“Sweet Insanity” the Unreleased Second Album by Brian Wilson
I don’t know what it is about these unreleased Brian Wilson/Beach Boys albums that fascinate me so much. I think it’s a combination of Brian’s utter sincerity and belief in his work as well as the fact that they are sometimes more interesting than the product they released around the same time.
Such as this absolutely…Insane album, the proposed follow up to Brian’s semi successful solo debut “Brian Wilson.” That synth drenched album was as weird as anything, a little bit 80’s but 100% Brian with a group of great songs, some artistic drive and Dr. Eugene Landy trying to get as much money as possible by insisting on songwriting credits.
He pulled the same thing on this album and while I don’t think he wrote a single note or syllable of this album, his greasy, creepy fingerprints are all over this album. Landy is interesting: I fully believe he saved Brian’s life but he exploited him brutally and forced him into situations he probably wasn’t ready to be involved in at the time.
Such as pushing Brian to become a typical 80’s pop star. The artistic pretense of certain sections (“Rio Grande” specifically) of “Brian Wilson” have been pushed away and an increased focused on “fast 80’s pop songs mark “Sweet Insanity” as does a simultaneously improved sound (more guitar and live work) and worsened arrangements (tons and tons and tons and tons of bleeping, blooping weird synthesizers).
Of course, pushing Brian to become an 80’s pop star was doomed to failure (he was old, weird and couldn’t dance) but that didn’t stop Landy from making Brian appear on night shows, swaying around in a distracted, upset manner to the “Brian Wilson” track “Nighttime.” Disastrous.
Well, is this album a disaster on that kind of level? Not at all: I insist that every Brian Wilson associated album is worth listening to and this is no different. It’s just…weird. Again, in a somewhat weird way as it balanced heart felt sincerity with banality similar to “Adult Child” but in an 80’s fashion.
A great example would be the first song (on my copy, as there are a thousand different versions floating around) “Someone to Love” which comes on after a brief excerpt from the song “Concert Tonite” which consists of little more than a chant of the title.
“Someone to Love” is full of the trademark Brian Wilson compositional moves: immediately upbeat tune with an insistent catchy melody; an immediately different and yet equally catchy chorus; technically complex bridges that change keys, tempo and time signature changes; weird, weird lyrics; deep, complex arrangements (that in this case consist mostly of synthesizers).
One has to look past the somewhat wheezy arrangement tones and the “as usual” bad lyrics: this is a pop masterpiece in the typical Wilson mold and one that shows Wilson was finally “back” in a rather unique way.
I mean, one can’t expect “Pet Sounds” from a mind as warped as Brian’s was at the time. One can hope for more fully arranged “Love You” albums which is essentially what this and his debut were: albums filled with well written pop masterpieces that were arranged in an odd and unique fashion.
Because as 80’s as the album sounds, it has a tone and style completely unique from the basic aesthetic of the 80’s as possible. This sounds NOTHING like Phil Collins or the Pet Shop Boys: it’s its own thing, for better (yes) and worse (nothing ground breaking).
The ballads here are pretty solid but I honestly feel like its one of the few Wilson albums were the upbeat songs are the best part of it (perhaps this and “Love You” being the only two). “Water Builds Up” is an impossible to describe pop song with a beautiful “water builds up!” chorus that is technically simple but somehow magic in Brian’s hands.
“Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel” and “Rainbow Eyes” are good ballads but not amongst Brian’s best. Again, I know they are heart felt but I don’t quite feel the genius of even songs like “Diane” (another unreleased gem, sung by Dennis Wilson).
“Love Ya” is a song that should have been on the album it’s title nearly matches as it has that same mix of simple synths and catchy melody and would have, in fact, been a standout track on that weird album. “Make a Wish” masks rather banal lyrics with an instantly uplifting and catchy melody that will NEVER leave your head (just typing the title brought it raging back into mind).
I described more songs than I wanted to in this review but it’s hard to avoid: each song has the same basic feel and approach but is differentiated by a careful approach to melody writing, complex arrangements and careful dynamics that build up and fall off with ease.
Honestly, listening to the album makes me confused: although it sounds somewhat worse as far as tone goes when compared to “Brian Wilson” it probably has better, catchier songs that fit in as well with the 80’s as Brian was ever going to and which, in another epoch and with a little tweaking, may have been considered essential parts of the Wilson songbook.
And then you hit the last track on the album. And it all makes sense. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous, legendary and universally beloathed (that is beloved and loathed at the same time) “Smart Girls” and it’s the worst creative decisions made by a member of the Beach Boys (yes, worse than “Kokomo” and “Stamos”).
Lofty you say? Hard title to live up to I bet you might think? I can understand your doubts but let me put explain it in three words: Brian Fucking Raps.
That’s right: Brian. Fucking. RAPS.
I’ll let it sink in. Please, go do something for a few minutes. Have a shot. Pet a dog. Tell somebody you love them. Cry into a mirror. Do what you have to do to let the idea of that sink in and fall out without infecting your mind too heavily.
In what I can only imagine was a Landry move (“Hey Brian! Rap’s huge! You should give it a shot!”) Brian…raps. I mean, kind of: this is the mid 80’s we’re talking about when rap was a bit more…simple. No Eminem, no Tupac, no Public Enemy. Instead, it was a growing movement still finding its feet and thought of as a simple novelty by the majority of the white world.
And yes, Brian sounds exactly like your dad (or grandpa) sounds whenever he tries to make fun of rap. Except Brian is, of course, serious: with lyrics like “My name is Brian and I’m the man/I write hit songs with a wave of my hand” I have no doubt Brian was serious about this track.
The worst part about the song (beyond the simple, basic rap style) is that they mixed in random snippets of Beach Boys songs as Brian raps. And I don’t mean in that Bomb Squad/Dust Brothers style of mixing and matching musical ideas to create a new whole.
No: Brian will be rambling about surfing and they suddenly throw in a 1.5 second slip of “Surfing USA” to remind us, yes, Brian wrote this song about surfing. It’s jarring, poorly done and ruins whatever…uh…flow the rest of the song had?!
All right, all right, point’s made: I’ve now rambled almost 400 words out of 1,200 about this one damn song. But I truly believe it’s the one reason this album never got released (beyond, perhaps the title, but that could have easily been changed) as this album is nowhere near bad and is in fact one of Brian’s best solo albums.
p.s. I forgot to mention that Bob Dylan sings on the song “The Spirit of Rock and Roll.” No, I don’t get it either.
p.p.s. A few of these songs ended up on the Wilson solo album “Getting In Over My Head” in slightly inferior versions.
Songs to Youtube:
“Someone to Love” as it immediately sets the mood for a fun, upbeat musical roller coaster.
The live performance of “Nighttime” so you can get a feel for how stupid of an idea it was to force Brian to be an 80’s pop star.
DO NOT YOUTUBE SMART GIRLS. Seriously, I’m begging you. It’s for your own good, kiddo.