Everyone that first came upon Dennis Wilson's 1977 solo record, Pacific Ocean Blue, had the advantage of context. The handsome and charismatic drummer for the Beach Boys was often viewed as the band's poster boy, as exemplified in signature songs like "Surfin' Safari" and "Fun, Fun, Fun."
However, many were understandably surprised, because the album defied expectations. Instead of rehashing the three-chord surf pop he was so strongly identified with or mimicking his brother Brian's baroque pop, Dennis found inspiration elsewhere. He blended blues sensibilities, prog aesthetics, and gumbo grit in a manner unfamiliar to even the most astute Beach Boys fan (at the time, he had made a handful of contributions to his band's albums, most notably the ballad "Forever" on 1970's Sunflower).
Critics frequently called Pacific Ocean Blue "indescribable," as if to affirm Dennis' sophisticated synthetic process. In spite of such praise, the album went out of print when the Beach Boys' label, Caribou, went under. Pacific Ocean Blue became an even greater curious rarity.
Thanks to Legacy's ongoing reissue efforts, the album has reentered the conversation, and surprisingly the discussion is remarkably familiar. Entry to the album is still near impossible without knowing Dennis' connection to the Beach Boys. The band's early catalog remains a staple on pop radio -- thus, further reinforcing Dennis' sun-soaked image. Hearing an album with greater affinity to Dr. John and Steely Dan is, then, a surprising experience.
The reissue's copious liner notes and essays take the safe position of avoiding direct comparisons with Dennis' family/bandmates, while using that same connection to set him up as the surprise and tragic genius. Indeed, symphonic pieces like "Time" support this assumption, considering Dennis' lack of formal music training and intuitive approach to composition. Of course, considerable credit should be given to Dennis' support team -- principally producer and co-writers Gregg Jakobsen, Steve Kalinich and Daryl Dragon -- for helping realize the songs.
Perhaps a better topic of discussion would be Dennis' unexpected self-awareness as a celebrity. His songwriting excels particularly on ballads about empty flings ("You & I") or lost friends ("Farewell My Friend"). The mixture of raw performance, highlighted by his ragged voice, which per '70s standards is always at the center of the mix, and rich melodies make each of his personal stories evocative and affecting for others -- the true sign of a star.
The reissue's inclusion of material from Dennis' scrapped second album, Bambú, further supports this idea. Comparatively under-produced, these songs allow Dennis' increasingly worn voice and melancholy songs to breathe freely. Though at times difficult to listen to, the effect is a clear view of an artist's process. Herein lies the true value of Dennis Wilson's legacy: an open invitation to simply listen.
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