Apart from the Wilson family photos gracing the living rooms, there's scant evidence on the first floor of 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 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.
Wilson has two questions to answer with his new album, Imagination, released by Giant Records in June, 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, Wilson appears, on a sunny summer afternoon, 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 ten 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 genius, 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 genuine 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 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 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").