Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Brian Wilson

  • Brian Wilson [Sire, 1988] B-
  • I Just Wasn't Made for These Times [MCA, 1995] Neither
  • Imagination [Giant, 1998] C
  • Gettin' in Over My Head [Rhino, 2004] Dud
  • SMiLE [Nonesuch, 2004] A+
  • That Lucky Old Sun [Capitol, 2008] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Brian Wilson [Sire, 1988]
What made Brian's utopian fantasy so believable was the guileless hypocrisy of the simpletons fate and family tied him to--his shy, sincere, goofy, subtly tortured lyrics took off from the cheerful hedonism of the Beach Boys' secular chorales and white-boy soul. Solo, the pain in his voice is all too unmediated, and he isn't deep enough to make something of it--he sounds like the sincere, talented, mildly pretentious nut he is. What's more, his multiproduced million-dollar return is weighed down by a collective Phil Spector obsession--comes off incredibly labored. Of course, Smile was probably kind of overwrought too. B-

I Just Wasn't Made for These Times [MCA, 1995] Neither

Imagination [Giant, 1998]
Wilson's genius has never been as indelible or universal as worshipers believe. Generating illusions of eternal sunlight or crafting frames for crackpot solipsism, he was magical; stripped by Don Was or cambered by Van Dyke Parks, he was at least interesting. Submitting to adult-contempo tycoon Joe Thomas, however, he's just what you'd fear: a middle-aged pop pro who's proud he's no longer nuts and knows even less about the world than when he was. The lead cut has a happy tune, the dark finale some dysfunctional intimations. In between, he makes too much of attendant hacks and gestures at old glories from a failing high end. C

Gettin' in Over My Head [Rhino, 2004] Dud

SMiLE [Nonesuch, 2004]
There are many things I don't miss about the '60s, including long hair, LSD, revolutionary rhetoric, and folkies playing drums. But the affluent optimism that preceded and then secretly pervaded the decade's apocalyptic alienation is a lost treasure of a time when capitalism had so much slack in it that there was no pressing need to stop your mind from wandering. Brian Wilson grokked surfing because it embodied that optimism, and though I considered the legend of Smile hot air back then, this re-creation proves he had plenty more to make of it. The five titles played for minimalist whimsy on Smiley Smile mean even more orchestrated, and the newly released fragments are as strong as the whole songs they tie together. Smile's post-adolescent utopia isn't disfigured by Brian's thickened, soured 62-year-old voice. It's ennobled--the material limitations of its sunny artifice and pretentious tomfoolery acknowledged and joyfully engaged. This can only be tonic for Americans long since browbeaten into lowering their expectations by the rich men who are stealing their money. A+

That Lucky Old Sun [Capitol, 2008]
Born-again optimist's L.A. even has Mexicans in it ("Southern California," "Morning Beat"). *

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