Beach Boy is back, but shouldn't be

September 7, 2008


When it comes to the great romantic narratives of rock history, few are more enduring -- or consistently untrue -- than "Brian is back." Every few years, ever since Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson first fled the spotlight amid a haze of drug and mental problems after the undeniable peak of "Pet Sounds" (1966), one group of allegedly well-intentioned friends and musical collaborators after another has come forward to herald the return of the genius, from the vile Mike Love (who actually wrote a song called "Brian's Back" for a failed comeback in the late '70s) to the controversial psychologist Eugene Landy (who managed Wilson and co-wrote his songs during the failed comeback in the late '80s) to his current coattail rider, Hollywood hack Scott Bennett.

"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 66-year-old Wilson sings in "Goin' Home," but there's no more reason to believe him than anyone else. The retro-harmony-laden tune is one of the few actual songs amid the sappy, soggy and predominantly dreadful pastiche of unfinished snippets, recycled riffs and spoken-word Beat-poetic interludes on the new 38-minute, 17-track conceptual song cycle "That Lucky Old Sun," the singer and songwriter's first full album of new songs since 2004 -- that is, if you count that year's over-hyped and undercooked attempt to remake and complete the legendary aborted "Smile" album.

Vastly overrated orchestral arranger and wearyingly eccentric lyricist Van Dyke Parks came back for that project, and he makes an appearance here, too. Yet while he is certainly the culprit behind the awful poetry, Bennett is the man who should be derided for much of the rest of this mess: An adept student of the best of Wilson's catalog circa '61 to '67, he crams in countless musical references to and lifts from that era and the influences that led to it, coupled with cliched lyrics paying homage to a Los Angeles that never really existed (one where every girl is "the next Marilyn, every guy, Errol Flynn") and maudlin, exploitative nods to a not entirely accurate version of Wilson's tragic lost years and mental meltdown ("I wasted a lot of years," the singer confesses in "Oxygen to the Brain," while in "Midnight's Another Day," he tells us, "All these voices, all these memories / Make me feel like stone / All these people, they make me feel so alone / Lost in the dark, no shades of grey / Until I found midnight's another day").

Of course, in blaming Bennett, I'm letting Wilson himself slide. As anyone who's interviewed him in the last decade can attest, while seemingly in better mental health than he was in the '80s, he's still not completely in touch with reality -- still not really back from whatever awful trip derailed his career. Nor is his voice, when it can be heard amid the bloated production and army of shadowy backing vocalists, anything but a shadow of its former instrument. But if his degree of involvement in this catastrophe is really as full-fledged as his press materials would have us believe, the only conclusion left is that one of the greatest songwriters of his generation can no longer tell trash from triumph -- either that, or he's every bit as willing as the parasites around him to milk the legacy of the past for every dollar it will yield while stumbling through a present consisting of unforgivable crap such as "Mexican Girl," "California Role" and "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl."