Even though he was in one of the most successful bands of its time, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson never really got a break. Just as he began to find his own voice as a songwriter in the early '70s, his troubled genius brother Brian Wilson returned to retake the spotlight. On the road, The Beach Boys became largely a nostalgia attraction, playing to the good-times, great-oldies crowd while ignoring their newer material. Dennis' solo album, 1977's Pacific Ocean Blue, sold respectably, but didn't let him escape that shadow. Even after his 1983 drowning death, he was unlucky. Pacific Ocean Blue began to earn a reputation as a lost classic, but—apart from a quickly retired 1991 CD issue—legal issues kept it out of print.
The new Pacific Ocean Blue: Legacy Edition corrects that while confirming the rumors of the album's greatness. Building on Dennis' contributions to Beach Boys albums like Sunflower and Holland, the album-opening "River Song" plays like a statement of purpose, using dreamy harmonies familiar to Beach Boys fans but taking them in a direction all Dennis' own. So it goes with the rest of the generally melancholy album. The boogie-woogie chug of "What's Wrong" wouldn't sound out of place on a Beach Boys disc like 15 Big Ones. But Dennis has heartbreak on his mind through much of Pacific Ocean Blue, and he expresses it on songs that, like George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, suggest his best ideas were seldom allowed to surface at his day job. "Moonshine" and "Thoughts Of You" cross the confessional tone of '70s singer-songwriters with gorgeously ambitious arrangements, while the near-title track, "Pacific Ocean Blues," works up a wailing chorus to praise an ocean "warmed by the blood of the cold-hearted slaughter of otter."
Even the sea's been drained of fun, fun, fun on an album filled with bright futures that have fast begun to dim, a sadly appropriate subject for Wilson's only proper solo release. Years of hard living had begun to creep into his voice, a development even more pronounced on the set's second disc, which contains sessions from a proposed second album called Bambu. What's there sounds promising but unfinished. Dennis Wilson left a lot undone.