Brian Wilson
Getting In Over My Head


t’s time to face the facts: we’re never, never, ever getting another great record out of Brian Wilson again. It’s over. And frankly, we’ve known it for a long, long time. Sure, after a year in which Todd Rundgren and John Cale put out albums every bit as creatively inspired as anything they’d released throughout their storied careers, you could be forgiven for hoping others in the borderline geriatric set—Prince and Brian Wilson among them—would deliver career resurrections as well—particularly in light of the latter’s reported completion of the legendary Smile project earlier this year. But as Prince’s substandard Musicology proved, when you’re asking for a self-conscious return to past glories, you shouldn’t be disappointed when you get exactly what you wished for.

Getting In Over My Head is not that bad—as a measure of how bad things have gone to this point, it’s probably his best solo record to date. That’s, of course, not saying much when you have 1988’s Brian Wilson, as pained a recreation of his classic Beach Boys sound as one could imagine, with lyrics written with his Svengali-psychiatrist, and 1998’s Imagination, a treacly adult-contemporary record produced by a wrestler with sleigh bells and digital keyboard sounds in tow, to compare against. But with the news that meta-pop disciples The Wondermints had joined forces with Wilson a few years back seemed a real sign of hope—after years at the hands of industry execs who wanted little more than a Pet Sounds facsimile, perhaps all he’d been missing was the right collaborator to nudge him back from the brink. The immediate results may not have been the artistic renaissance some had hoped for, but by even getting the songwriter out on the road where he performed heartfelt (if merely adequate) renditions of Pet Sounds and other catalog chestnuts, there was at least a sense that he may be reconnecting with the spirit that had driven him to compose some of the most remarkable pop songs of the last century. It was a sense confirmed by the historic recent performances of SMiLE in England, which showed the Brian Wilson Organization (if not as certainly Wilson himself) performing at a surprisingly high level.

Given such an artistic cushion, it’s impossible to conclude that the utter failure of Getting In Over My Head falls anywhere other than squarely on Wilson himself—that after all the psychodramas, intra-family lawsuits and so forth, he is simply finished, incapable of delivering another entry even remotely as fascinating as 1977’s loopily wonderful The Beach Boys Love You. If anything, Getting In… reminds most immediately of that record’s predecessor, the execrable 15 Big Ones, a painful exercise in self-conscious nostalgia that resulted from the ill-fated “Brian’s Back” campaign, when the songwriter was forcibly driven out of from seclusion. Yes, sports fans, it’s that bad.

Sound hard to believe? Take another look at that cover, fella. Then consider that many of the tracks liberally lift from former triumphs; “Desert Drive” is essentially a re-write of “Catch a Wave”, while more than a few others recall 1968’s “Do It Again”, itself a retro-rocker, albeit here devoid of that song’s edgy production innovations. And, of course, there’s the litany of guest appearances, as sure a sign of trouble as any. The best of that particular lot features (gulp) Elton John on opener “How Could We Still Be Dancin’”, the main appeal of which is that it appears to be more an Elton song than a Brian one. And it gets worse from there; “A Friend Like You”, Wilson’s first collaboration with Paul McCartney since the Beatle chomped celery during the original Smile sessions, ought to be historic. As it is, the song makes “Ebony and Ivory” sound like Eminem, as the pair croons of innocent, childlike friendship (“You are patient / You are thoughtful”)—sung by two sixty-somethings, it’s the aural equivalent of the latest Michael Douglas facelift. And then there’s the Van Dyke Parks cut, “The Waltz” and the detestable Eric Clapton collaboration, “City Blues”, of which the less said the better. It’s enough to leave one longing for the halcyon days of Supernatural.

In fairness, there is a handful of appealing moments. Among them is the gentle bossa nova of the title track, which essentially lifts the feel of Pet Sounds closer “Caroline No”. “Rainbow Eyes”, resurrected from the justly unreleased Sweet Insanity album, was measurably better on the superlative Caroline Now! tribute a few years back. The last is “Soul Searchin’”, one of the outtakes from the aborted Beach Boys sessions in 1996 and among the last recorded vocals of brother Carl. A slight tune, the song does provide a brief glimpse into what might have been had the singer lived, a world where Brian could have allowed his lithe-tonsiled sibling to fill in where he himself is failed by his own ravaged voice (today resembling the unlikely combination of Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Murray circa Caddyshack). Alas, it’s yet another “could’ve been” in a career becoming increasingly defined by them.

As such, the evidence now seems indisputable that Wilson is completely, totally, finally spent as a creative force—as it is, we’re treading dangerously close to “How many failed collaborators does it take to produce a half-decent Brian Wilson album?” territory (answer: you can’t count that high). Yet it’s a measure of what he was that it somehow remains difficult not to ponder what could’ve been. After all, we’ve been here before; the genius of the aforementioned Love You (apart from its revolutionary synthesizer production) was that it was like looking into the window of a cracked soul, as the poor guy wandered around his house in his bathrobe fantasizing about his wife’s sister, contemplating ESP and wondering aloud about the solar system like some overgrown child. With Getting Over My Head, that soul is no less cracked, but for some reason, it’s as if no one could decide whether this was going to be a weird record or a respectable one. The result is that it has the drawbacks of both and the charms of neither. Oh, well—it’s not like we’re expecting much more. Until next time, that is.

Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner

Reviewed on: 2004-07-15

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Posted 07/15/2004 - 02:24:19 PM by Snorfle:
 I'm more worried about the impending re-recording of "Smile". Better it not come out at all and we settle for our bootlegs of the original sessions.
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