Saturday, 1 September 2007

That Lucky Old Sun

September 10 sees the premiere of a major new work by possibly the most important songwriting team alive today.

But enough about Love Punks Want To Make You Cry by The National Pep...

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks are premiering their new song cycle, That Lucky Old Sun, in London on September 10th, and I am amazed at how little anticipation there is for this work.

The last ten years have been amazing ones for Wilson. After his brother Carl's death in early 1998, he released his first solo album of new material in ten years, Imagination and then did what many people would have thought unthinkable - started touring regularly. And not just that, he kept setting the bar higher and higher for himself.

First, he got together what is, bar none, the best live band in the world today. The technical skill, devotion to the music, and feel for music his band have is extraordinary. (To take just one example, I'll buy any record featuring multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, despite him being 'merely' a sideman, because he's invariably on good stuff - he plays with the Wondermints, Cosmo Topper, The Negro Problem, The Now People, Stew, The Mello Cads and probably half a dozen more bands I can't think of, and every one of them is excellent).

He then started performing some of his most obscure, but greatest, songs live. Most of his fans would have bet ten years ago that they'd never hear live performances of The Night Was So Young, 'Til I Die, Busy Doin' Nothin' or Friends - Wilson showed that those 'unperformable' songs could be performed in a live setting and would work, and raised the bar so far for what people expect from a live performance of Beach Boys music that now even Mike Love's touring 'Beach Boys' perform 'Til I Die and Friends on tour.

Then he performed the whole of the Pet Sounds album live, and then followed that with something that no Brian Wilson fan could have dreamed of - the completion of the album, Smile, that had been left unfinished for nearly 40 years.

Smile, in its final form, is a masterpiece I want to talk about at a future date, but the important thing about it is that it was infinitely better in its finished version than the bootlegged and released individual selections from it suggested. This was partly due to the structure of the album, and partly due to the additional lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, which tied together all the themes of the album quite brilliantly.

The structure is what's important when considering what That Lucky Old Sun will be like. Wilson has always been a master of dynamics and juxtaposition - several times he's elevated rather weak material to something like greatness. Much of Pet Sounds, for example, taken song-by-song, is actually only average for Wilson. It's the flow of the album, the way he guides you through the emotional peaks and troughs, and the placement of the few truly great songs, that makes the album what it is.

I point this out because some people (myself included) are rather underwhelmed by the one track from That Lucky Old Sun we've heard so far, Midnight's Another Day ( available for free download at ). A few people appear very impressed, but I honestly can't see why - it sounds like the kind of impressionistic mooing we got on Cry from Imagination.

However, this song doesn't sound like a Wilson/Parks collaboration - there are problems with the lyrical scansion ( the stress on 'sun' and 'over' in the second and third lines, the melisma on 'now shades of grey', and many more) that suggest the lyric is at least in part Wilson's - being primarily a musician Wilson sometimes ignores the natural stress-patterns of the English language rather than change his melodies. Parks is usually a good enough lyricist to make this unnecessary.

So as an individual song, this is unimpressive. But as part of a larger work, it could be astonishing. And there is every evidence it will be. Wilson and Parks have two great collaborations behind them - Smile and Orange Crate Art (the latter effectively a Parks solo album, but with Wilson on lead vocals). Both are also adept at working in pre-rock songs into their work - neither man is a rock & roller by nature.

But what really interests me is that Wilson has announced that the piece will be a narrative, with ten songs in five sections with spoken narration between them. Wilson has attempted this form before, on the startling "Mount Vernon & Fairway: A Fairytale" from the Holland album. That piece, which I urge you to track down and listen to, is the most outrageously brilliant, audacious, avant-garde thing Wilson ever did. If Wilson and Parks can come up with anything even close to that, I will be the happiest man alive on September 10. And even if not, well, it'll still be a great Brian Wilson gig, and ten years ago I never thought I'd see one of those.

No comments: