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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's life reflected 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 coauthorship 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 experimental-pop group the High Llamas, but Wilson says he never seriously considered it.
Instead Wilson opted to work with Joe Thomas on Imagination. Thomas, a country-music producer, first met Wilson during the making of Stars and Stripes, a 1996 collection of Beach Boys covers sung by country artists. Wilson went so far as to build a home studio near Thomas in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, where he spent a year working on the album.
In the hands of Thomas and Wilson, Imagination strives for the lush, symphonic feel of the Beach Boys' late-'60s work, though the songs are much simpler: the flighty, upbeat "Sunshine" and "Dream Angel"; mournful ballads like "Cry" and "Lay Down Burden"; and the brash, soaring pop of "Your Imagination" and "South American." Although he occasionally hints at tempestuous emotional experiences, lyrically Wilson's album focuses squarely on love and newfound happiness, going so far as to declare on "South American" that he's "Doin' lunch with Cameron Diaz."
Wilson claims never to have met the actress. ("I saw her on television the other day for the very first time," he says. "She's a really nice-looking girl.") The lyric was written by Jimmy Buffett, and Imagination does carry the unfortunate baggage of the proven mediocrities with whom Wilson chose to work, like Jim Peterik of Survivor, Buffett, and Carol Bayer Sager, who rewrote the lyrics to an unreleased 1978 song, "Sherry She Needs Me," as "She Says That She Needs Me." The change was made, Wilson says, "because my wife didn't want me singing about a Sherry." (Melinda Wilson, his second wife, whom he married in 1995, says in response: "Hey, do you know any wife who wants her husband singing about an ex-girlfriend?")
If Wilson's collaborators seem a bit overeager to present him as a youthful, fun-loving guy (in other words, a Beach Boy), it wouldn't be the first time he's sung a half-lie: After all, the man who glorified '60s surf culture never surfed.
Reviewers have compared Imagination with Pet Sounds, and it sounds worse in comparison. Comparisons are a reflex, though, and Wilson knows it. "They're gonna try to tear it down," he says. "Well, you know what? It is another Pet Sounds. It's Pet Sounds '98." And if some people refuse to believe that and don't buy Imagination? "There's no way that would happen. Because I think that after hearing Pet Sounds, they're gonna want to know more about what I do in music."
"I just had a very big inspiration when I met Joe Thomas," Wilson says. "He made quite a lasting impression on my brain, my mind. I hit it off with him right away when I met him." Wilson says he followed that inspiration into the studio, but Thomas demurs. "As much as Brian loves the praise and adulation," Thomas says, "he misses the fact that he can't turn on the radio and hear a new song [written] by himself. I think that's the one thing that's missing in his life." There's a verse on the album's first single, "Your Imagination," that makes the same point:
Another bucket of sand
Another wave at the pier
I miss the way that I used
To call the shots around here
It's a lovely line, filled with hope and ambition and Beach Boys innocence, merged with a hint of Wilson's famed lyrical melancholy. If Imagination is his comeback album -- and it's being sold as such -- it's the record's crucial line. But it's not a declaration that Wilson is comfortable making himself. "I didn't write that line," he says. "Steve Dahl wrote that line.... I don't identify with that line at all. I don't put my name on that line."