Brian Wilson: That Lucky Old Sun

Melodically strong and flat-out enjoyable from start to finish, That Lucky Old Sun is Brian Wilson's love letter to a bygone Southern California and his best freshly-penned album in over 40 years.

Brian Wilson

That Lucky Old Sun

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2008-09-02
UK Release Date: 2008-09-01

When Brian Wilson released Smile in 2004, it was the culmination of many a Beach Boys fan's lifelong wish. Not only did the album finally bring to fruition rock's greatest lost (well, fractured and scattered) masterpiece, but it provided a new Wilson work that his loyal listeners could love without caveats. Sure, his 1988 self-titled solo debut was pretty good... compared to everything else Wilson had recorded since 1973, and even though the production was a bit stiff, and despite his crazy psychiatrist claiming songwriting credits. Its successor, 1998's super-slick and synth-heavy Imagination, moved further in the wrong direction, and it seemed we would be condemned to a Brian Wilson career of diminishing returns.

Early 2004's blah-rock album, Getting' in Over My Head, only reinforced that notion. At the same time, however, Wilson and his 21st century backing band, the Wondermints, had already revived Pet Sounds in a live setting and were doing the same with the legendary Smile. The culmination of all this musical time traveling was the release of a re-recorded Smile album in the fall of 2004. As deeply satisfying as that record was, it seemed doubtful that Brian Wilson would absorb the re-exploration of his old music and carry these sounds forward into new compositions.

Four years later, That Lucky Old Sun answers all doubters with a big ol' burst of that classic Beach Boys feel. The central theme of this album is looking back to '50s and '60s Los Angeles, so any concerns about aiming for modern production sounds can be tossed out the window. Clearly laying out this retro thesis right from the start, the album opens with its title track, a remake of a tune made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1949. Despite songwriting billed to Gillespie/Smith, there's no doubt this is the beginning of a Brian Wilson record. Angelic, Beach Boys-like harmonies introduce his truncated take on the old ditty, which then segues into the first proper song, the Sunflower-like pop/rocker "Morning Beat".

This is the first of several Lucky Old Sun songs that Brian co-penned with multi-instrumentalist Scott Bennett, who established himself as a member of Wilson's backing band on Smile. Leave it to a younger generation of Beach Boys worshippers to understand the importance of that band's classic vibe, perhaps even more so than its originator. Wilson is a nostalgic guy, anyway, so it probably wasn't hard for Bennett to coax these '60s sounds out of the master tunesmith. The resulting album is a love letter to a bygone Southern California and, in no small way, Brian Wilson's ode to those sounds of the era that he created.

Thankfully, Wilson's wide-eyed mind and purity of heart outshine any potential for aural narcissism that might come from such an endeavor. As on his best works, the music of That Lucky Old Sun pours warmly outward and feels like a gift. "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl" is the song most clearly indebted to Brian's own past and is also one of the album's many highlights. Beginning with a simple yet lovely piano progression, the track quickly blooms into full chamber pop glory, with arrangements of backing vocals, rock group instrumentation, strings, and horns. Rising above it all is Wilson's falsetto lead on the chorus.

Bennett isn't Brian Wilson's only collaborator here, however. Smile co-writer Van Dyke Parks helped to pen parts of That Lucky Old Sun, too, including the music behind a handful of short, linking narratives. While Parks's backdrops are nice on these spoken interludes, Brian is a mediocre poet and an awkward reader. These tracks are slightly charming in their dorkiness, but will generate a wince or two, as well. Be thankful for the brevity of these bits. The Wilson/Parks team shine much brighter on "Live Let Live", a buoyant and swaying tribute to whales swimming in the ocean and a plea for humans to "get the hell outta there".

Mostly, though, this is Wilson and Bennett's baby. Whether from actually creating old Beach Boys albums or from listening to them studiously, the two perfectly capture the feel of Brian's old band without resorting to replication or attempting to ape the sonic blueprint of the time (a lesson the Explorers Club could stand to learn). "Midnight's Another Day" is an aching ballad that echoes "In My Room" and, though not as bleak, "'Til I Die". On the other end of the spectrum, "Going Home" is a blues boogie rocker most reminiscent of the Beach Boys in the years just after Brian's late '60s breakdown. Happily, Wilson and Bennett also reach beyond the shadow of the former's past efforts. "Mexican Girl" brings in some obvious yet suitable flourishes, such as castanets and Spanish guitar, neither of which one tends to associate with the Beach Boys. "California Role", meanwhile, sounds much more like classic Randy Newman, until the chorus kicks in with its undeniably Brian Wilson melody.

Smile remains the greatest record of Brian Wilson's solo career, but the handicap on that album is huge, considering the majority of its material had been recorded before. It feels more like a timeless artifact than a bona fide modern Brian Wilson solo album. That Lucky Old Sun, then, is easily Wilson's best collection of new material since, well, the original SMiLE sessions. Collectively, the Beach Boys wrote and recorded a few worthwhile LPs after 1967, but with only occasional contributions from Brian. It is remarkable that, 40-plus years after his last great effort, Wilson has written an entire album as melodically strong and sophisticated and flat-out enjoyable from start to finish as That Lucky Old Sun. The truly lucky one here is you, the listener.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.