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Music Review: Brian Wilson – That Lucky Old Sun

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“At 25, I turned out the light, cause’ I couldn’t handle the glare in my eyes,” Brian Wilson sings on “Going Home,” one of the key tracks on his brilliant new album That Lucky Old Sun, “But now I’m back.”

I honestly wasn’t sure Brian Wilson still had it in him.

But at 66 years old, coming off of the 2004 creative victory of finally realizing his decades-in-the-making masterpiece SMiLE, it’s now clear that triumph was no mere fluke. Like the song says, he really is back.

As brilliant as SMiLE was, and as much as you have to give the often-fragile mind of Brian Wilson credit for storing that music in his head for decades, the fact still remained that it consisted of music conceived some forty years ago.

Not so on That Lucky Old Sun. This is an entirely new cycle of songs that when pieced together as a whole, form a fully realized work that is as sonically dense and layered as SMiLE, while containing Wilson’s most deeply personal lyrics — often painfully so — since he sang about the lonely sort of solitude he found “In My Room” back in the sixties with the Beach Boys.

This is a just a gorgeous record. But it’s not just the beautiful multi-layered choral harmonies and orchestral arrangements that make it so. It’s also the way Wilson — for the first time really — peels away the mystery of his so-called “lost years” with lyrics that are as often honest, as they are bittersweet.

It’s often been said that Wilson’s genius lies in the childlike way he just hears the songs in his head, capturing both their simple, stripped down emotional essence, while imagining the sort of complex sounds that require nothing less than a symphonic scope. In that sense, as he so aptly demonstrates on this album, Wilson’s songs at their best really yearn back to a much more innocent time and place.

Did I mention that I absolutely love this record yet?

On its surface, That Lucky Old Sun is Brian Wilson’s personal love letter to his beloved Southern California. In the spoken word narratives that connect this album, Wilson details the “Heartbeat of L.A.,” accurately capturing a world where actors wait tables in between pictures, and where “the homeless, the hopeless, and the deranged” populate “Venice Beach,” a place where “nothing seems out of place or strange.”

That wonderful, wide-eyed innocence of the California dream is also given a modern update on songs like “Forever My Surfer Girl,” where “first love is the moment you can’t repeat, but you’ll always own it.”

But then a little more than midway through the record, Wilson shifts lyrical gears. On the starkly autobiographical “Oxygen To The Brain,” he admits that “I cried a million tears, I lost a lot of years,” before asking “how could I have got so low?”

From there, the song segues into “Can’t Wait Too Long,” the most gorgeous-sounding fifty-seven seconds on the entire record. Here, multi-layered harmonies which harken back to a slower take on the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” simply ask, “Why so long?”

My only complaint here is that it ends too quick.

From there, the song serves as a bridge to “Midnight’s Another Day,” where Wilson again tears a page out of his own life story, shedding light on how “all these voices, all these memories, made me feel like stone, all these people make me feel so alone.” But Wilson finds his redemption in the Beach Boys-styled rocker “Going Home” where he’s so “homesick… I’m even missing myself,” before finding his way back “to piece of mind, one piece at a time.”

On the closing “Southern California,” Wilson then lays it all wide open for all the world to see. “I had this dream, singing with my brothers, in harmony, supporting each other,” Wilson sings before concluding, “it’s magical… I’m glad it happened to me.”

If you know anything about the Beach Boys story — and in particular that of Brian Wilson — the story he weaves on That Lucky Old Sun is a bittersweet one to be sure. But it’s also one that finds a happy ending, resulting in his best album of all new material in what feels like decades.

If you saw any of the concerts on Wilson’s SMiLE tour, you already know how great his band is, and they don’t disappoint here. The other thing though, is that Wilson’s voice hasn’t sounded this clear or confident since the Beach Boys.

This is a great, great album, and right now my hands-down choice for best of 2008.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Sold. I will have to give it a listen.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Bicho. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

    -Glen

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    Considering the hit-and-miss nature of Gettin’ In Over My Head, the album that preceded the SMiLE reconstruction, I’m really glad to see that Brian’s got his muse back . . .

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I was afraid of that going in to this one too Bill. But I’m happy to report that SMiLE was no fluke (depite the age of the songs involved). Brian seems to have really regained that muse here.

