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'SMiLE' Left Me Terribly Unhappy

Labored and unfocused, the study that Luis Sanchez attempts with SMiLE is a poor fit for the 33 1/3 format.


Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 144 pages
Author: Luis Sanchez
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-05

It’s hard to read the introduction to SMiLE, Luis Sanchez’s contribution to the ever-expanding 33 1/3 series, and not come away a bit dismayed. Ostensibly, the subject of Sanchez’s inquiry is the titular record, the Beach Boys’ quixotic post-Pet Sounds opus, once unfinished and discarded and now made whole -- a kaleidoscopic fantasia of psychedelic folk-pop steeped in American mythology and romance.

Such is not the case. Brian Wilson’s "teenage symphony to God" is the destination, not the journey. As Sanchez explains, "I’ve chosen to pursue Smile peripherally, not as an album per se, but as a culmination of Brian Wilson’s musical genius." Disappointing, perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be, right? The story of Brian Wilson is as compelling and vital as any in pop music history. Tracing the seeds of SMiLE through the evolution of Brian’s aesthetic approach holds illuminative promise.

Whatever promise there is goes unfulfilled. Toiling through this cramped, blotchy, and labored tract, it quickly registers that Sanchez’s method and style of writing are a poor fit for 33 1/3’s abbreviated format. Excluding the bibliography and other notes, SMiLE runs only 118 pages. It’s not nearly enough room for the project Sanchez attempts.

Pressed for space, he’s forced to dab here, dab there, and constantly walk away from passages that cry out for elaboration and refinement. It leaves his overarching argument thin, messy, and too reliant on the force of obvious, well-worn commentary. And there’s also the complicating factor of Sanchez’s abilities as a writer. Ease and clarity of expression are not his strong suits. Again and again, he struggles to deliver a point cogently or bring resolution to an idea. Where the text demands precision and economy, Sanchez often supplies a muddle, his purplish, quasi-academic prose a consistent barrier to elucidation.

To summarize Sanchez’s survey is to revisit the most familiar themes associated with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: California youth culture, suburban middle-class whiteness, American ambition and optimism, artistic earnestness, emotional sincerity, and so forth. Sanchez begins in the Golden State, tracking how the Beach Boys, as songwriters, played off their social context and what it meant for American pop culture in general. The band, Sanchez writes, "flourished as emissaries of phosphorescent California attitude, a signature disposition indicative of America’s perception of itself as a young nation."

Sanchez repeats some variation of this idea a number of times over the first 30 plus pages. It’s not wrong, per se, but it’s the very opposite of a fresh insight. The same is true of the clichéd banalities that Sanchez dusts off about suburban “narrowness”. It’s such a tired line of criticism and one that Sanchez doesn’t meaningfully apply to a larger point. Or at least it goes nowhere that isn’t already well traveled. Perhaps a longer text would’ve allowed the author to probe deeper and make more complete arguments, but that wasn’t an option here.

From there, Sanchez moves into the potentially more fruitful territory of Brian’s early efforts as a producer (with obscure girl groups like Rachel and the Revolvers) and the making of The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album – essentially, Brian’s mirroring act of Phil Spector. Yet his central takeaways never advance past the elementary.

Yes, Brian was steeped in earlier traditions of American music; and yes, he operated with a “directness” and conspicuous lack of guile that distinguishes him from many of his peers in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon; and yes, he idolized Spector. No amount of pontificating about “the convergence of a plurality of pop music” or Brian’s construction of an “aesthetic architecture where (his brand of) sincerity can be expressed nakedly and to its best consequences” elevates the level of Sanchez’s central observations into anything close to penetrating or incisive.

By the time Sanchez arrives at SMiLE itself, he’s only in a position to give the album a surface treatment. The reader doesn’t get to know and appreciate the songs on an individual basis. Too much of the space is devoted to the peculiar digressions that inhabit many pages of SMiLE. Again, they may not have been digressions in a bigger book, but it’s hard to view them as anything else here.

A characteristic example:

It has often been said that Smile is a great lost album. The presumption is that for all the staunch forward march of the rock revolution, it was only a matter of time before the glint of The Beach Boys’ aesthetic should have been overtaken by the babel of hippie mindset. Yet the story of Smile’s rise and fall is so ingrained as myth that it has lost its power to lure and convince.

The appearance of profundity may have been obtained, but is the passage logical or coherent? Do the pieces belong next to one another? There seems to be much to parse and unpack, but without the aid of elaboration the thrust of passage remains muddy, the individual sentences just windy flourishes. It’s a recurring fatal flaw of this text.

But worst of all, there’s little sense throughout of the joy and wonder of SMiLE. All that color, life and oddity. Or maybe it is there, but it's just buried in the thicket of Sanchez’s cumbersome prose. Whatever the case, Brian Wilson and SMiLE deserve better.


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