Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol, 2008)
That Lucky Old Sun : Morning Beat : Room with a View (narrative) : Good Kind of Love : Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl : Venice Beach (narrative) : Live Let Live / That Lucky Old Sun (reprise) : Mexican Girl : Cinco de Mayo (narrative) : California Role / That Lucky Old Sun (reprise) : Between Pictures (narrative) : Oxygen to the Brain : Can't Wait Too Long : Midnight's Another Day : That Lucky Old Sun (reprise) : Going Home : Southern California
Total time 38:07
Two nights before I bought this album, I watched Brian Wilson on the Tonight Show and got sad. There he was, conspicuously ill at ease, sitting at an unplayed keyboard, silent during group vocal passages, surrounded by musicians whose energy and dedication heightened the pathos of the situation.
When I first listened to That Lucky Old Sun, with that televised performance in mind, a line from "Midnight's Another Day" struck me: "All these people make me feel so alone." And I then remembered a passage from the music critic Derek Jewell's review of a less-than-great late-1973 Duke Ellington concert: "I'm in favour of him, at all seasons, you understand, and if he doesn't merit such warmth of attitude, who does?" That Lucky Old Sun may not be a great album: it's not Orange Crate Art or SMiLE (the twin peaks of Wilson's solo career). But it's good, very good, with several excellent songs and many beautiful instrumental and vocal touches. Most importantly, it's the work of the only Brian Wilson we have.
Musically, That Lucky Old Sun looks back in time: to the 1940s Haven Gillespie–Beasley Smith song that inspired the album, to the Four Seasons, "When I'm Sixty-Four," and Barenaked Ladies' "Brian Wilson," and to many moments of Beach Boys history: "Child Is Father of the Man," "Do It Again," "Don't Worry Baby," "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," "Passing By," "Sail On Sailor," "Surf's Up," "'Til I Die," "Wind Chimes." There is a tremendously exciting and too brief rendition of the Wild Honey-era "Can't Wait Too Long." Several songs — "Good Kind of Love," "Live Let Live," "Oxygen to the Brain" — evoke the genial and loopy material of the Beach Boys' 15 Big Ones and The Beach Boys Love You. At other points, notably in "Southern California," we're in the lush territory of Sunflower. Even the slighter songs here have wonderful moments: the chord changes in the chorus of "Mexican Girl," the parallel major sevenths in "Going Home."
Lyrically, the album is a very mixed bag. There are occasional bits of the preoccupation with "health" that runs through the Wilson canon, with lyrics that sometimes verge on outsider art:
I laid around this old placeSome of the least effective moments of That Lucky Old Sun present Brian Wilson as a figure of mythic autobiography:
I hardly ever washed my face ("Oxygen to the Brain")
A goddess became my song ("Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl")Yes, it's all true, but it's very difficult to make such material seem anything other than self-regarding (cf. "The Ballad of John and Yoko" or Frank Sinatra's Trilogy). Almost every song here lists bandmember Scott Bennett as co-composer, so it's difficult to know who's responsible for what, but I find it difficult to imagine Brian Wilson writing about himself in these ways.
Fell asleep in the band room
Woke up in history ("Southern California")
That Lucky Old Sun is presented as a suite, its songs punctuated by reprises of the title piece and by four spoken interludes ("narratives") with words by Van Dyke Parks. The overall effect is compelling. It's helpful to remember that Brian Wilson has done spoken-word before, in the deeply personal and deeply strange "Mount Vernon and Fairway" (released with the Beach Boys' Holland). He reads Parks' hipster poetry with engagement and wit:
City of AngelsThe most arresting song here is "Midnight's Another Day," a song of loss and renewal, and a worthy successor to "Surf's Up," "'Til I Die," and "Still I Dream of It." It is beautiful and heartbreaking, and its brief passage for voices and sleighbells is one more shining moment of Brian Wilson's pure and generous genius.
Be all you can be
Be seen just to see ("Cinco de Mayo")
One suggestion: the supporting musicians deserve much more than the near-anonymity they're reduced to here. They are, after all, the musicians who brought us Pet Sounds and SMiLE as note-perfect live performances (I know; I was there for both). Photographs and clearer credits, please.