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(Giant/Warner Bros. 9 24703-2)

Brian Wilson has been to hell and back. Pressures and emotional problems caused him to go into a clinical depression which he fought with varying degrees of success throughout the seventies and well into the eighties. In the sixties he had taken the Beach Boys to the very top of the pop pantheon, friendly rivals of the Beatles, while he sought to best his personal rival, Phil Spector. (Asked to explain how close he came to Spector's fabled "Wall Of Sound," Wilson said recently, "PET SOUNDS does not have a wall. It's a thinner sound. The Wall from Phil Spector has a bigger sound. 'Good Vibrations' wasn't as big a sound. It was a clever little pop symphony with bits and pieces all strung together.") Wilson reached his apparent peak with PET SOUNDS and "Good Vibrations" (see my review of the boxed set elsewhere in these pages), and then backed off with the unfinished SMILEY SMILE (intended to be the far more ambitious SMILE, parts of which were scattered through the next half-dozen Beach Boys albums). After that his contributions to Beach Boys albums were few, and he stopped doing their production, his brothers Carl and Dennis stepping in and taking over for him. In 1972 the Beach Boys recorded their last ambitious album, HOLLAND, and segued into an Oldies band playing their Greatest Hits. New albums were thin confections, and became ever more infrequent. (Only two "Beach Boys" albums have appeared in this decade: the 1992 SUMMER IN PARADISE, in which Brian had no hand, and the 1996 STARS AND STRIPES, a Nashville album of Beach Boys covers by country music artists produced by Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas.)

Dennis Wilson died in an accident in the late seventies (after making PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE, a surprisingly good album). Carl Wilson died recently of lung cancer. Both of the Wilson brothers' parents are dead; their mother died recently. Suddenly Brian is the sole survivor in his family.

Because Brian was hailed as "a genius" in the sixties he had to deal with enormous expectations from his fans, his record company(s), and probably the other Beach Boys -- expectations no one could realistically be expected to meet. And, as the Legend has gathered momentum over the years, so have the expectations. In 1988, after years of withdrawal and therapy, Brian made his first solo album, BRIAN WILSON (Sire/Reprise 9 25669-2). It didn't live up to those expectations -- and apparently it didn't sell as well as had been hoped. He made a second album as a followup, but it was never released (although bootlegs of it were). In 1995 Don Was (of Was/Not Was) made a TV documentary and album with and about Brian called "I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES" (MCA MCAD-11270). In the album Brian performs eleven of his songs, all but one from his Beach Boys days -- and proves, as Was put it, that "he was capable of making a record every bit as complex and beautiful as PET SOUNDS whenever he felt like it.." Later that same year another album was released, ORANGE CRATE ART, by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks (Warner Bros. 9 45427-2). Parks had been Brian's collaborator (he wrote the lyrics) on SMILE, and if anything Parks' own "genius" matched Wilson's. (Van Dyke Parks' SONG CYCLE remains one of the finest albums of the sixties and can be considered as good as Brian Wilson's best.) But ORANGE CRATE ART was Brian singing Parks' songs, not a compositional collaboration between them, and it was really Van Dyke Parks' album. So we've had to wait ten years for Brian's second solo album.
By sheer coincidence I happened to tune in NPR's "All Things Considered" on my car radio just as IMAGINATION was being reviewed. The reviewer offered a brief potted history of Wilson's career and played portions of several pieces from the new album. I found myself agreeing with most of what he had to say about the album.

It's really a Beach Boys' album. It sounds like a vintage Beach Boys album -- like any of the albums just prior to PET SOUNDS, in fact. The production is there. So are the carefully wrought instrumental arrangements (catch the piccolo trumpet -- right from "Penny Lane"!) and most of all the rich, gorgeous vocals, both lead and harmony, layered and pyramided into a rich symphony of sound. And all those voices (with one exception, on one track) are Brian Wilson. He'd quit smoking a few years ago and his voice, still full of adolescent yearning, has come back. Once again he can hit the falsetto high notes with precision. (That one exception is "South American," a collaboration with Jimmy Buffett, who sings "additional background vocals," although they blend in completely with Wilson's harmonies.)

What the album lacks is any sense of advancement. The new songs are every bit as good as the songs Brian was writing thirty years ago -- but they aren't better. And they lack the power of his best, like "Surf's Up" or "Caroline No." They sound like songs he might have written at any time after 1965, but before "Good Vibrations" or "Heroes and Villains." Nonetheless, the album as a whole is better -- more accomplished and also more relaxed -- than his first solo album. It doesn't try as hard, but it succeeds better.

Lending weight to the feel of it as a Beach Boys album is the fact that two tracks (out of 11) are remakes of Beach Boys songs: "Keep An Eye On Summer" dates from 1964 and "Let Him Run Wild" is from 1965. The arrangements are slightly updated, but remain pure Beach Boys in the best sense. One has a feeling, in certain places in the new songs, that Brian is telling us about some of what he's been through. In the album opener, "Your Imagination," Brian talks about being alone and thinking "of you" but knowing it's no longer real "'Cause you know it's just / Your imagination running wild." ("Running wild" becomes a repeated chorus, prefiguring and maybe competing with the chorus of "Let Him Run Wild" -- "Let him run wild....") And the final track, "Happy Days," is in spots the reverse of "happy": "I used to be / So far from life / No one could help me." But, "Happy days are here again / The sky is blue and clear again / Everybody I talk to / Says, man, you're looking cool." That sounds both very autobiographical and reassuring. The brooding opening of this piece, minor-key and almost dirge-like, with a bent saxophone wailing in the background, suggests one of his SURF'S UP classics, "Until I Die," but the warmer melody that follows turns it around with the more upbeat lyrics.

In answer to the question, "Why isn't anyone making music that's pleasing to the ear the way your music has always been?" Brian responded, "Because I'm old-fashioned. I'm an old-fashioned guy. I go for those sweet sounds. People aren't doing that much anymore." We should be pleased that Brian Wilson is still doing this "anymore" and that he's now able to. To expect another "pocket symphony" from him may be asking too much, but now that the Beach Boys seem to be no more it is good to have Brian back with new music and a new album.

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