Thirty years ago, you’d have got long odds on the prospect of Brian Wilson launching a successful solo career at all, let alone releasing critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful albums this far into the 21st Century. Given the state he was in at the start of the 80s, even making it to the year 2000 alive was unlikely enough, which makes it all the more impressive that he has just released a new solo album. It’s not all been plain sailing for him even though his darkest days thankfully seem to be long behind him. Here’s his solo career, album-by-album:
Adult Child – 1977 (Unreleased)
It may or may not have been his first attempt at a solo album, but Adult Child was intended as a follow-up to Love You, the Beach Boys album that saw Wilson briefly gain control of the band’s musical output for the first time since his Smile-induced breakdown. However, it never got released and is only around in bootleg form. It’s a curious record, with big band production on tracks like Life Is For Living, Deep Purple and It’s Over Now, funky rock guitars on Shortnin’ Bread and Mike Love at his seediest on the really creepy and unsettling Hey Little Tomboy (which, inexplicably, managed to make it onto the next Beach Boys album). Some good stuff, some very bad stuff.
Brian Wilson – 1988
His first proper solo album, this was recorded and released while he was under the control of controversial therapist Eugene Landy, who managed to alienate most of the collaborators and then credited himself as co-writer of five of the songs. Tellingly, when it was re-released 12 years’ later, his name disappeared. The album itself is a bit of a mix of great Wilson songs (Love And Mery, Melt Away, There’s So Many) with lesser material weakened by cheesy 80s production and the fact that his once beautiful voice had been clearly shot to pieces by years of bad living.
Sweet Insanity – 1991 (Unreleased)
Wilson’s intended follow-up, also recorded under the ‘help’ of Landy was Sweet Insanity, a name that fits the material pretty well. There’s some alright songs on there, like Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel, but mostly it’s even more 80s-sounding mush. And then there’s the insanity. The Spirit Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, for example, an absolutely awful ode to rock ‘n’ roll that pairs Wilson up with Bob Dylan and shows how far both had fallen from their 60s heydays at the time. Did I mention Smart Girls yet? You know, the Brian Wilson rap song that sampled old Beach Boys hits? ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice if PhDs/were stroking me with hypotheses’ No, it wouldn’t. Best left unreleased.
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – 1995
Thankfully freed from Landy’s clutches by legal action from his friends and family, this soundtrack to a documentary by Don Was saw Wilson playing some of his old songs with a low-key, almost unplugged, production. His voice sounds more relaxed and warm than on his self-titled album, and the song selection is perfect, while the backing of his formerly-estranged daughters on Do It Again shows how far Wilson’s personal life had come in the post-Landy years.
Orange Crate Art (with Van Dyke Parks) – 1995
Reunited with his SMILE partner Parks, there was great expectation surrounding this album, but it turned out to be something of a disappointment. Wilson’s participation was strictly limited to the vocals, which were hardly his strong point at this stage in his career, and the material didn’t exactly help. It could and should have been better than it was.
Landylocked – 1996 (Unreleased)
Not so much an unreleased album as a bootleg collection of songs that he had been recording with Andy Paley in the mid-90s but that never got put onto an album. There’s some fantastic music here, not least Soul Searchin’, which features the last lead vocal recorded by his brother Carl Wilson before he died of cancer, while You’re Still A Mystery is really the last great Beach Boys song, but there’s also more than a fair share of duffers, but then again, it is just a bootleg.
Imagination – 1998
His second ‘proper’ solo album saw Wilson spread his wings as a singer and a songwriter again, though hindered slightly by using producer Joe Thomas (who had been working on the Beach Boys Stars And Stripes Vol 1 country album at the time) who played it very safe. Still, songs like Your Imagination and Lay Down Burden (a heartfelt tribute to his late brother Carl) are worth the price of admission and most of the rest is pretty good quality, even if it occasionally veers too close to the middle of the road.
