It occurred to me last night, a minute or so into “Dance Dance Dance”, that I might have been a little blasé about this latest visitation from Brian Wilson and his band. As Alexis Petridis noted in his excellent review of the first night of Wilson’s latest Festival Hall residency, there’s a vague feeling of “nostalgia fatigue” surrounding these dates. I’ve seen him do “Pet Sounds”, “Smile”, and great further swathes of his gilded back catalogue, and I haven’t seen many better gigs in the past decade. But did I really need to see him do it again?
It seems so. There’s a lot of care gone into these shows, clearly, to try and refresh the formula; most notably, of course, a new song cycle called “That Lucky Old Sun” which makes up the second half of the show. There’s also an awkwardly swinging cover of “She’s Leaving Home”, which seems to be a blatant – and thus far unsuccessful – lure to pull off a headline-grabbing duet with Paul McCartney.
For the first half, Wilson and his band have cannily chosen plenty of songs that haven’t figured in previous setlists. Inevitably, this means a deeper than ever immersion in the corners of the back catalogue familiar only to hardcore Beach Boys spods like myself. Goodness, they’re playing “I’d Love Just Once To See You” and “Salt Lake City”. Here comes great swathes of the “Today!” album, an underappreciated trial run for “Pet Sounds”.
Much here is mind-blowingly lovely: those exquisitely detailed eight-part harmonies; Jeffrey Foskett’s unwavering falsetto lead on “She Knows Me Too Well”; the dork baroque of “Do You Wanna Dance?”; that meticulously timed false ending in “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)”, and the heartbreaking “Won’t last forever/ It’s kinda sad” coda which follows it.
I’m sat closer to the stage than previous Wilson shows, and so I can see him better than before: he doesn’t seem to look tortured or miserable like some suggest, and the stiff handjives he uses to articulate emotions seem more like evidence of his quirkily deadpan sense of humour than any cruel regime. His voice gets stronger with every visit, too – especially emphatic on a great “Sail On Sailor” – though, as “Heroes And Villains” proves, the more impassioned he becomes, the more off key he wanders. Never mind: this is still one of the great spectacles of the rock heritage circuit.
In the company of these songs, “That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative)” is immediately at a disadvantage. It seems that a bunch of new songs co-written by Wilson and a previously insignificant member of his band, Scott Bennett, have been bolted together into some conceptual stew. A rich old spiritual, “That Lucky Old Sun” provides melodic glue (think of “You Are My Sunshine” in “Smile”). Van Dyke Parks supplies vague narrative links between the songs, a romantic rendering of LA history that pales rather next to his and Wilson’s neglected “Orange Crate Art”. The ambition is clearly to create another “Smile”, of sorts.
Perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t quite work. There are some lovely tunes scattered here and there throughout the piece, but they often seem fragmented. As the band diligently flit from theme to theme, there’s a stridency which feels a bit too forced and self-conscious, and a sense that while the arrangements are meticulous, the songs sometimes don’t feel quite finished.
The knowing echoes of old Beach Boys songs provide a field day for the fans, but are also desperately strained at times, especially a Frankensteinian hybrid called “Forever You’ll Be My Surfer Girl”. “Mexican Girl”, meanwhile, is a frantic collection of sonic clichés in search of cohesion, and while lyrical inanity has been a key point of the Beach Boys’ appeal at times, Bennett or Parks probably went too far with the likes of “I’ve got a notion/ We all come from the ocean.”
But enough griping. It seems churlish to criticise the ambition of all this too much, however forced it may be. And there are enough pretty moments to suggest that a finessed studio version of the suite might be quite rewarding. “Midnight’s Another Day” has rightly been getting the plaudits, one of those plangent, poignant ballads in the vein of “Still I Dream Of It”. That said, it’s not materially any better than “Gettin’ In Over My Head”, from Wilson’s last decent, if generally mauled, solo album.
I guess the conclusion to all this seems to be a fairly depressing one: that we want our old heroes to remain creatively potent, but we’d rather they played some weird and obscure old songs instead of the new stuff. Or maybe it’s just me – the rapturous response afforded “That Lucky Old Sun” suggests the fans are impressed with it, and I can imagine the Brian Wilson messageboards are vibrating with love. I don’t want to sound prematurely smug, but let’s just see how many of these new songs he plays on his next visit. . .