“Rhapsody in Blue,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Rhapsody in Blue” — if there’s any song that has loomed larger in the lore of Brian Wilson than The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” it’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The beauty of George Gershwin’s most famous classical suite is said to have captured Wilson’s heart while he could still count his age on one hand, and soon inspired him to make music of his own. References to its famous melody can be heard in some of Wilson’s best works, and he’s gone on record as saying that “Rhapsody” has saved him from acting upon masochistic and suicidal thoughts at many a dark moment in his life. The way Wilson tells it, he wouldn’t have had his career — or we his music — were it not for Gershwin’s influence on him.
So it’s sweet and fitting that Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin seems to have reinvigorated the 68-year-old Beach Boy. It’s true that the once-troubled songwriter’s been enjoying a second wind for more than half a decade now, but the extent to which the man himself is responsible for that has been the subject of some debate. After all, the mostly triumphant resurrection and completion of his SMiLE opus was of course based entirely off the thorough blueprints his younger self left in 1967, while 2008’s mostly acclaimed That Lucky Old Sun seemed to be orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks and bandmate Scott Bennett more than anyone else. But official word is that Wilson felt truly inspired by the chance to pay tribute to one of his greatest musical influences, and he wound up taking control of the entire process: song selection, arrangement, vocal coaching, recording, production and all. And by the sound of things (when was the last time you could hear so much life in his voice?), it seems to be true — which is pretty damn remarkable, considering that it makes this the most Wilson’s actually been involved in the making of a record since The Beach Boys Love You, some 30-odd years ago.
The record comprises 10 Gershwin reinterpretations, a couple unfinished fragments Wilson handpicked to complete as beyond-the-grave “collaborations,” and two brief riffs on “Rhapsody” that serve as tracklist bookends. And the proceedings are largely enjoyable; most of these songs were composed for 1920s Broadway and 1930s popular film, so they find a natural complement in Wilson’s penchant for big bands and harmonies. “The Like In I Love You” and “Nothing But Love” — the two songs Wilson finished — are characterized by that same self-aware nostalgia trip that has defined the Beach Boys universe for the past few decades, but they succeed far better than the majority of many past attempts to do so. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is definitely some sugarcoated oldies cheese, but the audible smile behind its every voice remains infectious. And “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” winds up being the most pleasant surprise of the bunch, turning the vocal-heavy Porgy and Bess set piece into a sprightly instrumental that could well pass for a resuscitated SMiLE remnant.
Still, there are a number of places where this record stalls. Wilson’s (expected) take on the endlessly covered “Summertime” goes for sultry and winds up silly (also expected), and one or two of the other arrangements similarly fail to click. Moreover, Reimagines is about as overproduced and polished as Wilson’s ever sounded, and likewise, the band’s air of professionalism often errs on the side of sterile. Such compromises are practically givens with Brian Wilson records by now — especially when Disney’s footing the bill — but they’re unfortunate hindrances nevertheless. And at least one unexpected disappointment is the fact that he shies from the challenge of really doing justice to “Rhapsody in Blue,” instead trimming its 17 minutes to about 90 seconds between the record’s intro and concluding reprise.
But it’s a joy to hear him in such audibly great spirits, even if his most cognizant album effort in decades isn’t some kind of miraculous knockout. It’s been a long, long time since anyone seriously expected another “Good Vibrations” out of Wilson, but few probably thought they’d ever hear such good vibrations from him ever again, either.