Brian Wilson records are to be taken with a grain of sea salt. His tumultuous time with The Beach Boys produced some of the sunniest, most endearing pop music of all time. But songs of drag races and chasing girls in the afternoon sun are only appropriate for so long. Brian became trapped in cycles of nervous breakdowns, drugs, and isolation when SMiLE was shelved. Now, forty years later and with Van Dyke Parks ostensibly handling the lyrical themes of his latest album, That Lucky Old Sun, Wilson continues to rehash southern California culture with increasingly less perspective, further eschewing the untamed adolescent aesthetic by including stuffy musical theater elements and a top-down point-of-view that's more clumsy analysis than sincere memoir.
Wilson's first album since What I Really Want For Christmas, That Lucky Old Sun is anchored around a 1949 Beasley Smith song of the same name. While the original offset long laborious days against the unaffected ambling of time, here the pairing is incongruous. Wilson has spent a lifetime extolling the virtues of a poor work ethic, so to hear him sing, "Work so hard for my pay" is infuriating. The oft-covered ditty has been imbued with lackadaisical honesty by Louis Armstrong, cool resilience by Sinatra, and worn restraint by the man in black, but here we just get the toothy grin of a practiced lie.
The Beach Boys walked the line of whimsicality, ensuring even their less serious subject matter didn't delve into overt nursery rhyming or self-aware camp. In contrast, Wilson lets integrity slide on everything from tone to form to content. Whether affecting canceled variety show vocal timbre on sickly duet "Good Kind of Love" or Randy Newman's tired-joke horn noodling on "California Role," it all sounds more Sesame Street than Santa Monica. The album's four smarmy, nonsensical narrative interludes (including one with gringo Wilson speaking chuckle/cringe-worthy español) debunk any concept of momentum: "Just now I was thinking about another perfect day/ Wishing it would come again YOUR way." Only for a minute does Wilson get a true sense of what's happened on "Midnight's Another Day," where over layered vocal swells he explains, "Waited too long/ To feel the warmth/ I had to chase the sun."
Brian Wilson is still navigating the transition of vantage point his age necessitates. Being forced to keep a comfortable, fatherly distance from his original inspirations prevents him from sustaining urgency in the songwriting, especially now that his emphasis is on composition and performance. Indeed, his unfortunate descent and the subsequent mismanagement of his mental health has prevented him from properly adjusting to life as a star. And he's now left with the themes and rhymes he earnestly pioneered, but which have since turned cliché as rock ‘n’ roll went on without him.