COULD there be a more intimidating musical task than the one Brian Wilson took on five years ago when he decided to resurrect his storied masterwork “Smile,” the long-abandoned Beach Boys project that had plunged him into an abyss of psychological torment?
Well, how about completing “Smile” to widespread acclaim, only to find himself face to face with perhaps an even more daunting challenge: “What next?”
Wilson’s answer arrives Tuesday with “That Lucky Old Sun,” the next step in the unlikely return of the musician whose life virtually created the blueprint for the rock ‘n’ roll prodigy cum flameout.
The new album is another song cycle, a loosely thematic work that examines and revels in life in Southern California. It celebrates a culture that Wilson helped define in the 1960s with his ebullient songs of surfer girls, sandy beaches and endless good vibrations.
“Smile” was perhaps the most ardently debated “lost” album in pop music history before Wilson revived it; by comparison, “That Lucky Old Sun” arrives with no history and infinitely fewer expectations. That made it more fun to create for the 66-year-old sole surviving Wilson brother -- Dennis, the band’s true beach boy, drowned in 1983. Sweet-voiced Carl died in 1998 of cancer.
“This is more of a pop album than ‘Smile’ was,” says Wilson, striding the perimeter of a neighborhood park in L.A. He launches an impromptu a cappella rendering of the album’s “Morning Beat”:
The sun burns a hole through the 6 a.m. haze
Turns up the volume and shows off its rays
Another Dodger blue sky is crowning L.A.
The City of Angels is blessed every day
“That’s a good rock ‘n’ roll song!” he proclaims. “I don’t know how well it will sell, but I hope people will like it.”
After completing three miles around the park -- he’d already logged two that morning -- he steps back into his sporty 2006 Mercedes coupe and tools up the steeply winding roads leading to his favorite deli, not far from the hilltop home where he and his wife, Melinda, have lived for 13 years.
He snaps on the car radio periodically, usually for just a second or two, long enough for him to identify whatever song is playing. It’s tuned to oldies station KRTH-FM (101.1), and when Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me” bursts from the speakers, he keeps it on. Then, serendipitously, comes the first song Brian Wilson ever wrote, “Surfer Girl.” He listens but doesn’t utter a word.
Does he know how much his music has meant to so many people over the years?
“Not really,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m not sure what it means. I would imagine they think some of it’s pretty good.”
Pulling up in front of the deli, he parks and greets the store’s manager. It’s obvious he’s a regular. He snags a table, exchanges a handshake and a quick hello with a famous neighbor in the next booth. A few minutes later, the celebrity heads to the door. Wilson shouts, “Hi, handsome!” as the man smiles politely and exits.
A couple of beats after the door swings closed, Wilson asks: “What was the name of that guy, that actor?”
“He’s a good-looking fellow,” Wilson says.
You never know what clicks with Wilson. It might take him a minute to place the face of one of the world’s most recognizable movie stars, but anything musical is always at his fingertips. And when it comes to music, his brain is tuned to its own frequency.
“Did you know that songs go to sleep at night?” Wilson asks out of the blue. “And they wake up in the morning with you. They have a life of their own. In a way, they get nourished by orchestration, and the instruments.”
Given that his connection with his musical muse has yielded such heart-stoppingly beautiful songs as “God Only Knows,” “Caroline, No” and “Don’t Worry Baby,” who’s to argue with him?
Over the deli’s oldies-heavy song selection comes one of his own tunes, the Beach Boys’ 1968 hit “Do It Again.”
“That song really rocks,” he says. “I remember writing that one with Mike. He was living up on Coldwater Canyon. I came over to his house and we sat down and wrote that in about 10 minutes. . . . It was like God wanted us to write that song.”
Lunch is a gastronomic sprint. It’s impressive to see how efficiently he puts away his favorite steak -- cooked medium rare, slathered with A1 sauce, a bowl of sauteed mushrooms on the side. Now he’s got his taste buds set on a health drink he can get down the Valley side of the hill.
