Brian Wilson – Today

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We’ve all felt that sensation, where hearing an old song can transport you back in time. And for those of us of a certain age, there is the larger, deeper, version where listening to new music from an artist we’ve followed since we were young, can touch a special place in our souls, and resonate more greatly than almost anything else. For some it might be new music by Paul McCartney or the Stones, or a long-awaited new CD by Ray Davies, David Crosby, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell or numerous other legacy artists still making new music.

For me, it’s Brian Wilson, the legendary Beach Boys’ songwriter and producer. Whether it’s his countless sun-drenched hit singles or the visionary albums like Pet Sounds, Smile, Sunflower & That Lucky Old Sun, his work has always touched the deepest part of me. And at 72, he’s still releasing new music.

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The fact that Wilson is even still alive, given his past history of drug abuse and mental illness, seems miraculous. In fact, anyone who thought Brian Wilson would outlive his younger brothers Dennis & Carl – who died respectively in 1983 and 1998 – might’ve also put money on Jerry Lee Lewis outliving his Million Dollar Quartet bandmates, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash & Carl Perkins. Some things just defy reason.

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And yet, Brian Wilson is still here, and experiencing one of the most productive years of his career with a film of his life, Love & Mercy, (set to premiere next month), a new autobiography, “I Am Brian Wilson,” (slated for a fall release) and a brand new studio album, No Pier Pressure, out now, with a tour to follow this summer.

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How can a man with such a troubled past do all this, you might ask? I believe that despite all of his well-documented past problems, Brian Wilson has an inner strength and a drive to succeed that few others of his generation possess. He must have! And he still has that competitive fire, not only, to release new music, but to avidly follow the charts to see how his new music fares against modern competition young enough to be his grandchildren.

When it was announced last year that Wilson would be working with several younger artists on his new album, I feared the worst. It’s almost become standard boilerplate for older artists, trying to sustain a career with live albums, cover albums and Christmas albums, to also do a duets album, with young, “hip” artists: think Elton John, Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison and numerous others. But rather than a retread of his older hits, with him sharing the mic with much younger stars, Wilson did something entirely unexpected. He wrote new songs, sometimes with the guests, and sometimes for the guests. 

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If you think back to the 60s heyday of the Beach Boys, Brian wrote, arranged and produced all the songs, and he also chose who in the band would sing each song, whether it be Mike Love, Al Jardine, or either of his gifted brothers, Carl and Dennis. And of course, he would always sing a few, too. But the point is that casting each song to the right singer was one of his many talents, and that’s exactly what he is doing again on this new album. He is joined by former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, who both shine on several lead vocals, and by younger stars like Zooey Deschanel, Kacey Musgrave,  Sebu Simian (Capital Cities), Peter Hollens and Nate Ruess (Fun.). And they all add something very special to Wilson’s songs.

Brian Wilson – Behind The Scenes – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPHPYULAS1k

It’s been said that Wilson thinks in five-part harmony. And while his harmony writing and arranging is such a large part of his musical identity, sometimes his actual songwriting gets overlooked. The late-classical composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once referred to the distinctive sound of a composer’s music as his “musical voice,” implying that the way a composer combined the elements of melody, chords and rhythm, were as distinctive as one’s speaking voice. I’ve always felt that concept could be applied to Rock’s great writers, as well, whether it be Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson or any number of talented others. Regardless of whether they are singing the song or not, you can just tell that it’s one of their songs.

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And that’s the beautiful thing about this new Brian Wilson album. It sounds like him, in all the best ways possible. The soaring melodies, the surprising chord changes, the exuberant rhythms, and those achingly-beautiful harmonies; all elements intact. It is easily his best solo album, short of Smile, which was written in the 60s. To be able to say that about a 72-year-old artist is truly remarkable. I could list favorite songs, but at this early date, I seem to have a different favorite every day. The music of Brian Wilson has been a constant in my life for nearly 50 years now, and I’m happy to report that his is the musical gift that keeps on giving.

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4 thoughts on “Brian Wilson – Today

  1. “Countless sun-drenched singles,” “soaring melodies, the surprising chord changes, the exuberant rhythms, and those achingly-beautiful harmonies”—love these images! Nice job, Gary!

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  2. Gary, nice review and summary of where Brian is now. This BIG year of album, film and tour has the music coming at you from many directions. May it continue until he settles into not playing anymore but I suspect, as do you, that he has both drive, musical inspiration AND competitive nature to keep it all going. Or else, he’d be busy doing nothing.

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