Apart from the Wilson family photos gracing the living rooms, 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 virtuosic skill for orchestral songcraft, multilayered production, and bittersweet harmonies, he encapsulated joy, loss, and self-doubt in the space of a three-minute single. And he understands that his influence still informs pop music today, insinuated into the works of cult acts like Cornelius and the High Llamas, as well as mainstream bands like R.E.M. and the Barenaked Ladies, who honored him in song last year (albeit poorly) with their single "Brian Wilson." The legacy is nice, but it's not going to put a grin on his face any faster.
Brian Wilson has two questions to answer with his new album Imagination, released by Giant Records last month, four days before his 56th birthday. The first is how his music stands up to his seminal work with the Beach Boys. The second is whether he's sane enough to make a record without being manipulated, cajoled, and forced. The questions come up because Brian 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 uncorrupted, if less inventive than his '60s work.
As for his psyche, on a sunny afternoon in late June Wilson appears more eccentric than broken. His eyes dart restlessly throughout the conversation, sometimes widening and sometimes rolling back, as if he were about to nod off. Occasionally, he asks to have questions repeated, or forgets a question just as he's beginning to answer it. But in general, he's lucid and enthusiastic, particularly when the topic is the process of making music itself. "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 album of original songs in 10 years, reflects the excitement that he's feeling. Its 11 songs are generally cheerful and summery. On one level, Imagination 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 the hallmarks of a classic Wilson composition: Taking a sorrowful dirge that he sketched out in 1970, he produces a minisuite that moves cinematically from minor-key depression into a shimmering, summery declaration of his own redemption. In his finest voice in years, he sings with real incredulity, "Oh my gosh, happy days are here again."
And indeed, just hearing the real Brian Wilson on a Brian Wilson record is an achievement in itself. Lack of creative control over his own music has been Wilson's curse now for fully 20 years. By the mid-1970s, 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 without hopping on its bandwagon. (Wilson says that it's his favorite record as a Beach Boy. It's also now out of print.)
But around the same time, he fell under the care of Eugene Landy, a Svengali-like psychiatrist and collaborator who had Wilson constantly monitored and heavily medicated (reportedly upward of 30 concurrent prescriptions), 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 released in 1988. Brian Wilson featured a gorgeously harmonic opener ("Love and Mercy"), but much of the rest of the record featured mediocre attempts to recapture the Beach Boys' glory ("Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long") and closed with a sodden, lengthy epic ("Rio Grande").
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.
In 1994, Wilson suffered the indignity of paying $5 million to Beach Boy Mike Love, who sued for co-authorship of 35 songs previously credited solely to Wilson. But with Landy professionally and personally removed from his life by 1991, Wilson started the slow path toward something close to recovery. On two 1995 albums, he set out to prove that he was still alive and functioning. Orange Crate Art reunited Wilson with his Smile-era collaborator Van Dyke Parks for a winning, underrated collection of summery chorales. I Just Wasn't Made for These Times was a documentary soundtrack produced by Don Was in which Wilson provided unenthusiastic vocals on remakes of older songs. More recently, Beach Boys keyboardist Bruce Johnston was reportedly encouraging Wilson to work with Sean O'Hagan, the maestro behind the British Smile-damaged experimental pop group the High Llamas, but Wilson says he never seriously considered it.