Tuesday, 11 September 2007

That Lucky Old Sun - First Thoughts


Everyone at last night's (woefully under-promoted) Brian Wilson gig went in hoping for the best but expecting the worst. The word was that the new piece, That Lucky Old Sun, had Brian more excited than he had been in years. That it was the most ambitious thing he'd ever done. That he'd put it together almost in secret, not even letting many of the band members, or his closest advisers, hear it until the last minute.

If it was good, that would be OK. But no-one had any idea if Brian Wilson was capable of 'good'. While his last proper album, Gettin' In Over My Head, was excellent, it was mostly songs from 10-25 years earlier. And if it was a failure... well... Brian Wilson fans care a lot about the notoriously-fragile songwriter, and it could be very bad for him.

The first set was promising, at least. Brian was in great (for him) voice, playing with the lower end of his range, going into comical bass parts. The setlist was unusual. While the Smile shows in 2004 had concentrated on pre-Pet Sounds material, as opposed to the late-60s and 70s material Wilson had played on his earlier tours, this set took that to a ridiculous extreme - other than a few hits, the setlist concentrated entirely on the Today! and Summer Days... And Summer Nights! albums, covering obscure tracks like Salt Lake City, Girl Don't Tell Me and She Knows Me Too Well. The one exception was the Wild Honey oddity I'd Love Just Once To See You - one of Wilson's little tossed-off jokey songs, but one I've always loved.

However, we were all there to hear That Lucky Old Sun.

The suite starts with a slow, soulful arrangement of the title song, with contrapuntal vocals somewhere between the old Beach Boys song He Come Down and Brian's arrangement of Ol' Man River, before bursting into the Shortenin' Bread riff Brian has based so much of his music on. The band start singing "Ooh mow mama mama holy hallelujah" - a vocal line that Brian first mentioned in an interview thirty years ago - and the piece proper begins.

Is That Lucky Old Sun any good? I truly have no idea. It's too complex a piece, and too multi-layered, and the performance of it too bound up in personal expectations, for any kind of judgement to be made on one hearing. But in a sense, the question doesn't matter. That Lucky Old Sun is exciting - in a way that no-one could have expected. This is the work of a 65-year-old man. 65 year old men don't make exciting music. Paul McCartney's new album might be quite pleasant, but he knows no-one's going to remember him as 'the man who made Memory Almost Full', and it shows.

Brian Wilson appears not to have given up hope that he'll be remembered as 'the man who made That Lucky Old Sun', and it's just about possible that he might. While in some ways this new work bears comparison to the McCartney album, at heart it couldn't be more different. While both have lyrics looking back from the end of a life and recapping themes of old songs, in the case of That Lucky Old Sun they're working in tension against the music, which is overwhelmingly energetic, inspired, throwing off ideas like there's a million more out there to get to in a hurry.

Like I said earlier, this may well be a failure - I'm just not willing to trust my own judgement based on one emotionally-charged live performance - but if it is it's a glorious, fantastic mess of a failure, the kind of failure one might expect from an artist a third of Wilson's age. And I suspect it isn't.

Part of this may be due to Wilson's band. While he's been working with essentially the same band for nearly a decade, they've been performing old material - sometimes in new forms, but always conceived before they started working with him. But for the first time Wilson is able to work with them as collaborators. Keyboardist Scott Bennett wrote many of the lyrics, bandleader Darian Sahanaja (of the Wondermints), the Billy Strayhorn to Wilson's Duke Ellington, helped Wilson structure the piece and teach it to the band, and woodwind player Paul Mertens arranged the strings and horns. Van Dyke Parks, Wilson's most sympathetic collaborator, wrote the linking narrative and at least some of the lyrics.

But while Wilson may need help realising his vision, it's his vision - this could not be the work of anyone other than Brian Wilson. Little touches creep in from previous works - a vocal part from the unfinished 60s song Can't Wait Too Long, a full song ( Going Home ) from his mid-90s sessions with Andy Paley - and Wilson's musical signatures are all over the piece. But at the same time, it's not just Wilson staying within his comfort zone - the mariachi-flavoured Mexican Girl, for example, is utterly unlike anything he's done before.

