last night, once again Brian Wilson surprised me.
Since first hearing his music in my teens, i’ve been pretty much hooked on his combination of voice, melody, harmony, compostion, arrangement, production, insight and sensitivity. I was given a casette tape which featured a lot of the hits – has pure joy ever been encapsulated in a record better than Fun, Fun, Fun, or Good Vibrations? – as well as some of the lesser known but equally brilliant works – Heroes and Villains for example – which more than hinted at great depths to explore.
I bought more and more Beach Boys records, each a remarkable discovery (many of them do have some filler, but even the worst has at least one masterpiece) and saw the band live in the early 90s, without Brian.
The emergence of Brian Wilson as a touring artist at all was a massive surprise after his well documented breakdowns, but I never thought it was realistically possible to perform an album as complex as Pet Sounds live – but with the remarkable band of talented multi-instrumentalists he has at the moment, they made it seem almost easy back in 2002.
And then the unthinkable – I’d heard elements of the Smile album – tracks like the glorious Surf’s Up and the mesmerising Our Prayer had been released in albums in the late sixties and early seventies – but always thought that the myth that Smile was even better than Pet Sounds was exactly that. Plus Brian refused to speak about it never mind contemplate performing it.
But the reaction he got to playing live, particularly Pet Sounds, and particularly at the Royal Festival Hall, buoyed him up so much that he took Smile on, and performed it there two years later. It was only at that concert, experiencing Smile for the first time (indeed the first time anyone had in history) that I realised just how little of the experience you get from the disparate parts and what a truly remarkable work of art the whole holistic vision is.
Brian has released one reasonable album since then, but this latest achievement is way more special. That Lucky Old Sun (a narrative) actually picks up where Smile left off in terms of artistic progression and furthermore, really speaks to Brian’s current emotional state more so than anything else in his solo career. The work features nine original songs woven around an old classic interlinked with four animated spoken word pieces by Van Dyke Parks, Brian’s collborator on on Smile in 1966
In other words, after the forty year fall and the redemption of Smile, Brian seems actually to have put much of that behind him and his now, in his mid sixties, once again reaching the creative peaks that he last experienced in the mid sixties.
Yes, he is still emotionally and psychologically in a difficult place, just listen to the remarkable “Midnights Another Day” to get that, with lines like “all these voices, all these memories, make me feel like stone, all these people make me feel so alone”, “swept away, chapters missing, pages torn” and you can hear a mature man, in touch with the pain and damage he has endured.
But finally, musically, artistically, he is moving on.