For die-hard Beach Boys fans, there is a very special kind of knot that appears in their stomach each time someone decides to drag out Brian Wilson for another go-around. You know that feeling when your elderly grandparent is wheeled out by your overbearing aunt to make a speech at Thanksgiving dinner — that “Oh, just let him eat his jello in peace!” feeling? It’s a bit like that.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were filled with these moments for Wilson. Who could forget such classics as “Smart Girls”, Brian’s groundbreaking foray into hip-hop, or his adult contemporary collaboration with Jimmy Buffett that I’m sure still looms large in Wilson’s heart? It should be noted that the blame for those two disasters lies squarely with Dr. Eugene Landy and producer and label exec Joe Thomas, respectively, and not Wilson himself. But something odd happened when they released Brian’s re-recorded SMiLE in 2004. “He sounds vaguely interested in his music again! Rejoice!” the critics shrieked at the time.
SMiLE truly is a triumph of the human spirit, a testament to Brian’s enduring creativity that birthed an entirely new generation of fans. Even more shocking is his follow-up, 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, a brand new collaboration with Van Dyke Parks that is actually quite solid. Then, in a stunning turn of events, the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, isn’t completely unlistenable. “Could this be happening?”, Beach Boys fans everywhere asked themselves. “Hath Brother Brian returneth?”
It turns out the answer, in the form of the horrifically titled new album No Pier Pressure, is “fuck no”. The Wondermints, Brian’s backing band who had previously championed Wilson’s return to form with SMiLE and Lucky Old Sun, are mostly out of the picture now. Instead, master of disaster and songwriter/producer Joe Thomas returns to the fold to inject some Top 40 life in to the 72-year-old Wilson’s repertoire.
From the outset, don’t be fooled: the opening track “This Beautiful Day” is a mirage. As I prepared for the worst, contorting my face into a half-wince in anticipation of the impending doom, the ensuing soft vocals and muted trumpet of the song momentarily had my eyes peeking out from behind my hands. “Wait a minute, this ain’t bad.” I had almost finished my thought, but the song’s brief minute-and-a-half running time had come to an end. Little did I know that I had just reached the crest of Pier Pressure’s roller coaster, and was about to take a steep plunge down the tracks of despair, into the depths of a nightmare I couldn’t comprehend, strapped helplessly into a train-car made of auto-tuned vocals and smooth-jazz saxophone.
Then comes “Runaway Dancer”. Remember that scene in True Detective, where the two protagonists (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) show that disturbing video to the guy on the boat and the camera just zooms out to an exterior shot with his screams echoing in the distance as he watches the contents of the video unfold? This is the scene I imagine playing out for Wilson fans everywhere as the sassy snaps and saxophone riffs that introduce “Runaway Dancer” give way to a moment of brief silence… and then, the beat drops. If you’re wondering if there is an actual EDM song on the new Brian Wilson album, the answer is yes, there is.
This is where discussing the album’s tracks as if they were actually Wilson’s becomes completely pointless. This may have his elderly vocals on it, but this is his album in name only. Would Wilson invite the guy from Capital Cities to do a guest spot on his album? Would he invite Zooey Deschanel, or that guy who was on that Pink song from a few years ago to do guest spots? No, because he doesn’t know who those people are, nor should he. The aforementioned Thomas does know who those people are, and he brings them on here basically to bring some media attention to a collection of limp, lifeless songs (each of which share a songwriting credit with Thomas) that Wilson sang out of what can only be described as obligation.
Wilson would never write Top 40 country pap like “Guess You Had to Be There” or a horrific, destined-to-be-theme-music-for-a-Sandals-Resort-commercial tune like “On the Island”. But alas, the man has bills to pay and family to support, so he signed off on this thing. If anyone has seen an interview or spoken with Brian these last five or ten years, you know that this is a man who is simply not interested in making music anymore, and he doesn’t need to be. He has given us a lifetime of incredible and timeless music to enjoy, and that should be enough. Publications like Rolling Stone, the Telegraph, and the Guardian have already given this album three and four star reviews, to which I say: stop encouraging this! Don’t give the people at Capitol Records or Joe Thomas any reason to bring Wilson out for any more obligatory solo albums or collaborations, and let this legend carry on in peace.