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.
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.