Brian Wilson Presents Smile
Ken Kase
10/4/2004 7:15:40 PM

Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch)

One has to admire the tenacity of Brian Wilson. His drug-fueled psychological collapse during the aborted sessions for Smile, an album whose reputation as the greatest unreleased album in rock history, was the beginning of a long and treacherous path from which many predicted he would never return. Thirty-eight years on, Brian Wilson is proving them wrong. He managed to get the help he needed, albeit after several personal and professional fiascos, recorded a few solo albums of varying quality, conquered the demons that prevented him from touring and performing live, revisited the slippery slope of Pet Sounds and now, after all this time, he’s tackled Smile—the last apparent obstacle to relative peace of mind and belief in his considerable capabilities as an artist.

Pop music fans have heard glimpses of the masterpiece that never was on various releases over the years, never dreaming that these seemingly disparate snatches of musical inventiveness would ever be hammered into a coherent whole. But the release of Smile (Nonesuch), though certainly not the genuine article, gives us that coherency in spades. We can finally hear this music in some sort of conceptual context, performed by great musicians, utilizing 1966 recording tools (including a vintage valve mixing console and the legendary echo chamber at Sunset Sound), and all under the direction of a rejuvenated Brian Wilson, eager to tackle the daunting task of wrapping it all together.

Smile is a curious patchwork of different musical elements fused together in symphonic form, complete with repeated themes that weave in and out of the compositions with delicacy, ease and playfulness. For a man who never formally studied classical music, he sure nailed it somehow with compositions that at times boast a remarkably sophisticated melodic and harmonic form and arrangements worthy of the Big Boys in terms of richness and maturity—not bad for music written by Wilson at the tender age of 24.

The most bountiful evidence of this appears midway through the song cycle, beginning with “Wonderful”, a wistful, childlike, spiritual tune with breezy, baroque textures. This segues into “Song for Children” which contains hints of one of “Good Vibrations” many themes. This, in turn, winds into the gorgeous “Child is Father of the Man” with its rhythmic, jaunty vocal arrangement contrasting with the soothing chord changes of the verses. All of this leads to the album’s centerpiece, the ironically titled “Surf’s Up”, the very song that caused the late conductor Leonard Bernstein to sit up and take notice of the young Wilson and the importance of his work. This version contrasts sharply with the original heard on the Good Vibrations boxed set, if only because the latest version features a lead vocal by Brian bereft of the innocence of his younger days. Van Dyke Parks’ enigmatic words carry more weight with the mature Wilson’s interpretation. The effect of these four pieces strung together is nothing less than stunning.

The opener, “Prayer”, pretty much sets the tone for the depth of what lies within Smile—these notes were written by a man wise beyond his years and the gorgeous hymn is still startlingly beautiful. Reworkings of “Heroes and Villains” and “Cabin Essence” stand on their own and don’t detract from their originally issued versions one whit.

The album has its share of silliness as well, with “Barnyard”, “I’m In Great Shape” and “Vege-Tables”. Parks’ lyrical contributions to the project are uneven, sometimes coming close to kissing brilliance in their subtlety, other times falling flat. But it’s the music that’s the main attraction here, and the abstractness of the lyrics further reminds us that Smile was never intended to be a collection of marketable pop songs but the free spirited explorations of a gifted composer, arranger and producer reaching beyond the boundaries of the three minute pop songs to touch the face of God. The occasional dip in texture is forgivable in light of the whole concept. In the end, who cares what it’s supposed to be about? The album is simply a work of creative exploration for exploration’s sake which happens to, at times, produce breathtaking results. The perception of Smile’s unevenness depends upon whether the listener is imposing his or her own standards and expectations or observing those of the artist. An important distinction, that.

The album closes with a new version of “Good Vibrations” that utilizes Van Dyke Parks’ original lyric, not the Mike Love penned lines we’re so used to hearing. It is a majestic performance that, while never really touching the brilliance of the original, rounds out the album nicely with its energy and familiarity.

Though no release could ever live up to the mythological standard of rock’s greatest non-album, the current issue of Smile is a pleasure to hear. Its virtues lie in continuity, structure and closure. One can almost hear a sigh of relief from Brian Wilson. In his own way, in his own time, he conquered Smile and happily shares it with all who care to listen.

Readers interested in all things Beach Boys should read this review of Keith Badman's latest book.--Ed.

Read NT's review of Pet Sounds Live


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