"You could do a Brian Wilson compilation of exercise songs," says Scott Bennett, the multi-instrumentalist who wrote most of the lyrics for Wilson's newest songs.
Although Bennett has been part of the Brian Wilson band since he put it together in 1999 to make his return to the concert stage, it was only last year that he and Wilson started writing songs together.
Wilson came to Bennett's home studio with a new song he wanted some help on, liked what Bennett came up with and just kept coming back with more songs.
"He was in an intensely creative place," Bennett says. "In my nine years with him, I hadn't ever seen him this on fire."
Initially, Wilson just wanted to make a new album of upbeat rock numbers. Then he got a call from officials at the Royal Festival Hall in London, which had hosted the world premiere of "Smile" in 2004. They asked him to create a work and premiere it there, requesting that it follow the "Smile" blueprint.
Wilson turned to his "Smile" lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, for a string of narrated vignettes about life in Southern California. Wilson and Bennett then set about adapting some of the songs they'd already been working on.
Bennett figured he had an opportunity to delve into the wider range of thoughts and emotions he'd experienced working alongside Wilson for the better part of a decade.
"Some of the first lyrics he brought me were, 'I'm embarrassed to tell you that I never got out of bed.' When I heard that, I knew he'd be willing to be a bit confessional, that he might be willing to address the dark chapters. Because this was turning into a semiautobiographical piece, we couldn't ignore the fact that he checked out for a while."
That resulted in "Goin' Home," in which Wilson sings:
At 25 I turned out the light
'Cause I couldn't handle the glare in my tired eyes
But now I'm back
Drawing shades of kind blue skies
"Forever You'll Be My Surfer Girl" is a touching reflection on that first song Wilson composed. He also sings of the band he formed so long ago with Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and their Hawthorne neighborhood pal Al Jardine in the bittersweet ballad "Southern California," which opens, "I had this dream / Singing with my brothers / In harmony / Supporting each other."
The album's emotional centerpiece is "Midnight's Another Day," a solo piano-driven ballad that opens with a disarmingly honest self-assessment:
Lost my way
The sun grew dim
Stepped over grace
And stood in sin
Took the dive, but couldn't swim
A flag without the wind
"That Lucky Old Sun" is punchier and lyrically more straightforward than "Smile" but less deeply resonant. It's the difference between the work of a 24-year-old wunderkind and a 66-year-old battle-scarred survivor.
Over the course of a 2 1/2 -hour interview, he doesn't turn philosophical often. But looking at life after two-thirds of a century, he says, "As you get older, you appreciate the little things more: a walk in the park, a sip of Champagne, a kiss on the cheek . . . those things you might not have noticed when you were younger."
Wilson says he still doesn't like performing, although he'll be returning Sept. 12 to 14 for another round of shows at the Hollywood Bowl, which will feature excerpts from "That Lucky Old Sun." He'll do the full album Sept. 10 in Santa Barbara.
Still, he's far more relaxed in the public spotlight now, even appearing to enjoy himself -- especially when Melinda is in the audience.
Most of those near Wilson credit her steadying influence for his return to music making. He doesn't mention her, but it may well be that she's on his mind as he pilots the Mercedes back home and poses another seemingly random question.
"Do you believe in guardian angels? I do. I believe they're around us all the time," he says, "watching over us and protecting us."