Even when boiled down to its bar-and-staff bedrock, the legacy of George Gershwin is hardly free from the socially regressive mystique that ribbons most cultural benchmarks of the early 20th century. We’re likely to be debating whether Rhapsody in Blue classily legitimized or smoothly bastardized black motifs until we achieve the ethnic monotone prophesied by Bulworth. But whatever the insensitivities of Gershwin’s melodicism, there’s little doubting the man’s groundbreaking attitude; the very notion of “serious” American pop as a concept, let alone a genre, was virtually unheard of before him. And I may prefer the nuts-and-bolts Americana of Irving Berlin in theory, or the two-martini, sin-soaked pep of Cole Porter in spirit, but it’s the dreamy haute-urbanity of Gershwin’s songbook that I can’t shake off. “Someone to Watch Over Me” hums along like an impulsive soundtrack to memories of the sensual optimism I feigned in youth, and the jaunt of “Sweet and Lowdown” encapsulates the shadowy, hard-earned consolation of meager day-to-day victories mustered with cathartic alcohol and gritty saloon dirges.
Gershwin’s egalitarian deconstruct/reassembly approach to proto-jazz, gospel, and avant-garde symphonic structures still potently seduces, and perhaps as a result, the collection of numbers he and lyricist-sibling Ira knocked off for the Broadway stage remains the most interpretatively durable of the Tin Pan Alley era. And not so coincidentally, the most quintessential recordings of their work have come from performers whose appeal partly sprang from the same dated socio-political piquancy—namely, African-American singers with partially, and sometimes ironically, white-washed elegance. Granted, efficient covers of “Summertime” are a dime a dozen even in the post-rock era, and Louis Armstrong is a notable exception (his gravely staccato on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” sounds delivered from the creaky comfort of a back-porch rocking chair). But elsewhere, it takes the mellifluous, tone-for-tone’s-sake jubilance of Ella Fitzgerald, or the show-stopping, uptown androgyny of Bobby Short, to pull Gershwin off properly. These stratum-itinerant professionals understood the composer’s impish, melody-worshipping aesthetic better, perhaps, than even he did.
It’s that crucial, possibly east coast-endowed smirking irony that’s clearly lacking from Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, though at first the production is so distractingly flush with harmony—the most assured and unforced since Wilson’s excellent eponymous solo album—that we hardly notice. There’s no need to bother reiterating, or refuting, the plethora of parallels between the collaborators’ careers that are likely to be drawn even by the Associated Press (okay, just two: Since it doesn’t “rock,” per se, Pet Sounds couldn’t have made the mid-‘60s upstart zeitgeist accessible as art a la Rhapsody in Blue‘s mixed blessing of jazz, and even at their zenith, the Beach Boys hardly produced “serious” music). More important than spurious symmetries sketched across the annals of pop, the perspectives of Gershwin and Wilson were both patched together from the peculiarities of their respective, transitional eras. And in the case of the latter, who saw African-Americans march on Washington rather than simply take center stage in mainstream opera houses, it’s the half-lysergic, half-aw-shucks idealist auto-didacticism of the ‘60s counter-culture that most staunchly informs his sonic philosophy.
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin once again proves that Wilson’s savant-loose-in-the-studio act has been hampered with, of course—by narcotics, middle age, physicians with dubious credentials, and, maybe most noticeably as of late, the inescapable cleanliness of digital technology. It’s all but certain that the boy who toiled with session orchestras one instrument at a time to cleverly stitch up “Help Me Rhonda,” “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” and “Heroes and Villains” had heard, rather than merely heard of, An American in Paris and “Love Is Here to Stay” (the desperate calm of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head Oon My Shoulder)” even lilts like a Gershwin ballad played straight-faced). But within Wilson’s most baroque opuses there lurks a ferocious, albeit exhilarating, tenuousness: It’s as though the swirling, untrained mono of modulating celeste and horn could frighten itself and coil back into silence at any moment. And as much as I adore its plaintive rawness, it’d be difficult to imagine the messy-moog, Love You-era Brian realizing a vision as sparkly as Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin; for one thing, the rasp he seemed to have then contracted from brother Dennis is a far, tortured cry from his current fresh-breathed, pitch-perfect Wondermint accompaniment.
