The untalented Beach Boy? Don’t believe it. Dennis Wilson’s legacy as the resident hack of the Wilson family– a lousy musician whose mama made his brothers include him in the family band– has become so well-documented over the years that it seems even the most positive reviews of Wilson’s music begin with back-handed compliments expressing surprise at how the Ringo Starr of the Beach Boys could possibly find the inspiration and talent for anything more than dreck. So maligned is Wilson’s talent that his place in Beach Boys lore has essentially been as the guy whose girl-chasing and wave-riding habits gave the band their image, but whose musicality was so technically suspect, he was often replaced by session pros in the recording studio.
But in truth, it wasn’t that Dennis was the untalented Wilson. It’s just that he was a very different Wilson, a Wilson whose gruff, gravelly voice and melancholic disposition made him a bit of an outcast in his own band, but whose vision and ambition on his lone solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, rival those even of brother Brian, albeit in a very different and very subtle way.
Heralded as an essential new voice when the album released, Wilson made it clear on every note of his solo debut that he wasn’t about to ride his brother’s coattails to success. Anyone who thinks Pet Sounds is the last word in pop needs to think again; Dennis’ album couldn’t be more different from that seminal recording without belonging to some other genre completely. And it’s not just because his album, like Wilson’s Smile or Pet Sounds itself, is very much a cohesive piece, a romantic and sophisticated work in which songs ebb and flow into each other to create a tapestry– an ocean, as it were– of sound, a seamless suite that works best when taken as a whole. Nor is it that his music, though sonically inspired by jazz and occasionally breaking forth into rapturous bursts of horns, is largely very subdued, reflective, meditative, approaching an almost hymn-like reverence at times. (And really, how else do you describe the angelic choir of harmonies that opens the album on “River Song”?)
No, what really makes this the work of a visionary artist– an artist who is not untalented, but, rather, too talented and luminary to be a part of a band– is the songwriting, more personal and raw than anything Brian ever recorded. Pacific Ocean Blue is the sound of a Wilson laying all his fears and insecurities, his bruised and beaten heart, out on the table for all the world to see. And no wonder he had insecurities– this is the guy who everyone assumed to be the untalented Wilson, getting by on the success of his brothers and bandmates! But the strength of his confessions on this album make it clear that he was a fine songwriter in his own right. There’s an ominous mood that permeates the album, manifest most vividly on the environmental concerns expressed in “River Song” and “Pacific Ocean Blues,” but also heard in Wilson’s admissions that filling his heart with rock and roll has only let him empty, lonely and afraid. It’s spiritual, soul-searching stuff that’s every bit as open and honest– almost to the point of being voyeuristic– as that other classic of California pop from the same era, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.
And if that doesn’t convince you that Wilson’s drowning shortly after the album released was a tragedy, the re-release of the album certainly will, for it contains an entire disc of demos from the album’s intended follow-up, Bambu. Wilson spoke of wanting to make an album even more substantive and deep than Pacific Ocean Blue, and, by all accounts, he was well on his way; the Bambu tracks featured here reveal a much more ambiitous and complex album, one that covers more ground and incorporates a wider range of humor and emotion into its songs. It’s a compelling collection of unfinished business from an artist who was taken from us just as he was starting to get going– an artist who, with this two-disc set, is only now beginning to receive the claim and amass the legacy he has so long deserved.
Josh Hurst, The Hurst Review