That Lucky Old Sun
The new album from Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson is a small triumph, if only because it represents his continuing rebound from drug abuse and the crippling mental illness that has haunted his career. The music bears all the hallmarks of Mr. Wilson’s compositional style — the shimmering vocal harmonies, the breezy rhythm-guitar lines paired with sustained organ, and the cheery, upbeat tone.
If there were an aural equivalent of squinting, I suppose a charitable listener could imagine that it was still the early 1960s and Mr. Wilson’s sound was fresh and new. However, “That Lucky Old Sun” is more of a nostalgia trip.
To his credit, Mr. Wilson doesn’t go overboard here with production techniques to disguise the toll 66 years will exact on any voice. He sings with honest enthusiasm and growls with a new roughness here and there. He has an ensemble of backing vocalists who pay homage to the classic Beach Boys sound with clean, cool harmonizing.
The album gets its title from the Louis Armstrong tune, which Mr. Wilson covers, and reprises, incorporating its melody into three other original tracks. The original songs, co-written with Scott Bennett, are interspersed with spoken “narratives” — rhyming flights of fancy set to music that sound like a silly parody of beatnik poetry. One such track begins, “Venice Beach is popping like live shrimp dropped in a hot wok.”
These recitatives would be the least appealing aspect of “Lucky Old Sun,” were it not for the ridiculous “Mexican Girl.” The song is as presumptuously imperialist as Ernest Tubb’s 1950s-era “Filipino Baby.” It features stereotypical Mexican-style horns, guitar and accordion and lines like, “Hey bonita muchacha/ Don’tcha know that I wantcha.”
The better songs arise from more expected sources of inspiration. “Morning Beat” is an ode to Mr. Wilson’s beloved Southern California, which he recalls in a more pristine state — without smog, traffic, mudslides, earthquakes, fires or riots. Mr. Wilson sings, “Another Dodger-blue sky is crowning L.A./ The city of angels is blessed every day.” It’s structured just like a Beach Boys classic, with a driving beat pushing hard against sweet vocal harmonies building to a minor-key bridge that flows back into the main theme.
“Midnight’s Another Day” is the most personal song on the album, opening with the frank admission, “Lost my way,” sung against a stark solo piano. Mr. Wilson alludes to a life with “chapters missing/pages torn,” in a voice that is more rough and raw than Beach Boys fans may believe possible.
“Southern California,” too, openly confronts his struggle with the persistent voices inside his head that caused his withdrawal from public life and performance. It’s eerie, rueful and joyous all at once. When the book is written on Brian Wilson, both these tracks are sure to have a place in the definitive box set.