Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson (Warner Archives/Rhino)

Watch any fairly recent interview clips with Brian Wilson, and you're faced with a very good example of therapy gone horribly forever wrong. A jittery knot of unsettled nerves and body ticks, mush-mouthed and seemingly mush-brained, Wilson clearly is damaged in a way that makes candidly accessing his work feel as though you're critiquing the artwork at a mental hospital's rec room. Of course he's been a screwball as far back as "In My Room," and his zealous cult has always been more infatuated with his musical eccentricities than with his moments of true genius, which is why the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds has become the most overrated album in the pantheon of popular music history: baroque-pop bore that spawned one good single ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"), a few so-so ideas (Sgt. Pepper's, pop's second most overrated longplayer album), and a whole lot of terrible ones. (If you're looking to blame someone for the godawful beast that is art rock, Wilson is your man.)

A commercial bomb at the time, Pet Sounds has haunted Wilson just as it tainted all the work that followed, from mediocrities such as the Beach Boys' Surf's Up to Brian Wilson, his 1988 debut as a solo artist and the object of a lavish reissue by Rhino, appended with the now-standard hodgepodge of B-sides, demos, and alternate takes. An attempt to recapture the romantic fantasyland bliss of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" while asserting his continuing relevance in a pop world he left in the Seventies, Brian Wilson is a plodding, ponderous train wreck of an album, with lamebrained social commentary ("Love and Mercy"), melodic throwaways ("Little Children"), and strained attempts at high art ("Rio Grande," an eight-minute ode to a river -- yeehaw!). Through them all he sings like a man lost, confused, and addled to distraction but forced to get through them.

There's a nice little love song amid this strained, overproduced, typically fussy dud -- "Melt Away," which for a few minutes sucks you into its warm gooey world -- but Brian Wilson is a sad footnote to a career that essentially has been over for more than three decades . If there's any revelation here worth sharing, it comes on "Too Much Sugar," a song about dieting: "Drugs you take/Make you insane/All they do is burn your brain." He ought to know.

 
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