What does a myth sound like?
That is what I wondered upon hearing that the Beach Boys' Smile would be finally released, 38 years after it was recorded. It's hard to imagine an album even more gorgeous and transcendent than Pet Sounds, an album that, if released, would have rivaled The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in terms of innovation and influence on pop music.
I never really knew a lot about Smile, never sought out bootlegs from the Smile sessions or even the completed tracks from the sessions that appeared on later Beach Boys albums. So I didn't feel that sense of loss that understandably tormented so many others who experienced hints and fragments of what could have been. And to be honest, I almost preferred for Smile to remain a myth. Because the album had been lionized in the annals of rock 'n' roll history, I felt that if I finally heard Smile it could not possibly live up to the hype. I was sure to be disappointed.
And yet now a version of Smile has been released. What started
out as the Beach Boys' follow-up to Pet Sounds is now instead group visionary
Brian Wilson's solo masterwork.
Smile is so legendary, in large part, because of the promising context
of its creation and the circumstances in which the recording sessions came to
The album began as a way to continue and expand upon the innovations of
Sounds, a watershed work that famously inspired The Beatles to reach for
new artistic heights with Sgt. Pepper's. The release of "Good Vibrations" as
a single gave further credence to the belief that Brian Wilson was at the height
of his creative powers, and whatever he was working on next would be mind-blowing.
In recording "Good Vibrations" and Smile, the then 24-year-old musician
had devised a new way to compose and arrange music. He recorded different fragments
of a track separately, and then wove them together with elaborate technical wizardry.
The resulting sounds termed "modular music" imbued Wilson's songs
with amazing dimension and depth previously unheard of in popular music. But
it was an intricate and time-consuming recording process, a process that took
on an already fragile Brian.
It has been speculated that both his drug use and a lack of support from his bandmates, who favored such chart-topping simple pop songs as "California Girls" over
Brian's experimental studio work, fueled his paranoia and insecurities. A story
that defines Brian's deteriorating mental state at the time involves the recording
of the instrumental track "Fire" (renamed "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" on the current Smile), an intense, almost disturbingly turbulent piece of music. When he heard that a nearby home had burned down, Brian believed it was his song that caused the fire and had the tracks locked away, not wanting to have any more to do with them. Smiley Smile was released instead, featuring "Heroes and Villains" and
other songs from the sessions, but the Beach Boys' version of Smile was never to be finished.
The impetus for revisiting the album came when Wilson did a rapturously-received
live presentation of Pet Sounds in London in 2000. He and lyricist Van
Dyke Parks (who collaborated with Wilson on songs for Smile in the '60s)
reunited and, with the touring band from the Pet Sounds performance, completely
remade the album based primarily on Wilson's memories of his compositions. (The
Brian Wilson Smile is a brand new recording; no tapes from the original Smile sessions
were used due to complicated legal issues).
The beauty of Wilson's Smile does not reveal itself immediately. This
is not Pet Sounds Part II, where the loveliness of each individual song
enthralls you upon first listen. The patchwork method in which the tracks were
recorded lends the album an impressionistic quality that takes some getting used
to. Smile can actually be underwhelming for the first few listens, but
once you appreciate that this is not a conventional song cycle you can put on
shuffle and listen to in random order, but rather something that must be taken
whole, it really is a mesmerizing experience.
The album is separated into three musical suites, each anchored by a classic Beach Boys song: "Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up," and "Good Vibrations." Each section is lush and fluid, the songs flowing into each other so that it truly feels like listening to a pop symphony. The album is an eccentric and dazzling fusion of the Beach Boys' trademark sunshine harmonies with jazz, doo-wop, musical nursery rhymes and old-timey standards perhaps what it would sound like if George Gershwin wrote pop songs today.
"Vege-Tables" and "Barnyard" are winsomely strange, instilled with the bouncy, childlike joy of Sesame Street tunes, enjoyable in their delightful oddness ("Barnyard" actually features the sounds of cows mooing and sheep baa-ing). The whimsical "Heroes and Villains" and the euphoric "Good Vibrations," both re-recorded for the album, retain their brilliance despite the absence of the other Beach Boys (although it is hard not to wonder how the album would have sounded if the late Carl Wilson could have contributed his ethereal vocals to the songs). Of the three suites, the second, “Wonderful/Song for Children/Child Is the Father of the Man/Surf's Up," is the most cohesive, gorgeous in its poignancy, haunted by sad echoes of lost innocence and regret.
Wilson's voice sounds earthbound now, no longer reaching angelic heights, changing Smile from
its original intent as a teenage symphony to God, with all the naïvety and
earnestness of that connotation. The magic of the album lies in the way Wilson's
complex, challenging sonic vision can evoke the optimism, hope, and wonder that
gave birth to this album decades ago.
Perhaps the best thing about this Smile is that it exists at all. Wilson
resisted the idea of revisiting his lost work for so long, haunted by the memories
of a difficult time in his life; knowing all that he has been through, one
can't blame him for his reticence. I heard it in his voice, the violent fear
of just the idea of returning to Smile, when I listened to an interview
a worshipful Sean Lennon conducted with him when Wilson released his solo album, Imagination,
in 1998. In a timid yet hopeful voice, Lennon asked him if ever would go back
to Smile, prefacing the question by saying it was OK if Wilson didn't
want to answer it. Throughout the interview, Wilson had sounded pleasant and
relaxed, but when asked about Smile, he boomed sternly, "No! I made up
my mind to junk the album. I wasn't in the right frame of when I did it." The
stubborn force of his voice demonstrated his terror of revisiting something that
nearly destroyed him. It must have taken immense courage to confront what Wilson
what must have viewed as failure, and finish what he started.
Legends are appealing because they are impossibly romantic, flawless imaginings
unsullied by the complexities of reality. The idea of a long-lost masterpiece
is still appealing, but for Brian Wilson to reclaim his work and fulfilling the
promise of his genius and the expectations of fans and critics alike, is truly
inspiring. Who knows exactly what Smile would have sounded like if it
had been released during its time, or how it would impacted the era in which
it was originally created. But the fact that this version exists today is a miracle,
a testament to the remarkable strength and a talent of the man, and to the resiliency
of the creative spirit.