Brian Wilson, songwriter extraordinaire of the Beach Boys, has spent the last decade having his legacy rewarded back to him. Since 2005, he has won his first Grammy for a remake of his 1967 album SMiLE, received Kennedy Centre Honours for his 50-year career, reunited surviving Beach Boys for a worldwide tour and album, and won a second Grammy (for the original SMiLE sessions). This summer will also see the release of the mandatory biopic, with an autobiography next year.
It’s enough to exhaust even the most nostalgic fans. Thankfully Wilson has produced an impressive palate-cleanser with this 11th solo album, a mixture of modern collaborations and reunion of old bandmates. Opener ‘This Beautiful Day’ is effectively the Wilson calling card; a short, melancholic piano number with the moving harmonies fans have come to expect. Things then change quickly to the synthy, up-tempo ‘Runaway Dancer’, a startlingly modern track from the 72 year old producer. Certainly to be Marmite for fans of earlier Wilson productions (some may sceptically label it a victim of others interference) it is nonetheless the album’s biggest earworm. Featuring Sabu from LA’s Capital Cities, it also marks the first of many collaborations heard on the album which range from She and Him’s Zooey Deschanel, fun.’s Nate Ruess, and country music star Kacey Musgraves. Rather than feeling like Wilson is taking a back seat on his own album, these tracks showcase a surprising self confidence in his production range. Who else could go from bossa nova, to an easy-listening jazz instrumental, to pure sunshine pop in five tracks and make it sound entirely cohesive?
Somehow some space has also been found for former bandmates. Beach Boy guitarists Al Jardine and David Marks feature on guitars and vocals throughout, while Blondie Chaplin features on ‘Sail Away’. Unfortunately the help from AutoTune can sound far too obvious here, a sad reminder of how far some of their voices have declined. Brian in particular can sound like he’s singing from the bottom of a bath at some points.
However later on Brian’s unfiltered voice sounds strained but sincere as he lays bare his thoughts on ‘One Kind of Love,’ perhaps the most emotionally raw track on the entire album. His noticeably hoarse voice helps give weight to his recollection of how he “wasted so much time running circles in my mind/I couldn’t hear my heart calling out to you.” There’s a sense of genuine optimism and renewal here that is rare to find from a man who has had more than his fair share of demons.
Brian Wilson could never leave the shadow of The Beach Boys even if he wanted to. Fortunately as evidenced with this album, he is as unlikely to ever become a living museum piece either. Like his peer Paul McCartney’s recent collaboration with Kanye West, Wilson does not appear to be afraid of embracing the new, blending expertise with experimentation. Someone who’s learned from history, but not blinded by nostalgia.