No Pier Pressure is Brian Wilson’s 11th solo album and it shows little diminution of his still-prodigious talents.
By Jason M. Rubin
In a perfect world, Brian Wilson, the roundly acknowledged genius leader of the Beach Boys, would have died around 1982, when he literally and figuratively overdosed from a seemingly lethal cocktail of drugs, mental illness, obesity, and abandonment of the very reason he was put on earth in the first place: to make beautiful, healing, holy music.
Yet our imperfect world would not let him die. Instead, that phase became yet another point along a continuum of horrors that, at age 72 (he turns 73 on June 20), he has somehow managed to survive. As a child, he was physically and verbally abused by his father (which may have caused his deafness in one ear). He collapsed at the very height of his artistic triumph (from May 1966 to May 1967, Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” were released, and their follow-up, Smile, said to rival Sgt. Pepper’s, was shelved due to his increasing paranoia and lack of support from certain band members). From 1982 to 1991 his life and career were saved by controversial therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, who controlled Wilson’s life, finances, and, many say, his mind.
Though Wilson has no business being above ground in the 21st century, he is that and much more: while many of his contemporaries are long since dead or dormant, Wilson remains active, creative, and productive. In 2004, he finished Smile using his sympathetic band of musicians and singers who are young enough to be his kids and loyal enough to devote their careers to keeping his music alive. And on April 7 Wilson released his 11th solo album, No Pier Pressure, which is being backed by national tour that hits the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston on July 2.
The album is pure Brian, which is to say it sounds like no one else, even with a plethora of young guest stars, including Nate Reuss of the band Fun, She & Him (featuring Zooey Deschanel), country singer Kacey Musgraves, and Peter Hollens, who competed in NBC’s a capella competition show, The Sing Off, in 2010. Also along for the ride are former Beach Boys Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin (2012’s successful Beach Boys reunion was nipped in the bud by singer Mike Love, who has litigated against Wilson – his first cousin – a number of times over the years).
Wilson has always been known for his innovative vocal arrangements and production techniques. Though today’s digital recording, sampling, and mixing technologies are best left to younger hands, No Pier Pressure is full of the lush, sophisticated vocal layering that made the Beach Boys’ sound so distinctive. All the lead singers – whether Wilson or his guests (who typically sing with Brian) – seem perfectly paired with the material and buoyed by the arrangements.
More than the vocals, though, the most “Brian-esque” aspect of the album is its blend of the bitter and the sweet, with lyrics that lament the passing of time (and people – Wilson has outlived his younger brothers Carl and Dennis, both invaluable members of the Beach Boys) sung in the most beautiful manner.
Even the song titles are quintessentially Brian, revealing the simple sentiments and complex underlying emotions that have marked his up-and-down life: “Don’t Worry,” “Somewhere Quiet,” “I’m Feeling Sad,” “Sail Away.” What keeps them from sounding like a wallowing pit of narcissistic pathos are Wilson’s sweet, soaring melodies and richly orchestrated backing tracks, featuring strings, horns, and the talents of such in-demand session players as drummers Jim Keltner and Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Dean Parks, and trumpeter Mark Isham, along with his usual band.
It should be noted that Wilson is not the lyricist, and rarely ever was; however, it has always been clear that he gives the lyricists he has worked with direction regarding what the songs should be about. For example, the chorus to “Whatever Happened,” featuring Jardine and Marks, asks wistfully: “Whatever happened to my favorite places/Nothing’s where it used to be/Whatever happened/What’s gonna happen to me.” Though the lyrics were written by collaborator Joe Thomas, they depict the perch on which the septuagenarian Wilson now sits, contemplating his own mortality and relevance in a changing scene.
On this and the other tunes on which Jardine sings (as with the song “From There to Back Again” on the 2012 Beach Boys reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio), it is clear that he possesses the strongest voice of all the surviving Beach Boys. “The Right Time” is another example of how Wilson and Jardine remain in perfect harmony after all these years, and the chorus is beyond catchy.
Speaking of catchy, the song featuring Reuss, “Saturday Night,” is as dumb as they come, but Wilson elevates the inane chorus (“Saturday night on Hollywood Boulevard/Hanging around with nothing to do/Saturday night I’m just where I want to be/Spending my time here with you”) with an instant earworm of a melody. The album ends, appropriately enough, with a song called “The Last Song.” Given that parts of the album were written with the original intention of being the follow-up to the Beach Boys’ reunion album, one can’t help but wonder if this is truly a goodbye song from Wilson. “I wish that I could give you so much more” he sings early on, and concludes with “There’s never enough time for the ones that you love.”
Fortunately, the end of the album is certainly not the end of what is shaping up to be The Summer of Brian Wilson. In addition to this summer’s tour, a live performance taped for PBS’s Soundstage series is currently being shown across the country; and on June 5 a feature film biopic, Love and Mercy, starring both Paul Dano (mid-1960s) and John Cusack (mid-1980s) as Wilson, opens in theaters worldwide. It is long overdue attention for a brilliant musician who is more than a survivor; he is a thriver, and his new album shows little diminution of his still-prodigious talents.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 29 years, the last 14 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.