That Lucky Old Sun
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
For his latest trick, Wilson has returned to Capitol, his old label home and the site of his greatest commercial successes. It’s a perfect marriage: both artist and record company are shadows of their former selves – and the album in question, That Lucky Old Sun, is a deliberate, canny musical replica of Wilson’s mid-to-late ‘60s studio sound that doubles as a song cycle extolling the virtues of – what else? – sunny Southern California. Wilson even sought the input of his sometime lyrical foil, Van Dyke Parks, who contributes a series of spoken-word interludes. Break out the tissues, because the Wilson fetishists are about to have themselves the circle jerk of the year.
The results, generally speaking, aren’t bad; on the continuum of Wilson’s solo career, it’s far closer to the near-perfect Smile than the painfully shitty Gettin’ in Over My Head. The production, credited to Wilson and Scott Bennett, is flawless – all crystal-clear harmonies and spiraling layers of overdubs. (And we’re talking about natural-sounding overdubs here, not the stacks of high-fructose synths that bogged down 1988’s Brian Wilson and 1998’s Imagination.) As they’ve been doing for the last decade, Wilson’s backing band brings his arrangements beautifully to life, and buttresses his increasingly pedestrian lead vocals with spotless harmonies. (They’re joined here by Styx drummer Todd Sucherman, who shall henceforth be known as That Lucky Old Fuck.)
So yeah, the album sounds wonderful. But problems? It’s got a few, among them Van Dyke Parks’ interludes, which would sound ridiculous even if they were being read aloud by an English professor. Brian Wilson is not an English professor, and making him recite lines like “Venice Beach is poppin’ / Like live shrimp dropped on a hot wok” falls somewhere between terrible cruelty and a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. And speaking of unintentional comedy, really, someone should have put a stop to the album’s eighth track, “Mexican Girl,” long before it came anywhere near the finished album – not only are the arrangements every bit as corny as you’d expect, the lyrics include such gut-busting whoppers as “Girl, you cast a net” and “Hey, bonita muchacha / Don’t you know that I want ya?” (It’s followed by another interlude, titled “Cinco de Mayo,” which we will not speak of again.)
But the record’s real problem isn’t really with the songs, which are mostly quite lovely, and include some of the best stuff he’s written in the last 30 years, including “Midnight’s Another Day” and “Southern California.” No, the problem is us – specifically, our expectations of Brian Wilson, and the way they’ve kept him preserved in surf wax for the last four decades. He’s hailed as a genius, but all anyone wants from him is endless blue waves of sun-kissed nostalgia – and the result is album after album of backward-looking music. That Lucky Old Sun is easy to listen to, but that’s at least partly because we’ve heard it before – literally, in some cases: two of the album’s tracks include “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl” and a 54-second nugget of the long-unreleased Beach Boys song “Can’t Wait Too Long.” In terms of lyrical focus, it could be loosely described as 1995’s Van Dyke Parks collaboration, Orange Crate Art, with better songs.
For listeners looking for an old-fashioned good time, or for the members of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, That Lucky Old Sun will hit the spot. For longtime fans, however, it might be time to start taking a hard look at what exactly we hope to gain from a new Brian Wilson record – are we really waiting for that unlocked potential, or do we just want to relive the past one more time? Wilson seems to believe the latter, and he’s clearly willing to oblige, but the diminishing returns are becoming harder to ignore.