Brian Wilson No Pier Pressure

[Capitol Records; 2015]

Styles: pop, denial, fantasy, purgatory
Others: the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Zombies, the Byrds

“Life goes on and on/ Like your favorite song,” Brian Wilson puffs on “This Beautiful Day,” but what he fails to mention is that, in his favorite song, life never goes on. For him and his uncannily perfect pop, life never goes anywhere in fact, and quite apart from its pristine innocence, his music is above all distinguished by a complete blindness to history and social change. Even in the 1960s, when he and his band were at their most mainstream-relevant with songs about “California Girls,” “Surfer Girl[s],” and “Girls on the Beach,” his art made a point of not referring to any specific historical, social, or political context, instead choosing to fabricate some quasi-heavenly, Peter Pan construct in which nothing ever happens, nothing ever changes, and no one ever grows old. Rather than detracting from his popularity and mass appeal, however, this unremitting atemporality and ahistoricality was the essential condition of his music’s “universality,” of its timelessness (a very apt word here), and it’s precisely his disengagement from specific conditions and circumstances that has permitted a glut of music lovers around the world to engage with him regardless of their own specific conditions and circumstances.

This acontextual detachment all comes at a price though, and with No Pier Pressure, the toll of Wilson’s time-, history- and world-denying obliviousness is at its highest. Exercises in tastelessness like “Runaway Dancer” and “On The Island” are truly songs about nothing, except in this case, their vapidity isn’t mitigated by the Wilsonian genius for indelible pop. Instead, the listener is treated to an 80s-disco throwback that would’ve been out-of-time in the 80s and a slice of cruise-ship Tropicália that might conceivably be intended as proof of the nonexistence of originality. If this parade of homogenized mush — of Kenny G saxes, one-note keyboards, and milk-cartoon ukuleles — wasn’t bad enough, the lyrics of both songs do nothing but noncommittally invoke vague suggestions of “escape” and “liberation,” although from what is conveniently never made clear. During the fluffy bridge of “Runaway Dancer,” Wilson expands on the psychological insight provided by the track’s title with the line, “She’s gotta keep on running/ Running away,” while during the muzak-lounge of “On The Island,” Zooey Deschanel reveals that “On the island/ There’s really no place to go.” Both songs connote freedom and flight, but what eventually emerges is that, as far as Brian Wilson is concerned, this is only freedom and flight from any definable subject position or identity, from any distinct personality he’s willing to assume and claim as his own. In other words, No Pier Pressure betrays him as an existential coward, and as a consequence its music suffers for lack of substance.

Examples abound of his aversion to expressing anything other than a need to detach himself from everything. The chorus of the balladeering “Our Special Love” documents only the non-specific desire to “Fl-yyyy aw-aaaay”, while the passable teary-eyed harmonies of “Sail Away” unsurprisingly divulge that Wilson, Al Jardine, and Blondie Chaplin all want to “Sail away”. Similarly, the synthesized horns and compressed strings of “Don’t Worry” has Wilson reassure us loyal fans that “Someday you’ll find the place you wanna be,” just as the perky singalong folk of “Guess You Had To Be There” has him hint at yet more manumission and release with the cheering aside, “Everyone’s problems/ Were suddenly gone.” These frustrating instances of dislocated vagueness and vague dislocation all represent the septuagenarian’s unwillingness to engage with the world on any level, to involve and associate himself with tangible social causes, circumstances, and crowds, and in the end, they all equate to a refusal to say anything of any relevance for the lives people actually lead and the environments they actually inhabit.

No Pier Pressure therefore stands as the latest and most egregious dereliction of the duty Wilson has as an artist to offer something that can make a difference — no matter how modest — to our lives. Even when he appears to be singing about such an apparently universal and applicable theme as love, he’s much less interested in the nitty-gritty of relationships and much more interested in the relationship as yet another symbol of escape and disconnection from the world. “One Kind of Love” is instructive in this respect, in that its clanging pianos and climbing violins provide the impetus to such idealized and unrealistic declarations as, “There are no limitations with love” and “There’s only one kind of love/ The kind that I’ve been dreaming of.” Via such over-romanticized yearnings, we consequently learn that love is simply one more thing, one more fantasy Wilson uses to close his eyes to the world and the constraints it places upon him. In turn, it’s also one more thing he fails to illuminate as an artist.

