BRIAN WILSON: THAT LUCKY OLD SUN (2008)
1) That Lucky Old Sun; 2) Morning Beat; 3) Room With A View; 4) Good Kind Of Love; 5) Forever My Surfer Girl; 6) Venice Beach; 7) Live Let Live; 8) Mexican Girl; 9) Cinco De Mayo; 10) California Role; 11) Between Pictures; 12) Oxygen To The Brain; 13) Been Too Long; 14) Midnight's Another Day; 15) Lucky Old Sun (reprise); 16) Going Home; 17) Southern California.
This one, I believe, is quite charming in the usual cuddly way, but only if you lower your expectations of it — something that most of the critics have not done, perhaps because they were so excited about the perspective of Brian and Van Dyke Parks working together once again on yet another conceptual album about the joys (and the occasional side effects) of that lazy old California life. Odd, because Orange Crate Art already showed the world that the Wilson/Parks team is capable of pleasant pastiches that will never stand proper competition with the likes of Smile: and still, with every new Brian Wilson record that has an orange in the title or on the album sleeve, people hope and hope and hope for the return of the son of ʽGood Vibrationsʼ. Then again, the critical turnaround is so rapid these days, it is quite likely that most of the people that were disappointed by Lucky Old Sun never even heard Orange Crate Art.
This one may be just a tad more deceptive because it has a conceptual structure — one large suite that basically describes one day in the life of a veteran, but still impressionable Californian, from morning to midnight, with an intro, an outro, and a set of brief musical links where Brian recites, rather than sings, some of Parks' poetry. So, «suite» would automatically trigger the Smile connection, but the ambitions here are very humble — this is not a teenage symphony to God, this is just an old man's homage to his native place, and it is not always obligatory to invoke deep spirituality under these conditions, even if the homage is idealized and about as «natural» as the eye-burning oranges on the front sleeve.
The songs here are generally very simple, highly derivative (of course) of Brian's past successes, but catchy and likeable all the same. (Many were co-written with Brian's band member Scott Bennett; I have no idea how much the latter was responsible for the words or melodies, but everything bears an easily recognizable Wilson stamp anyway). Production has occasionally been compared to the Beach Boys' work in the mid-1970s (15 Big Ones and whatever followed), but I do not believe that was intentional — most of the times when Brian goes retro (and he almost always goes retro), he ends up sounding like that just because it is easier these days to mimick that sound, with its loud drums and thick guitars, than something like ʽI Get Aroundʼ. And the biggest problem with 15 Big Ones was not the production anyway, but rather Brian's general lack of involvement and interest — which is certainly not something you could suspect here, unless we eventually find out that his record company had him under strict contractual obligation to come out with a concept album about the state of California every ten years.
But yes, the songs are nothing special, very simple and casual for the «high» Brian standard. Most of the stuff here either observes the rules of early Sixties' rock'n'roll (ʽMorning Beatʼ and its ilk) or lightweight vaudeville (ʽGood Kind Of Loveʼ and its kin). The piano ballads are typically illustrated by ʽForever My Surfer Girlʼ, which borrows its title from you-know-what, but its hook from ʽDon't Worry Babyʼ for some reason, and simply does not exist outside of its nostalgic context — but inside this context, it's totally OK, just to verify that the old naïve romantic hasn't changed a bit in more than forty years. Actually, though, there are not too many ballads here: on the whole, the album is lively, filled with slow boogies and dance-oriented numbers, at least one of which is Latin (ʽMexican Girlʼ, which is so stereotypical in both its musical and lyrical approaches that it probably would be unbearable if done by anybody else, but Brian is actually working on an album of stereotypes here, so let us forgive him the mariachi trumpets and the «bonita muchacha»'s — the man is happy to live in his dollhouse).
There is, however, at least one song here that — perhaps unintentionally — gives out a flash of greatness. ʽMidnight's Another Dayʼ begins inauspiciously enough, a quiet piano ballad whose hard-pumped chords are more Elton John than Brian, but eventually it is the only one of these tunes that transcends the «oh look at that, isn't it nice how much diversity we have in this state of California?» angle and delves into Brian's more personal and intimate emotions, because "all these people, they make me feel so alone": the crescendo on that line is this record's most defining moment, and it makes your heart ache for the old guy who, at the end of the day, realises how most of his world has really passed away, and how what remains is confused and messed up, but then tries to reassure himself by softly purring in his own ears that "midnight's another day". The song may not be on the level of ʽ'Til I Dieʼ, but it's in the same territory, and if anything, it comes across as more personal because most of the vocals are not multi-tracked.
The two final tracks, particularly the brawny-braggardly ʽGoing Homeʼ (somewhat of a cross between the melodic side of ʽDo It Againʼ and the mood side of ʽBack Homeʼ), will probably seem anti-climactic after that, but somehow it feels right to me that the «deepest» song on the album should not conclude it, but rather be followed with some light silliness. We do not want to be left with the feeling that Brian is still beset by his old demons — it's important to know that the scars still hurt, and that deep down inside he still traps those fears without which most of the Beach Boys' masterpieces would never come to life, but a tragic conclusion for That Lucky Old Sun would have us worried, and we don't want another Dr. Landy in Brian's life. As it is, the record's status as a package of catchy, shallow entertainment with an unexpected (and slightly creepy) heart of gold is totally satisfactory, and calls for a routine thumbs up.