The resurgence of Brian Wilson continues apace with this thematic song cycle that aims to occupy the same rarefied air as the infamous SMiLE, his ‘teenage symphony to God’ that was finally completed in 2004.
That Lucky Old Sun was written in collaboration with the redoubtable lyricist Van Dyke Parks and Scott Bennett, one of a talented group of young musicians that Wilson has chosen to surround himself with since his comeback. Commissioned by the Southbank Centre, the suite was originally performed at the Royal Festival Hall late last year before a studio version was completed.
This is a frustrating album to listen to. There are some glorious moments that bear comparison with the artist’s best work, but too often the listener is left imagining what Wilson would have achieved with these songs in his heyday. A little churlish perhaps, but Wilson will be readily f�ted by his more myopic supporters in the music press so a sense of perspective is timely.
Devised as a celebration of his beloved southern California, the album has been described by Wilson as “consisting of five rounds, with interspersed spoken word”. Which roughly translates as an uninterrupted sequence of songs with four narrative breaks and four reprises of the title track.
The latter is a cover version of the Louis Armstrong hit from the 1940s, with the lyrics contrasting the ease of the sun’s progress through the sky every day with the hardship of life on earth (or southern California) providing the overarching theme of the album. Opening up the album in the first of its four incarnations the track segues into the plodding Morning Beat, a mid-tempo rocker that fails to ever get off the ground and is hamstrung by some pretty awful lyrics. The clip-clop rhythms and stacked vocal harmonies are standard Wilson production touches but it sounds like he is treading water here.
Van Dyke Parks makes his first appearance as a lyricist on the narrative interlude Room With A View, a role he reprises through all the spoken word sections of That Lucky Old Sun, but his contributions seem forced and devoid of the twisted poetry of his SMiLE contributions.
Unfortunately, too much of what follows falls into the same trap. Mexican Girl is a grade one clunker that someone should have had the grace to consign to the dustbin, while the narrative counterpoint Cinco De Mayo sees fit to continue down the same mariachi-inspired dead end. Oxygen To The Brain sounds like a sub-par SMiLE track, only redeemed by a bit of soul searching in the lyrics when Wilson asks “How could I have got so low/I’m embarrassed to tell you so”. The segue into the beautiful Wild Honey outtake Can’t Wait Too Long accentuates the problem; here, in a simple vocal track, are all the reasons why Wilson is regarded as a pop genius.
All of which is a shame as there are moments on That Lucky Old Sun where Wilson and his co-writers achieve moments of sublime beauty. Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl harks back to the Beach Boys’ earliest hit, and retains that song’s graceful, simple charm. Even better is Midnight’s Another Day, a downbeat piano ballad with a killer melody line that nails down Wilson’s muse on the darker side of the street.
The candid lyrical confessions (for the most part, penned by Bennett) continue on Going Home, with its key line “At 25, I turned out the light/Because I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes”. Album closer Southern California, meanwhile, is an affecting nod to Wilson’s past that manages to steers clear of cloying sentimentality.
Brian Wilson should be applauded for his insistence on creating new music while his former bandmates tread the boards playing the old Beach Boys hits. Ultimately, That Lucky Old Sun is a brave but failed attempt to add a new chapter to the ongoing story of a pop legend.