IMAGINATION (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,"
Dennis Wilson died in an accident in the late seventies (after making
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
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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