COULD there be a more intimidating musical task than the one Brian Wilson took on five years ago when he decided to resurrect his storied masterwork "Smile," the long-abandoned Beach Boys project that had plunged him into an abyss of psychological torment?
Well, how about completing "Smile" to widespread acclaim, only to find himself face to face with perhaps an even more daunting challenge: "What next?"
Wilson's answer arrives Tuesday with "That Lucky Old Sun," the next step in the unlikely return of the musician whose life virtually created the blueprint for the rock 'n' roll prodigy cum flameout.
The new album is another song cycle, a loosely thematic work that examines and revels in life in Southern California. It celebrates a culture that Wilson helped define in the 1960s with his ebullient songs of surfer girls, sandy beaches and endless good vibrations.
"Smile" was perhaps the most ardently debated "lost" album in pop music history before Wilson revived it; by comparison, "That Lucky Old Sun" arrives with no history and infinitely fewer expectations. That made it more fun to create for the 66-year-old sole surviving Wilson brother -- Dennis, the band's true beach boy, drowned in 1983. Sweet-voiced Carl died in 1998 of cancer.
"This is more of a pop album than 'Smile' was," says Wilson, striding the perimeter of a neighborhood park in L.A. He launches an impromptu a cappella rendering of the album's "Morning Beat":
The sun burns a hole through the 6 a.m. haze
Turns up the volume and shows off its rays
Another Dodger blue sky is crowning L.A.
The City of Angels is blessed every day
"That's a good rock 'n' roll song!" he proclaims. "I don't know how well it will sell, but I hope people will like it."
After completing three miles around the park -- he'd already logged two that morning -- he steps back into his sporty 2006 Mercedes coupe and tools up the steeply winding roads leading to his favorite deli, not far from the hilltop home where he and his wife, Melinda, have lived for 13 years.
He snaps on the car radio periodically, usually for just a second or two, long enough for him to identify whatever song is playing. It's tuned to oldies station KRTH-FM (101.1), and when Stevie Wonder's "If You Really Love Me" bursts from the speakers, he keeps it on. Then, serendipitously, comes the first song Brian Wilson ever wrote, "Surfer Girl." He listens but doesn't utter a word.
Does he know how much his music has meant to so many people over the years?
"Not really," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm not sure what it means. I would imagine they think some of it's pretty good."
Pulling up in front of the deli, he parks and greets the store's manager. It's obvious he's a regular. He snags a table, exchanges a handshake and a quick hello with a famous neighbor in the next booth. A few minutes later, the celebrity heads to the door. Wilson shouts, "Hi, handsome!" as the man smiles politely and exits.
A couple of beats after the door swings closed, Wilson asks: "What was the name of that guy, that actor?"
"He's a good-looking fellow," Wilson says.
You never know what clicks with Wilson. It might take him a minute to place the face of one of the world's most recognizable movie stars, but anything musical is always at his fingertips. And when it comes to music, his brain is tuned to its own frequency.
"Did you know that songs go to sleep at night?" Wilson asks out of the blue. "And they wake up in the morning with you. They have a life of their own. In a way, they get nourished by orchestration, and the instruments."
Given that his connection with his musical muse has yielded such heart-stoppingly beautiful songs as "God Only Knows," "Caroline, No" and "Don't Worry Baby," who's to argue with him?
Over the deli's oldies-heavy song selection comes one of his own tunes, the Beach Boys' 1968 hit "Do It Again."
"That song really rocks," he says. "I remember writing that one with Mike. He was living up on Coldwater Canyon. I came over to his house and we sat down and wrote that in about 10 minutes. . . . It was like God wanted us to write that song."
Lunch is a gastronomic sprint. It's impressive to see how efficiently he puts away his favorite steak -- cooked medium rare, slathered with A1 sauce, a bowl of sauteed mushrooms on the side. Now he's got his taste buds set on a health drink he can get down the Valley side of the hill.
He's done enough driving, so he hands off the key to his $90,000 Mercedes. "Here," he tells his visitor without hesitating. "You can drive now."
At the bottom of the hill, he orders a double shot of wheat grass juice and the veggie combo -- a blend of pulverized carrot, kale, collard, celery and assorted greens. "It doesn't taste very good," he tells the puzzled cashier. "But it's good for me."
Nutrition and fitness, issues that loom prominently in his life these days, figure into a couple of the songs on "That Lucky Old Sun," including "Morning Beat" and the rock march "Oxygen to the Brain."