That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson's second major thematic work, isn't quite the third coming of SMiLE. Instead, it's an overripe ode to the Southern California of the '50s and '60s that the Beach Boys constantly evoked, and although it's polished with the peak-era production style that Wilson made famous, most of the songs are wrapped around the awkward songwriting and overwrought pop/rock he's revisited again and again since his first major return to form, back in 1976. As a thematic topic, "That Lucky Old Sun" is ripe for integration into Brian Wilson's California myth-making. A Tin Pan Alley chestnut from the '40s, it contrasts the ease of the sun's transit each day with the hardship of human toil on earth, a sort of "Ol' Man River" set in the sky. (Even better is the fact that it's a professional songwriter's account of working-class life, which dovetails perfectly with the Beach Boys' mythic vision of Southern California and the illusory aspects of Hollywood's brand of reality.) That Lucky Old Sun begins with Wilson briefly stating the theme and the intonation of a heavenly choir, but then barrels into the first song, "Morning Beat," a turgid rocker with a set of adolescent rhymes (one example: "The sun burns a hole through the 6 a.m. haze/Turns up the volume and shows off its rays"). But wasn't this supposed to be a collaboration with the great lyricist Van Dyke Parks? Actually, Parks contributes only to a set of spoken narratives, delivered over-emphatically by Wilson himself, that are interspersed throughout the album and attempt to advance the California panorama from Venice Beach to East L.A. to Hollywood -- as well as frequent stops along Brian Wilson's personal time line. ("How could I have got so low, I'm embarrassed to tell you so/I laid around this old place, I hardly ever washed my face.") But if Brian Wilson is attempting to look back, his muscle memory for the Beach Boys' classics appears to be fading faster than his personal memories.
That Lucky Old Sun rarely approaches the subtleties of the classic Beach Boys sound. What it evokes instead is the driving '70s productions on latter-day Beach Boys albums like 15 Big Ones and Love You -- granted, with innumerable production touches that could only have come from the mind of Brian Wilson (ah, the clip-clop of wood blocks!). It's obvious that Wilson was at the center of some of the best and brightest productions of the '60s, but the added assumption about being at the center is that there are integral parts radiating outward. (In Wilson's case, those parts consisted of a superb harmony group with several great lead voices and the on-demand talents of an array of excellent musicians, plus copious engineers and studio technology.) Naturally, his solo career has positioned him at the forefront, which is a very different place than the center and one he's proved himself unwilling and unable to embrace fully. He needs not only talented collaborators but strong lead voices to place alongside his own. An apt comparison at Wilson's age is Burt Bacharach, who would hardly consider writing lyrics as well as music and singing every song on one of his albums. The lack of colleagues who could inform the result of this album -- the lack of Van Dyke Parks in a prominent role or a Carl Wilson or even a Mike Love -- is what dooms That Lucky Old Sun, which assumes a place well below SMiLE in the pantheon of Brian Wilson's achievements.