"When I grow up to be a man," he once wrote, but they didn't let Brian Wilson grow up--they being his family and fans who wanted more fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun; so they called him a lunatic and drove him into hiding and made him a reclusive, oddball genius who lost touch with his muse. "I just wasn't made for these times," he once insisted, though he's appreciated now, perhaps too much, as the kids adopt his pet sounds and turn their own bedroom rock into lo-fi pristine pop tributes. Yet the man who wasn't made for those times ignores the fact that he's appreciated in these times, so he keeps making records that sound like tepid copies of his ancient good vibrations, blissful in the ignorance that music has finally caught up with him.
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Imagination is what happens when a pop legend aims low and shoots into the ground. By rounding up a producer best known for his work with Peter Cetera and hiring J.D. Souther and Carole Bayer Sager as collaborators, Wilson has made a record so slick and distasteful, it tarnishes the legend and dims the memory a little more. Were Wilson's name not attached to this record, it would have disappeared before it was ever released, a tax write-off sent straight to the cutout bins. It makes you wonder whether he was overrated to begin with; perhaps Pet Sounds was a freak accident after all, the sound of madness made tangible and beautiful by a man who didn't know any better. Or, more likely, Wilson has become the pawn of businessmen with tin ears and tiny hearts; that Giant Records owner Irving Azoff let Wilson release this record--with these people attached, no less--is testament to his opportunism.
If 1988's Brian Wilson was an eccentric masterpiece/piece of shit made by a legend who just wanted to be mortal, then Imagination is the sound made by a mortal chasing his legendary past until he's out of breath. Why else would Wilson revisit two Beach Boys songs ("Keep an Eye on the Summer" and "Let Him Run Wild," and it's like a parent returning home to beat his children)? He wants to remake Pet Sounds (or, better yet, finish Smile), but he doesn't know how to anymore; so the arrangements are thick, slick, cluttered, and absurd--and without the songs to justify the efforts.
Wilson's orchestral pop has turned into synthetic soul, music programmed on a keyboard. Worse yet, the tortured wisdom of his youth has given way to an oddly, absurdly complacent vision of middle age. Only the freak-out closer "Happy Days," with its warped ghoul's-chorus vocals and broken-carousel melody, hints at the anguished heart beating beneath Imagination's cheap skin. But by then, it's way too little way too late.