The narrative, such as it is, is rather abstract as far as I could tell (I couldn't make out many of the lyrics). It deals with love, California, the sea - themes Wilson has touched on before on occasion, as you may know - but through the eyes of a man in his sixties rather than his twenties, drawing on the loss of his brothers. There is also a very strong religious theme throughout the material. Given that Wilson and Parks' previous collaboration, Smile, was practically an invocation of the sun-god, I wish I could have heard more of the lyrics to make out how important this was. The spoken narrative, written by Parks, is in rhyming couplets over musical pads, and reminiscent of the Beaks Of Eagles section of California Saga, if that track had been infinitely less pretentious and infinitely more interesting.

There were definitely flaws in the piece as performed last night, but it remains to be seen how much of that is the piece and how much the first-night performance. At times in the earlier sections of the piece, the whole band vamps on two-chord riffs, similarly to the sections of Smile where they play the Heroes & Villains riff (That Lucky Old Sun is to Shortenin' Bread as Smile is to the Bicycle Rider chorus), with the various instruments playing different variations at the same time. These sections seemed to me overlong and lacking in dynamic range, but there may well be subtleties in there I couldn't hear - the mix seemed at times to be murky, and the sound engineer seemed unprepared for how loudly Wilson was singing (a couple of times the vocals distorted). If this is more to do with the night than the material, it could possibly be Wilson's best album ever. If not, then at least he tried.

And there are some pointers to it being a success. I was extremely wary about the piece from the demos of two songs ( Midnight's Another Day and Forever My Surfer Girl) posted on Wilson's website, which are frankly fairly poor. However, in context, and with the additional orchestration, both are much stronger than those recordings suggest. Midnight's Another Day, in particular, had me in tears - and this is a song I'd dismissed as tedious.

I have no idea how I'll modify my initial impression of this piece when I listen dispassionately to the finished recording, but the sheer invention, joy, energy and vigour of the piece has to be heard to be believed.

After his normal hits encore, Wilson performed She's Leaving Home, in an absolutely audacious rearrangement that has to be heard to be believed - he's turned the verses into a 4/4 uptempo piece of sunshine pop owing equally to the Beatles' Getting Better and his own Let Him Run Wild, while keeping the waltz time chorus identical to the original. It turns the song upside down and inside out, and I've been unable to stop humming it since. It's the work of a musician at the height of his powers and confidence.

For the last ten years, fans have been expecting Brian Wilson to (at best) retire and (at worst) drop dead. From the release of his album Imagination, which re-established him as a solo performer, time and again he's done things (touring, performing Pet Sounds in its entirety, facing the legacy of Smile, completing Smile) that we've said would have to be the peak, the ultimate. Time and again we've said "there's no way he can follow that. It'll all be downhill from here - but that's OK, he's given us more than we could hope already." Time and again he's not only followed it, but done something exponentially, unimaginably better. Even if That Lucky Old Sun proves in the cold light of day a lesser work than Smile, it's a work that can be compared to it, and he wrote it in a matter of months rather than over a period of forty years. For a man people were writing off as having lost it before I was born, that's an astonishing comeback.

For the first time, I feel confident in not saying "he can't top that" but instead saying "how's he going to top that?"

I can't wait to find out.


Anonymous said...

Great review - thanks

gregormann said...

It is always good to hear from someone else who perceives the gift from God that is Brian Wilson. Thank you for your thoughts. But I'm writing to take issue with your very poor assessment of Midnight's Another Day. As a matter of fact I cried the first time I listened to this wonderfully inventive little masterpiece. I've since taught it to myself on the keyboard and have demonstrated its subtle, elegant structure to a couple a friends who agree with me. It is one of my favorite BW pieces ever, and I have no fear of being proven wrong on this. Let's face it, Brian has often produced pieces that long elude the observational instincts of the music 'experts' (one favorite example is the utterly dismissive 'review' someone wrote years ago about another of my all-time favorite BW songs--"I Went to Sleep"). From the evocative piano intro in (I believe) 6 sharps, which somehow, without the slightest connective tissue, instantly morphs into a song written in 3 sharps (!), midway modulates to 2 flats, and yet manages to land right on the runway from which it departed (6#s!) utterly blows my mind. I must have listened to this song 35 times by now and I call it 'instant classic'. The lyric? "... took the dive but couldn't swim; a flag without the wind..." Maybe you haven't noticed your history of failures (you're human, right?), but my heart is profoundly touched by these lyrics. I judge this song to be of superlative quality. It makes me say again, Brian, I love you.

gregormann said...

The intro/extro is actually in 7#s. (As I thought right up to the point of second-guessing myself and then posting the wrong key. Oh well. It was about Brian, not me, anyway.) I do love this song!