There have been many great second acts in rock, but perhaps none so momentous as Brian Wilson’s. The Beach Boys’ leader’s triumphant return to health and happiness after a lifetime of tragedy was captivatingly portrayed in the recent biopic Love and Mercy, but the real legacy of the reinvigorated Brian Wilson remains with his music. With Wilson near the conclusion of his acclaimed, sold-out Pet Sounds: The Final Performances world tour, the time has never been better to revisit his solo catalogue created decades after that Beach Boys benchmark. Rhino’s Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology is the first-ever attempt to chronicle Wilson’s remarkable body of work outside of his famous band, and at 18 tracks on a single CD (including two previously unreleased tracks), it’s largely successful.
Commendably, this collection produced by Peter Fletcher draws on nearly every one of Wilson’s releases between his solo debut in 1988 and the present day, for the Sire, Rhino, Nonesuch, Giant, Walt Disney, BriMel, and Capitol labels. Only a handful of projects have been overlooked: the 1995 MCA soundtrack to I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times in which he surveyed Beach Boys classics in stripped-down forms; the same year’s collaborative album Orange Crate Art with Van Dyke Parks, featuring Parks’ own compositions; 2002’s Pet Sounds Live; and 2005’s Arista holiday LP What I Really Want for Christmas. All of these are reasonable omissions, leaving Playback to wisely concentrate on albums with original songs, as well as the completed 2004 release of SMiLE, the crown jewel of Wilson’s solo career (and one of the mightiest and most unexpected accomplishments in the whole of the pop spectrum).
Playback is sequenced with something roughly resembling chronological order, after the initial three tracks. The first is “Love and Mercy” from 1988’s solo debut Brian Wilson, which only feels out of place because of the number of years Wilson has played it in his solo shows as his encore. Yet as Wilson’s personal mission statement (“Love and mercy is what you need tonight/So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight…”), it’s a fitting opener. A slight sense of musical madness (sweet insanity?) creeps in, however, when the set continues with “Surf’s Up” and “Heroes and Villains” from SMiLE – the closing of the album’s second movement, and its proper opening song after a short prologue, respectively. In any context, these are powerful, rich, and complex compositions, beautifully played and sung, but the transition from an optimistic 1980s production to baroque art-pop and then to a psychedelic cowboy fantasia is a bit jarring. Surf’s up, indeed.
From that ear-opening trio, Playback sails into calm and comfortable waters, hitting many of the high points of the composer-singer-bandleader’s solo works. The achingly melancholic pair of “Lay Down Burden” (dedicated to Brian’s late brother Carl) from Imagination (1998) and “Midnight’s Another Day” from That Lucky Old Sun (2008) are among the most stunning and nakedly vulnerable songs Wilson has crafted in any era, and worthy successors to Pet Sounds. The most represented album here is Brian Wilson, with four songs. “Melt Away,” co-produced with friend and “Guess I’m Dumb” co-writer Russ Titelman, is another gorgeous heartbreaker, and “Let It Shine” is a surprisingly compatible fusion of Wilson and Jeff Lynne working together. The eight-minute-plus “Rio Grande,” written and produced with Andy Paley, was a conscious attempt to channel and recreate the multi-part approach of SMiLE. It’s undeniably “Brian” in sound and style, but it can’t help but pale in comparison to the samples of the original.
Though Wilson’s two most recent albums of original material, 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun and 2015’s No Pier Pressure, receive only one song each, 2000’s Live at the Roxy gets two selections. “The First Time” and “This Isn’t Love” (the latter co-written with Pet Sounds‘ lyricist, Tony Asher) are both attractive, but haven’t achieved much longevity within the artist’s repertoire and stand out here as live performances in a set dominated by studio material. The two tracks from Gettin’ In Over My Head (2004) – both collaborations with Andy Paley – are far stronger: the R&B-flavored “Soul Searchin'” as a duet with Carl Wilson (the Beach Boys’ original, unreleased version finally escaped the vaults on the band’s Made in California box set) and the album’s gently shimmering, introspective title track. One track has been culled from each of Brian’s projects for Walt Disney Records. “The Like in I Love You,” written around a melodic fragment by his musical inspiration George Gershwin, is plucked from 2010’s Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, while Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s Academy Award-winning “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas is tenderly rendered from 2011’s In the Key of Disney. The most recent track here, “One Kind of Love,” was heard in Love and Mercy and remains a sweet love letter to Wilson’s wife Melinda.
The most egregious omission here is “Your Imagination,” the ebullient opener to Imagination. As Wilson’s only Hot 100 hit during the period represented here (it “bubbled under” at No. 103 and also made an impressive top 20 peak on the AC survey), it’s also a milestone song, and one well worth anthologizing as a pure example of the joy Wilson brings to his singular brand of rock and roll. While “Lay Down Burden” surely deserved a slot here, “Your Imagination” would have made for a stronger and more balanced portrait of the artist than the downbeat “Cry.” That album’s “South American,” co-written with Jimmy Buffett, was another felicitous collaboration that deserved an airing here; likewise, the one-off track “What Love Can Do” written with one of Brian’s heroes, Burt Bacharach. First released on the Target-exclusive compilation New Music from an Old Friend in 2007, “What Love Can Do” is one of the strongest songs either man has written in the past decade, and warrants a wider audience here. (Its demo recording was recently issued on CD by Spanish label Contante y Sonante on a Bacharach/Tonio K demos collection.)
The two previously unreleased tracks are worth the price of admission. The bouncy “Some Sweet Day,” from Brian’s 1990s sessions with Andy Paley, is an upbeat valentine. “Run, James, Run” (named as an homage to the working title of the instrumental “Pet Sounds” from the album of the same name) is newly recorded, co-written and produced with Joe Thomas (Imagination, No Pier Pressure, The Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio). It’s a fun, effervescent Beach Boys-style rock-and-roller with high background harmonies that might briefly make you hear echoes of “She Knows Me Too Well.”
With compelling liner notes by David Wild and top-notch mastering by Scott Levitin under the audio supervision of Mark Linett, Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology is certainly a title that fans of the artist will want to have on their shelves. It can’t truly be called definitive, but what single-disc distillation of Wilson’s very prolific last 30 years possibly could be? Taken solely as a sampler, it touches on the beauty, idiosyncrasy, heart, soul, and yes, genius, that makes Brian Wilson one of music’s international treasures. Let his pet sounds melt your blues away.
Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology is available at: