It’s good to see Brian Wilson happy again. The ol’ ironic joke that music’s most miserable songwriter made some of the happiest tunes of all time got old. Maybe now that the decade spanning burden (e.g. 2004’s Smile) is long behind him, he can return to the soft nougat of life that bore tunes “Surfer Girl” or “I Get Around.” Even if he’s still a bit dusty on stage, Wilson is in top form, at least in comparison to the last twenty or so years. If his latest record, That Lucky Old Sun, is any indication, the best has yet to come, and the past is to be realized. Pretty optimistic from someone who last sang, “The music all is lost for now.”
Taking a glance at the album’s cheeky cover artwork, which is emblazoned with gushing oranges (the fruit, mind you) and syrupy sixties art (very reminiscent of 1967’s Wild Honey), one would be right in assuming that this record is just as it presents itself: sunny and rich. Even the song’s titles hint at this newfound optimism, for instance: “Good Kind of Love”, “Live Let Live”, and even “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl.” Just the idea that Wilson has reemerged is intriguing enough for a first listen, let alone a blind buy. Altogether, the packaging, style, and titling is pitch perfect, which should come as no surprise really, especially since 2004’s Smile won all kinds of awards for its design.
Borrowing from Louis Armstrong’s 1940’s hit, the title track opens the album with signature harmonies and illustrious orchestration that is both key to Wilson and his former surfer bandmates. He slowly whines, “Show me that river, take me across / Wash all my troubles away,” before segueing right into the poppy twirl that’s “Morning Beat.” Something to consider by this track is that both the instrumentation and vocalization are enriched with delicately placed layers, a timely contribution from Wilson’s “mathematical” mind. It shouldn’t be an odd assumption either that he’s lyrically aware, throwing out tongue in cheek poetry that paints vivid pictures of Southern California, such as “Another dodger blue sky is crowning L.A./The city of angels is blessed everyday.” We’re no longer talking about something as subjective as Wilson’s demeanor; instead, it’s more accessible in the sense that the listener is taking a vague vacation that’s both endearing and timeless.
Don’t take the vacation metaphor too metaphorically, either. Wilson happens to narrate different states of his mind, all tying to California specifics, sounding more like an amused tour guide than a star crossed lover. Don’t be too worried, folks. It swings more than it stalls, and he doesn’t sound too overindulgent, which tends to emanate from spoken word narratives. In fact, most of the narratives flesh right into each song. When “Good Kind of Love” begins, it’s a natural transition. Wilson sounds benevolent here, with joyful chants (“They have the right kind of thing, right kind of thing”) and youthful excitement (“A little bit of loving and a kissing and a hugging”). This is the type of sound that brought his former band out of California and into the ears of everyone, from farmgirls in the Midwest to four British dudes in suits.
“Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl” is an alleged sequel to the famed radio classic, only now Wilson’s not “watch[ing] from the shore,” but having her “forever.” It’s a cute, driving ballad yet surprisingly bears similarity not to it’s counterpart, but other Beach Boys classic, “Don’t Worry Baby.” Before there’s anytime to reflect, the songwriter is discussing the various images, both good and bad, of Venice Beach, again blending with ease into the following, “Live Let Live/ That Lucky Old Sun (Reprise).” Whether intentional or not, there’s some religious connotation here, perhaps drawing parallels of the sea to the evolution of man, to which Wilson shrugs off, “Let’s get the hell outta here.” Very well, sir.
Maybe it’s the overtones, but “Mexican Girl” is a tale that probably would have worked in the sixties, only now it comes off as either overdone or forced. It might be that it’s somewhat creepy envisioning an aging Wilson oggling a Mexican woman, let alone a “girl”, but lines like “Hey bonita muchacha/Let me know that I got ya” don’t help either. Actually, it’s something one half expects Mike Love to belt out. Luckily, the sore thumb doesn’t hurt its following narrative, “Cinco de Mayo”, where Wilson sounds like a Combat Rock-era Joe Strummer–it’s very entertaining. “California Role / That Lucky Old Sun (Reprise)” follows up, basked in various instruments that follow suit to a bouncy bass. There are many references thrown here (“You don’t have to climb the Capitol tower / Or play the Hollywood Bowl”), but nothing anyone with a two-bit lesson in pop culture couldn’t comprehend.
The narrative “Between Pictures” comes a bit too soon, but its charming in that he’s focusing less on the pizazz and more on those taking baby steps towards the spotlight. “Oxygen to the Brain” is a bit honest, with Wilson asking, “How could I have got so low / I’m embarrassed to tell you so,” though one wonders if he’s still second guessing his final work. It’s a sprawling song, but doesn’t tire, despite the lyrical repetition that screams to be nagging, instead coming off soothing and balmy. It’s deeper lyrical metaphors precursor what’s to come in “Midnight’s Another Day,” possibly the album’s strongest track, in which Wilson admits, “Took the dive, but couldn’t swim / A flag without the wind.” It’s bluesy without being too bluesy, and finishes out to be a magnificent piano ballad, perhaps one that Elton John wishes he could have written over the last five to ten years. Although it’s somewhat depressing, the track’s title says it all, however, and this surfer boy’s too positive for negative ill will.
Such is the case with album clincher, “Going Home.” Keeping on piano, Wilson rolls out a country-rock number that’s both classic and modern. With fuzzy bass and a scathing harmonica, Wilson commanders a killer song that could have easily closed out the album, with epic one liners like “Homesick, this son shines nowhere else.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a Wilson record if he didn’t scale back some before bowing out. That’s exactly what album closer “Southern California” does, a perfect finale for a climbing, exploratory album. Within the track, Wilson summarizes an idea he’s been trying to set in stone for years, and it’s one quick mantra, “In Southern California, dreams wake up for you / And when you wake up here, you wake up everywhere.” Needless to say, it’s a blessing he’s decided to stop hitting the snooze button.
For an artist who constantly found himself trying to outdo one project after the next, it’s clear that Wilson has broken the ol’ shell. That Lucky Old Sun might not be Smile, hell it’s not even on par with Surf’s Up, but it’s a hell of a record, and one that not only Wilson needed to make, but his fans needed to hear. Here’s proof that a tortured soul can find true happiness, and ironically, in the things that have been surrounding him his whole life. If that’s not enough of a lesson to its listeners, then they need to squint between the lines from here on out.