[28 March 2007]
Despite the claims on the back of the book, Philip Lambert’s Inside the Music of Brian Wilson isn’t for your casual music fan. True to his nature as a professor of music theory, Lambert has created an ambitiously detailed study of the song structures, chord progressions, and influences at work in the music of the Beach Boys’ resident genius. It’s filled with charts, comparative lists and appendices, demanding that the reader not only have some background in music theory themselves (if aren’t already comfortable with terms like “triad” and “counterpoint” it’s going to be an uphill battle) but that they be willing to engage in an active study of the text. Unless you can hear the chords in your head and posses a disturbingly detailed knowledge of the Wilson discography, Lambert demands that you be listening to the music as you read the text, going back and forth while making correlations between the two. The result is a book that is destined to appeal almost exclusively to music scholars with a deep and intense interest in Wilson’s work.
And even they might have some problems with it. Lambert spends much of his energy, particularly when dealing with Wilson’s early material, on a focused examination of the way the songwriter’s influences impacted his music and developed over time. The author argues his cases chord by chord and verse by verse. While most would be content to say that the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” was inspired by “When You Wish Upon A Star”, Lambert launches into four pages of painstaking analysis; where others would simply mention that the late-1950s doo-wop of the Four Freshmen was the precursor to Wilson’s sun-drenched harmonies and early song structures, Lambert spends seven of the book’s first 10 pages proving it. The depth of his knowledge and expertise is impressive, but by making his arguments obsessively thorough Lambert leaves the impression that all of Wilson’s early music can be reduced to a matrix of influences coming together in the mind of this Californian teenager: take some Four Freshmen harmonies, toss in a Chuck Berry guitar lick, give it some surf rock lyrics and voila. It’s the ultimate in the band A = band B + band C style of music criticism, and it grows old quickly.
Not even highly derivative songs like “Surfin’”, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ USA” can be reduced to nothing more than mathematical equations. Granted, every song is influenced by others, but in the same way that a great musician doesn’t just play the notes on the page, but adds their own personality to the piece, a great songwriter doesn’t just write the chord progressions of a song. The reason we love music—and pop music most of all—is the intangible element: the soul. And that’s why any in depth discussion of a songwriter’s work requires a careful consideration of biographical information—not to fulfill a hunger for entertaining celebrity gossip, but because it’s our only way, however imperfect it may be, to try to grasp the intangible force at play in the songs. Understanding the artist is only way we can hope to even begin to understand the soul they poured into their music.
This is particularly true in the case of Brian Wilson. There is no denying that he was an accomplished technical composer—he obviously had a solid understanding of the mechanics of music—and it’s equally true that his early work drew heavily on previously established formulas. But he was also a young man under enormous stresses and pressures; as has since become legend, by the time he was working on the Smile sessions in late 1966 and early ‘67, he was taking an unhealthy amount of drugs, playing his piano in the middle of a sandbox and was under the impression that his music was causing fires to rage out of control across Los Angeles. It doesn’t take a university professor to realize that this has incredible ramifications on the music itself; Wilson was composing his greatest works in the midst of a mental breakdown from which he would never fully recover, under pressure from his band mates, his record label, and his own Beatle-rivalling ambitions. And Lambert glosses over it. To his credit, by the time he gets to Wilson’s most ambitious works—like Smile and Pet Sounds, the album that proceeded it—he has shifted his focus from an examination of influences to a close reading of the music itself. But even here, it feels as if he’s missing what makes Wilson’s songs so wonderful to listen to: the sheer beauty of them.
Inside the Music of Brian Wilson is billed as “the first book devoted solely to Wilson’s music” (as opposed to his biography) and it’s true that there are many other books devoted to the life of the man. A new perspective is a welcome change, but Lambert has gone too far in the other direction. The result is a dry, narrow-minded text. It’s especially a shame because of the potential shown in the fleeting moments that Lambert lets his passion for the music shine through—like when he compares the perfection of the “wake-up” moment following the break in “Good Vibrations” to the opening chord in “A Hard Day’s Night” or the highest note in Mozart’s “Deh vieni” aria from The Marriage of Figaro. If only he had more spent time on revelations like these, his book could have been a deeply insightful study appealing to Brian Wilson fans of all stripes.