Brian Wilson (Expanded Edition)
When Brian Wilson set about making his debut solo album, he was at a turning point in his life. For the second time in his life, he was newly clean and sober and relatively functional, thanks to the dedication of his controversial round-the-clock therapist, Eugene Landy. He was occasionally participating with The Beach Boys, performing live and doing occasional studio work. The Beach Boys had recently topped the charts with “Kokomo,” but Brian wasn’t involved with that hit.. So when he started on Brian Wilson, the music world’s curiosity was definitely piqued; could Brian, the so-called “genius” who was once again functional, once again create beautiful music? Would this album be a true return to form from someone who was, as it was once put, “lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time?”
No, it wouldn’t.
Brian Wilson is the sound of a forty-something Sixties icon coming to terms with the present. It’s clear that Brian isn’t trying to make a Beach Boys record, but the truth is, he can’t help but make one. Considering the trauma of the decade that had just passed, the identity-crisis feel is perhaps somewhat understandable; at times, such as on the harmony-rich “One Of The Boys,” Wilson’s conjuring the past feels like a well-meaning reminder of his previous glories. It doesn’t hurt—or help, if truth be told—that he worked with a handful of contemporary producers such as Andy Paley and Jeff Lynne, who were Wilson fans. Equally bothersome was the “collaboration” credit that Eugene Landy received for a number of the songs; said credits would later be removed—and no mention is made of Landy in the liner notes as well.
To these ears, Brian Wilson has always felt a little soulless. It’s not that the songs are bad; they just suffer under the attempt to make a “contemporary” record, and the attempt, while noble, falls flat. “Love and Mercy,” the lead song—and one of his most enduring solo releases—is one of Brian’s finest solo numbers, and ranks up there with some of his best Beach Boys work. “Melt Away” and “There’s So Many” are equally gorgeous numbers, and “Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight” was a good rocker that would later come to life once stripped of its dated production. But the highlight here is “Rio Grande,” which finds Brian in experimental mode, making what he calls in the bonus interview “a cowboy song and an indian song.” It’s a largely instrumental piece, not unlike the collages attempted for Smile. For an album of rather traditional songs, it’s an interesting closer, showing that there was still a spark in Brian’s fire, and that perhaps greater things were on the horizon.
This expanded edition added a wealth of material, including the b-sides, demos, and outtakes from the myriad sessions, and these are interesting, to say the least. “He Just Couldn’t Get His Poor Body To Move,” a co-write with Lindsey Buckingham, is a paean to exercise, and though it’s a bit silly, it’s Brian in dorky mode, and it is surprisingly better than most of the album it was excluded from. “There’s So Many” is lovelier in its stripped-down mode, and the demo dates from 1979, which is interesting. “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car” was a single (taken from Police Academy 4) that would be rewritten for Sweet Insanity as “Water Builds Up,” while the sessions recap for “Rio Grande” highlights a master at work. The rest of the material is merely okay, and not unlike the numerous songs from the “hamburger sessions” of the early 1980s—which means that quality control is a very subjective thing.
At the time, it was hoped that Brian Wilson, and his then-forthcoming autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, would rejuvenate Wilson’s career. It didn’t. If anything, the highlight of releasing his first solo album was merely the calm before the storm, including fighting and legal battles with his former bandmates, the recording of a second solo album, Sweet Insanity, that was fraught with tension, negativity, and fighting, and the eventual release of Eugene Landy’s perverse stranglehold. (The album would wind up being rejected by his label, with Wilson being dropped, and the album has earned cult status not for its brilliance, but because of how bad it is.) Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, Wilson’s star would start to shine bright, and he’s stayed clean, sane, and productive ever since. While Brian Wilson might not have been the masterpiece the world expected, it was at least a somewhat decent starting place for the legend to return, even if he could—and especially because he would—go on to make infinitely better records.