The Californian fantasy of sun, cars and girls hymned by The Beach Boys still grips Brian Wilson’s imagination. Forty years after suffering a drug-induced nervous breakdown while making Smile, The Beach Boys’ “lost” album, Wilson returns to the California of his youth in That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative), a new song cycle that received its world premiere at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday.
Wilson, pop’s sentimental genius, holds a torch for the Festival Hall. It was where he played The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds in 2002 and belatedly debuted Smile in 2004, twin events announcing his emergence from decades of mental illness and stage fright.
That Lucky Old Sun, commissioned to celebrate the Festival Hall’s reopening this year after renovation, is the greatest test yet of his recovery. Is the 65-year-old, who on previous live outings has looked fragile but determined, still touched by the old magic? Or have time and infirmity irreparably damaged him?
Sitting behind a keyboard wearing a sunny yellow T-shirt, he looked thinner and healthier than I remembered from his Smile concert. His face was big and avuncular, with grey hair sweeping over his head like the crest of a gentle Pacific wave.
There were more between-song comments than three years ago, most of them charmingly off-beam. “Imagine if there was no one here,” he wondered aloud at one point. “It’d be empty. We’d be playing to an empty audience.” Occasionally a smile bobbed on to his features. At other times he looked lost in reverie, as if concentrating on a problem whose solution was in danger of eluding him.
That Lucky Old Sun takes its name from a spiritual that has been covered by Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash, among others. Accompanied by 17 musicians, including a string and horn section alongside his usual touring band, Wilson – having warmed up in the first half with a deliriously enjoyable set of Beach Boys songs – opened That Lucky Old Sun with his version of the spiritual, whose lyrics about a manual worker toiling under “that lucky old sun” as it rolls “around heaven all day” introduced a note of mingled freedom and enslavement.
The music segued into the first of Wilson’s new compositions, “Morning Beat”, an uptempo rocker about Los Angeles waking up to a new morning. “The city of angels is blessed every day/That lucky old sun smiles on me,” Wilson sang, his voice straining to match the optimism of the words. The easy lilt he had in the 1960s is long gone.
LA-themed beat poems written by Van Dyke Parks, Wilson’s collaborator on Smile, were scattered among the songs, which initially were a mixed bag. “Good Kind of Love”, a sweet orchestral number, carried a ghostly echo of “California Girls”, Wilson’s favourite Beach Boys song. But the meandering melodies of “Forever You’ll Be My Surfer Girl” brought to mind Gettin’ in Over My Head, the disappointing solo album he released in 2004.
The song cycle perked up with “Mexican Girl”, a whimsical fusion of rock and roll and cha-cha-cha. “California Role”, ornamented by ukulele and clarinet, looked back at Smile’s zesty Americana. The jaunty psychedelic pop of “Oxygen to the Brain” was followed by a contemplative track about being “lost in the dark” and “swept away in a brainstorm”.
It concluded with “Going Home”, a triumphant surf-rock number, and “Southern California”, a poignantly melodious look back at the days of “singing with my brothers in harmony”. Pictures of his former fraternal band-mates Dennis and Carl, both dead, flashed on to a background screen. Wilson’s sentimentality has grown melancholy: themes of loss preoccupy him. That Lucky Old Sun was a far cry from the vanished Californian idyll he conjured in his early life, yet its rewards offered a kind of hope. Dreams of home can console as well as haunt.