The image of Brian Wilson sitting alone at his piano- a solitary figure performing some of the 20th century’s more cherished pop melodies- is both intriguing and wistful. On the precipice of his 80th birthday, the forever Beach Boy offers an album of muted watercolor renditions from his classic songbook; divided between both album tracks and hit singles mostly from his former band days dating pre-1967, including a few gems from the landmark Pet Sounds. Where Wilson was always so highly lauded was as a prodigious, genius arranger, building up scaffolds of vocal harmonies and expanding the Beach Boys’ basic surf-rock instrumentation with string sections and ace studio cats. So, when Wilson strips away- really strips away- all of what the ears identify as his trademark sound, back to instrumental takes of his comping chords and the single notes of those relentless, permanently lodged melodies, it’s both an interesting premise and a risk.
Fortunately, Wilson is at a place in his longstanding and celebrated career where he can present these songs with quiet dignity and confidence in this unembellished setting, and reveal another part of his personality- the one that admittedly enjoys playing alone. That’s maybe what shines through the brightest about this 15-song set; that it owes nothing to its audience but a chance to sit and listen to Wilson’s masterclass in melody. The songs are without anything that could be classified as improvisation or soloing, but that was never something Wilson was known for as a musician. Instead, it was his meticulous construction of lush, yet concise musical structures that became his calling card. These shouldn’t be heard as reinventions or alternates of the classics or their studied arrangements, aside from perhaps the closing “Good Vibrations” that features multiple keyboard parts. These are exactly as advertised: Brian Wilson at his piano.