Since 1962, the Beach Boys' music has epitomized life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No Beach Boy pursued happiness with more life or liberty-or, alas, futility-than Dennis Wilson, whose 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue has just been reissued by Epic/Legacy in a deluxe, two-disc package.
When Pacific Ocean Blue first appeared, Wilson was already notorious for his erstwhile friendship with Charles Manson, his multiple marriages, and his drug and alcohol abuse. That he actually completed the project was interpreted by many, himself included, as the beginning of a new and positive chapter in his life.
Indeed, Pacific Ocean Blue and its intended follow-up Bambu (much of which is included in the new edition's bonus material) comprise the little available evidence that Wilson was actually capable of self-control. An untutored but gifted pianist, he could create songs in which the soaring sweetness of the melodies combined with the ravaged soulfulness of his voice to suggest a sensitivity and depth at stark odds with his image as the Beach Boys' wild-man drummer.
More consistent with that image were his lyrics. Desperation pervades his love songs, confusion his "spiritual" ones. Three mention Jesus ("Friday Night," "Dreamer," "You and I"), while the gorgeous instrumental "Holy Man" was inspired by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (A recently "completed" version, sung by the Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins, concludes Disc Two.) Most telling is the previously (and understandably) unreleased "Time for Bed." When Wilson sang "Marijuana, beer, and wine is for me," he was, unfortunately, summarizing a good deal of his life.
If Wilson, like his older brother Brian, had survived, Pacific Ocean Blue would be a testament to his fortitude and God's grace. That he didn't makes it almost unbearably sad.
"To the hungry soul," writes Solomon, "every bitter thing is sweet." It's a proverb that T Bone Burnett seems to have taken to heart on his new album, Tooth of Crime (Nonesuch).
Despite having been in the works since 1996, when Sam Shepard commissioned it for his play The Tooth of Crime: Second Dance, Tooth of Crime comes off less belabored and opaque than any Burnett album since 1986's all-acoustic T Bone Burnett, perhaps because, as Burnett himself has admitted, he has finally learned how to use digital technology to achieve analog simplicity.
But what made Truth Decay (1980), Trap Door (1982), and Proof Through the Night (1983) special wasn't their sound so much as the formula Burnett perfected in putting them together: namely, the setting of dark, prophetic lyrics to bright, roots-rock melodies.
On Tooth of Crime, the only song whose medium serves as a foil for its message is "Kill Zone," a viscerally bitter, end-of-romance lament sung to a dreamily glowing country tune. In the other nine songs, music as gloomy as a film-noir soundtrack and Burnett's ominous, devil's-advocate delivery over-accentuate the doom depicted in the lyrics. "I can infiltrate your pride," he intones in "Swizzle Stick," "and lace your faith with cyanide."
Indeed, images of death abound, with only such gallows-humor puns as "I'm sober on the grapes of wrath / while running down / the psycho path" ("The Rat Age") and "Speak to my Girl Friday / the Thirteenth" ("Anything I Say Can and Will Be Used Against You") for comic relief.
As his longtime fans can attest, sardonic jeremiads are nothing new in Burnett's work, and certainly open rebuke is not inconsistent with charity. What's missing these days is the faith and hope that used to sweeten if not the bitterness then at least its aftertaste.