Live At The Roxy Theatre – 2001
After the relative success of Imagination, the stage-shy Wilson stunned everyone by going on tour, and this show from Los Angeles showcases what a fantastic band he assembled around himself. The setlist is great, packed full with Beach Boys classics, underrated album tracks, solo material, covers of the Ronettes and Barenaked Ladies, plus two ‘new songs’. He’s not exactly a natural live performer and his vocals still aren’t great, but you take what you can get and this was manna from heaven.
Pet Sounds Live – 2002
With his confidence boosted by that successful tour and live album, Wilson took on his next challenge – playing Pet Sounds in full for another tour (and inspiring a still-popular trend of artists playing classic albums at their gigs). Keeping his band intact, he pulled it off – reducing your blogger to tears at the Manchester Apollo. This album features one of the shows from the Royal Festival Hall in London, with just the Pet Sounds section, making it a companion piece to the Roxy gig really.
Getting In Over My Head – 2004
A new Brian Wilson album, the first produced solely by himself, featuring fellow legends Elton John, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, as well as a ‘duet’ with Carl Wilson. How could it fail? But it did. It didn’t help that Wilson seemed to be suffering from writer’s block and was having to revisit tracks from Sweet Insanity and the Landylocked sessions, while much of the material was a bit mediocre. He also didn’t seem to use the talents of his live band as well as he could, particularly when it came to backing vocals, which he recorded himself, despite his vocal limitations. A real disappointment
SMiLE – 2004
Luckily, fans didn’t have to wait long for his redemption. Getting In Over My Head came out while Wilson was already touring the legendary ‘lost album’ SMiLE, and four months later, the completed album came out. This time, he did use his touring band properly, giving the album a much more rounded sound and helping recreate the Beach Boy vocals the original album would have had. It came out to critical acclaim and stands alongside Pet Sounds as one of the greatest pop albums to have ever been released. He may have had to go back to go forwards, but this proved that Brian Wilson was still capable of recording and producing incredible music.
What I Really Want For Christmas – 2005
Following SMiLE up with a Christmas album was perhaps an odd choice, but that’s what he did anyway. Like any Christmas album (well, those not made by Phil Spector), it’s cheesy, slight and fun, but nothing more.
That Lucky Old Sun – 2008
If anyone was worried that Brian Wilson was resting on his laurels after the plaudits he received for SMiLE, That Lucky Old Sun proved that he wasn’t. A concept album about life in Southern California, released on the Beach Boys’ old label Capitol Records, it was all about nostalgia but also ambition. He wrote the songs with Van Dyke Parks and bandmate Scott Bennett, and they are the best collection of new material he has recorded since, well, maybe since the 1960s. The spoken word pieces would have worked better with someone other than himself reading them, but that’s all that holds it back from greatness.
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin – 2010
His hot streak has continued two years later with the release of his Gershwin album. Using Rhapsody In Blue (a major influence on him as a young musician) to run through the rest of the material as well as bookending it, this album finds him in very confident form, both in terms of his singing and his production. The ‘reimaginings’ vary between fairly faithful recreations and some ‘Beach Boy-ifications’, but they all work extremely well, with I Loves You Porgy one of my favourites. The new songs are also good, with Wilson’s partnership with Bennett (and, in a way, Gershwin) coming up with the goods again, even if he admits that his songwriting well seems to have dried up in recent years. An album of new material would be nice, but this worked very well anyway.
In The Key Of Disney – 2011
The Gershwin album was the first part of a two-album deal with Disney and the second part came with another covers collection, this time of songs from Disney films. There’s something quite perfect about a Beach Boy paying tribute to another California institution and the themes of the lyrics fit very well with Wilson’s general outlook on life. As with Gershwin, there’s also a sense of him thanking one of his inspirations, with When You Wish Upon A Star having directly inspired Surfer Girl, a hugely important song in Wilson’s development as a young artist, so there’s no surprise that it closes the album. Some of the other song choices are less obvious, with lots from more recent films, but they pretty much all sound great, not least a more subtle version of Can You Feel The Love Tonight and a lovely rendition of Baby Mine from Dumbo. Wilson The Producer also gets to have fun with a mash-up style medley of Heigh Ho, Whistle While You Work and It’s A Pirate’s Life For Me, and it’s very hard not to smile while listening to it. And that’s the point, isn’t it?