Worth a Smile...
Thirty-eight years. That’s how long it has taken for the album Smile to be completed. Conceptualized at the peak of the Beach Boys’ popularity in 1966, the album originally promised to be something unique, something representative of Wilson’s budding genius as a composer, something that would stop every critic and reviewer dead in their tracks. Yet for all that Smile was supposed to be, it never was, as Wilson’s remarkable crash and burn life story will evidence. As the years passed, Smile took on a near mythic identity, transcending mere music and becoming the modern age’s great unfinished masterpiece, the windmill that Wilson as Don Quixote would be destined to futilely chase. At times the album served as one of Wilson’s most punishing demons, a constant reminder of missed opportunities, wasted talent and unrealized potential. Yet somewhere along the line, Wilson summoned the strength and courage to face Smile head on, and finish what he started. Now, after nearly four decades of waiting, hoping, praying and dreaming, the music world has been given the gift of Wilson’s magnum opus. It is a wonderful and perplexing treasure…
As a young man in his mid-20s, Wilson proved to be a rare talent. A multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and visionary, he was put in the same lofty category as the greatest artists of the past, from Mozart to Michelangelo. His acclaimed Pet Sounds took the world of pop music by storm, but also set the creative bar incredibly high. Smile was to have been the entree to Pet Sounds’ appetizer, but it never came to fruition, existing only in fractionalized form as lone tracks on subsequent Beach Boys’ albums and bootlegs. Despite the sizable passage of time however, the finalized Smile resonates in much the same way as Pet Sounds originally did.
The album is afforded the best treatment as Wilson has assembled an expert supporting cast to assist in telling the Smile story. Anchored by lush harmonies and precise orchestration, the album is a lavish musical journey, one that leads listeners back in time, to a place where Wilson once reigned supreme. Interestingly, the sophistication of most of Smile‘s songs is woven through the 17 tracks with little thematic consistency. The chaotic “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is as reminiscent of Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as “Child Is Father of the Man” bears hints of Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack composition for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; a carnival like sonic atmosphere underscores “Song for Children” and “I’m in Great Shape/I Wanna Be Around/Workshop”, while “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” revisit the Beach Boys’ heyday.
As ornate and beautiful as Smile is, it is not without a flaw or two. Wilson’s voice is strong for much of the album, best exemplified on “Cabin Essence”, but appears weary and sad on “Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine”. Similarly, his vocals cannot compensate for the conspicuously out of place “Vega-Tables”, while “On a Holiday” is not so much irreverent as it is lyrically peculiar. The most obvious aspect that takes away from Smile‘s luster however, is an uncomfortable sense that the album has morphed into a quaint piece of nostalgia rather than the masterwork it was expected to be.
It is difficult to consider Smile as anything but a fascinating time capsule relic; a grand artistic instrument for The Beach Boys, Wilson and writing partner Van Dyke Parks that would have eclipsed the importance of Pet Sounds, for its originality and influence. As such, it is challenging not to associate Smile exclusively with a young Wilson toiling away in the studio, a contrast of professionalism and wide-eyed innocence, with his Beach Boy brethren laying down tracks. There is something about Smile in 2004 that feels inauthentic, similar to a vintage automobile sitting in traffic amongst minivans and European rally coupes. Perhaps the album’s material still has traces of mid-‘60s naivety to it; perhaps it is simply a matter of accepting that the Brian Wilson of old is now an older Brian Wilson, and his labor of love has debuted at middle age. Whatever the case, it might be best to heed the album’s liner note direction when evaluating and enjoying Smile: “...the best thing we can do is listen to this music without the burden of history… rejoice in the glory of the music itself.” Author David Leaf closes by stating, “Very simply, Brian wrote this music to make us Smile. Eternally.”
After 38 years, Brian Wilson can say that he succeeded in doing just that…
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