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Everyone is trying to get a smile out of Brian Wilson. He's nearing the end of a photo session, sitting on a stool in the spacious, cluttered garage of his Los Angeles home, and his face is like iron. The photographer is running him through a series of poses -- arms crossed over his chest, a hand cupped over his ear -- in an attempt to loosen him up, but the expression on his face remains rigid. Wilson is dressed casually, a rhapsody in blue: blue polo shirt, blue jeans and a trendy pair of powder-blue PVC Adidas sneakers. The canny photo assistants compliment the shoes in an effort to break down his defenses, but Wilson isn't budging.
Apart from the Wilson family photos that grace the living room, there's scant evidence on the first floor of Brian Wilson's home that a former member of the Beach Boys lives here. Wilson understands the importance of the band he helped create. Possessed of a virtuoso's skill for orchestral song craft, multilayered production and bittersweet harmonies, he repeatedly encapsulated joy, loss and self-doubt in the space of the three-minute pop single. He also understands that his influence still affects music today -- it's insinuated in the work of cult acts Cornelius and the High Llamas, as well as that of mainstream bands such as R.E.M. and Barenaked Ladies, the latter of which honored him (albeit poorly) with the single "Brian Wilson." The legacy is nice, but it won't put a grin on Wilson's face any faster.
Two obvious questions have hounded Wilson since the release of his new album, Imagination, on the Giant label last month -- just four days before his 56th birthday. The first is how the latest batch of music stands up to his work with the Beach Boys. The second is whether he's sane enough to make an album without being manipulated, cajoled and forced. Those questions come up because Wilson is, in many respects, the ultimate '60s casualty. The influence of associates with dubious intentions compromised his music; the influence of notoriously massive drug use compromised his psyche, which contributed to a nervous breakdown in the mid-'60s and the limited use of his faculties in the years since. Yet, on Imagination, his talent sounds less corrupted, if less inventive, than in decades past.
As for his psyche, Wilson appears more eccentric than broken. On a sunny afternoon in late June, his eyes dart restlessly throughout our conversation, sometimes widening and sometimes rolling back as if he were about to nod off. Occasionally, he needs to have questions repeated, or forgets a question just as he's beginning to answer it. In general, though, he's lucid and enthusiastic, particularly when the topic moves to the process of making music.
"Is this Friday?" he asks. It is. Breathlessly, he explains his plans for the next day: "Tomorrow, which is Saturday ... tomorrow, I'm going to go to a music shop, where they sell musical instruments, and I'm going to buy a real expensive, great instrument that has all kinds of beautiful stops on it. And it's going to inspire chords, which is going to inspire melodies, which is going to inspire words, which is going to inspire production."
Imagination, Wilson's first solo collection of original material in ten years, reflects that odd excitement. Its 11 songs are generally cheerful and summery. On one level, the album is merely breezy, lightweight adult contemporary pop, yet at the same time it clearly bears the imprint of Brian Wilson, pop auteur, and that's no small point. Its finest moment, the closing "Happy Days," has all the hallmarks of a classic Wilson composition: Taking a sorrowful dirge sketched out back in 1970, he assembles a mini-suite that moves cinematically from minor-key depression to a shimmering declaration of his own redemption. In his finest voice in years, Wilson sings with real incredulity, "Oh my gosh, happy days are here again."
Indeed, just hearing the real Brian Wilson on record is an achievement in itself. Lack of creative control has tainted his output for a full 20 years. By the mid-'70s, the Beach Boys were famous mostly for decade-old hits like "California Girls" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," but Wilson was still a brilliant songwriting force. Love You, released in 1977, was a uniquely engaging commingling of typical Beach Boys romantic themes and song structures with a quirky, synthesized groove that borrowed from disco's electro-funk stylings without hopping on its bandwagon. (Wilson says that it's his favorite record as a Beach Boy; it's also out of print.)
It was around the same time that Wilson fell under the care of Eugene Landy, a Svengali-like psychiatrist and collaborator who had Wilson constantly monitored and heavily medicated and who controlled most aspects of his personal and musical life until 1991. Landy's heavy hand ruled over an ambitious but disappointing self-titled comeback album in 1988. Brian Wilson featured the gorgeously harmonic opener ("Love and Mercy"), but much of the rest of it was weighted down with mediocre attempts to recapture former glories.
The next year's follow-up, another Landy collaboration, titled Sweet Insanity, was even worse. It remains unreleased, and for good reason: Even with a Bob Dylan duet, the album's paper-thin synthesizer sound and Wilson's perfunctory vocals service mediocre songs, culminating, astonishingly, with "Smart Girls," an embarrassing stab at hip-hop that intersperses samples of Beach Boys songs with Wilson's rapping ("My name is Brian and I'm the man / I write hit songs with a wave of my hand"). By the early '90s, Wilson had turned into the opening line of "Heroes and Villains," a song originally recorded for 1967's unreleased Smile: He'd been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.
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