The promise of Brian Wilson's Beach Boys was the promise of endless summers and perpetual tans, perfect waves and pretty blond hair. A mellow golden sunset quieted each fun, fun, fun-filled day, and every dawn brought the reward of doing it all over again. The promise of the Beach Boys never mentioned anything about becoming a senior citizen.
But here we are. Brian Wilson turned 62 Sunday and celebrates his birthday with the release of the star-studded "Gettin' In Over My Head," his first album of new material since 1998's "Imagination." Though joined by such luminaries as Elton John, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, Wilson aims for more than just old-guy rock, more than just revisiting glory days. While the album is partly reflective -- six decades need some looking back on, after all -- it also reaches for an artistic and personal assessment of the here and now. Gone, not surprisingly, is the idyllic naivete of those classic early Beach Boys albums. In its place is a different sort of wonderment altogether: The wonderment of survival.
On the album's upbeat opening track, Wilson and John get right to the essential questions:
How could we still be dancin' after all these years?
How could we still be laughing after all those tears?
How could we still be friendly after slamming those doors?
How could we still be living after all those wars?
At a certain stage in life, simply surviving brings its own joy and an appreciation of things previously taken for granted. As if to celebrate, Wilson returns on this CD to the signature harmonies and deceptively simple melodies that marked his greatest work. He collaborates with a dozen or so musicians on this record, and yet the songs sound remarkably spare. Only one or two are overcooked.
Of course Wilson's early work is simply too brilliant, too magical to be equaled, and although he wrote or co-wrote all the songs here, none comes close to any of the music he crafted in the 1960s with the Beach Boys. "Desert Drive" sounds like a sluggish, old man's version of "Help Me Rhonda," and the mopey title track meanders a little too far afield. But there is an endearing oddness and peculiarity about some of these late-career Wilson compositions that make them compelling.
It might be tempting, for example, to dismiss a song like "Rainbow Eyes" as drippy and sentimental. But there is an underlying dreamy quality, sweet and longing, that lends it a lingering and surprising strength. "Make a Wish," a bubbly font of positive thinking, is another song that feels blessed with a pinch of Wilson's pixie dust. The childlike, singsongy "Saturday Morning in the City" is a sublime bit of strangeness that would seem terrifically avant-garde on even the most experimental indie-rock album. And the wistful "Soul Searchin' " is notable not only for weaving in recordings with Brian's late brother Carl Wilson but also because it revisits the '50s doo-wop harmonies that informed the Beach Boys' earliest incarnation.
Despite its shortcomings, "Gettin' In Over My Head" is worthy of attention. A certifiable pop music genius in his day, Wilson is still taking chances.