BRIAN WILSON: IMAGINATION (1998)
1) Your Imagination; 2) She Says She Needs Me; 3) South American; 4) Where Has Love Been; 5) Keep An Eye On Summer; 6) Dream Angel; 7) Cry; 8) Lay Down Burden; 9) Let Him Run Wild; 10) Sunshine; 11) Happy Days.
It looks like there is yet another manipulation story going on here, this time involving producer Joe Thomas, who teamed up with Brian under an obligation to «modernize» his sound — only to have Brian later come back at him with a lawsuit, seeking damage compensation and creative freedom. I know what you're about to ask: «Geez, with so many schmucks and leeches sucking up to the man over the years, couldn't he finally have learned a thing or two about making friends? Or could it be so that the blame actually lies — at least partly — on Brian himself, rather than on those who may have actually helped him get along all this time?..»
To answer these, though, you'd at least have to be a criminal inspector, or a judge, or a psychoanalysis freak. One thing is certain: Imagination, Brian's first truly new musical project in a decade, would have unquestionably sounded different with a different producer. We are not even talking here of «modernistic» production, the way Simon Climie produced Clapton's Pilgrim around the same time — Joe Thomas cut his producer's teeth in the late Eighties, and that is what much of Imagination sounds like, with dated synthesizer tones that are largely drawn from that period's adult contemporary data bank. He may be a Beach Boys fan, but he does not show much understanding of what it takes to make a Beach Boys album.
That said, harsh criticism of Imagination, which seems to be the default mode in review circles, is exaggerated. In reality, there are some very nice, and quite obviously inspired, Wilson compositions here: the mere fact that many of them are credited to Wilson and Thomas should not be taken as an obligatory turn-off before you give them a proper chance. The record is noticeably short, and I guess that in some way, Brian was still suffering from writer's block, because no other reason exists for our having to listen to re-recordings of ʽKeep An Eye On Summerʼ and ʽLet Him Run Wildʼ: both songs fit in with the album's general mood, but so do at least several dozen other Beach Boys tunes, and it never helps when you juxtapose classics from your peak period with non-classics from your struggling old age period, even if you sing them in a struggling old age voice and bring them down to mediocre level with poor production values.
Maybe they thought of remaking ʽLet Him Run Wildʼ by way of association, since the chorus of the title track goes "you know it's just your imagination running wild". The comparison would certainly not be in favor of ʽYour Imaginationʼ, which has a rather cloying verse melody and a much more simplistic and repetitive hook in the chorus — but it is still a good song, innocent and charming in a typically Brian sort of way, and with some space left for angelic harmonies (that's the second time in his life that he made the idea of «running wild» reflect heavenly beauty rather than the roar of a Harley Davidson). Not even the dinky keyboards can take its quality away, though one can only wonder how much better it would have sounded with, say, an authentic harpsichord. Or a grand piano.
Other highlights include ʽShe Says She Needs Meʼ, a re-write of the old Beach Boys outtake ʽSandy She Needs Meʼ from 1965 for which Thomas at least had the good sense to include an easily noticeable clarinet part, giving it a bit more of a «classical» feel than anything else on here; ʽLay Down Burdenʼ, which begins as a Spanish guitar-embellished adult contemporary bore, but redeems itself when it comes to the pacifying chorus (mellow out a bit and the summon to "lay down burden" might just make you do that); and ʽHappy Daysʼ, which also hearkens back to the old days (part of it being based on the «goofy-scary» outtake ʽMy Solutionʼ from 1970) and does a terrific job of contrasting the «doom» verses with the happy boppy chorus of "happy days are here again" (provided they really are, but whatever).
Other songs are more questionable — like, I am not sure what to think or feel about ʽCryʼ, a pop ballad with weepy Claptonesque blues guitar all over it (generic on the whole, but not without brief moments of unusually pointed emotionality), and I am even less sure if I like Brian's musical advertisements for tropical resorts (the Jimmy Buffett collaboration ʽSouth Americanʼ, which goes as far as to feature the line "I'm hungry and I'm doing lunch with Cameron Diaz"; the all-too-happy cod reggae piece ʽSunshineʼ), but I am not altogether put off by them, either, because they still show the man in a creative phase, no matter how skewed or twisted.
In the end, a thumbs up here. Yes, plenty of technical handicaps and strange decisions, but really, bottomline is: either Brian Wilson creates or he coasts, and whenever he creates, nothing can stop him from channelling some of the pop fairy's most heartwarming vibes, even if the ability to attract them inescapably wanes over time and can be further harmed by (figuratively) tonedeaf collaborators. But at least he does not rap here, or perform duets with Missy Elliott or Jon Bon Jovi, or engage the Backstreet Boys to do the harmonies for him, so it could have been much, much worse. As it is, Imagination largely shows that some is still left, and that at least Brian's veteran fans have themselves a nice new musical companion to get old to.