I’m going to try to keep this one to a manageable length, but it’s about SMiLE, so you can imagine how tough that’s going to be for me.
It’s fair to say that SMiLE is one of my all-time favorite albums, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s one of my favorite things created by anyone ever. Originally mounted as a Beach Boys record in 1966 and 1967, Brian Wilson’s masterpiece was abandoned and shoved under the rug, only to be triumphantly revived and completed in 2004. Even without that context, the finished SMiLE is one of the most joyous records I’ve ever heard. With that context, it’s so wonderful it moves me to tears.
When Wilson’s completed version of the album came out in September 2004, I had just lost a girl and a job in the same two-week period, and was facing the daunting prospect of selling my furniture, packing up my stuff and moving to a far-off state. It was one of the lower points of my life, and I needed something to make each day worth getting up out of bed for. SMiLE was it. It kept me going through the darker moments – it was (and is) quite impossible for me to feel down when this record is playing. I treasured it then, and still treasure it now.
It’s still difficult for me to comprehend Brian Wilson’s fear of this music. For decades he wouldn’t talk about it, would merely refer to it as “inappropriate,” would go to great lengths to keep it hidden. A couple of the SMiLE songs (“Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Surf’s Up”) were re-worked and released on subsequent Beach Boys albums, and of course there is “Good Vibrations,” the only song from the sessions that was truly finished. Bootlegs of the sessions made the rounds, but until Wilson and Van Dyke Parks sat down in 2003 to put the whole thing together, very little of the SMiLE stuff had seen the light of day.
Until now. I expected that finishing SMiLE, finally, would be like lifting a lead weight from Brian’s shoulders, and I was more right than I could have guessed. He’s gone on to his most productive period since the ‘60s, crafting solo albums at a prodigious pace. (One of those albums, That Lucky Old Sun, is good enough to stand with some of his best work.) And now Wilson has consented to the official release of the SMiLE sessions. Just the idea that people might one day hear this stuff once sent him into the throes of despair. But here it is, in all its glory – a tantalizing glimpse at the original SMiLE, and how it might have sounded.
The SMiLE Sessions is available in multiple configurations, from a two-CD package to an all-out monster, with five CDs, two LPs and two seven-inch singles. I opted for the smaller set, but I’m kicking myself now – these sessions are so fascinating that I could easily dig through another three full discs of them without growing bored. Had this album been completed and released in 1967 as planned, it would have set the world on fire. It’s like nothing else that was being done at the time. Wilson has made no bones about the fact that he felt like he was in a competition with the Beatles, and with SMiLE, he would have won. In scope, complexity, and flat-out brilliance, it’s far and away one of the most amazing things ever put to tape.
This box is being promoted as the official release of the Beach Boys’ SMiLE, and well, it simply isn’t true. There is no album to officially release – SMiLE was not completed until 2004. What we do have here is an approximation, stitched together from various takes of various songs, and following the 2004 SMiLE’s road map. Some songs are incomplete, others have lyrics missing, and none of the little touches that link the SMiLE songs together are present. It’s no wonder it’s been a mystery for so long. It’s just not finished.
But the approximation is beautiful. The biggest weakness of the finished SMiLE is Brian Wilson’s voice, ravaged by time and misuse. That voice, in 1966 and 1967, was unbeatable. He could sing anything, and the vocal prowess of the Beach Boys was just unmatched. The original “Our Prayer,” which opens the record, is a little faster, a little more youthful than the one that starts the finished SMiLE, but the voices are still otherworldly and gorgeous. It’s a treat to hear the young Brian sing “Wonderful,” one of his best songs, so beautifully.
The abrupt ending of that piece, preserved here, confused Wilson devotees for decades – it turns out, it was meant to segue right into “Song for Children.” Most of the second suite is in pieces here – both “Song for Children” and “Child is the Father of the Man” are missing lyrics (since they were written in 2003 and 2004), and the overall conceptual weight of the thing is absent. I can’t imagine Wilson had anything else in mind, though, than what he ended up with – the finished version of this suite is perfection.
And of course, there is “Surf’s Up,” Wilson’s finest hour. I’ve said this before, but the ascending chorus (“columnated ruins domino”) may be my favorite moment in all of pop music, and man, Brian could sing it. There’s a piano demo included on disc two, just Brian and keys, and he does it there, flawlessly. “Surf’s Up” is a perfect song, and the original take of it is impossibly moving. It’s here with only part of its “child, child” coda, which was fleshed out for the completed SMiLE. Even so, it’s an absolutely incredible piece of work.
