As the eternal Beach Boy hits a milestone, we look back at his maligned 1998 LP Imagination
Me and my pal Brad went to Factory Records in Dover, NJ, for Brian Wilson’s 80th birthday today.
And while ruffling through the dollar bin, I found a copy of Wilson’s 1998 solo album Imagination. I never owned it before, and to be honest forgot it even existed. But I’m glad I found it, especially on the big guy’s milestone birthday.
Upon the album’s release on June 16, 1998, it proved to be derided as something of a low point in Wilson’s solo career, with critics like Barney Hoskyns and Robert Christgau putting the blame on producer Joe Thomas. A part-time pro wrestler named Buddy Love, Thomas slathered on the schlager something fierce on Brian’s third solo album. But listening to the record in 2022, it’s not as bad as they led us to believe back then. Wilson’s gift for harmony shines through regardless of who is behind the boards.
However, prior to beginning work on Imagination, Brian had been collaborating with Andy Paley of the Paley Brothers on material much looser than what was ultimately released.
“I think that the music is very, very different,” Paley told music journalist Robert Silverstein in 1998. “Let’s put it this way… what he and I did is not an album. First of all, it’s way more stuff than you can put on an album, it’s probably more like four albums. It was something we enjoyed doing.”
But that’s not to say Imagination isn’t without its moments of pure Wilson greatness. One such highlight that permeates Buddy Love’s overproduction is “Lay Down Burden,” a beautiful eulogy for his brother Carl Wilson, who had passed away from cancer in February of 1998. Recorded after the album was nearly finished, it’s purity feels like something off of Holland, one of the most underrated records in the Beach Boys canon.
Wilson would later sue Thomas after finding out the producer was trying to make himself rich by using his association with Brian inappropriately, but was eventually settled out of court. Buddy Love soon slithered his way back into the Beach Boys fold again in the early 2010s, producing the group’s 2012 reunion LP with Wilson called That’s Why God Made The Radio and Brian’s 2015 solo album No Pier Pressure.
If I’m being real honest, as happy as I am to have found Imagination for a buck, I celebrated Brian Wilson turning 80 by getting lost in the remastered version of “Surf’s Up” off the newly released super deluxe expanded edition of the Beach Boys collection Sounds of Summer.
But do yourself a favor and maybe give Imagination another listen, for as much as it largely smacks of MOR, it’s worth a dollar.
Happy 80th Birthday, Brian.