“Say, ‘Oh no, I’m stuck in my french horn.'” “It’s me. Brian. I’m in the microphone. It’s not a buzz. I’m really in here. I’m not kidding.” “Swim, swim, fishy. Swim, swim, fishy.” “Is it okay if I just take one of these carrots? Let me put ’em in my glove compartment.” That’s Brian Wilson: erratic genius, musical wunderkind, fabled nutbar, etc. Amongst all the eye-shuttering madness, his troubled character utters such hilarious catchphrases, including everyone’s favorite: “Let’s do one more, let it roll.”
Isn’t that what SMiLE always has been? A great serial? The stuff of rock ‘n’ roll lore? Perhaps one of the only true myths within the genre? On paper, it sure reads like it: “Acclaimed songwriter Brian Wilson loses mind while constructing the highly anticipated follow-up to The Beach Boys‘ landmark album, 1966’s Pet Sounds. Once labeled Dumb Angel, the new LP goes by the title of Smile. Reports indicate he’s working with Van Dyke Parks and writing from a sandbox, constructed to his liking in his Beverly Hills home.” It’s a blessing producer Chuck Lorre wasn’t around at the time. Otherwise, we’d be experiencing The Smile Sessions on DVD today – with commentary, no less.
Instead, we’re left with a colossal box set, featuring hours of studio rehearsals, demos, and rare recordings. To fully grasp just how much time was spent in the studio, know there are 34 separate takes for “Heroes & Villains” here, and that’s only what they’ve made available. If only they had Internet memes back then; could you imagine the “before and after” shots of each musician involved? One Polaroid full of ambition, the next battered, destroyed, and wrecked. It’s easy to lose yourself in the countless studio takes. Little gasps of pure genius here and there. The slow dissolution to it all. The echoes of things to come. It’s a history lesson come to life, and that’s part of the reason the collection here works so well. You don’t have to listen to Wilson – and when we say Wilson, we’re talking about Brian – berate his band and surrounding musicians in that passive aggressive tone of his. But, if you do, you truly appreciate the final offering.
Especially if you’ve committed Wilson’s 2004 offering to memory. It just doesn’t compare anymore. There’s just no struggle within; it had been pacified by then. (That’s not to say Wilson didn’t struggle prior to 2004…) With this version – featuring the original band – Wilson had roped his bandmates in for a long, troubling fellowship that nobody involved had anticipated. Emotions bled into these songs, and unlike the 2004 incarnation, there’s a lot at stake here. Remember, this wasn’t recorded now. It was recorded then. The tensions and drama are wired into the tracks. And, say what you will about Mike Love – there’s plenty to pile on, don’t forget it – but his vocals offered priceless support. Listen to opening track “Our Prayer”. Both of them. Which one makes your hairs stand up? Which one tickles behind the eyes? Which one sounds like The Beach Boys?
That’s the real deal. Even Wilson himself feels that way. In his recently penned liner notes (as featured in the box set), he concludes, “I’ve often felt that I was on a musical mission, to spread the gospel of love through records. Probably nothing I’ve ever done has topped the music I made with Van Dyke, my old crew in the studio and the voices of my youth – me and The Beach Boys.” Few will disagree. Look no further than the final craftsmanship. Over 40 years later, SMiLE resembles the jaw-dropping entity that it was always destined to be; an aural equivalent of a Georges Seurat piece, if you will.
There’s just always something new to hear – a very telling facet of the work. Now, the real truth behind Wilson’s madness was his unwillingness to disregard the music he heard in his head. This is an attribute that explains the 30, 40, 50 takes. But, boy, did he need it. Take the album’s four key entries: “Heroes & Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Vega-Tables”, and “Good Vibrations”. Each track sees Wilson shuffling about this proverbial music room, tuning and tweaking here and there. Then doing it again and again and again. It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. But it’s hands down some of the most impacting music of all time. These songs vindicate Wilson. You can’t listen to them without sympathizing with the man. Here’s some perspective: Would you let go of these sounds?
Of course, SMiLE is far more than a handful of four songs. For every inclusion, there are a thousand points of reference: the reflective, rollicking banjo in “Cabin Essence”, the windmill of harmonies behind “Child Is Father of the Man”, the cloud-swimming harpsichord that pushes “Wonderful”, and the instrumental paranoid delusions of “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”. You could rewrite that sentence with a new hallmark for each song a hundred times over before you’d be at a loss for words. It’s that strong.
Truth be told, however, it’s not The Beach Boys’ greatest album. (You really can’t argue with the timeless themes of Pet Sounds. You just can’t.) But, it is their most important one. It also contains the group’s two best songs. Everyone loves “Good Vibrations” to death, and with good reason (e.g. Carl Wilson’s sky-searching vocals on the verse, Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin that still sounds extraterrestrial, and Love’s tender moment on the bridge), but it all chisels down to “Surf’s Up”. Upon hearing a rough demo of it in the early ’90s, Elvis Costello likened it to uncovering an early Mozart piece – how about that, another fella who’s right. There just isn’t any other song like it. Again, it’s all about the myriad moments within. There’s one – just before it breaks into the closing sea of harmonies – where Wilson lightly sings, “Surf’s up! Mmm. Aboard a tidal wave…” and it just crushes you. The undeniable beauty, the eroded innocence, and yet that mystifying assurance… fuck, it smothers the soul. As ol’ Brian would say, “Let’s do one more, let it roll.” Yes, forever, please.
Essential Tracks: “Surf’s Up”, “Good Vibrations”, “Cabinessence”, and “Our Prayer”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.