"Another bucket of sand, another wave at the pier, I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here," sings Brian Wilson on "Imagination", the first single from his new album of the same name. And with that wistful observation, the former Beach Boys leader sets out to reclaim old musical turf. "Imagination" is Wilson's first album in ten years, following his solo debut, "Brian Wilson". On that 1988 record, attempted to step out on his own, away from the Beach Boys and all their artistic and personal squabbles. It showcased his unique melodic gifts,yet was undermined by an over-reliance on producers and guest musicians. On "Imagination", it's clear that Brian Wilson has lost none of the talent that made the Beach Boys one of the all-time great pop groups.
Wilson was the undisputed genius of the band, writing most of their songs and producing their records. He arranged the intricate harmonies of the group, which included his brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, and friends Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston. His soaring falsetto highlighted classic hits like "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun".
It's an overlooked fact that in the period 1963-1967, the Beach Boyswere considered one of the top bands in the world as far as songwriting and technical innovation. Their close rivals were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. In fact, the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album was directly inspired by the Beach Boys 1966 masterpiece "Pet Sounds", Brian Wilson's artistic peak.
After Pet Sounds, plagued by drug problems, insecurity, and nervous breakdowns, Wilson retreated into a hermit-like existence in his mansion. It seemed for years as if rock had lost one of its shining lights. In the late seventies, however, Wilson roused himself, got back in shape, and rejoined the Beach Boys. Still, the magic touch he had in the Sixties seemed to be somewhat submerged.
Now in his mid-fifties, Wilson seems determined to recapture his legacy. "Imagination" isn't a masterpiece, but it's an impressive piece of work nonetheless. Basically, Wilson has crafted the best Beach Boys album in over 20 years. On 11 cuts, he recreates the groups' layered harmonies, painstakingly overdubbing them all himself, save for some backing vocals by Jimmy Buffet on the glistening "South American".
Wilson's voice has lost some of its boyish purity, and his notes don'treach as high as they used to. Still, when massed together in harmony, the result is a stunning simulation of the Beach Boys sound. It helps that the melodies of his new songs, like "She Says She Still Needs Me," "Where Has Love Been?" and "Happy Days", are achingly beautiful. And to further make his point, Wilson remakes two old Beach Boys oldies, "Keep an Eye on Summer" and "Let Him Run Wild."
Wilson is one of the few artists who understands the art of classicpop songwriting, serving up catchy hooks bathed in lush harmonies. Imagination" may sound like simple pop, but repeated listening brings out its musical complexities. This isn't an album that will sell by the truckloads. Wilson is too old for MTV, and his music seems almost out of place in the cynical nineties. Which is why the beauty of "Imagination" is rather bittersweet, for the album is a monument to something that no longer exists.
Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, the group's only real surfer, drowned in 1983. Even more significant was the death this year of guitarist Carl Wilson from cancer. The voice behind such classics as "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows," Carl's passing leaves the Beach Boys shipwrecked. Which is why, as good as it sounds to hear a chorus of Brian Wilsons on "Imagination", it's a reminder that his voice will never again be blended with his brothers, and possibly his other bandmates.
So "Imagination" is the sound of Brian Wilson wandering the beach alone in an endless summer, still seeking paradise. Hopefully, this wounded genius will find it. For "Imagination" is a reminder of how many good vibrations he's given to the world.