Emboldened by live triumphs, pop's one true genius re-enters the studio
In August 1995, I travelled to LA to interview Brian Wilson. After 1988’s Brian Wilson and its unreleased 1990 follow-up Sweet Insanity, both collaborations with the Machiavellian therapist Eugene Landy, Wilson had been quiet for much of the decade. Now, though, he was comparatively healthy, newly remarried and tentatively promoting two new LPs: a turn as guest vocalist on Van Dyke Parks’voluptuous, nostalgic Orange Crate Art; and I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, a tasteful revisiting of some Beach Boys highlights, steered by Don and David Was.
As the trip progressed, however, it became apparent that Wilson’s most exciting current project lay elsewhere. A visit to the offices of musician, producer and label exec Andy Paley revealed that the two men had been working on a batch of material that sounded like Wilson’s best work in years. Unlike their ’80s-tainted collaborations on Brian Wilson, the new songs referenced early-’60s rock’n’roll, Pet Sounds-era balladry and the slightly unnerving infantilism of The Beach Boys Love You. Wilson’s relationship with the Boys, he claimed, had finally been terminated. This was the music which inspired him now.
After the interview, Wilson’s manager David Leaf advised that his client was subject to dramatic changes of mind. And within months he had one?rejoining, for a brief and abortive session, his old band. It was not until 1998, though, that a solo album emerged. Imagination featured none of the Paley material and, thanks to producer/co-writer Joe Thomas, was cursed with a cloying, synthetic sound which did the handful of decent new songs few favours.
Brian Wilson’s recording career appeared to have ended. In its place, over the past three years, he has reinvented himself as an unlikely road warrior, constantly touring with his Wondermints-centred band and meticulously recreating Pet Sounds and Smile for awe-struck crowds. New songs, though, have been scarce. In rare interviews, Wilson has complained of writer’s block, and most of the unreleased tracks played at his gigs?”Soul Searchin'”, “Desert Drive”?have dated from those mid-’90s Paley sessions.
The appearance of a brand new album, then, comes as a surprise. Here are 13 previously unreleased Wilson originals in a Peter Blake sleeve, produced by Wilson, artfully played by his touring band, arranged with deliberate references to ’60s-era Beach Boys and punctuated by lavish a cappella harmonies that hark back to Smile’s divine “Our Prayer”.
The track listing, however, will seem strangely familiar to Wilson scholars with useful bootleg collections. Gettin’In Over My Head may feature all new recordings, but only five songs are authentically new. Four come from the 1995 Paley sessions, three originally figured on Sweet Insanity, and one?”City Blues”?reportedly dates from the early ’80s.
As such, the album often feels like a re-upholstered compendium of solo Brian. Consequently, there are some tremendous songs here, especially the title track co-written with Paley, which recaptures the lush, tremulous romance of Pet Sounds (“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, perhaps), right down to the bass saxophone and harmonica trim.
Wilson’s voice is stronger and steadier than on the original demos, so he can carry off a whimsical fantasia like “Saturday Morning In The City” with confidence, or sound uncharacteristically gutsy on the fine “Desert Drive”.
A couple of the Sweet Insanity remakes?”Make A Wish” and “Rainbow Eyes”?are a little odd, chiefly because Wilson’s cracked, chatty songwriting style of the time (Eugene Landy, interestingly, doesn’t get co-songwriting credits) sits awkwardly with the chamber arrangements. “Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel”, though, is lovely: a classically shy ballad that benefits from the grandeur bestowed upon it.
Other songs are more problematic. After a wonderful a cappella start, “How Could We Still Be Dancin'” finds Elton John taking charge for a cousin of “Crocodile Rock”, with Wilson a marginalised figure. “City Blues” is similarly compromised, blighted by a guitar line from Eric Clapton that sounds crude and belligerent in Wilson’s spectral company. Wilson’s unearthly grasp of melody and harmony doesn’t bend easily to the requirements of more linear talents.
“A Friend Like You”, a spectacularly mawkish duet with Paul McCartney, is an unlikely exception. Designed as a chummy variant on “Ebony & Ivory”, it’s redeemed by an exceptionally pretty Wilson tune which even McCartney at his most unctuous cannot ruin. The jaunty “You’ve Touched Me”is great, too, exactly relocating the point in the mid-’60s (circa the Today album and, strikingly, “Little Saint Nick”) when his songwriting began to blossom. Finally, there’s “The Waltz”, a baroque and ribald piece of high school hokum written with Van Dyke Parks, who understands better than most that Wilson, even at 61, is more convincing as a juvenile lead than a sentimental veteran.
These are undeniably fine songs, and there’s a sense that, finally, Wilson has been allowed to judiciously reference his past rather than try to modernise that tender, intricate and unique sound. Whether many people want to hear new songs from Wilson, however good they may be, is another matter entirely. Gettin’ In Over My Head is a valuable addition to his catalogue: the most consistent and sympathetically constructed solo album he’s made. But I suspect its primary role will be to act as a kind of overture for the belated release of Smile, as proof that Wilson, Parks and this wonderful band currently function effectively in the studio as well as on stage. When everyone knows you’ve virtually completed the motherlode of pop, even the best comeback albums can feel a little like short change.