Indeed, as with the earlier, judiciously tuned Smile and That Lucky Old Sun, this is Wilson at his most squeakily spit-polished. But as those other, later-period milestones also illustrated, the weather-beaten vintage of Wilson’s voice and same-old wooden wall of sound style can (thankfully) only be Pro-Tooled so far. At its best, the weary but curious timbre of Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin mimics that of a (prodigiously skilled and conducted) high school marching band or chorale harnessing the composer’s power for the first time; Wilson even multi-tracks his warbly tenor across the Rhapsody in Blue a cappella excerpts that bookend the record with wavering, otherworldly aplomb. (I salivated at the thought of a fully realized chorus-style Rhapsody in Blue when hearing of the album’s release, but those dreams were swiftly let down.)
The song choices bear this same seasoned novice’s awkwardness: There’s no “I Must Be Home By Twelve O’clock,” “Mine,” or, most criminally, “K-ra-zy for You,” a smitten ditty that the ecclesiastically lovesick Wilson of “God Only Knows” was born to turn inside out. And as we might anticipate, the weakest tracks are those that fail to live up to the rather tall order of the title: “Summertime” tinkles by with half-assed vibraphone and Ebonics, and the “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” faux bossa nova of “S’Wonderful” suggests a stoned coma. But Wilson poutily croons “I Loves You Porgy” with such string-abetted sincerity that we almost forget the corrected grammar of Nina Simone’s earthily authoritative rendition. And “Someone to Watch Over Me” very nearly cracks the competitive upper rungs of that composition’s cover pantheon; only the conspicuous, “Caroline No”-emulating click-clock percussion and stately harpsichord forbid its inclusion.
Wilson’s tendency to draw from the production values of the generation that directly preceded him also links him to Gershwin, who exercised the same open-mindedness with both turn-of-the-century coon songs and Stravinsky. Wilson’s golden idol, however, is still Phil Spector, whose post-‘50s, teenage-aimed arias are tapped for the dumbed-down progression of “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (endearing, if not in the realm of Bobby Short’s turbo-charged take) and the beach-bum baritone sax of “I’ve Got Rhythm” (which one can’t help but read as ironic, given Wilson’s occasionally clumsy enunciation these days). Were the entirety of the album delivered in this retro fashion, it would come off as an astutely executed nostalgia trip, but the occasional studio hat tricks—the musician’s most ear-catching since Holland—offer startling indicators of Wilson’s extant off-kilter genius. When the Porgy and Bess medley that comprises the bulk of side one is paused for an ersatz-jug band reading of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” complete with bombinating harmonica and woe-is-me muted flugelhorn, it’s the first time in decades that he seems to be urging us to drive to the beach at top speed with the windows down.
But the triumph of Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is hardly the standard “return to form” that’s become the sole method of success for senescent pop stars (aside from, naturally, the wearing-thin, Rick Rubin-helmed, stripped-bare outing). Since 2004, Wilson’s been erecting an impressive case for his sharp-as-ever recording skills, a defense that began with the grandiose, if canned-sounding, Smile—proof that Wilson could still conquer his own material—and continued with the more eclectic That Lucky Old Sun, a surreptitious tribute to brother Carl (Brian aped the achy chord changes of “The Trader” and “Heaven” with such expediency it was spooky).
Now Wilson even dares to “finish” Gershwin’s uncompleted business, an estate-approved act of plucky co-authorship that culminates in the heavenly, descending major sevenths of “The Like in I Love You.” The tune may not be anything I’d be willing to trade “The Man I Love” or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” for, but its projected longevity isn’t important: It’s the rare, grin-inducing Wilson indulgence that doesn’t involve some drug-inspired nonsense about enchanted transistor radios. The entirety of Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin reeks of a newfound arrogance that lifts this Beach Boys aficionado’s spirits. If there’s one thing Wilson has lacked all along, it’s the bull-headedness to trail his uniquely complex muse down the most mettle-testing of passages.