Rarely do artists get a second act quite like Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson – Playback – The Brian Wilson Anthology (Rhino)

The guiding force behind the 1960’s Beach Boys, Brian Wilson helped create some of the greatest American rock n’ roll ever recorded. Yet, by the early 1970’s, a combination of drugs and fractured psyche left him a damaged recluse who famously put a sandbox in his living room.  Dr. Eugene Landy’s controversial treatment in the mid 80’s could’ve signaled the end of this great artist.  Yet, somehow Wilson has managed to pull things together and issue music which, while not as spectacular as his early Beach Boys, certainly contain moments of brilliance.

Playback  pulls together highlights of Wilson’s rebirth.

His debut solo album (recorded under Landy’s tutelage in 1988) is represented by four tracks, the highlight being “Love and Mercy” (the title reused for the 2014 Wilson biopic).  One knock on these tracks is the robotic percussion that was typical of the late Eighties, although Wilson is in fine voice and the harmonies are superb.  “Rio Grande” is a sweeping, eight-minute epic, that goes through several melodies and tempos – very reminiscent of the SMiLE era.

Wilson’s next two albums – the Don Was-helmed I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times and Orange Crate Art, a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, are not represented, so next up is 1998’s Imagination.  Curiously, “Your Imagination,” arguably Wilson’s finest solo single, is inexplicably not present on this collection.  Instead, two airy ballads, “Cry” and “Lay Down Burden” are included from that album.

Wilson’s greatest solo triumph is also the most unlikely.  Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE saw him finally complete a project he began in 1966 but left unfinished for a variety of reasons.  Thanks in large part to guidance from the Wondermints, Wilson was able to revisit the project and finally release it.

Two songs are included here – “Surf’s Up,” arguably his most haunting composition, retains that chill-inducing element while also adding an air of regret.  His well-weathered voice isn’t soaring angelic like it was, but he’s still here to tell about it.  “Heroes and Villains” contains extra elements that were edited out of the original Beach Boys single.  Both of these still stand up.

Wilson’s most recent solo album, No Pier Pressure, is represented by the gorgeous “One Kind of Love,” which has a French horn part that reminds of “God Only Knows.”  The album’s first single, “The Right Time,” which featured former Beach Boys Al Jardine, was not included here either.

“Some Sweet Day,” one of two unreleased tracks, is quite good, with a flute solo in the middle that recalls Pet Sounds.

Wilson has had to live in the shadow of his Beach Boys brilliance for some 50 years now.  But, the Brian Wilson Anthology shows that he was still capable of creating some fantastic music.  The disc chronicles one of rock’s unlikeliest of second chances.  —Tony Peters