He’s done enough driving, so he hands off the key to his $90,000 Mercedes. “Here,” he tells his visitor without hesitating. “You can drive now.”
At the bottom of the hill, he orders a double shot of wheat grass juice and the veggie combo -- a blend of pulverized carrot, kale, collard, celery and assorted greens. “It doesn’t taste very good,” he tells the puzzled cashier. “But it’s good for me.”
Nutrition and fitness, issues that loom prominently in his life these days, figure into a couple of the songs on “That Lucky Old Sun,” including “Morning Beat” and the rock march “Oxygen to the Brain.”
“You could do a Brian Wilson compilation of exercise songs,” says Scott Bennett, the multi-instrumentalist who wrote most of the lyrics for Wilson’s newest songs.
Although Bennett has been part of the Brian Wilson band since he put it together in 1999 to make his return to the concert stage, it was only last year that he and Wilson started writing songs together.
Wilson came to Bennett’s home studio with a new song he wanted some help on, liked what Bennett came up with and just kept coming back with more songs.
“He was in an intensely creative place,” Bennett says. “In my nine years with him, I hadn’t ever seen him this on fire.”
Initially, Wilson just wanted to make a new album of upbeat rock numbers. Then he got a call from officials at the Royal Festival Hall in London, which had hosted the world premiere of “Smile” in 2004. They asked him to create a work and premiere it there, requesting that it follow the “Smile” blueprint.
Wilson turned to his “Smile” lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, for a string of narrated vignettes about life in Southern California. Wilson and Bennett then set about adapting some of the songs they’d already been working on.
Bennett figured he had an opportunity to delve into the wider range of thoughts and emotions he’d experienced working alongside Wilson for the better part of a decade.
“Some of the first lyrics he brought me were, ‘I’m embarrassed to tell you that I never got out of bed.’ When I heard that, I knew he’d be willing to be a bit confessional, that he might be willing to address the dark chapters. Because this was turning into a semiautobiographical piece, we couldn’t ignore the fact that he checked out for a while.”
That resulted in “Goin’ Home,” in which Wilson sings:
At 25 I turned out the light
‘Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes
But now I’m back
Drawing shades of kind blue skies
“Forever You’ll Be My Surfer Girl” is a touching reflection on that first song Wilson composed. He also sings of the band he formed so long ago with Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and their Hawthorne neighborhood pal Al Jardine in the bittersweet ballad “Southern California,” which opens, “I had this dream / Singing with my brothers / In harmony / Supporting each other.”
The album’s emotional centerpiece is “Midnight’s Another Day,” a solo piano-driven ballad that opens with a disarmingly honest self-assessment:
Lost my way
The sun grew dim
Stepped over grace
And stood in sin
Took the dive, but couldn’t swim
A flag without the wind
“That Lucky Old Sun” is punchier and lyrically more straightforward than “Smile” but less deeply resonant. It’s the difference between the work of a 24-year-old wunderkind and a 66-year-old battle-scarred survivor.
Over the course of a 2 1/2 -hour interview, he doesn’t turn philosophical often. But looking at life after two-thirds of a century, he says, “As you get older, you appreciate the little things more: a walk in the park, a sip of Champagne, a kiss on the cheek . . . those things you might not have noticed when you were younger.”
Wilson says he still doesn’t like performing, although he’ll be returning Sept. 12 to 14 for another round of shows at the Hollywood Bowl, which will feature excerpts from “That Lucky Old Sun.” He’ll do the full album Sept. 10 in Santa Barbara.
Still, he’s far more relaxed in the public spotlight now, even appearing to enjoy himself -- especially when Melinda is in the audience.
Most of those near Wilson credit her steadying influence for his return to music making. He doesn’t mention her, but it may well be that she’s on his mind as he pilots the Mercedes back home and poses another seemingly random question.
“Do you believe in guardian angels? I do. I believe they’re around us all the time,” he says, “watching over us and protecting us.”