When Brian Wilson announced that his new album would be heavy on guest stars, he was met with a considerable amount of backlash on social media. Old-school Beach Boys fans didn’t seem all that excited about possible duets with the likes of Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey. “To me these collaborators represent exactly the type of pop fodder that is the very antithesis to what I associate with a genius like [Wilson],” wrote one commenter.
That’s a dumb thing to say considering that: A) Wilson is also pop, B) Ocean is also a genius, and C) pop can be just as inventive and avant-garde as any other musical genre. Part of what makes the music of The Beach Boys and Wilson so special is that it relies on pop conventions only to blow them open into something completely original. As catchy as Pet Sounds was in 1966, the hooks were delivered through the (at the time) very un-pop methods of bicycle bells, Paul Tanner’s Electro-Theremin, and dog whistles. Likewise, SMiLE dealt largely with teenage romance, but stood out by equating it with higher devotion and manifest destiny. Holland had a proggy suite of California mysticism at its center, That Lucky Old Sun melded Frankie Laine with spoken-word — you get the idea. With all these works of experimental greatness to his name, it was encouraging to see Wilson disregard fans’ worries and perhaps turn pop music on its head once more by working with younger practitioners of the craft. As he reminded his Facebook followers, he’s been told his whole life not to “fuck with the formula,” a sentiment that’s often drawn masterpieces from the tortured genius.
And yet that’s the problem with No Pier Pressure: It doesn’t fuck with the formula enough. Most of the musicians Wilson ended up collaborating with aren’t known for breaking out of their safe zones (let alone having the ability to help Wilson break out of his). Where a pioneer like Ocean or Del Rey (neither of whom ended up recording with Wilson due to scheduling conflicts or possibly wanting to rap) may have steered him into uncharted waters, She & Him bring nothing more than a breezy lounge vibe and limp beach bum imagery to “On the Island”. Wilson can easily conjure up those things on his own. As congas and organ swirl dopily around him and Zooey Deschanel, the two daydream about getting stranded in the Caribbean where you can take a Saturday morning walk in the sand and listen to tropical music. Oh, and to top it off, there’s “no food, no pets, no premium cable.” It’s supposed to be paradise, but the sleepy arrangement and placid lyrics make the place sound sad and boring.
The same goes for “Our Special Love”. Originally intended to showcase Ocean, its studio version is instead anchored by a guest spot from Peter Hollens. His voice sounds pretty enough, especially when harmonizing with Wilson, but it’s pretty in that sterile, style-over-substance sort of way that most likely comes from his background in a cappella. Someone with a more distinct musical personality could have elevated tired lyrics like “I can’t believe it’s gone this far/ I can’t believe what’s happening,” but here, the words remain nothing more than lovesick platitudes. A broken heart is never this boring.
Neither of these collaborations, however, have received as much flak as “Runaway Dancer”, Wilson’s team-up with Sebu Simonian of the synthpop outfit Capital Cities. I get the criticism, but the song, while cheesy, is also braver in its musical palette than anything else on the record, driven by smooth jazz saxophone and synths straight from an ’80s catwalk. Neither of these instruments fall in Wilson’s typical wheelhouse, and as a result, “Runaway Dancer” becomes a fascinatingly stilted exercise in genre experimentation, reminiscent of the childlike electro weirdness of Love You. “Half Moon Bay” feels similarly adventurous, relying on wordless harmonies instead of lyrics in the same fashion as “Our Prayer”, then offsetting the whole thing with Hawaiian guitar and noir trumpet from Mark Isham.
Of course, it’s not fair to place blame or praise for No Pier Pressure solely on its guest stars. It’s Wilson’s name on the cover, after all, and much of the album lives or dies by the treatment of his voice. At 72, his pitch and range aren’t what they used to be, which could actually serve the album well if he and co-producer Joe Thomas didn’t slick over every flaw with Auto-Tune and reverb. This creates a huge disconnect when Wilson is singing alongside younger vocalists who don’t need such significant alterations to their pipes. “Guess You Had to Be There” is musically irresistible with its sprightly banjo hook, but Wilson’s heavily digitized voice never jibes with the more easygoing verses from Kacey Musgraves. And “On the Island” may as well have been recorded with Deschanel sitting on the edge of a well and Wilson trapped at the bottom.
In fact, the only songs that completely jell vocally are the ones featuring former Beach Boys. Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin all click with Wilson not only because they’re friends and old partners, but because they’re all of a similar age and temperament. When Jardine and Marks perform on “What Ever Happened”, their harmonies require the same overly polished production as Wilson, meaning there’s a consistent vision at play instead of a constant, jarring switch back and forth between natural vocal and Auto-Tuned vocal. Later on, Jardine appears with a Warren Zevon-sounding Chaplin on “Sail Away”, marking the first time the South African musician has recorded with his former bandmate in over four decades. That fact alone, coupled with maritime tin whistle and bassoon, makes “Sail Away” a sort of companion piece to Chaplin’s signature Beach Boys tune, “Sail On, Sailor”. It’s one of the few tracks on No Pier Pressure that actually does fuck with the formula, not by trying to be hip, but by reconfiguring the past.
Essential Tracks: “What Ever Happened”, “Half Moon Bay”, and “Sail Away”