Thoughts on Brian Wilson Solo Material

I always had this idyllic picture of Brian’s solo career before I started delving in. I imagined that surely, these must be great works of art that he’d always wanted to do but was hampered by the other guys, or the Beach Boy image/brand. Sadly, the deeper I get though, the more I have to admit that his solo stuff largely just isn’t very good. Perhaps on some level it’s losing the old spark to age and mental damage from illness and Eugene Landy’s drug cocktails. On another, it’s certainly poor choice of collaborators, from Landy himself to the dreaded Joe “autotune” Thomas.

But on the most basic fundamental level, I think Brian’s biggest issue is management. Truly, I believe that more often than not, Brian’s NOT interested in doing at least half of these solo projects, and is being goaded into it by those around him. Landy did it for the fame and money. I think Melinda and others do it more because it keeps Brian occupied and it’s what he was born to do. In other words, they mean well and it’s debatably for the best as far as Brian’s concerned. Nevertheless, I sense that Brian’s (as often as not) not interested in making great albums anymore so much as just shooting the shit for lack of a better phrase. I see this reflected in the often subpar performances on much of his solo work. As I’ve seen others say, when Brian cares about a project, you can hear it. Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (BWPS) and That Lucky Old Sun (TLOS) are perhaps the best examples. And when he couldn’t be bothered because he’s just going through the motions, either for a paycheck or to please those around him, you can hear that too. 

More than the performances though, it just doesn’t sound like the same Brian muse anymore from Brian Wilson (1988 solo album) on to the present for me. He doesn’t have that same offbeat sincerity to his music that I loved so much in SMiLE, Smiley Smile, “Busy Doin’ Nothing,” “Mt Vernon and Fairway” as well as Love You. Nor does he have that universal angst and longing from Today, Pet Sounds and some of the earlier stuff either. Brian sounds reigned in, manufactured, and attempting to fit into the commercial sensibilities of the times. That’s understandable and his right to do, but that was never Brian’s modus operandi before and it’s not what I personally love about his music. In the 60s, he seemed out to top the competition and make the best music ever. In the 70s, he had nothing to prove and just did what he wanted damn it all what anyone thought. 80s and on, it sounds like he’s trying to fit in with the trends and fads. I’m not sure if this is conscious on Brian’s part, or if it’s his collaborators and managers pushing it, but I strongly suspect the latter. Either way, I hate it, and the music suffers because of it.

I won’t bother delving into Imagination or any of the other Brian Wilson/Joe Thomas collaborations in depth because I’d just be reiterating the same points again and again. There is one in particular I have a lot to say about, however.

No Pier Pressure

Nowhere does the issues of Brian’s solo career seem to manifest itself more than No Pier Pressure, with the endless guest artists, as if to prove to the world (or the other Beach Boys as a “hey, you missed out fellas! Look who I can get to work with me instead!”) that Brian Wilson is a big deal and worth paying attention to. But the thing is, there’s no need to prove that to anyone who matters. It’s like a mid-life crisis in musical production form, trying to impress the young cool kids that you’re still “with it.” It fascinates me to hear the conflicting tales of what this album was supposed to be during production, with one source saying it might have been three albums due to the various styles, but then Joe Thomas calling it the final piece in Brian’s three-part “Life Suite” with the other two being Pet Sounds and SMiLE. (This unintentionally ties in with the “musical mid-life crisis” I just described aside from opening up unfavorable comparisons to the man’s crowning achievements.) 

Thomas’ remarks are insulting in that they disregard Brian’s actual legacy. I think Brian already created a Life Suite with his work as a Beach Boy. The pre-’65 albums are the “kid stuff” Thomas claims Pet Sounds is. Today and Pet Sounds are a teenager’s mind set to music. SMiLE and Smiley Smile represent the bold experimentation only a young man in his 20’s could truly do. And then the scattered 70s stuff, especially Love You and Adult/Child reflect that more adult-looking-back, nothing-to-prove-anymore perspective. As I laid out above, once you get to the solo stuff, including this, that Life Suite ends as does any sense of growth or experimentalism as an artist. No way in hell is NPP representative of the final stage in Brian’s evolution as an artist, much less the equal in stature to PS and SMiLE. Listening to the album itself, I find it hard to believe these lofty heights were even the intent of Brian. I think he just wanted to make some music if anything, and the association with his two highest praised works was just empty hype.

