It was to be Brian Wilson’s American answer to the grandiose work of the Beatles overseas. It was to be the Beach Boys’ greatest album to date, surpassing even the sonic tenderness that was Pet Sounds. But instead of becoming what it was meant to be, it was lost. And if you think that sounds like Lord of the Rings, you’re not too far off. As Galadriel said in the prologue to the first film, “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became a legend. Legend became myth.” Eerily enough, Brian Wilson became more Gollum-like, hiding from the limelight, becoming less of a force in the band that brought him fame, and refusing to go on tour, happy to ensconce himself at home and in the studio to work on his precious music. The rest of the Beach Boys, already having voiced their displeasure with Pet Sounds, were even more unhappy with the direction of what was supposed to be SMiLE. Recordings were scrapped, even after a number one hit preview single in “Good Vibrations.”
SMiLE has been quite often compared to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. There are very good reasons for the comparisons. One is the escalation of the album from a collection of songs to a segued and flowing set of themed musical works. As Pepper’s starts with the introduction of the faux title band, SMiLE starts with a similar introductory style, although not exactly the same. “Our Prayer / Gee” is a split song, the first an angelic harmonized vocal piece, the second an introduction to the second track “Heroes & Villains”. Another similarity can be found in the song “I’m in Great Shape,” a song with a myriad of similarities to “A Day in the Life,” specifically Paul’s bridge. More likenesses can be found throughout, but I’m sure somebody will write a book about it now that the album has finally been released.
Now, before there is any confusion, I feel I should explain what I mean by finally released. Some may get the impression that this album release is simply a compilation of the recordings from 1967 and either finished or mixed to create a final product. This is not the case. Instead, SMiLE is a new work based on the original ideas that Brian Wilson had for the concept. While some purists may argue that Brian Wilson’s voice is not near the same now as it was then, or that since the Beach Boys are not involved, that it is not really what the album was going to be. Others have remarked that this album is now more than what it could be, that by combining the studio techniques Wilson used in the sixties with today’s technology, and by using singers that Wilson claims as better singers than the Beach Boys, that this version is the definitive version and the final word on the long and storied myth that is SMiLE.
I, for one, cannot distinguish that much of a difference between Brian Wilson’s vocal techniques. Sure, I can tell that he’s older and his voice has changed somewhat, but it is not significant enough to make a huge difference. The backup singers, that being the Wondermints, as well, resemble the harmonic convergence that was the Beach Boys. Aside from that, there is really nothing that critics can say to unfavorably compare this release to master tapes from the sixties. True, some of these songs did appear at one time or another on Beach Boys’ releases, specifically “Heroes & Villains,” “Vegetables,” “Good Vibrations” and “Wind Chimes” on Smiley Smile, “Our Prayer” and “Cabin Essence” on 20/20, and “Surf’s Up” on Surf’s Up, but they were never created to appear in those formats originally. Remember how we used to create mix tapes (now I guess they’re MP3 mixes) and would get so used to the order of the tracks that whenever we heard the song in a different format, for instance on the radio or on someone else’s mix tape, it would completely throw us for a loop? We would think to ourselves, `That’s not what the next song was supposed to be!’ This is exactly the point with those songs mentioned and the order they should have been in originally. Even the original supposed tracklist for 1967’s lost release is different from the final product!
So, you may ask, how did it turn out? Well, I didn’t have the same expectations for the album as some did. Those who were teens and adults in the late sixties, the ones who bought Pet Sounds and found a little slice of heaven, then waited on pins and needles for the album that would only appear 37 years later, are the ones who expected nothing short of brilliance. Having discovered the majesty of Brian Wilson’s songwriting skills much later than these people, I had a different expectation. I had mixed feelings. The first was a combination of `why?’ and `leave well enough alone,’ while the second was `let’s see what the hype was all about.’ While I can’t comment for the first group, I can say for myself that I was stunned by this sonic masterpiece. I was amazed by the suite structure of the album, by the flow of one song into another, and by the vision as a whole. One merely has to listen to the songs “Child is Father of the Man” and “Surf’s Up” and the transition between the two.
The album is a collection of themed suites, the first being a slice of Americana, the good with the bad, or, if you will, the heroes with the villains. Mentions of Plymouth Rock and the `acquisition’ of land from the Native Americans to the industrialization of the country from the Grand Coulee Dam to the expansion of the railroads all paint a picture of a country at odds with itself. The second suite is one devoted to the mysteries of men and women and children and adults. Wilson once called SMiLE his teenage prayer to God, and this second suite is a perfect example of that description. The third and final suite involves the four elements with the first sections of songs revolving around earth, then with “Wind Chimes” moving into wind, the astounding and groundbreaking “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” representing fire, and “In Blue Hawaii” signaling water before the album culminates with “Good Vibrations,” a song Wilson didn’t want to include the first time around. This brings up another similarity to Sgt. Pepper’s in that album closer “A Day in the Life” was originally an amalgamation of two songs, one by John and one by Paul, that they melded into one track. The song didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album’s themes and, I’m guessing, was simply tacked on to the end. In a way, with this release of SMiLE, Wilson has used the luxury of time to his advantage, finding ways to segue the songs and form them into a whole concept, even including “Good Vibrations” which now acts as a unifying factor in the elemental songs. What once was another good-time surf/girl song can now be seen as a song where the narrator is in touch with nature and responding to its cues.
Books have been written about this album and I’m sure more are to come with this release. Films have also been made and centered on the missing project. Reams of articles and essays have been filed. But in the end, this is an album review in which I must recommend what my opinion is about the album. I can say with absolute certainty and conviction that Brian Wilson’s long awaited project SMiLE is a musical and lyrical work of genius. Thanks to the help of Wilson’s wife, his lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and his `musical secretary’ Darian Sahanaja, the former Beach Boy has finally brought his dream to fruition, a work of musical art that should have been and now finally is. SMiLE will make you do just what the album’s title suggests you do, and you will from ear to ear. It’s that good.
While I have made comparisons to both Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, nothing else can really compare.