed heavily to the formation of the Southern California mythos.
As a figure within popular culture, however, Wilson has often been disproportionately framed within the context of the eccentricities and battles with mental illness that occupied the middle third of his life so far. Though with every passing year, it is this characterization, rather than Wilson himself, that is increasingly out of touch with reality.
The fact that Brian Wilson has been in comparatively good shape for the last ten to 15 years belies the character “Brian Wilson”, a figure that exists as fodder for reviews and exposés of all sorts. This is the character type celebrated by those for whom the lowest valley to the highest peak is a marketable life trajectory. In a media landscape that offers such resurrection tales with alacrity but little analysis, it would for instance be easy to believe that Mickey Rourke checked out with Angel Heart and only returned to acting over a decade later (as a washed-out underdog character, no less) in The Wrestler. Never mind that he had 40 credited film roles in the interim.
The release of Brian Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun, which follows last year’s album of the same name, provides a strong challenge to the character Wilson has become in the popular imagination. Following Gettin’ in Over My Head and decades-delayed masterwork Smile, both released in 2004, That Lucky Old Sun closes out a busy decade that also included a Christmas album, two live releases and several reissues. Not all of this material is classic, but it is the output of an active musician who has both an interest in preserving work from his earlier period as well as fresh inspiration. This DVD release pleasantly offers a portrait of Wilson as an artist capable of new creation rather than a character past his prime.
During the full-length performance of That Lucky Old Sun, we see Wilson surrounded by musicians and friendly collaborators. The setting of the performance is Capitol Studios, which is where the album was recorded, and there is a somewhat cramped feeling to the proceedings. The multiple cameras and overexcited editing work overtime to add some visual variety to the space, but the performers and the small in-house audience sometimes look confined. Ultimately the visual presentation has no negative effect on the fantastic live performance. The 5.1 surround sound mix enhances the arrangements, even if the post-production mix is a bit heavy on overdubs. Overall, the album’s unified set of instantly accessible pop songs translate superbly in this setting.
Having debuted as a live performance “narrative” in London before it was recorded in the studio, the album could best be described as a song cycle, with Wilson’s version of Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie’s “That Lucky Old Sun” as its connective motif. Although there are multitudinous associations one could make between the lyrics of that spiritual number and Wilson’s troubled life, Wilson and key collaborators Scott Bennett and Van Dyke Parks gamely avoid ponderously engaging the Wilson myth. With these songs, as David Wild says in the documentary featured on the disc, Wilson is “not perpetuating a dream; he’s reflecting a life”.
Wild’s statement accurately describes that careful balance the songs maintain between acknowledgement of the past and the dreams and hopes of the present. Musically, these tunes often come close to the sound of the Beach Boys, as the large band and accompanying horn and string sections all work in the service of the recognizable Brian Wilson sound. For example, “Live Let Live” is a bit of a variation on “Sail On Sailor”. “Can’t Wait too Long” is actually an old Beach Boys tune that has appeared in unfinished and unofficial versions on various releases throughout the years. Additionally, the lyrical preoccupations of romantic relationships, water and California are unmistakably part of the Beach Boys legacy.
Significantly, the album is reflexive in a way that allows Wilson (assisted by Bennett and Parks) to own the totality of his experiences, celebrating his specific relationship to California (“Going Home”, “Southern California”) and confessing his darker moments (“Oxygen to the Brain”, “Midnight’s Another Day”) within the cycle. Yes, this is confessional material, but the effect is positive because the personal perspective connects to universal experience, a quality it shares with the strongest of the Beach Boys catalogue.
The nostalgia is never overbearing because the album’s subject matter is in the service of its structure, which is a happy-to-be-here-now thrust. With only a couple exceptions, there is a feeling that Wilson has found the means to resolve his baggage rather than complacently wallow in it. The only moment here that seems like a too-forced throwback is “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl”.
Occasional spoken-word narratives, written by longtime Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, were one of the more divisive elements of the album. In the live performance these are illustrated with archival films, animations and still photographs. Admittedly, these interludes have low production values, but their aesthetic actually ties in quite well with the stamp-collage album artwork. The goal of the entire design is to establish the sense of history and place that frames the song cycle. Cynical viewers probably won’t tolerate the narratives on an aural or a visual level, though cynicism stands in opposition to the good vibes that permeate the project.
The other major program on the disc is Going Home, a feature-length documentary directed by George Dougherty. The documentary is similarly concerned with exploring the physical and emotional landscape of Southern California, though it is less cohesive than the album and live performance. Using Wilson’s return to Capitol and the development and recording of the album as its main story, the documentary has a few unsuccessful tangents and devices that interrupt what is otherwise an enlightening window into the Brian Wilson recording experience.
Some of the interviews are redundant as they repeatedly extol the virtues of Wilson and California. Also questionable is a Fleet Foxes segment that positions that band as an heir to Wilson’s throne. And a graphical onscreen timeline of California’s history seems out of place. What works best are the interviews and verite footage of Wilson and his musicians. The impression of the large band as a happy family carries over from the live performance into the documentary, which essentially reveals the band members as Wilson’s support system. Most of them have been with him during his healthy years, and the joy that they appear to get from working together suggests that this is a fulfilling artistic experience for all of them, Wilson included.
The biggest revelation here is the youthful energy Wilson acquires when he is in the studio. He asks the band members to gather around the piano to learn their parts. Hearing the whole arrangement in his head, he encourages everyone to lay down tracks as quickly as possible before the magic disappears. He tells everyone to look alive for the camera. He even mimics Elvis’s karate moves. Throughout, viewers see something come to life that they might have written off years ago.
This is BRIAN WILSON, who called shots in the studio with Dennis, Carl, Mike, Al, Bruce and the Wrecking Crew. To see the popular culture icon at work, still doing what he loves to do, is to realize that perception has nothing on reality. He’s not making a comeback. He doesn’t need to be resurrected. This Brian Wilson couldn’t care less about “Brian Wilson”. He has quietly moved beyond that which temporarily sidelined him, and he’s simply ready for the next take.
Extras include track commentaries by Wilson and Bennett, additional studio footage, performances for Yahoo! Music and Black Cab Sessions and a MySpace Artist on Artist interview with Wilson and Zooey Deschanel.