Brian Wilson – “Smile” (2004)

September 8, 2008 at 8:05 pm (Reviews & Articles, The Beach Boys)

Written September 8, 2008…

I don’t even know where to begin with this review. I have been trying to think of what to say about this album for the past four years but haven’t been able to put it into words. But I will just start by saying that this is definitely one of the greatest albums of all time. Maybe the most brilliant work of art ever released in the world of rock & roll. And I am not even talking about what would have been the Beach Boys’ version back in 1967. I am talking about the finally-completed album that Brian released in 2004. 

I have to admit that I had very little faith that Brian would have been able to pull this feat off at any time in the past 35 years. He had been through so much turmoil during that time – the severe depression, massive drug intake, family squabbles, brain damage, weight problems, refusal to come out of his room and the whole Dr. Landy debacle (though in his defense, if Landy hadn’t treated Wilson when he did, Brian would have been dead many years ago). It just seemed like Brian finishing Smile was simply not possible.

We read over and over throughout the years, that the Beach Boys would finally finish the album and release it. Or at the very least, put out what had already been recorded in some kind of box set format – all the various takes of each song and any other scraps and fragments that had been recorded – and let people make of it what they will. Those promises came and went so many times, that most of us stopped paying attention. So when there was talk of Brian finally releasing the album on his own, it just seemed like another false promise.

And yet I wanted to believe. I wondered, if this is true, will he release the original master tapes as they are? Will he overdub new tracks on to those tapes? Or will he record a brand new version of Smile? Which then led me to wonder, if he is going to re-record the album, what about the songs that were never finished being written? What do you do with those fragments of music? If you add lyrics to them or add new musical passages, are you tampering with history? Do you approach it as you would a brand new album or do you try to pretend like the past 37 years had never taken place? Do you make the album sound more modern? What will the 60 year old Brian (who is clearly not in the same mental or musical space that he was in back in 1967) add to Smile in 2004? How do you get yourself back into that frame of mind after so many years? Will Van Dyke Parks be involved again? And most importantly, has Smile’s time simply come and gone? Maybe it was not meant to ever be released. Maybe it should just be left alone. You also have to figure that since so many bootlegs had come out over the years, most people had already heard the “album” – even if it was never finished as such. Many bands had copied the sounds that Smile had pioneered. If a new version came out, it would clearly never be the groundbreaking work of art it was meant to be at one time. It could never have that kind of impact. And since Sgt. Pepper was supposed to be its biggest rival, we would never know which album would have been seen as the “winner” back in 1967. Sgt. Pepper came out and got all the accolades (which it deserved) and Smile did not. But of course, since Smile had come out on bootlegs, it had been heard. Books had been written on it. Websites were devoted to it. It was simply the biggest album to never come out. The greatest non-event in the history of rock & roll. And almost the sole reason why Brian was still looked at as a musical genius after all these years (along with Pet Sounds – his other masterpiece).

There was so much baggage tied up with this album. And Brian had remained scared of it all these years, since it brought back so many painful memories. Since everyone always asked him about it and proclaimed that he had failed in his quest to release the greatest album ever, not to mention all the grief the Beach Boys gave him at the time about it, Brian simply didn’t want to hear about it anymore. Which you can’t blame him.

Yet, thanks to his wife and his backing band, they wouldn’t let it die. They would bring it up from time to time – try to get him to think about it. Finally, something all of a sudden registered with him. He began in earnest to seriously start examining the album again. And with the help of Darian Sahanaja, as well as the rest of his band (all absolute heroes in my mind), and with Van Dyke climbing back on board, the impossible suddenly became reality. Still I feared the worst. I feared it would be some cheap imitation by a musician and singer clearly past his prime. His voice was not what it once was, nor his mind. Judging from his solo albums (though he had released some excellent stuff – especially his 1988 self-titled album), I just didn’t think he could pull off a feat this large, at this point in his career. He was, after all, a mere shadow of his former self. Or so it seemed.

