Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin
No longer just a Beach Boy, Brian Wilson’s status as an American songwriter has grown to the point where he is regularly discussed among highbrow modern composers without too many raised eyebrows. Given Wilson’s longstanding popularity as a pop maven, this kind of historical revision may seem strange.
Nearly anyone with ears can appreciate music, and so, nearly anyone feels entitled to form their own strong opinions about music. But could it be that the fervor with which my generation lauds Wilson’s past work is really just the effect of kitsch elevation? Has time simply worked to enshrine the mediocre pop hits of our past by way of nostalgia? While I’m reluctant to side with those who would call Wilson a master composer, I will concede that he has written some beautiful melodies and is among the greatest pop songwriters of all time.
For these reasons, Wilson seems to be an ideal interpreter (or, in this case, "re-imaginer") of the songs of another American great, George Gershwin. Sort of a Brian Wilson of his day, Gershwin was as influenced by the European tradition of classical music as he was the distinctively American styles of Jazz and Blues. Like Wilson, Gershwin treated folk music with the same deference as he did classical, in effect, creating a distinctively American art form: a virtual kaleidoscope of both borrowed and re-imagined sounds. Wilson’s own keen sense for arrangement complements Gershwin’s original riffs, making the two an ideal pairing.
However, one of the unfortunate side effects of Brian Wilson’s latter-day beatification is that the artist obviously feels a great deal of pressure to pander to his faithful audience by creating songs very much in the style of his earlier seminal works. For example, the lead single, "The Like in I Love You," a song left unfinished at Gershwin’s death and completed here by Wilson, is, like many of the album’s tracks, so steeped in the signature tropes of Wilsons "older, better" songs that it is virtually unrecognizable as a cover. Instead, it just ends up sounding like a vague retread of a song he’s already written. Additionally, "They Can’t Take That Away from Me" seems to lose some of its emotional power as a result of Wilson’s plucky, sunny, interpolated liberties.
Conversely, there are times when Wilson’s homage to the sounds of his own childhood—the schmaltzy string arrangements of "Summertime", the reverb-heavy drums present on nearly every track–seem to drown out Wilson’s voice altogether, leaving us with old interpretations of even older songs, which is mildly appealing due to its unintentionally bizarre nature, but totally unnecessary.
Thankfully, Wilson hasn’t completely lost his bearings and manages to deliver a handful of fine, nuanced and, dare I say, even soulful vocal renditions of the standards. But moments like these are far and few between. Though "Someone to Watch Over Me"—horsey clip-clops notwithstanding—is the high point of the album, this may be a testament to the transcendent beauty of that song rather than to Wilson’s guiding influence.