The Beach Boys are so often described in the hopped-up terms of music historians -- "seminal," "genre-expanding" -- that one could easily forget how, well, beachy they were. Fun in the sun wasn't just an early theme they had to get over. The group that started off with bubblegum pop and moved inland on Pet Sounds also had a critical period of overlap, when they were still listening to surf reports but knew the Beatles were listening to something more advanced. Tracks like "Help Me, Rhonda" and "California Girls" were bouts of SoCal pop purism, even as they were leagues more inventive than "Surfin' USA." Los Angeles never had a better P.R. team than the Wilson crew.
Brian Wilson's new solo disc -- a phrase it feels good just to write, given the sage's decades of struggle with mental illness -- returns to those mid-career Beach Boys themes. Like the pre-Pet Sounds recordings, That Lucky Old Sun is at once a gushing love letter to Southern California and a psych-tinged work whose smarts belie its accessibility. In a sense, Wilson seems to be gently moving back in time. His 2004 set, Smile, was supposed to be his late-sixties avant-garde masterpiece, but went unreleased for nearly 40 years. Now, again with the help of original Smile man Van Dyke Parks, he regresses and simplifies, shooting for sun-dappled vignettes rather than arty fables.
The effect is stunning. Gazing out at L.A. -- a photo in the album art has him doing just that, sitting in a lawn chair on top of a building -- Wilson reflects on the town that has been his life's great backdrop. Often, the tone is intimate and nostalgic. "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl" rides shimmering strings and the classic flinty Wilson tenor to a recollection of beachside puppy love in the summer of '61. "Going Home" handles the darker subject of Wilson's famous check-out -- "At 25 I turned out the light/ Cause I couldn't handle the glare in my tired eyes" -- but defiantly couches it in a good-natured blues romp. But Sun's Angeleno themes aren't always personal. The record, which plays as a mostly continuous suite of songs, is interspersed with short Wilsonian "narratives" -- essentially L.A. poems read over snippets of tune. And Wilson and Parks use these to firm up the sense of place. Touring Venice Beach ("Hucksters, hustlers and hawkers/ Set up their boardwalk shops"), Los Feliz, L.A.X., Wilson spreads his love through the neighborhoods.
Musically, the reborn Wilson seems to be settling on a lustily orchestrated sort of pop, full of wind instruments and strong percussion. This is a Parks trademark, and it's something to enjoy or be fine with: the surprising truth is that the backing tones don't register that deeply, so hypnotic are Wilson's vocal melodies. "Oxygen To The Brain" features a bouncy symphonic palette, but we're transfixed by the comeback story that Wilson calmly maps out. His conclusion is affirming: "Ready, set in California/ I'm filling up my lungs again/ And breathing in life." And his album is the evidence. That Lucky Old Sun is the most legible, positive, and simply pleasurable record Wilson has made in years.
By Jake Blaine