I love music.
This might seem like a redundant statement, given that I spend hundreds of dollars on it and I write a column about it every week, but I can’t help writing it right now. I love music. Nothing makes me as giddy, entranced and in love with life like transcendent music. If you’ve been reading this column to get your cynical snark on, I’m afraid it’s been (and will continue to be) a terrible disappointment to you.
When I say I love music, what I really mean is that I love its limitless possibility. The sad truth is that 99 percent of what’s pumped out by our pals in the music industry fails miserably to even pretend to care about fulfilling that potential. Most music is neither good nor bad, merely boring, as if its creators can’t hear how good their work could be if they’d only try. Considering the infinite colors and sounds that we humans have never heard before, it seems absurdly lazy to keep giving us what we know, to not even try to expand the boundaries, even a little bit.
There are two reactions to the sad state of most music. One is to shrink into bitter cynicism, decrying the bland stuff, as if its creators care about making music better. The other, the one I’ve chosen, is to ignore the beige majority and actively seek out the visionaries, those who hear the possibilities and at least attempt to explore them. And then I do everything I can to support them, because the industry at large also does everything it can to snuff them out.
Take the sad case of Brian Wilson. Wilson is, without a doubt, one of the few absolute geniuses the American rock ‘n’ roll era has produced. As the guiding light of the Beach Boys, Wilson wrote and produced some of the catchiest surf anthems ever, but if that were all he had done, he’d be a footnote. Wilson heard colors in his head, however, and in 1966, he set out to capture them. His method was deceptively simple – write some of the best songs anyone had ever heard, and record them with the sweetest, most bountiful production available.
In 1966, no one had ever heard anything like Pet Sounds, the record Wilson made. To this day, there are few songs that can stand next to “God Only Knows” and “You Still Believe in Me,” two of the most emotional pieces on the album. The production of Pet Sounds is so good that the stereo mix, engineered a few years ago, outdoes most albums made in the last 20 years for quality and craft. There were things buried in the mono mix of Pet Sounds like hidden treasures, waiting for digital technology to unearth them, and Wilson put them there, seemingly knowing that the machines would catch up with him one day.
As amazing as Pet Sounds still is today – it’s one of the few non-Beatles albums in my all time top 10 – it was meant to be the tip of the iceberg, the first step. Upon its release, Wilson began working on the next step, a symphonic collection of themes and songs unlike anything else. He was trying to outdo Revolver, you see – it was a race between geniuses, each pushing the other to new heights. But while the Beatles were getting darker and spookier, Brian Wilson was harnessing technology to paint his joy.
The album was to be called SMiLE.
There are many reasons behind Wilson’s abandonment of SMiLE, some we’ll never know. What is known is that the rest of the Beach Boys refused to support the material, the label didn’t know what to make of it, and Wilson himself apparently let outside opinions damage his fragile self-esteem. In 1967, the same year the Beatles let loose their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper, Wilson pulled the plug.
Since then, bits of the sessions have come out in dribs and drabs. The finished songs all appeared on subsequent Beach Boys albums, and some, like “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations,” became substantial hits. No one knew, though, how close or how far away Wilson had been from finishing SMiLE, and as the sessions attained a legendary status, fans began three decades of guessing at his intentions and designs.
Wilson himself contributed to a few more Beach Boys albums (with diminishing returns), and then suffered a nervous breakdown. The Boys went on to sell out completely with “Kokomo” and reunion tours, and Wilson made three solo discs (including this year’s wretched Gettin’ In Over My Head) that further eroded his legend. It was tragic – here was this sweet, remarkable, absolute genius composer and record maker, and the best he could bring himself to do was “Imagination.”
Wilson’s long road to recovery took 38 years, and is still continuing. The strides he’s made in the last five years alone, however, have been amazing. After decades of seclusion, Wilson hired a touring band and brought Pet Sounds out on the road. That would have been enough, but like the album itself, it was just the first step. The real test of his mental health came when he called Van Dyke Parks, his collaborator, and the two of them finished SMiLE.
Most great lost projects stay lost, thereby attaining a kind of perfection they could never achieve as tangible works. The sad fact is that the legend is almost always better than the truth. After 38 years, could a finished SMiLE live up to the myth? Especially since its creator hadn’t produced anything worthy of his talents since then? But there it was, and it was real – Wilson premiered the finished work in London to a rousing standing ovation, toured it, and then recorded it.
And here it is. SMiLE has been plucked from the safe realm of the theoretical and released into the harsh world, a 47-minute collection of actual tones, recorded onto a medium that didn’t exist when most of it was written. Just looking at it as a tangible CD is mindboggling – it seems so small. But it exists, now and forever. The question is, was SMiLE better off as a legend?
