“The way I saw it, we were in a race, a production race.”
So writes Brian Wilson in the liner notes for “The SMiLE Sessions,” a release that completes one of the most incredible and unlikely stories in the history of popular music: how an unfinished Beach Boys album, abandoned by its creator in 1967 after its recording drove him mad and destroyed his band, suddenly materialized 40 years later as maybe the greatest American record of the classic rock era.
Ah, but that qualifier. “American.” That’s how all this trouble with “SMiLE” started in the first place. Wilson heard “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” and had to top them. When he did, with “Pet Sounds,” he had to top himself, and … well you know the rest.
Wilson finally brought himself to re-record “SMiLE’s” songs as a solo project in 2004. I thought it was one of the most glorious albums I’d ever heard, but you couldn’t listen to its glittery yearning and goofy asides without thinking about a piano in a sandbox, fire helmets, Mike Love screaming at Van Dyke Parks, and Wilson hearing a demo of “A Day in the Life” and breaking down. In 1967, Wilson lost “the race,” the Beach Boys were never the same, and it would be decades before a new generation’s repeated ripping-off of “Pet Sounds” and the handful of gems that trickled out of the “SMiLE” sessions validated Wilson’s dream of pushing pop beyond radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse structure.
You could hear all that -- 40 years of broken dreams, lost brothers, and, for lack of a better word, failure -- on the 2004 “SMiLE,” which to me, was an essential part of the album’s fragile beauty. Of course this wasn’t really “SMiLE,” the long-lost Beach Boys album. It was a 62-year-old man trying to reconnect with everything he had lost and finally, after all these years, hear the music, and smile. Wilson’s voice was not the same. The harmonies, while pretty, couldn’t match the perfect, blinding summer sun joy, of the Beach Boys. The world didn’t need new recordings of “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations.”
Surely Brian Wilson knew all this. He made the album anyway. He dropped to his knees, and prayed his “teenage symphony to God,” only now, 40 years later, it was a different kind of prayer: a prayer to be young again, so that he might finish the work -- the prayer -- that the child couldn’t. The cracks in Wilson’s voice, the straining to recapture that once-angelic range, now limited by time and suffering, only made you more aware of the history Wilson was putting himself up against. The dormant demons, the stage fright, the ensuing decades of decline and sadness that haunted the Beach Boys, fucking “Kokomo” -- Wilson stared it all down, prayed hard, and if that prayer wasn’t the pristine cathedral of music he had dreamed of building in 1967, well, at least he was still dreaming. “SMiLE’s” imperfection was its greatest glory. It was that great thing we all want to do, but can’t.
Except now, it turns out that Wilson had done it all along.
Mostly, 2011’s “The SMiLE Sessions” is the 2004 “SMiLE” as sung and arranged not by Wilson and a backing band, but by the Beach Boys in 1966-67. The songs are the same, the sequencing and arrangements are mostly the same, and the two albums sound absolutely nothing like each other. We’re hearing arguably America’s greatest band at the height of their ambition, and in the full bloom of youth, following Wilson’s muse as far as they were willing to go before the project and the group fell apart.
And together, they went pretty far out: barnyard animals, an ode to vegetables, a dramatization of the Great Chicago Fire followed by a minute of chanting, “Water water water.” Plenty of listeners share Mike Love’s opinion that “SMiLE,” and Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics in particular, are meaningless gobbledygook. I remember reading the lines “A blind class aristocracy/Back through the op’ra glass you see/the pit and the pendulum drawn” over and over in a lot of dismissive 2004 reviews, as if “I am the walrus” is any more profound. I don’t know if hearing these lyrics in a 25-year-old’s voice rather than a 62-year-old’s will change any minds, but all of Parks’ words tumble out of the Beach Boys more playfully and easily than on the 2004 version. Things that sounded a touch indulgent or pretentious sound … a little less indulgent and pretentious in this context, coming from boys who were too high on Wilson’s genius, their melodic perfection, and lots of other things, to know any better.
That’s why the 2011 “SMiLE” is wider, toothier, happier than the 2004 version: it’s the work of boys at play, an act of audacious creation rather than a pretty recreation. You know, that “op’ra glass” business isn’t my favorite lyric of all time either. But for every wacked-out clunker, there’s a moment like “Columnated ruins domino!” ascending in Wilson’s falsetto, a times they are a-changin’ hymn that takes your breath away, or the heartbreaking New Year’s Eve carriage ride tableau leading to “The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.”
That’s all just one song, the majestic “Surf’s Up,” and the suite it’s a part of, Side 2 of the (mono!) 2-vinyl record set, is the closest American pop music gets to the symphonic crescendos the Beatles perfected on Side 2 of “Abbey Road,” silly op’ra glasses and all. On this “SMiLE,” the Beach Boys’ ethereal harmonies float from coast-to-coast, Plymouth Rock to SoCal, from our violent cartoon past to the good vibrations of an endless summer, zig-zagging after Wilson’s whims and Parks’ poetry here and there, trying to take in America -- all of it -- and that ineffable something that ties the whole ramshackle bunch of us together. If the 2004 “SMiLE” is, in some sense, about what was and couldn’t be, the 2011 “SMiLE” just soars, unencumbered. It carries none of those same burdens, none of that hindsight, none of that regret. It’s adventurous music only concerned with the beauty of its moment, and fulfilling a dream that, at the time, still seemed possible to its creator. And if that all seems very ‘60s, well, it’s also very Brian Wilson, very Beach Boys, and very America.
So if the music is this gorgeous, if releasing “SMiLE,” in this form, was just a matter of polishing the master tapes and sequencing the songs, then why did Wilson sit on this version of his masterpiece for 40-plus years? Maybe because Wilson couldn’t bear that “SMiLE,” in the end, isn’t quite as great as “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Abby Road.” Or maybe because this “SMiLE” isn’t really “SMiLE” either, just an astounding sketch, its margins forever uncolored, its skyscrapers stretching, reaching, but forever incomplete. Whatever the reason, however greater the Platonic ideal of “SMiLE” playing in Wilson’s head may be, the fact that we’re hearing this music at all means that Wilson, finally, must be at peace with it. No prayer goes unanswered.
Joey Tayler is the lead writer on Rocksposure.com. Based out of Milwaukee, WI, he is always looking for a new show to see. If there is something you think he should be listening to, send him an email at JoeyT@Rocksposure.com