“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.