As soon as I put the album on, I could immediately tell that I was completely wrong. Every fear I had had instantly dissipated. I knew after the first song, that the rest of the album was going to be equally as great. And it was. Song after song, I was literally floored. It was everything I had ever hoped it would be, and actually more. All the little musical fragments that I had heard on bootlegs for so many years, Brian and Darian had found room for all of them. And it was done in such a clever way as to sound perfectly natural. Nothing was forced. And his voice actually sounded better than it had in years. Perhaps because of the quirkiness of many of the songs, his voice sounded perfect for them. I sat there transfixed and laughing with glee.

What amazed me the most is that his band played this music with sheer perfection. They understood this music and what Brian was trying to accomplish (unlike Mike Love all those years before). They have total respect for Brian and his talent. It clearly shows. They had heard the bootlegs many, many times, just like the rest of us and knew how these songs were supposed to sound. But what was so shocking is that the finished result didn’t sound like they were simply trying to recreate something – some pale imitation. They sounded like they were the band that was supposed to be playing this music all along. And the backing vocals were so spot-on that the Beach Boys were actually not missed (and I do not mean that as any kind of disrespect to the Boys).

Even the “new” musical passages that were added to the work sounded completely natural. Probably because Brian had written them back in 1966-67 and actually remembered some things that he had forgotten about all these years – notes that had never been recorded back then. Van Dyke came up with a few new lines of text that sounded close enough to what he had written at the time, as to blend in seamlessly. To top it all off, Brian’s production was simply brilliant. Everything he had in his arsenal back in his heydey returned to him just when he needed it most. It was like everyone involved in this project was being guided to finally make this work everything it was ever supposed to be. 

I realize I still haven’t actually talked about any of the songs so far. Let me just say that it is an album that needs to be heard in its entirety. There is more sheer invention and creativity going on in these songs than most bands can dream up in a lifetime. It is simply a wonder to behold – no matter how many times you hear them. The arrangements that Brian came up with are overflowing with creative genius. Every twenty seconds it seems like Brian takes a song in a different direction and yet somehow he always makes it work. He is never merely showing off. It reminds me of some of the types of things that rap groups like the Beastie Boys and De La Soul did years later – twisting and turning songs inside out.     

There are so many things I can say about each individual song. How magnificent each song is in its own right, yet how each piece adds up to a greater whole. Many of these songs have come out over the years in various states – “Good Vibrations” being the most famous – and yet they never sound like old warhorses here. Within the context of this album, they sound like brand new pieces. Even “Good Vibrations” (with Van Dyke’s original verses to the song, replacing Mike Love’s famous contribution) never sounds like some karoake remake. It sounds like a parallel universe take on the more famous 1966 original. It ends the album on a perfect note.

Smile has very little to do with anything Brian had written up to that point. This was more like art-rock – though there is very little actual rock music on here. As a matter of fact, it is hard to actually describe what this album sounds like. Brian simply described it as “American music” – which is as good of a description as I could give. It’s ironic that the song called “Surf’s Up” sounds the least like their early surfing songs. It may be the most stunning creation of Brian’s career. And definitely Van Dyke’s most brilliantly realized lyric. He is simply the master of poetic wordplay. 

Like I have said, this album is sheer perfection. Brian’s crowning achievement. Even though it came out so many years after it was originally intended, it still got many accolades and did well on the charts. This version has been called one of the greatest albums in the history of rock & roll, just like the intended original should have been back in 1967. And what amazes me most of all is that, even though I will still listen to those Beach Boys bootleg versions of Smile, I no longer find myself having as much reason to. This is the version that is the definitive article. Perhaps 2004 was the year it was always meant to come out. It simply wasn’t ready for 1967, or 1972 (when it was next purported to be released), or any other year in between.

I do hope that a box set does come out someday of the Beach Boys’ versions of these songs. I would still line up to buy it. But it can never replace this 2004 version. It will always be an unfinished collection of songs (no matter how brilliant they are) – but this is the finished work of art.

It may sound like mere hyperbole to those who have never heard Smile (in any form), but along with Kind of Blue, Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds and “Rhapsody in Blue,” this is one of the most brilliant creations of the past hundred years. We can never thank Brian enough.

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