    -Glen

  • bliffle

    I’m not going to listen to this album since I concluded long ago the the Beach Boys are terminally bland white bread derivative musicians.

    They don’t deserve all the hoopla that they get.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Your loss, or should i say your bliff?

    -Glen

  • Joel Patterson

    Hmmmm… does the album include a cover of the wondrously entrancing 30’s song, “That Lucky Old Sun,” which’s got nothing else to do but roll around Heaven all day?

    Or is it just used as a title to evoke the heydey of Southern California?

  • bliffle

    Very little that the BB sang was original. Even the picture at the top of this article is derivative: Al Jardine admits that they started wearing the striped shirts in imitation of the Kingston Trio. Jardines words were something like: “the striped shirts were new and made the Knston Trio unique, so we said ‘we need something unique, too, so lets wear striped shirts!'”.

    Ten years after Kingston Trio had a hit with “Sloop John B” the BB recorded their drippy version which sounded like they were all passing out in an opium den. They even omitted the charming reggae beat! I suppose that they were incapable of performing it!

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    I can take or leave the Beach Boys depending on what part of their very patchy work I’m hearing. I wasn’t aware of the earlier version(s) of “Sloop John B” but I’m surprised to read that the Kingston Trio, a folk group, had a version with a Reggae beat as I’m pretty sure Reggae didn’t exist in 1956…

  • DUDE

    If you don’t like the Beach Boys, why waste part of your life commenting on them? Makes less sense than Brian did when he was whacked out of his gourd!!!!

  • Lee Richards

    On a live recorded version of “Sloop” Dennis Wilson plays some great rock drums. Carl had a beautifully clear, moving voice on ballads, and how anyone can say Brian’s compositions and arrangements were derivative is beyond me.

    Many great musicians found him, and the Beach Boys, an inspiration and stimulus to their own talent–the Beatles included(another bland, white bread group?)

    To compare Brian and the BB–a group who were amazingly creative and highly influential in world pop music–to the Kingston Trio, a fun novelty act, is a shallow criticism that completely misses their musicality and originality.

    The Beach Boys were a bridge from the ’50s to the ’60s; it wasn’t their intent to have a heavier or metal sound. Like all the great ones, Brian wrote and played what he felt inside and what touched him. He connected with a couple of generations, at least, and his artistic longevity in a fickle business is strong evidence he and the band accomplished something unique and enduring.

    “Lucky Old Sun” has his trademark sound and style. For fans, it’s enjoyable and nostalgic, with plenty of Wilson melody and harmonies, and words that share equally with the music in conveying the personal meaning and emotion of the songs.

    It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a fun listen worth many repeats when you want to think about your own salad days, or just feel like humming along to a new Brian Wilson tune.

    If they could all be together once again, they would sound a lot like this.

  • bliffle

    Well, DUDE, I do it to warn young impressionable music listeners from being seduced by Old Music Criminals, like BB.

    It’s just one of the many Public Services that I perform.

    DUDE asked:
    “If you don’t like the Beach Boys, why waste part of your life commenting on them?”

  • DUDE

    Warning?!?! Seems like a lame excuse for wasting your time. Did you ever think that your taste in music isn’t for everyone, and that some “young impressionable music listeners” might not share your point of vew, and that in fact you are robbing them of an oportunity that they may cherish for a lifetime, such as Brian Wilson has done for me and countless milllions of others. Voicing a narrow opinion on some you consider “impressionable” is really a dis-service. Not to mention you are never going to get this time back that you fritter away whining about the Beach Boys.

    BTW – That Lucky Old Sun is a great improvement over the previous, and actually has a couple of his best solo songs period!!

  • Dude

    Anyone buying into the “various packaging” game? If you purchase it at certain stores you get a free 45 single pressed on clear orange vinyl, then there’s the Limited Edition 2-disc version with an extra DVD with a “Making Of” documentary and 2 live in-studio performances.
    “Live Let Live” and “Midnight’s Another Day” I think rank with his best stuff!!

  • Tomato Pie

    I like the early BB stuff, but I’m not a fanatic — I was not moved to tears when Pet Sounds made it to CD. But this new work is magnificent, I play it 5 times a day. The band is brilliant, and Brian has conjured up a perfect blend of looking back and looking ahead.

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