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Smile at Last: Brian Wilson's Genius Resolved

Rino Breebaart

Anyone who's ever been serious about listening to or collecting the Beach Boys' music will have heard about Smile. Often called the greatest unfinished, unreleased record of all time, it was begun in 1966, but was abandoned before completion due to a mysterious concatenation of forces.

Anyone who's ever been serious about listening to or collecting the Beach Boys' music will have heard about Smile. Often called the greatest unfinished, unreleased record of all time, it was begun in 1966, but was abandoned before completion due to a mysterious concatenation of forces.

Conceived as a concept album to rival the Beatles, an all-American teenage symphony of pop, until now it could only be enjoyed in a fragmentary nature -- several tracks appeared on subsequent albums; others on a host of confusing bootlegs that gave a tantalising hint of beauty and truly wonder-inducing music. Principle writer Brian Wilson got bogged down with drug paranoia, group discontent, problems with Capitol Records, and an encroaching sense of the moment passing. After many, many hours in the studio, he found himself with a growing puzzle and too many confusing pieces.

With only these fragments and suggestions of songs, a cult of speculation developed about what could've been, what the right order and song arrangement would've been, and what really happened to Brian in his breakdown and distancing from the project. Brian was consistently disinclined to discuss the matter ever after. Like an unfinished master painting torn into contradictory shreds, it seemed the picture of the whole was consigned to critics' speculation and wishful thinking. The master had thrown in the towel and a rich mystery was born.

Now, buoyed by the success of his tours with backing band the Wondermints, Wilson has gone back and rerecorded the material abandoned 37 years previously, working closely with the original tapes and collaborator Van Dyke Parks. And he's finished it. And released it. Signed, sealed, delivered -- pop closure and smiles all round! I mean, enter the mindset of a dedicated fan for a second (you've been speculating in chat rooms and forums for years, you've dug up every related article and developed a conspiratorial theory or two, and you don't think many other songwriters cut the mustard) and imagine the feeling of achievement and communion to finally hear Smile the way it was intended. To hear what for '60s pop music would've been a work of audacious genius, an expression of music as art, a bafflingly original instant classic. It really is like rediscovering a lost masterpiece. Smile is the ultimate fan's apotheosis and reward for dedication, and of course Brian's dedicated it to all those who waited so long.

With so much hype and speculative history, it's going to be very difficult to appreciate Smile as a singular, unprecedented album in itself. The fans will have trouble reconciling the sound and feel of the original analogue fragments with this crisp new rendition. Modern listeners might have trouble adopting the full context of 1966 against which these songs were written. Or they might have trouble filtering out any negative/kitsch connotations the Beach Boys might have for them. Or they might simply dislike overtly 'conceptual' albums.

But even as far as concept albums go, Smile is far and away in a world of its own. 'Pastoral Pop Symphony' might be a closer appellation. If, by 'concept', one's referring to what I'd call 'of-the-moment' albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which seem unified and synergetic almost by situational accident, or thematically consistent and broad-scale concept albums like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, then in comparison, Smile stands out like a renegade. It's far richer in musical detail alone. It has greater song-writing/arranging ingenuity and abstraction -- the two mixing uncannily on some tracks. The problem with 'concept albums' is that they lead you to think the themes and overall message are more important than the quality of songs themselves. With Smile, the sheer beauty and evocative power of the songs counters all such woods-through-tree-isms.

At the time, Wilson was an advanced song sculptor and studio wizard, as fans of the previous album Pet Sounds will attest. Schooled in the Four Freshmen and Phil Spector, Wilson had rapidly advanced into a talented major hit writer. Session musicians (like the great Carol Kaye) were dead keen to work with him. Brian's ear for harmony and song was almost unparalleled, and he'd just pumped out the 'pocket symphony' of Good Vibrations. Faced with the Britpop brilliance of the Beatles' Revolver, Brian went all-out in scale and style for Smile. And in retrospect, though it did ultimately dispirit him deeply at the time, Smile shits all over Sgt. Pepper. It has much more music per minute, finer backing vocals, and more songwriting craft. (I'm curious to know what Sir Paul thinks of it after all these years. I haven't yet Googled any serious opinions.) Even compared to the loosely 'conceptual' Pet Sounds, Smile is worlds away more advanced. All from someone who'd reached the peak of his craft at 24, and who nearly collapsed under the weight of it all.