For most other musicians, this divorce from reality would be grounds for indignation and indictment. Warbling such inanities as “Saturday night on Hollywood Boulevard/ Hanging around with nothing to do-ooo-ooo” is galling enough at the best of times, but when this happens during an era in which there are innumerable issues, predicaments, and topics an artist could usefully address, it seems irresponsible, even criminally misleading. However, Wilson’s troubled history makes it understandable as to why, instead of flying the flag for this moral crusade or that personal standpoint, he’d want to perform superficial pop tat like “Saturday Night” and have Nate Ruess (of fun.) guest on it. Its inoffensive trail of mandolin, ukulele, and workmanlike guitar saves him the torment of having to turn inward and remember all the breakdowns, conflicts, and difficulties he’s had to endure over the decades — that is, all the trauma he’d have to resuscitate if he were to express and represent his own unique personhood and his relation to the world.

Still, as understandable as it is that he wants to hide from the ghosts of his past in idyllic yet illusory music, this urge isn’t the only driver of insubstantial serenades like “The Right Time,” in which Al Jardine and Wilson combine sweetly (if vacuously) to ask, “Could it be the right time/ The right time/ For getting to know her?” No doubt “her” in this case is some purely imaginary woman that probably entices Wilson away from ever getting to know a living, breathing woman, but even so, it’s not simply his fear of confronting the complicated Real of the other sex that restricts his and Joe Thomas’s lyrics to the one dimension, but also the pressure he’s faced and continues to face to make “universal” music that indulges his loyal consumers. It’s therefore kind of ironic that the album is called No Pier Pressure, since the uncertain making of the album testifies to a strong fan backlash against the roll call of young(ish) guest performers it boasts. Their panic most likely was that the album’s music would signal a dramatic stylistic departure for Wilson, as well as a belated acknowledgement that time had indeed moved forward and that they weren’t 21 anymore. However, just because Sebu Simonian from Capital Cities and She & Him feature on a couple of tracks does not mean that the music itself — its form, structure, tone, and texture — has in any way stepped out of the Wilsonian time warp, in which it’s a crime to mention anything that happened after the 70s.

Because of the stylistic inertia embodied by the wistful “Tell Me Why” or the, um, wistful “What Ever Happened,” it’s plausible to conclude that Wilson felt the weight of his fans and his management just enough to prevent his own music from stepping outside of acceptable bounds, from going too far in the direction initially outlined by the enlisting of such names as Zooey Deschanel, M Ward, Nate Ruess, Semu Simonian, Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey. That the (sadly unrealized) prospect of Frank Ocean rapping on the album was a little too much for Wilson indicates that, for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to take his music too far into the present, let alone into the future. Even if no causal relationship can be explicitly demonstrated between the fan uproar and this cancelling of Ocean’s guest spot, it would be hard to eliminate the possibility that the value judgments of his followers have over the years impressed themselves into his own thoughts and his own creative processes, at least to some extent. As a result, their hostility toward acknowledging the march of (pop) history — to admitting anything into Wilson’s sound-world that might remind them of their age, let alone their own stagnation and impotence in the face of cultural, social and political change — has set limitations on his art, and is a cause of its dilution and emptiness.

And this arraignment could go on indefinitely. For instance, there’s much that could be said on how No Pier Pressure and Wilson’s gloried oeuvre as a whole (not to mention pop music itself) embodies an objectionable secularization of the Christian belief in an afterlife, what with its constant trumpeting of “some other place” to which we’ll eventually fly away to sooner or later. But just let it be said that the album — minus a few semi-refreshing exceptions that see Brian Wilson team up with old bandmate Jardine — is more or less artistically bankrupt, failing as it largely does to communicate or emotionalize anything of Wilson’s concrete being or of the 21st century in which he now finds himself. And it’s almost as if he realizes this, for on “The Last Song,” where he at least opens up enough to mourn the passing of his time in The Beach Boys, he sings, “I wish that I could give you so much more.” If only he could.

Links: Brian Wilson - Capitol Records

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