No Pier Pressure answers a lot of questions, many if not most of which the world probably didn’t need to ask in the first place. These include: “What if Carnival Cruise Lines hired Brian Wilson as their songwriter-in-residence?” “Should a Brian Wilson/Tiësto collaboration ever be a thing?” And, most tellingly, “What’s the worst corny dad pun you could think to title an album?”
Thanks to his legacy with the Beach Boys, Wilson has something that precious few songwriters in the realm of pop music get: the status of immortality while still being alive. Due to the unimpeachable works of art that are Pet Sounds and most of all The SMiLE Sessions, the Beach Boys have left a legacy in pop that’s matched only by a narrow sliver of artists, the Beatles being the most obvious ones. The latter of those two LPs is where Wilson’s compositional genius shines the brightest; the vocal arrangements on tunes like “Heroes & Villains” and “Surf’s Up” are some of the best the genre has ever heard. Amongst the many adjectives used by music critics in the present day when talking about pop artists, “Beach Boys-esque” comes close to the most used, particularly with regard to vocal harmonies.
Simply put: Wilson and his cohorts in the Beach Boys have it made in the shade as far as legacy is concerned. With their golden run in the mid-to-late ’60s—the abortive attempt to release SMiLE notwithstanding—is the kind of musical feat that thousands try and fail at accomplishing with each passing decade.
This makes No Pier Pressure, Wilson’s eleventh studio album proper, all the more confusing. The requisite features of Wilson’s compositional style are all here, particularly the usage of vocal harmonies, which are frequently layered like blankets atop each other on a winter’s night. At 72, Wilson’s voice still sounds quite good; although there are patches here and there where it’s obvious to tell his voice is being corrected, he comes across as a confident singer. There’s no doubt that this is a Brian Wilson record, yet there’s also a whole lot that’s gone wrong here.
The first signs of alarm come in the form of the many collaborations on No Pier Pressure. First up is the completely regrettable “Runaway Dancer”, where Wilson teams up with Capital Cities member Sebu Simonian. Mixing EDM synths with ’80s informercial saxophone, Wilson conjures up an incredibly awkward dance number for anyone who wished that their high school prom chaperones were hitting the dancefloor. Somewhat less confusing, although still bizarre, is “On the Island,” an easy-breezy number featuring She & Him, which sounds like something that was meant to be used for a cruise ship advert. It’s passable pop, sure, but more than anything else it feels functional. The most sane of the collaborations here is the Kacey Musgraves feature “Guess You Had to Be There,” where bland ’80s retroism meets the requisite Beach Boys vocals. (Al Jardine and David Marks, who along with Wilson are an original part of the Beach Boys, are featured throughout.)
In contrast to the oddball collaborations is a set of safe variations on the classic Wilson formula. These include scene-setting opener “This Beautiful Day,” the nostalgic “Whatever Happened,” and the all-vocal “Our Special Love.” Save for when the cheese factor gets cranked up to ten—which the latter of those three is certainly guilty of—none of these tunes are overly bad. However, they are total softballs, exercises in banal repetition of compositions that Wilson already mastered decades ago.
For this reason, No Pier Pressure is an album stuck in a frustrating double-bind from the perspective of the listener. On the one hand, Wilson’s joint experiments with other artists do feel very much like giving into, yes, peer pressure, with his sound being pulled in all sorts of wrong directions. On the other, when he sticks to what he does best, he comes up with mere rehashes of everything he’s done before. He’s either too comfortable with himself or so uncomfortable that he feels the need to take out-of-left-field ventures like “Runaway Dancer,” which is utter dreck coming from the guy who penned “Surf’s Up.”
Wilson’s music with the Beach Boys is strong enough to weather whatever tides rise and fall in the changing waters of pop music. In 2015, however, Wilson himself sure sounds adrift at sea, unsure of what to do with all of this Pier Pressure.