Enough of the superlatives -- let's get down to brass tacks. Brian's singing voice and expressive range sound like it's been cut in half, as though he's singing by numbers. Sadly, he lacks some of the melancholic inflection and deep feeling of his youth. But the Wondermints do excellent backing work, and occasionally strategically prop his formerly soaring falsetto. In fact, the backing vocals on this album are astounding technically, even if they lack the distinct characters of the Beach Boys (Brian's late brother Carl is sorely missed). The opening choral "Our Prayer" sounds as fresh and complexly baroque as humanly possible, a wordless hymn of pure interlocking harmony. A pre-emptive "Gee" leads right into "Heroes and Villains", the only single to be released from the project in 1966. This was one of the songs giving Wilson the most trouble -- but considering the modular approach he took to writing and recording it, the tension of choices seems to have evaporated here. He has the enviable ability to hear a work completely, well before it's assembled and mixed. I challenge anyone to find a song with more arcanely arranged backing vocals than this -- at times joyous, madcap, astoundingly diverse, it's like Brian wrote songs expressly for backing vocals. Listen to the incredibly subtle "boys, and, girls" sneaked into the rich mix of voices. Try and fit more invention into five minutes of music.

"Heroes" also gives an inkling of the manifold themes about to unfold: jokes, Americana, and landscape; loss of innocence and thereby growth; healthy fun, children, and love. Smile covers these not just literally through its associative lyrics (courtesy of Parks), but musically. What's striking about Wilson's work in general is his evocative power: the music is always commensurate with the subject or mood of the song. He can convey the distinct pastoral feel of flying over cornfields, or a fire in your head (quite literally), or the cool rush of water at your fingertips. His is an astoundingly colourful sonic palette: banjos, rumbling rhythms, and neat percussion tricks; cellos and harpsichords; harmonicas (bass and treble) trading ascending and descending lines; hammers, whistles, and even chewing (on "Vega-Tables"). And always layering it with sophisticated backing vocals.

Also immediately noticeable about Smile is how its musical themes repeat and recur in various guises. It sounds symphonic in principle, but it doesn't corrupt the individual beauty of songs like "Surf's Up", "Wonderful", and "Wind Chimes". Yet neither does it sound as deliberate as side two of Abbey Road, where an entire slew of songs are stitched together McCartney-style. Brian actually uses the themes to develop the lyrical content of the songs.

Take the second movement of the album, which could be called the loss of innocence suite. Beginning with the innocent and private world shattered by boy trouble in "Wonderful", then developing into the searching, growing child of "Song for Children" and "Child is Father of the Man" (all superbly moving, sculpted, complex), with their choppy but stereophonic child-child-child vocals and lullaby echoed guitars, and then the seamless musical segue into the better-known "Surf's Up". An impressionistic rendering of breakdown and heartbreak, this is the mature man waving goodbye to his former innocence and youth, but interestingly, realised by an insight into the songs of children, it is also a regaining of life through the positivity of youth. The child, or rather fatherhood, brings about the maturity of the adult: "I heard the word / Wonderful thing / A children's song� Have you listened as they play? / Their song is love / And the children know the way".

There's so much poetry inherent in the idea of the child fathering the man (which I think actually stems from Wordsworth's poetry) that I've always regarded this song as a key moment in Wilson's musical and personal life: the moment he turned away from the surf/beach/youth formula of the Beach Boys and really found himself artistically. To first-time father Brian, as he was at the time, children represent the death of one's own youth, but also a reconciliation of sorts, of youth matured and defined, which observes, as though for the first time, the generosity of innocence in the child. It's an idea expressed slightly differently but with similar idea-power by Andy Partridge: "Now the son has died, the father can be born". It certainly lends a philosophical weight to the abstract poetry of the lyrics. Again, the child-child-child motif and sustained backing vocals render the song and the poetic movement complete.

To be honest, the whole album is not as full of sophisticated highs as this moment. Some pieces sound slightly incomplete or deliberately rumbling -- quite possibly because they sounded good to the stoner mindset they were written in. But then you just can't fill an entire album with achingly complex structure and intense backing vocals and not expect a lull somewhere. It's all still immensely likeable: from the variety-hour travels from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii and back, to all the trains, rocks, fields, and hammers in between, to the supremely druggy "You Are My Sunshine". "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" is still very damn freaky and disturbing -- the cool water of "In Blue Hawaii" doesn't come quick enough.

Like the loss of innocence theme, it's almost disappointing that the mystery surrounding the album has finally cleared up. The oft-touted genius of Smile-era Brian Wilson has finally been capped; it's now clear what he intended and what he could achieve. I've noticed that several reviewers are withholding the fifth star of 'All-Time Classic' due to a muffled disappointment that Smile didn't carry a more overt or defined message of '60s positivity, as so many 'concept' albums laboured to impart then. Or because there wasn't a single juicy theme (well-expressed) they could sink their criticism into. But I believe that, musically and sonically, the album is complete (it's rich in earthy browns and greens): all that's left for us is to listen to it as though for the first time and relish Brian's ability to render his meaning in beautifully resonant first impressions and complex vocal harmonies.

And in terms of fulfilling potential, in terms of doing justice to a broad artistic vision whilst creating an immensely affective and artistic frame for beauty to sing within, Smile represents pop music closure on a cosmic scale; the best kind of conclusion that could be hoped for.

At last, the fans sigh, contented, the angels in Brian's head are coherent and whole.

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