Hearing that astonishingly goony third and final suite always makes me laugh and sing along, and it’s neat to discover that so much of the lunacy of the finished version was there in the original takes. All the sawing and hammering noises in “Workshop,” the rhythmic chewing in “Vegetables,” the slide whistles in “Fire.” I find I really miss the pirate rap in “On a Holiday,” here in an instrumental version. The clarinets and mallet percussion are wonderful, though, and the segue into the haunting “Wind Chimes” is here in full. I also miss the lyrics that changed “Love to Say Da Da” into “In Blue Hawaii” on the finished record – I find myself singing along with the instrumental take here, adding the new words.
One of the biggest joys of the finished SMiLE was hearing how “Good Vibrations” took its place as the closing track. The segue, which revisits “Our Prayer,” is brilliant, and it’s here, intact. I don’t know if Wilson thought of ending the album with its most famous song in 1966, but in my mind, it was always meant to be there. And the reconstructed SMiLE here certainly bears that out. Even 45 years later, “Good Vibrations” is remarkable, a masterpiece of studio engineering and pop composition. The 2004 version was a piece of cake to record. This one reportedly took months, spanning 17 sessions at four different studios. For 1966, it’s a miracle.
Those sessions and more are documented on the box set, and there’s a joy in hearing them that I can’t describe. Here is young, vibrant Brian Wilson, in total control of his studio, instructing his crack team of session musicians on the right feel, the right vibe for even the smallest part of his vision. Brian is a taskmaster, interrupting takes when they don’t strike him the right way, but he’s also kind and supportive. There’s a great exchange with bassist Carol Kaye in which Wilson tells her not to worry about getting the part exactly right. She responds, “But I do worry, Brian,” and he says, “You mustn’t,” in kind tones.
Above all, the impression this set gives is that the SMiLE sessions were just a tremendous amount of fun. I’ve heard rumors of misery and darkness and feuds between brothers, and perhaps it’s the product of judicious editing, but I don’t hear any of that here. My 2-CD set includes a couple of funny improvised skits, in which Wilson pretends to have fallen inside a piano, and then the head of a microphone. And man, it just sounds like it would have been so much fun to be there to experience this.
The set also includes “You’re Welcome,” the b-side of “Heroes and Villains,” and the only song here I hadn’t heard. It’s a brief, vocal-driven thing, and of a piece with the SMiLE stuff. There’s also a backing vocal montage that’s breathtaking. Seriously, those Beach Boys could sing. I love hearing the “doing doing” bits of “Cabin Essence” unadorned. For a process junkie like me, these little bits are invaluable, and fascinating. Which is why I may spring for the big set sooner rather than later.
The thrill of hearing how one of my favorite albums ever was conceived and constructed is amazing. I’m grateful to have every part of SMiLE’s history, from the original sessions documented here to the finished work released in 2004. It’s all one long journey, one massive testament to the brilliance of Brian Wilson.
And sometimes, I think Brian needs to go back and listen to this stuff, to remind himself that he is, in fact, Brian Wilson. I fear sometimes he forgets his own place in history, his own prodigious talent, which is what leads him to agree to things like his new album, Brian Wilson in the Key of Disney. Yep, it’s 11 songs from Disney films, given the Wilson treatment – surf-rock beats, dazzling arrangements, and those incredible vocal parts. Like last year’s George Gershwin project, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, but it’s still not really worthy of him.
Things I like: the banjo-and-mallets take on “The Bare Necessities” is nice, the zany mash-up of “Heigh-Ho,” “Whistle While You Work” and “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” is pure Brian Wilson, and the arrangement of “Colors of the Wind” brings out hidden… well, colors in the song. But as it turns out, not even Brian Wilson can make gold out of Elton John’s dross – both “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Just Can’t Wait to be King” fall flat. And I prefer Randy Newman’s takes on his own songs, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “We Belong Together.”
It all ends with a very nice “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and the whole thing is produced wonderfully, as is Brian’s trademark. (I mentioned the vocals, right? Because they’re fantastic.) But in the final analysis, all this wizardry is in the service of a bunch of Disney songs. I’ll buy whatever Brian does until one of us dies, but the man likely doesn’t have a lot of time left, and I’d like to hear him concentrate on original material.
Still, even if Brian Wilson decides to do these themed tribute records forever, or even chooses to retire from music entirely, his legacy is set. He’s one of the greatest songwriters and producers in history, and nothing he does now can change that fact. If he wants to have fun in his old age, and make records that make him smile, then who am I to begrudge him?
One of my favorite parts of the SMiLE Sessions set is the new essay Brian wrote about those days, and that music. It’s so warm, so full of peace and hope. I’m so glad he’s finally found both. If anyone deserves a happy ending, it’s Brian Wilson.
Next week, most likely I’ll catch up with the Queen reissues, and then there’s David Mead, Kate Bush and Noel Gallagher to get to. And then, of course, it’ll be top 10 list time again.
See you in line Tuesday morning.