As his second official solo album, Imagination is a stronger record than its predecessor. Brian Wilson is singing better and his writing is more assured, filled with gorgeous arrangements that others may replicate but never quite match. That doesn't quite erase the suspicion that it could have been better, however. Sessions with the respected power pop producer Andy Paley were hailed as Wilson's best material in years, though the collaboration didn't happen. Wilson, allegedly on the advice of his wife, decided to work with Joe Thomas, a former wrestler determined to make inroads in the music business. Thomas steered Wilson toward a slick, overly produced sound straight out of the late '80s, filled with sterile surfaces and synthesizers that hide the genuine musical attributes of the album. Listen closely and it's possible to hear a handful of songs that are startlingly beautiful. Wilson's writing may not be as magical as his '60s peak, but there are moments that soar, from the lovely "Cry" to the sunny choruses of "South America" to the affecting "Lay Down Burden" to the layered, avant- pop "Happy Days." Songs such as these, however, accentuate the weaknesses of other parts of the album -- namely the lyrics. Such lyricists as Jimmy Buffet, Carole Bayer Sager, and J.D. Souther collaborated with Wilson on these songs, contributing surpassingly banal words, perhaps in an attempt to capture the sweet naïveté of classic Beach Boys songs. They didn't need to try so hard -- Wilson can come close enough on his own. All he needs is collaborators that realize that and not force him into areas, whether it's musical or lyrical, that he needn't tread. The best parts of Imagination prove that he can spin enough magic on his own terms.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine