CHICAGO — The Beach Boys’ “Smile” is the album that haunted Brian Wilson for four decades.
The unfinished Beach Boys work devastated Wilson even though it later confirmed his legend as a musical visionary. He abandoned it in 1967 amid doubts from his record company and even his own bandmates about its orchestrated whimsy. In its aftermath, the singer-composer strugged with mental illness, drug abuse and family tragedies, and would not tour again until the ‘90s.
When interviewed by the Chicago Tribune in 1998, Wilson dismissed those who would call “Smile” a lost masterpiece: “They’re not missing much.”
But enough bits and pieces of the work had surfaced over the years to argue otherwise. Wilson himself was finally persuaded to create a new version of “Smile” in 2004 with his excellent touring band. And now, he’s gone back to the original master tapes with various confidantes to assemble the album that might have been, as part of a five-CD box set.
“The Smile Sessions” (Capitol/EMI) follows the template of Wilson’s 2004 re-recording to sequence 19 songs and snippets from the 1966-67 sessions into as close to a definitive “Smile” as we’re likely to ever get, followed by voluminous fragments, outtakes and snippets of studio dialogue. These show a sometimes demanding composer-producer at work through 80 sessions with his fellow Beach Boys and the esteemed Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.
“Sorry, I’m sorry about that, it’s not happening,” Wilson calmly but firmly demands of the musicians after one minor breakdown. “I think you probably know when it’s happening, right? Let’s make it happen, please.”
Wilson never made it happen entirely to his satisfaction, eventually abandoning “Smile” in the spring of 1967. He caved in to pressure both external and self-imposed that the album he envisioned was already overdue and nowhere near completion, while the Beach Boys hit parade was stalling.
Instead of the surf-cars-and-girls formula that had built the vocal group’s franchise, Wilson was on a different mission entirely. He layered instruments to create tonal and harmonic variety rarely if ever heard in rock recordings. As multi-instrumentalist Paul Mertens, who worked on the 2004 remake, said, “The notes are simple, but the combinations of sounds are not.”
In the middle of the psychedelic era Wilson navigated his own mind trips by scripting multi-part songs that he would reconfigure until they matched his exacting standards. Everything from theremins and French horns to harpsichords and the Beach Boys’ vaunted multi-part vocal harmonies became part of these collages, with Wilson in the role of a rock ‘n’ roll Aaron Copland, a hipper West Coast answer to Phil Spector.
With lyricist Van Dyke Parks, another young California musical iconoclast, Wilson turned “Smile” into a compact history of America — or at least the idea of what America once represented in its naïve optimism. It traces a journey to that begins at Plymouth Rock and makes its way west to the Promised Land, a montage of historical references (Mrs. O”Leary’s cow even makes an appearance) and mystical reveries (the eternal “Surf’s Up”). The music embraces the epic and the fanciful, evoking a prairie church service in one sequence (“Cabin Essence”), providing a soundtrack for an acid trip in another (“Vega-Tables”).
Though the Beach Boys sing beautifully, the arcane songs puzzled some of the group members. In the “Smile” box liner notes, the group’s other alpha male — vocalist Mike Love — acknowledges that “the lyrics on some things were not my cup of tea” and “leading the Beach Boys in a bad direction.”
Though Love is sometimes cast as the villain in the “Smile” mythology, Wilson ultimately was the only one who could’ve pulled the plug on it. He did so feeling that he had failed, that the “teenage symphony to God” that he heard in his head had not been realized despite months of tinkering.
His confidence eroded even though he was coming off an extraordinary year in which he had composed and produced the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds” and the springboard for the “Smile” session, suite-like single “Good Vibrations” (its genesis is recounted in no less than 26 musical snippets in the box).
With “Pet Sounds” Wilson came up with a deeper, more profound emotional language for his music, unlike anything he and the Beach Boys had done before. With “Good Vibrations” and then with “Smile” he explored the possibilities of sound, even in the way lyrics tumbled off the tongue (“Columnated ruins domino”!). The word “cinematic” gets thrown around a lot in describing densely orchestrated music these days, but “Smile” was among the first albums to achieve that distinction in the rock era, conjuring movie-like images in the listener’s mind with its vivid blend of instruments and sound effects (the crunch of vegetables, the tapping of nails, the riotous conversation of barnyard animals).
Wilson was looking for a new language, essentially making a solo album with the Beach Boys’ help. As the “Smile” box demonstrates, he was only a few yards short of the doorway before giving up — a case of immersion destroying perspective. Fortunately, the master tapes survive, and they testify to Wilson’s painstaking journey. Much of it — the copious retakes, the meticulous instructions to his musicians and singers — will be of sustained interest only to Wilson aficionados. Those patient enough to wade through it all will gain insight into Wilson’s process, how he was able to create countless musical modules, the arrangements in his head never completely apparent until all the puzzle pieces had been fit together.
Those fragments coalesced gloriously in songs such as “Heroes and Villains,” which an awe-struck Jimi Hendrix once described as “psychedelic barbershop music,” and “Surf’s Up.” A piano-and-voice demo of the latter preserved in “The Smile Sessions” can’t help but leave a listener slack-jawed, yet Wilson kept going, tweaking sounds and adding instruments until he’d achieved something even greater. The singer set the standard for himself imposingly high. No wonder that for decades he never quite felt like he had measured up.
“The Smile Sessions” is available in three versions and prices ranging from about $30 to $180 — a two-CD set; a two-disc vinyl edition, and a limited-edition boxed set; a digital release is also expected)