BRIAN WILSON: BRIAN WILSON (1988)
1) Love And Mercy; 2) Walkin' The Line; 3) Melt Away; 4) Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long; 5) Little Children; 6) One For The Boys; 7) There's So Many; 8) Night Time; 9) Let It Shine; 10) Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight; 11) Rio Grande.
It is no big secret that if one wants to go on savoring the real taste of the real Beach Boys past their eponymous 1985 album (which wasn't all that hot, but at least involved Brian Wilson in some ways), one has to forget about the «Beach Boys» moniker altogether and simply go along with Brian Wilson's solo career. It is somehow a rather little-known fact, though, that the beginning of that solo career — the eponymous Brian Wilson from 1988 — is the last new album ever recorded by a Beach Boy that could lay a semi-successful claim to «masterpiece» status.
Of course, all sorts of technical circumstances prevented it from being one. For one thing, even in his psychically weakest condition (or, perhaps, especially in his psychically weakest condition) Brian tends to be aware of the current state of mainstream production, and always feels comfortable about embracing contemporary trends, even those that seriously clash with his own vision. Being an Eighties album, Brian Wilson is therefore full of electronic drums and dinky MIDI effects (there are at least four people here credited with «synthesizer programming», and that's never a good thing — imagine how much conflicting code there must have been?), which is positively embarrassing for one of the biggest «humanists» in popular music.
It also goes without saying — and this is the first and last time I'm gonna say it, since it applies equally to every album in Brian's solo career — that all these songs would have benefited from a better singer. Brian's prematurely aged and croaky voice (which, admittedly, first came as a shock to us as early as on 1977's Love You) has an undeniable charm of its own, but yes, there used to be a time when the mellow timbre of his cords was a perfect fit for his musical palette, and now there is this unavoidable discrepancy between voice and music. You can get used to it, of course, but still, every once in a while I like to imagine his old self forming a musical duo with some younger, more «angelic» singer... then again, he might have gone along with some innocent melismatic horror like Mariah Carey, so maybe not.
Additional, little-felt problems, included Brian's being manipulated — primarily by his cunning therapist Eugene Landy and his wife Alexandra Morgan, who may or may not have contributed to Brian's getting well over the decade, but one thing they sure did was infiltrate themselves in all his doings, including getting songwriter credits for about half of these songs (which, according to certain sources, usually consisted of Morgan changing one of Brian's lyrical lines to something different). Of course, it's not as if you were going to listen to this and your first reaction would be like, «Oh, this album would be so much better if it weren't so obvious that it was completely derailed by a sleazy psychotherapist masquerading as an amateur musician!» But still, there is a general sense of a lack of total freedom for Brian here — at that point, he was still convalescing, and much too susceptible to all sorts of interference.
And yet, despite all this, Brian Wilson is a wonderful collection of art-pop songs, the closest thing to a proper development of the man's artistic vision that we saw ever since Smile was aborted and chunks of its bleeding flesh scattered all across five or six different LPs. At least one chunk, by the way, made it all across the decades and ended up here, in the mid-section of the ʽRio Grandeʼ suite which includes a brief excerpt from the ʽFireʼ part of Smile — and altogether, ʽRio Grandeʼ is commonly acknowledged as a deliberate imitation of the complex approach of Smile. On the whole, though, Brian Wilson is decidedly more conventional and poppy, with a lot of dance-oriented material mixed in with introspective romanticism à la Pet Sounds, so you could say it's got a backwards nod to a little bit of everything — the infectious dance hook of 1965, the lush baroque romanticism of 1966, the insane surrealist whimsy of 1967 — and had all these ideas had a chance to be born, nurtured, and realized at least fifteen years earlier, we'd have us yet another classic. But, like David B. once wisely remarked, "time may bitch-slap me, but I can't fuck with time". Or something to that end, anyway.
The best known song here, though it failed to become a commercial hit, is ʽLove And Mercyʼ, and it was actually the first time that Brian sat down and wrote a straightforward public sermon — which, I guess, is alright when you've lived long enough and earned yourself the right to a bit of idealistic preaching, no matter how naïve or «trivialized» the idea(l) might be. The descending chord pattern on which the song is based is simple, solemn, and moving, the only problem being that it deserves far more than those electronic keyboards and processed choral vocals: in fact, early piano demos of the song, as well as later live performances convey the message far more effectively. In any case, ʽLove And Mercyʼ is kind of like Brian Wilson's equivalent of ʽLet It Beʼ, written much later than needed but better late than never.
