HIGHER CULTURE: Something Big Is Missing From Brian Wilson's New Album

The cover of Brian Wilson - "At My Piano." Credit: Brian Wilson/Twitter

Leading into the weekend, the story was hard to miss: ‘Beach Boys icon Brian Wilson has an upcoming album,’ the trade and music magazines trumpeted. So, if you’re any kind of fan of the massive contributions the man has made to pop music, it’s something that makes you sit up and take notice.

For example, Spin magazine wrote a whole article about the new album, which, it turns out, is more of a compilation from Wilson than anything. There are no new songs to be found here.

Variety’s piece calls the offering “reimagined” versions of the 79-year -old singer/composer’s work, both with the band and solo, noting that his last original album came out in 2015. The album comes out in November.

As these sorts of stories do, a personal “statement” is included from Wilson:

“We had an upright piano in our living room and from the time I was 12 years old I played it each and every day. I never had a lesson, I was completely self-taught,” Wilson said in a statement.

“I can’t express how much the piano has played such an important part in my life. It has bought me comfort, joy and security. It has fueled my creativity as well as my competitive nature. I play it when I’m happy or feeling sad. I love playing for people and I love playing alone when no one is listening. Honestly, the piano and the music I create on it has probably saved my life.”

I especially love the last line. It’s beautiful — and no doubt true for Brian Wilson.

But, look, readers. They released a “teaser” from “At My Piano” on Friday, too. And it’s “God Only Knows.”

And by all means, you can go ahead and visit one of those articles above, and listen to the full song, described as a “soothing” cover of the classic, Beach Boys hit. But there’s an important  — I would argue, big — thing missing. From this song and all of the songs on “At My Piano.”

Let’s let Variety describe it. (emphasis mine)

[It’s]…..a newly recorded album that sees the maestro of the Beach Boys revisiting his classic material in solo piano renditions, sans vocals or any other accompaniment.

That’s right. There are no vocals. The meaningful lyrics Brian Wilson married to the marvelous music. Arguably, intertwined, the very soul of the track.

In case you’re unfamiliar, or need a refresher, here are some of the lyrics to “God Only Knows”:

If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me?

God only knows what I’d be without you

Now, take a listen to the original version of the Beach Boys song, with its soaring harmonies and magical, orchestral setting intact:

While the “stripped-down” versions (as Rolling Stone calls it) of these iconic songs might work for you, I’d argue that, well, Muzak belongs in elevators, not on Beach Boys tracks.

But all is not lost, readers! Take a listen to some other, recent versions. The songs “Do It Again” and “Love and Mercy” are below, performed by Wilson during lockdown last March.

I’m sure you’ll agree that these songs are just more complete with vocals. Enjoy!


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