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“Genius is the ability to make something very complex seem very simple.”
There goes my lead. Brian Wilson speaks to The Guardian, and all of a sudden my starting point is gone. I was going to begin my review of That Lucky Old Sun by saying that it isn’t a work of genius, but rather a very accomplished songwriter, producer, and arranger. I based that statement on the fact that the album is a group of well-written pop songs, beautifully arranged and produced in a fairly straightforward manner.
The problem is, by Wilson’s definition, That Lucky Old Sun is genius. I am reminded once again that only the greats manage to make it look easy.
This album is easily Wilson’s best solo work apart from Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, and is certainly more accessible than that historic album. Most importantly, That Lucky Old Sun continues Brian’s unlikely but determined comeback as he continues to battle the lingering effects of drug abuse and mental illness. His singing, and speaking (more about that later), are more assured and self-confident than they have been since the glory days of the Beach Boys, and he has surrounded himself with a band that loves his music, and has the talent to prove it. I’ve seen numerous Brian Wilson shows over the last few years, and I have never failed to be impressed by the band’s ability to turn the respect that they have for the composer into musical bliss for the audience.
That Lucky Old Sun also marks Wilson’s return to the scene of some of his greatest triumphs, as well as some of his most profound tragedies, Capitol Records. It was recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studios, where he first recorded in 1962.
The album itself is a series of songs, co-written with multi-instrumentalist and band member Scott Bennett, created in tribute to Wilson’s hometown of Los Angeles. The songs are linked together by four short narratives, written by longtime Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks and spoken by Wilson. According to Wilson, he found himself singing the 1949 classic song “That Lucky Old Sun” last summer. He went out and purchased the Louis Armstrong version, and that became the seed for the work that had its world premiere at Royal Festival Hall in London last September.
That Lucky Old Sun begins with the title song as a day begins in the City of Angels. “Morning Beat” describes the way “The sun burns a hole through the 6 a.m. haze, turns up the volume and shows off its rays.” Following the first narrative, “Room With A View,” “Good Kind of Love” finds Wilson gazing longingly at the woman he loves as she sleeps. “He loves her when she’s sleeping, and all the dreams she’s keeping.” He recalls how they first met in “Forever, She’ll Be My Surfer Girl”:
A goddess became my song
I fell in her ocean eyes
As endless as the sky.”
The second narrative, “Venice Beach,” describes the dizzying milieu of the of the beachfront town. “Live Let Live” is a paean to the Pacific, and a plea to save it from the ravages of mankind. Then it’s off to Los Feliz for “Mexican Girl,” which features brilliant Spanish guitar work from Bennett. The “Cinco de Mayo” narrative follows in tribute to the city’s Latino community.
“California Role” tells us that although the California dream is not always easy to achieve, “It’s never too late to find your California role.” The final narrative, “Between Pictures,” recognizes the city’s film community which includes “Actors waiting tables, with a method they can’t share.”
From that point, That Lucky Old Sun becomes very personal, as it describes Wilson’s own California dreams — dreams that turned into nightmares. In “Oxygen to the Brain,” he wonders:
“How could I have got so low
I’m embarrassed to tell you so
I laid around this old place
I hardly ever washed my face.”
And celebrates his rebirth:
“So take a lesson from one who knows
Just where being lazy goes
There’s a time to live
A reason to live.”
“Can’t Wait Too Long” is a nearly wordless demonstration of Wilson’s awesome skills as a vocal arranger. “Midnight’s Another Day,” meanwhile, is perhaps the most personal song Wilson has ever written. He portrays his fall from grace in stark and unambiguous terms:
“Lost my way
The sun grew dim
Stepped over grace, and stood in sin
Took the dive, but couldn’t swim
A flag without the wind.”
Then he once again assures us that redemption is possible:
“Lost in the dark, no shades of gray
Until I found, midnight’s another day.”
Credit Scott Bennett with the sensitivity to know what is in Wilson’s soul and create lyrics that perfectly reflect his state of mind.
The album continues with its most upbeat track, the rocking “Going Home.” It’s a song that will remind many listeners of Beach Boys tracks like “Marcella.” Wilson’s vocal here is the best on the record, and his strongest in many years. While the song celebrates a return home “Back to the place where I belong,” it also provides one more look at redemption:
“At 25 I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes
But now I’m back, drawing shades of kind blue skies.”
The closing track, “Southern California,” is Wilson’s heartfelt love song to his home. It’s rather ironic that he is paying tribute to a place and a culture that he had such a large role in creating, but it’s hard to keep the tears away as he sings:
“I had this dream
Singing with my brothers
In harmony, supporting each other.”
Of course his brothers, Dennis and Carl, are gone now, taken far too young. There’s no doubt that Wilson often feels alone in this world. He remains broken in many ways, and yet nothing has been strong enough to kill his ability to create great music. It’s good to know that he has his memories. It seems only fair, considering all the memories he has provided for us over the years.
That Lucky Old Sun is perfect summer music — the kind of music we’ve always relied on Brian Wilson to make. My only concern is that the September 2 release date takes place as the summer wanes. But let’s face it, where Brian Wilson is concerned, it’s an endless summer.