Brian Wilson - Smile

Brian Wilson


The Music Box's #1 album of 2004

T.J. Simon's #3 album for 2004

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2004, Volume 11, #12

Written by John Metzger


By now the many trials, tribulations, and tales of tormented anguish that tested Brian Wilson’s resolve during the making of Smile are well-known. Meant to be a follow-up to The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds as well as an Americanized response to The Beatles’ Revolver, the project was scrapped when its creator succumbed to a battle with his own personal demons. Recently revisited by Wilson, the song cycle is now complete. Given the circumstances, the astounding passage of time from inception to completion, and the notion that his solo forays have been noticeably less than stellar, such a monumental undertaking can have only one of a pair of possible outcomes: it could be an abject failure that feels forced, contrived, and disconnected; or it could be a brilliant masterpiece that takes its long-rumored, rightful place within the pantheon of not just rock ’n‘ roll but of music history. Without a doubt, Smile falls into the latter category.

With lyricist Van Dyke Parks and The Wondermints’ Darian Sahanaja at his side, Wilson sifted through the fragmented remains of his work from 1966–67 and began re-synthesizing his grand symphony by organizing its many components and composing the missing links that now bind it all together. Rather than manipulating the material from the original sessions, however, he took his backing band into the studio to recreate his suite, sometimes employing equipment identical to that utilized by The Beach Boys throughout the 1960s. Granted, many of the songs that comprise the three-part Smile found their way into the public’s purview all those years ago; after all, Good Vibrations, Heroes and Villains, Cabin Essence, Our Prayer, Vega-Tables, Wind Chimes, Wonderful, and Surf’s Up were scattered among a variety of post-Smile projects. Yet, none ever have been heard within the proper context, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect about Smile, however, is that it’s an impossible task to separate what was from what is. Where the initial compositions for the album ended, where they now resume, and everything that has come in between is nearly indiscernible. For example, there are hints of The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed that burble through the orchestrations that close Heroes and Villains and Child Is Father of the Man; XTC-like flourishes grace Cabin Essence and Song for Children; and echoes of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life sweep through the conclusion to Surf’s Up. Depending upon one’s perspective of music history, these allusions can be either an asset or a liability. Indeed, the relationships between these (and other) artistic works can be assumed but never fully comprehended because they were presented in a jumbled historical order. That is, Smile was meant to precede them all, yet it was completed much later.

Still, with its blend of folk and psychedelia, show tunes and classical fare, Smile is the ultimate kitchen-sink concoction, and it succeeds on so many fronts as to make any conjecture to the contrary an utterly meaningless exercise. Full of wit, humor, and more than just a touch of the absurd, the collection’s lyrics paint Americana-laced imagery across a broad canvas of California-baked, youthful optimism, though Wilson’s seasoned vocal timbre, at times, re-casts them in a wistfully bittersweet light. Colored with majestic, orchestral arrangements, the long-lost album has been given a brand new life, and while Wilson may have lost the initial battle, Smile proves that he ultimately won the war. starstarstarstarstar


47th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Rock Instrumental Performance
Mrs. O'Leary's Cow


Of Further Interest...

Legends of the Canyon (DVD)

The Who - Tommy and Quardrophenia Live with Special Guests (DVD)

Wilco - Summerteeth


Smile is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2004 The Music Box