Review Summary: His best since he presented us with a SMiLE
(Note: This reviewer is reviewing the deluxe edition of the album, as he believes that it is a better collection of songs than the standard edition, and as such, the additional tracks are included in the final score.)
A title like "No Pier Pressure" speaks volumes beyond the beach-based pun. Brian Wilson, who's songwriting leadership has been in question since the late 60's, subtly tells us that he is finally his own man, and just as importantly, his own songwriter once again. No Pier pressure is littered with this evidence, with gorgeous harmonies throughout and his most consistent songwriting and production since his self-titled release in 1988. Even so, the album has had some negative feedback. Brian’s responded with "It kind of bums me out to see some of the negativity here about the album I've been working so hard on. In my life in music, I’ve been told too many times not to *** with the formula, but as an artist it’s my job to do that – and I think I’ve earned that right ..." Maybe we should trust the man we so often deify.
He clearly has earned that right to do as he pleases in the studio, even if it means that nothing here is revolutionary and we get songs that stumble where they would have soared 50 years earlier. For example, the dated dance-pop of “Runaway Dancer” is corny almost to a fault, and the tropical resort soundtrack of “On the Island” borders on saccharine old-folks home musak. The Peter Hollens featuring “Our Special Love” is composed entirely with vocal loops and overdubs that despite the interesting concept, sounds like a song from a YouTube musician. The sole instrumental “Half Moon Bay”, featuring trumpetist Mark Isham, is pleasant enough; however, for a composer with classic instrumentals like “the Nearest Faraway Place,” “Let’s Go Away for a While,” and “Diamond Head” under his belt, underwhelms a tad. Even though these songs aren’t excellent, nothing here is downright bad. These songs are merely ‘meh’. Average.
Fortunately, Brian’s work here is largely excellent soft pop music. The two bookends, “This Beautiful Day” and “The Last Song” are fantastic and near heavenly, and his solo tracks on the back half of the album are all lovely with each backed by beautiful choirs closely emulating the Boys in their heyday. Speaking of the Beach Boys, every time former members show up here we are spoiled rotten. David Marks and Blondie Chaplin each provide necessary guitar to their respective songs, with Chaplin and Al Jardine’s equally essential guest vocals. Each addition of an old friend gives the oldest Wilson a welcome edge in recreating the old Beach Boys sound. Special note must be given to both Nate Ruess and Kacey Musgrave’s guest spots, as they help Wilson with two of the best collaboration songs on the whole record. Musgrave’s country swing adds a level of cheekiness to “Guess You Had to be There”, her voice blending perfectly with Wilson’s, resulting in a stellar duet. Ruess’s part here is also very good, with “Saturday Night” having a skyscraping hook and carefree attitude pleasantly reminiscent of his own work. Every song on the album is backed with beautiful choirs closely emulating the Boys in their heyday.
An album of this caliber has no right to exist this late in Brian’s career. He pulled out all the stops and has yet again granted us a group of rather excellent pop songs, even if there are a couple of missteps. He proves yet again that he is a master arranger in control of his own destiny. There are some who will call foul, focusing on the use of studio trickery like autotune and outside songwriters as a bad influence. For those who understand Brian’s history, they will know that he has always “played the studio” and utilized outside help in the service of the songs. 55 years later, there is still no one in the world who sounds like Brian. If this ends up being his last album, No Pier Pressure is an excellent swansong to go out on.