Believe the hype. SMiLE is perhaps the purest expression of musical joy ever released, a giddy celebration of the possibility of music. It is at once complex and silly and sad and bursting and huge and tiny and surreal and earthy, music that explodes the limits of wonder that can be contained on a plastic disc. This is children’s music, in the best possible way – music made with wide eyes, open minds and clear hearts. It’s in such full color that it makes nearly everything else sound black and white. It is beautiful.
SMiLE is the kind of album – well, there’s no kind of album like it, really. This is symphonic pop, naturally, full of horns and strings and movements and sections and some of the most breathtaking vocal harmonies ever committed to tape. It’s remarkably unified – one of the absolute joys of this release is hearing how all the parts are meant to fit together, and even though I had only heard a few of the songs before, they all have attained greater resonance within the whole of the piece. It’s a serious symphony.
And yet, it’s the silliest thing ever. It’s full of songs about vegetables, barnyard animals and American Indians. There are mooing noises, chewing sounds, slide whistles, honks and blats all over it. Wilson originally described SMiLE as a “teenage symphony to God,” and that’s pretty close – it’s about finding wonder and joy everywhere, and there isn’t a cynical or ironic second here.
That Wilson has, at 62 years old, reclaimed his child-like delight is just too wonderful, really, and that delight comes through. More than that, though, SMiLE is the finest testament available to Wilson’s compositional brilliance. This is not the SMiLE of 1966, but had it come out then, sounding like this, we’d still be miles behind it, barely gaining ground. It’s not so much ahead of its time as out of it – no one was doing anything like this in 1966, and pretty much no one is doing anything like it now.
There are enough musical ideas on SMiLE to fill four albums its size. A new one comes along every 30 seconds or so, and the whole thing is difficult to process on first listen. SMiLE is separated into three suites, commonly called Americana, Childhood and The Elements. It opens with the gorgeous a cappella “Our Prayer” before segueing into the head-spinning “Heroes and Villains.” It’s a perfect opener, five minutes of multiple movements, beautiful vocals, and wondrous orchestration. Wilson’s voice has certainly changed in the intervening years since “H&V” was first recorded, but it’s never distracting, and his backup band (the Wondermints) harmonizes around him like a cocoon.
The first suite is almost over before you know it, blowing through the tricky “Roll Plymouth Rock” (previously titled “Do You Like Worms”), the skipping “Barnyard” and a surprisingly sad rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” before tumbling into the great “Cabin Essence.” Next comes “Wonderful,” the heartbreaking opener to the Childhood suite, my favorite of the three. It’s a single 10-minute song that builds gracefully through “Child is Father of the Man” (complete with references to “Good Vibrations”) and into “Surf’s Up.”
That song is devastating here, a tour de force of emotion and regret that puts the perfect cap on a suite about innocence. The high harmony in the chorus – “columnated ruins domino” – is perhaps my favorite moment in all of pop music, and this rendition is the best one I have heard. I swear to you, I cried upon hearing it. It is every promise fulfilled, every wasted opportunity regained.
The third suite is just nuts, but in a phenomenal way. Imagine condensing the White Album to 20 minutes, but keeping everything intact, and you have the idea. The spry “Vega-Tables” slides into the delirious “On a Holiday” before gliding gently into “Wind Chimes,” the sweetest thing here. Halfway through, that explodes in a flurry of brass and detonates into “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” a stomping instrumental. The noise subsides for the chanted intro to “In Blue Hawaii” (previously “I Love to Say Da Da”), which itself slips softly into “Good Vibrations,” the closer.
I can’t tell you how fascinating it is to hear such a ubiquitous single take its place as the grand finale of this piece. There are hints of it throughout the record, and it fits perfectly as a last celebration of life and love. Time has not diminished the achievement of Wilson’s production, either – this is, with minor variations, a note-for-note rendition of the 1966 version. It remains one of his finest arrangements, even after the stunning cornucopia of sound it concludes. Whether or not he originally intended to include it (and many say he did not), “Good Vibrations” ends SMiLE on a perfect note.
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re looking for music that reflects your own pain, or insightfully observes the world, or provides the soundtrack to your own life, then this isn’t the record for you. But if, like me, you’re in love with the possibility of music, and if you want something that hits that little-kid pleasure center unerringly while brightening the corners of your mind, then you can’t do any better than this. SMiLE is absolutely one of the best pieces of music I have ever heard, and its full realization is even better than I had hoped it would be.
God bless Brian Wilson for finally sharing this record with the world. It’s impossible to hear it without thinking about where he would have gone next, and what the world would have been like if this were merely another starting point instead of the summit. But that seems ungrateful – we don’t even deserve this, and it’s a miracle that SMiLE not only exists, but is everything we’ve been told it would be. I love this record.
I love music.
See you in line Tuesday morning.