I’ve been enjoying the gradual breakdown of Brian Wilson’s voice. The pure, shimmering tenor of old has weathered and rusted into something more pedestrian. The incredible technical precision is gone, and his tone wobbles as he attempts to hold a high note.
But there’s a new warmth and sadness, the kind that can only be attained with age. The almost child-like, innocent tone of his phrasing is the same, but it sounds sun-baked, leathered, faded. The same guy from Pet Sounds is in there somewhere, struggling to express himself through a half-busted larynx and somewhat addled mind. The effect is moving and heartbreaking.
Wilson’s recent song-cycle Lucky Old Sun leans heavily on that tension, looking backwards with an aching nostalgia. The album sounds like one long sigh, half joyful and blissed-out, half sorrowful and resigned. In one sense his new record continues the career renaissance that began with the near-perfect SMiLE from 2004.
In another sense it feels overshadowed by its predecessor, self-consciously dressing up its lovely, simple songs in heavy orchestration and concept-album trappings that seem intended to validate the “genius” tag that’s been applied to Wilson since the mid-‘60s. The music is continuous, one song flowing directly into the next or linked together by the album’s most heinous offense, cringe-inducing segments of spoken word poetry celebrating the history and culture of southern California.
No one, and especially not Brian Wilson, should be required to recite lines like “Venice Beach is poppin’, like live shrimp dropped on a hot wok,” and “I mean, are we not all actors, and the whole wide world our stage?” Unlike SMiLE, which was modular, cyclical and deeply, deeply weird, Lucky Old Sun sounds like a handful of good-to-great songs haphazardly glued together in an attempt to create the impression of an experimental pop symphony.
His new DVD release of the same title bundles a live-in-the-studio performance of the album with a hackneyed, workmanlike making-of documentary that doubles as a lengthy commercial for Capitol Records. The only interesting moments are the glimpses of Wilson and company at work in the studio, but these segments are frustratingly few and brief.
The rest is given over to dozens of talking heads rehashing the same old clichés about Wilson’s tortured genius and his music’s place in the culture, interrupted by pointless and portentous title cards outlining bits of Los Angeles history. Do we really need Billy Bob Thornton to tell us that Wilson’s albums made California sound like a fun place to be? Everyone who’s ever listened to the radio knows it already – but hey, I guess until Bad Santa says it, it’s not really true.
The live performance, similarly, doesn’t offer much that couldn’t be heard on the original album. The studio setting is sterile and dull (and not improved by overcompensatingly frenetic camerawork), and Wilson’s carefully orchestrated, dense compositions leave no room for improvisation. The only real visual dressings are incredibly cheesy animated/CGI sequences that accompany the terrible, humiliating, awful spoken-word segments, slavishly following the lyrics like a Youtube fan video. (The poem mentions an old beatnik sitting by the side of the road… Hmm, what image would go well with that? Ooh, I know, let’s show an old beatnik sitting by the side of the road!)
Still, there’s a tremendous amount of pleasure to be taken in these songs. For every embarrassing misstep like “Mexican Girl” (“Te quiero muchacha – can’t you see that I want ya?”) there’s a masterful Beach Boys recreation like “Good Kind of Love” or a delightful Dixieland-meets-doo-wop experiment like “California Role”. The tone suddenly shifts on the final song, “Southern California”, a spare, mournful piano ballad that’s raggedly honest, nostalgic and yet powerfully alive.
Though the album and DVD performance are both only half-successful experiments, there’s such sensuality, such creativity and elation on display here that we can be sure that SMiLE wasn’t a fluke; after years of frustration and banality, Wilson seems to have found his footing as a songwriter, arranger and performer. And though the DVD is almost the dictionary definition of inessential, I’d recommend it to any real Brian Wilson fan.
For years we’ve been watching a beloved artist suffer through mental illness and creative drought, and there’s something in the empathy and openness of Wilson’s music that makes many us take his struggles personally. For those who’ve ached and rooted for him, there’s something enormously powerful and redemptive in seeing him as the leader of a huge orchestra, delightedly perched behind his keyboard, joyfully pointing his finger and pumping his fists, rejuvenated, glorying in his position at the center of all this lush, jubilant noise.
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