Have the Beach Boys, or any of the group’s illustrious splinters, and Disney really never worked together before? Google, and my own memories of growing up an hour from Disneyland in Anaheim, tell of a few perfunctory path-crossings: There’s the homey, Bruce Johnston-penned “Disney Girls”; “California Girls” was appropriated into the equally adenoidal snippet “California Bears” from the now-defunct Country Bear Jamboree; and some of the group’s early, surfy work was sacrilegiously stripped of its trademark vocals to create generic theme park music. But these don’t really count as collaborations (who in popular music hasn’t had their aesthetic pilfered and white-washed for some Disney attraction?), and it strikes me now as strange that Brian Wilson was never commissioned by Walt or any of his successors to compose songs for an animated feature.
Though Wilson is far from a Sherman Brothers descendant, and he was mostly hermetic/drug-zombied at the point in time where Disney would have knocked on his door, his craft is something of a distant cousin to the cartoon titan’s. Both men saw the world, with all its spiralling motifs, though the incandescent orange of the Southern California sunset, and had a penchant for the deceptive simplicity of homespun Americana. Both were ostentatious innovators who wanted us to marvel at the fingerprints they and their hired help left on their art. And both were obsessed with distilling and provoking childlike wonder as a means of commercial success.
I resisted establishing a similar congruency between Wilson and Gershwin when the ex-Beach Boy’s last album was released, primarily because the album felt like a conversation with Wilson’s past rather than with any comprehensive American musical trajectory. In the Key of Disney is no different, really; Wilson uses the same musicians from his last LP and the same inverted arrangement technique, dumbing down his source material’s chord progressions until they fit into a spotlessly digital, ersatz-Phil Spector instrumentation. (The two tracks by Randy Newman require the least simplifying.) But the follies and failures of Disney Studios and Wilson’s parallel paths are more curiously instructive. Both climaxed by approximating a kind of dreamspace through labor and ingenuity, then fell into a dark, weird age before regaining financial footing by appealing to the public’s nostalgia for their heyday.
As a fan of the Beach Boys’ oddball early-to-mid-’70s output, I wish Wilson had recorded some songs from Disney’s dark, weird days—maybe “Ratigan” from The Great Mouse Detective or the somewhat Gershwin-y “Best of Friends” from The Fox and the Hound. In the Key of Disney, however, instead plays the That Lucky Old Sun to Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’s Smile; in other words, it’s a weaker sequel that reveals how uninspired Wilson can sound when we aren’t already enamored of the material with which he’s working. That Lucky Old Sun featured a handful of mediocre new songs, albebit sublimely executed in the studio, where In the Key of Disney focuses counterintuitively on the corporation’s Broadway-minded 90’s renaissance, offering little in the way of creative interpretation. (Wasn’t “Kiss the Girls” already supposed to be redolent of the Crystals even without the gunshot drums and Wall of Sound harmonies?)
There are a handful of fun moments, but they aren’t exuberant enough to penetrate the slough of sterility. Compare, for example, the grinningly professional marimba solo that begins “The Bare Necessities” with, say, the much more sinister use of the chromatic instrument in Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” (A ridiculous juxtaposition, for sure, but there’s no way to play a marimba “darkly” or “brightly” since its timbre is more or less fixed, suggesting the overzealous post-production tinkering that has candy-coated Wilson’s last five releases.) “Colors of the Wind,” from Pocahontas, feels somewhat revived as an organ ballad, but the melody is just as forgettable as when I heard it in the film. Elsewhere, malt-shop saxophones affix faux leather to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “We Belong Together,” though the latter is still Randy Newman’s patchiest contribution to the Pixar canon. The “Workshop” playfulness of “Whistle While You Work,” where woodblocks and whistles keep the choppy tempo, is made similarly irritating by an inexplicable, affected counterpoint chorus of “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).”
Most of these tunes were, for better or worse, a part of my childhood. What’s jarring, however, is the manner in which Wilson grafts them onto his youth as an impressionable listener in the 1950s (he covers Ashman/Menken with flourishes of doo-wop, Northern soul, and Tin Pan Alley). It’s a truthful cliché that senescence provokes the desire for a redux of one’s infantile complacency, or at least the need to pay homage to the idols accumulated in one’s formative years. In Wilson’s case, however, these respects seem already paid a thousand times over: On Pet Sounds, he amalgamated hints of Martin Denny, Duke Ellington, and Motown into a single, terse, instrumental. Wilson’s clearly living up his autumn with the recent succession of hobby-like projects, but their unified, glossy, pre-’60s style startlingly seems set to erase, or at least forget, the ramshackle genius that made his career.
Granted, no one wants a retread of the Beach Boys’ hits either—and we have Mike Love to provide that unnecessary service anyway. Wilson, however, is stuck in a womb-like time capsule no less superficial or petulant. His music sparkles like an aluminum cup full of vanilla shake remainder; his affection is starry-eyed and chastely preadolescent. The nostalgic cleanliness of his sound is still worth hearing, but it often seems like the awkward product of unspeakable control—emotional, corporeal, aesthetic. Like Fantasyland, it satisfies an intense craving for innocence, but in an environment that couldn’t be faker or more heavily patrolled for fear of those who seek to break the spell. It’s a sad, nervous sort of magic they peddle.