I vividly remember the circus on the SmileySmile forum that happened when this thing was being hyped up and finally dropped. That was when things really started unwinding at that place for a bunch of reasons. I won’t get into specifics but I will just say I think it showed who’s a fan and who’s a fanboy in the Beach Boy circles. For me, the distinction is that fans are those that appreciate the music for their own personal reasons, and thus they aren’t afraid to say when something doesn’t hold up to that aesthetic which they appreciate from the musicians, whatever that aesthetic or ideal may be. And the fanboys are those that will blindly praise whatever an artist (or company orbrand) releases, simply because it has their name on it. (You can also see this similar trend in modern Star Wars among other media franchises, as well as Apple or Nintendo brand-apologists, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Brian was well within his rights to send that Facebook message expressing his hurt feelings at fan reactions to the guest vocalists…but we fans were well within our rights to voice dissatisfaction as well. I dislike being compared to those that told him not to “f*** with the formula” all those years ago. It’s not stifling creativity to criticize–sometimes it’s necessary for creativity to get constructive feedback. And I think that message was a very deliberate PR move to call back to his magnum opus, and give the defenders an emotional rallying cry to bludgeon the skeptics with. It rubbed me the wrong way, and while I can’t be sure, I have my suspicions it was written by someone else. I’m not saying Brian didn’t express a similar misgiving to the critics, but I think the wording was crafted/influenced by his PR machine, definitely. I bring all this up with the PR and fallout because for me it’s a big part of the album and my feelings/perceptions surrounding it. 

As for the actual MUSIC itself…it’s not terrible. It’s not unlistenable or offensive to the ears…for the most part. But it’s bland as dry white bread. Like Orange Crate Art, it sounds like something you’d hear playing at the mall over the loudspeakers. It makes me feel like I’m trapped behind the cash register at Sears again, or browsing some cheap, tacky gift shop at an airport. Not quite the mental image you’d expect, or that an artist would want to convey huh? It doesn’t even sound like Brian Wilson, it sounds like someone TRYING to write like Brian Wilson–and those are the good songs! The bad ones sound like old generic cheesy easy listening artist. It might as well be anyone. It doesn’t gel at all as a unified package. It sounds like a series of outtakes–from a variety of different artists no less–crammed into one throwaway Now That’s What I Call Music esque package. Something you’d find in the bargain bin at Walmart, or the back-shelf cutout bin at a used record store, with the curator begging you profusely to take it off his hands. 

I have to agree with the critical consensus–this is Brian Wilson in name only. He’s an afterthought on his own album, with even the arrangements lacking his creative punch. I truly believe, especially after listening, that his managers and collaborators did most of the work, had him do some vocal work, slapped his name on it and called it a day. And if I’m wrong, all I can say is it’s time to retire from writing new material, because it’s just sad to see the most innovative musician of all time descend into producing this soulless dreck. I’m sorry if that’s harsh, but hearing the man who gave us Pet Sounds, SMiLE and Love You reduced to recording hotel lobby elevator music like this is just too much to bear. Any of you guys seen Angry Beavers, the Nickelodeon cartoon? Well, this is like when Norbert meets Treeflower again, and instead of a free spirited hippy chick, she’s now a corporate suit LITERALLY playing elevator music. Basically a real life Caroline No situation, with Brian as the proverbial Caroline.

I will say, I absolutely love the cover art and title. It’s the best titled and covered solo album Brian has ever had, as well as the best for any Beach Boy related project since Holland. I could see that coming off as a backhanded compliment but I do genuinely appreciate these aspects of LPs as much as anything else. However, the title does indeed come off as ironic considering I firmly believe this project was largely influenced by–maybe even totally pushed on Brian by–his management and collaborators. The cover too is wasted here. The picture is bad ass and vaguely foreboding. It makes me feel like we’re about to see the hidden underbelly of someone/something. Like, we’re journeying somewhere hidden that goes unnoticed to those walking on the pier above, and we might not like what we find. It doesn’t belong adorning this safe, boring, whitewashed product. (Not art, not music but commercial product.)

The Highlights

As far as Brian’s solo work outside of the Joe Thomas albums…. Well, they don’t tend to do much for me either way. Brian Wilson ’88 isn’t bad but it left zero impression on me. I don’t get the appraisal for songs like “Love and Mercy” which I personally find pretty lukewarm compared to what I know the man is capable of. The unreleased follow-up, Sweet Insanity is a scatterbrained and exhausting series of unrelated tunes which don’t gel into a unified whole. It also contains the worst song Brian ever made, “Smart Girls” which may or may not have been recorded in good faith. The reunion with Van Dyke Parks which gave us Orange Crate Art was severely disappointing, and I’ve compared it to background music that would play at your local Yankee Candle store.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE and That Lucky Old Sun are the exceptions to Brian’s post-80s mediocrity.