It must be noted, though, that ʽLove And Mercyʼ is not sung from a pleading, or despairing point of view — on the contrary, the song and the album in general are sunny, optimistic, and spiritually strong. If The Beach Boys Love You sounded like a record made by a deeply confused, if not totally deranged, person, Brian Wilson gives us a fairly self-assured Brian. God only knows (pardon the pun) what was going on behind the scenes, but the final result only betrays a slight quiver in his aged voice from time to time; other than that, he's perfectly all right to sing straightforward upbeat love songs, such as ʽWalkin' The Lineʼ (whose chorus of "gimme gimme gimme gimme lovin' tonight" sounds like he might just gonna make it without resorting to medication) and ʽMeet Me In My Dreams Tonightʼ, the most martial song ever written about dreaming (it is also somewhat funny that when he raises his pitch so high on the verses, he ends up sounding like Ozzy Osbourne — not that Ozzy couldn't hold his own on a love song, of course).
But even if you have something against too many upbeat songs, including cutesy-cuddly-catchy stuff like ʽLittle Childrenʼ (which you shouldn't — exercises in nursery rhyming have always been an integral part of Wilsonism), the bulk of Brian Wilson still consists of lush, deeply felt love ballads: ʽMelt Awayʼ, ʽBaby Let Your Hair Grow Longʼ, ʽThere's So Manyʼ, ʽLet It Shineʼ, all this stuff basically picks up where we were temporarily left off with the second side of Today! twenty-three years earlier. Apart from production issues, I couldn't really say that these songs are unworthy of Brian's highest standards in the serenade genre. And even the production issues fade away when you realize that his harmony-arranging instincts are as strong as ever — just listen to all the choral overdubs on ʽThere's So Manyʼ (there is also an accappella track called ʽOne For The Boysʼ, perhaps ironically so — because it has Brian and several backers ably reproduce the Beach Boys' choral harmonies without actually employing any of the other Beach Boys; so it's more like «that's it boys, I don't really need you anymore»).
The biggest success on the album, though, is the closing suite — ʽRio Grandeʼ shows that after all these years and troubles, Brian still knows how to write an experimental suite based on the Smile approach and make it sound fresh, involving, and funny. Of course, it helps that several Smile motives were actively exploited in the making of the track (see the reference to ʽFireʼ mentioned above, as well as all the country-western touches that recall ʽHeroes And Villainsʼ), but on the whole, it is a new composition that consists of fairly distinct parts, yet has a thematic unity. A few of these parts actually began life as separate entities (ʽNight Bloomin' Jasmineʼ, for instance, can be found as an autonomous demo version on the deluxe edition of the album), then found their place inside this little epic about some guy who has to cross the Rio Grande to find his true love or something — okay, maybe I'm a little exaggerating about «thematic unity» (it is not at all clear how the nocturnal, slightly creepy ʽNight Bloomin' Jasmineʼ fits in with the idea of rolling, rolling, rolling on, but I'm sure one can always find an answer if one tries), but then the same question can always come up with the Abbey Road medley, yet somehow most of us instinctively feel that it works, so... whatever.
Anyway, this sure is one of those records where you just have to dig your way past the uncomfortable surface (bad lyrics, cheesy production, failing voice) to locate that heart of gold, because there is not a single bad song here as such — ultimately, everything is melodic, memorable, and deeply heartfelt. It is quite logical that the album's legacy would be honored with a deluxe edition, too: in 2000, it was expanded with about thirty minutes of extra tracks, including another upbeat pop rocker, the slyly self-referential B-side ʽHe Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body To Moveʼ that Brian co-wrote with Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, one of his biggest fans (too bad the collaboration took place around the Tango In The Night era, when the synth-pop boom was messing up Lindsey's mind, too). There's also a new collaboration with old pal Gary Usher on ʽLet's Go To Heaven In My Carʼ (silly) and lots of demos that often sound better than the final versions, for obvious decade-related reasons. Not that the expanded version is worth wasting your life strength on to seek out — but it's always nice to see the greatness of a particular record honored by thirty minutes of surrounding extras. Almost as nice as acknowledge it with an enthusiastic thumbs up and be able to recommend it to everyone over a Mike Love solo album.