When the Beatles expanded sonic boundaries with “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” their innovations (with the possible exception of sitar-as-rock-instrument) seeped into the bedrock of popular music, which moved forward as a whole. When the Beach Boys did the same with “Pet Sounds” (and tried to push even further on “Smile“), they built more of an impenetrable, albeit gorgeous, wall. Say what you will about bass harmonica, stop-start song structures and wildly complex five- and six-part vocal harmonies; nobody who picks up on any of them sounds like anything but the Beach Boys.
Whether that’s good or bad — whether they were inimitable or a glorious dead end — will be debated for ages. But it means that when Brian Wilson continues to play in the same sandbox nearly 50 years later, as he does on his new album, “No Pier Pressure,” it suggests that the writer of “In My Room” didn’t open up pathways so much as construct an island, mostly for himself.
So it’s paradoxical that even when Wilson invites guests including Zooey Deschanel, fun.’s Nate Ruess, and Capital Cities’ Sebu Simonian in on 10 of the album’s 13 songs, the results still feel insular. “No Pier Pressure” sounds simultaneously over- and underproduced: loaded with layers upon layers of instruments, but unable to shake the flat, bright sheen of something recorded in a basement studio. Its origins as a scuttled Beach Boys album are underscored by the presence of former bandmates Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin, but the lush vocal washes in “What Ever Happened” and “Tell Me Why” have had the humanity processed out of them.
It only highlights the thinness of songs like Chaplin’s “Sloop John B”-“Sail On, Sailor” retread, “Sail Away,” the a cappella “Our Special Love” and the synth-bouncy “Runaway Dancer,” while undercutting better material. “One Kind of Love” could be lovely if it picked one direction or another: either full-on “Pet Sounds” orchestration or more organic intimacy. (It’d be most interesting if Wilson tried the latter.) The appealingly plinky jaunt “Guess You Had to Be There” is, for him, practically stripped down, though the reverb applied to Kacey Musgraves detracts from the vocal clarity that’s part of her charm. And “The Last Song” is affecting because it’s overblown simply, rather than ornately.
But as bracing as it might be for him to look for new angles from which to approach his own music (as Paul McCartney occasionally seems eager to do), Wilson seems content on “No Pier Pressure” to chase the same vision he’s pursued for half a century. That’s either a testament to his determined consistency or a quixotic pursuit; either way, it’s hard at times not to wonder if Wilson’s squeezed as much out of it as he can. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Guess You Had to Be There“
Brian Wilson performs at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on July 2.Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.