While the former was a huge deal to me when I first heard it, it’s allure is completely eclipsed by the far more beautiful Beach Boy sessions. It was a big deal when it was released, but the boxset and multitude of fan-mixes since have largely rendered it irrelevant now. Any time I’m in the mood to hear the SMiLE music again, I’ll listen to the various spectacular fan-mixes which use the 2011 boxset as their audio source. And if push comes to shove, I’d even prefer listening to the old Purple Chick and Mok SMiLE mixes (even though they use the grainy bootleg recordings as sources) as opposed to BWPS itself. The old 60s recordings are just so much better.

The tracklist has some serious flaws as well, and I’ve gone into my issues with that as part of my SMiLE thesis. While not as terribly produced as Brian’s other solo stuff, it still sounds too clean and sterilized. The older recordings had an air of mystery if not foreboding about them. Despite the cheerful name and occasional humor, there was a certain haunting melancholia quality which makes those ’66 recordings endlessly fascinating. BWPS seems whitewashed, like all the psychedelia and spirituality of the ’66 version has been stripped away for a family friendly product. It strikes me as a cynical, commoditized betrayal of the original’s themes. The new lyrics are noticeably lacking and the new names for various tracks are generic. (“Look” became “Song for Children,” “Do You Like Worms” became “Roll Plymouth Rock,” “Love to Say Dada” became “In Blue Hawaii” thus losing that LSD initialism). The new version of Wonderful doesn’t use a real harpsichord, the new CIFOTM’s bass notes are muted (which were a big part of the song’s appeal in the original version) while the guy who said “You’re Under Arrest” in the new Heroes and Villains sounds bored and directionless. It’s a halfhearted effort which probably sounded great live if you were part of the moment, but as a timeless work of art meant to stand in the place of its namesake, BWPS comes up short.

I think this project was important in terms of Brian regaining his confidence and the feather in his career’s cap, so to speak. It gives every biography or biopic (except Love and Mercy for some bizarre reason) the perfect triumph and resolution, that Brian finally conquered the embodiment of his demons. But for me, that’s all that really holds up about it.

That Lucky Old Sun is fantastic though. It’s the last truly dynamic Brian moment since he went solo which managed to slip by his handlers’ censorship to make it to the public and we ought to be grateful. It feels to me like this was the culmination to the upbeat continuous suite of happy music to which BWPS served as the rough draft “proof of concept.” It’s the only released Brian Wilson solo project I’d recommend going out of your way to check out. But notice the qualifier “released” in that statement. You see, there’s another great moment from Brian’s solo years which, like SMiLE was tragically left unfinished and officially unreleased. It’s also my favorite thing he’s done since Love You.

The Paley Sessions

Holy cow, everybody. Brian’s Back!!! (Not really because this was recorded 20 years ago…and most of what I heard today was recorded after this.) But seriously, you have NO IDEA how fresh, authentic, endearing and just plain fun this boot was to listen to after suffering through the Joe Thomas and Eugene Landy crap. And this does indeed make all the rest of his solo projects (besides, again, BWPS/TLOS) sound like sleepwalking in comparison. Honestly, I haven’t been this enamored with new Brian material since the first time I heard Love You…maybe even the first time I heard the SMiLE boots. 

A good portion of the songs need some work, but there’s a very strong foundation for a great album here. I picture a “suite” of the city living and songs about women on Side 1, with Mary being our narrator’s recurring love interest. Probably ending with Proud Mary. Then Side 2 could have the introspective stuff, kicking off with Gettin’ in Over My Head as well as the lullaby/dream stuff. Whole thing ends with Slightly American Music. I’d like to listen some more and really play around with a complete sequence at some point.

This might be a bold assertion, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the SMiLE Sessions of Brian’s solo career. Just a great, inspired collection of tunes made with a collaborator who stimulated Brian, before another Beach Boy (this time Carl) made him feel bad about it so work halted. Fragments wound up on other albums, but the beautiful whole that could have been will never be finished. And unlike SMiLE, it’s too late to hope for a revisit and completion. Ah well. 

Hearing this after wondering if Brian was replaced with a body double in ’88 due to all the mediocre material was beautiful and sad. Sad because it proves that the man did indeed still have the talent to make great albums…he just never found the right collaborator ever again. This makes you want to curse the cruel fate that caused Brian to meet Joe Thomas. This is the ultimate proof that genuine analog recordings, warts and all, are miles and miles better than digital “enhancements” with the rough edges filed down. 

I’d strongly recommend “Getting in Over My Head” and “Everything I Need I Find in You” particularly. They’re the first and last tracks in the video below, respectively. The latter is an adorable duet between Brian and his daughter–she’s not a technically fantastic singer but the sincerity she brings to the equation more than justifies the choice.

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