That Lucky Old Sun
By David Ritter | 17 September 2008
Brian Wilson fans have a singular tolerance for shittiness. Witness how an album containing the line “They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zone” could be called the greatest of all time. Or how R.E.M. guitarist and Beach Boy fanatic Peter Buck could call Love You (1977)—a record so patently demented that “If Mars had life on it / I might find my wife on it” isn’t an aberration—his favourite Beach Boys album. And it’s not just the lyrics; the synth bass alone on Love You is enough to make you run to your late-career Kinks records, not to mention the countrified AOR sounds of Imagination (1998). What, then, keeps these people coming back, dutifully dropping their buckets down a well long since dry?
I should know; I’m one of them, and while I cannot see into every compatriot heart, I can attest to the following: every latterday release involving Wilson, no matter how ridiculous, affords tantalizing glimpses into the persistence of his genius. This is as true of Sunflower (1971)—where we forgive a few flat melodies and lyrical hiccups for the overwhelming gorgeousness of the arrangements—as it is of Imagination; the difference, though massive, is one of degree. Listen to tracks like “Gettin’ Hungry” or “Love and Mercy” and you’ll see what I’m getting at: there’s huge piles of gold and shit on each side of the scale, and we’re willing to forget the latter and focus on the former. Whether it’s his tragic, heartening biography, his enduring naivety, or just the general absence of harmony in the pop scene, we’ve cultivated an extreme pro-Wilson bias into a whole interpretive apparatus, a set of listening strategies that wring pleasure from offbeat, frustrating songs by singling out brief moments of brilliance.
Scott “Editor-in-Chief” Reid knows this. He’s one of us too, and he sums up the phenomenon in his pronouncement on That Lucky Old Sun: “it’s good, but you have to know what you’re getting into.” You have to understand Wilson, his style, and his story to get it. There’s some great stuff in this album—certainly more than in any Wilson release save SMiLE (2004)—but you have to know how to listen to it. Otherwise you might get mired in the muck of narratives that have none of the sparkle of Van Dyke Parks’ ’60s wordplay, breaking up the record they purport to unite. One wonders if they exist only to ape some of the Parks/SMiLE cred and prop up the “conceptual” status of this record, thus placing it in the (high grossing, critically acclaimed) SMiLE category and not in the (poorly selling, universally panned) Gettin’ In Over My Head (2004) camp. I’m giving the copy I burned without the narratives 90%.
Just kidding. There’s plenty more to contend with on the negative side here. While That Lucky Old Sun features the clearest, most tasteful production of any Wilson album, that’s a very low standard. Opulent orchestration and varied instrumentation are presented in a flat, distant sound that takes no chances. Previous producers at least had the sense to mix the vocals way up front—here the harmonies are almost Def Leppard-buried, and one has to really dig to find the lively arranging intered in tracks. And though Brian clearly benefits from guitarist Scott Bennett’s help with lyrics, it’s once again a long way up from “dismal.” There’s much to like about Wilson and Bennett’s suite on southern California, particularly with songs that address Wilson’s own past, but lines like “they had the good kind of love … they had the right kind of thing” or “Hey bonita muchacha / Don’t-cha know that I want-cha” are hard to get behind. Speaking of “Mexican Girl,” whoever’s idea it was to have the only song in a suite about southern California to feature any latin presence be a Michael-Scott-worthy, national-cliche-ridden seduction song complete with flamenco guitar and mariachi horns deserves a slap. Unless it was Brian. He’s been through enough.
To us, however, none of the above really registers. This is Wilson’s most prolific compositional effort in at least ten years, and it’s a big win. He manages frequent time changes, songs blending together, thematic unity, and (for the first time) opening up on record about his history of mental illness and drug use with aplomb. This alone is huge, especially after Brian’s darkest Doc Landy days of “I won’t let you see me suffer / I won’t let you hear me cryin’” isms. His saccharine impulses are curbed to an appropriate nostalgia for a time and a California that we listeners (Beach Boys fans after all) share. Wilson’s knack for vocal harmony—always his most enduring talent—is in fine form, and the arrangements shift and shine in ways they haven’t since the ’70s. In this album, finally, we have woodwinds and strings that don’t read like ham-fisted throwbacks or forced signifiers for “ARTY!” Instead we have songs rich and varied enough to hang these luscious, varied orchestrations on, songs that are so effortless, mature, and consistent it’s like the just-nigh four decades from Sunflower to here never happened. And above all this, perhaps, stands the simple achievement of taking an album from songwriting to physical release in one continuous, unimpeded motion—an unimaginable task just a few years ago.
The “conceptual” facet that works best is the repeating of “That Lucky Old Sun,” an old American standard most famously recorded by Louis Armstrong. Not just the perfect compliment to Wilson’s sensibility (as “Sloop John B” was forty years ago), “That Lucky Old Sun” is also a seamless and convincing transition between tracks. “Live Let Live”—a 6/8 number that gently seesaws on its triplet piano chords—has the first “That Lucky Old Sun” tag, mostly strings and woodwinds. The second comes with “California Role,” easily the funniest and catchiest tracks here, a welcome break from Wilson’s vastly improved (but still slightly laborious) lead vocals. It’s also the track that most captures the jaunty bits of SMiLE complete with puns, pop culture references, and silly backup vocals.
Pace the concept album baggage, the strongest tracks on “That Lucky Old Sun” are freestanding. “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl” is absolutely the retread it seems, but Wilson manages to wrest a touch of “Don’t Worry Baby” sadness and longing from his long-ossified catalogue. The triumphant pre-chorus hook is strong enough to to make even “I fell in her ocean eyes / as endless as the sky” convincing. And just as the verse-pre-chorus-chorus is beginning to wear, the group vocal breakdown gives the song a shot in the arm. After the generally brilliant move of bringing [i]SMiLE[/i]-era gem “Can’t Wait Too Long” back for a minute, “Midnight’s Another Day” takes a deep breathe; slowing the album down to a snail’s pace, Wilson uses the space opened by ballad tempo and the minimal track (just piano and vocals for the first minute) to ruminate on love and loneliness in his darkest hours. Closer “Southern California” starts with “I had this dream / singing with my brothers / In harmony…” Corny, yes, but how prescient; That Lucky Old Sun is, among other things, an attempt to raise the dead. Perhaps the conceptual apparatus stages these uncanny moments, as the eye-rolling abstraction of the narratives and the wandering motifs allow our cynical minds to accept these jots of pure sentiment, moments that stood alone in the ’60s.
Though absent any truly great songs, That Lucky Old Sun is the most engaged and consistent effort from pop’s lonely genius in decades. One has to reach back into the seventies to find an album closer in spirit to Wilson’s peak work and thus That Lucky Old Sun is an extraordinary, if qualified, triumph. Beach Boy fanatics in particular will find moments of genius less brief and intermittent than they’re used to. And if critical praise, including mine, is somewhat colored by respect for the Wilson of the ’60s and his journey from there to here, so be it. The guy deserves his victory lap.