The Album List #31: Brian Wilson “Smile”

Found it!

Rock and roll is full of mythology. Elvis is alive. Paul McCartney’s dead. Robert Johnson made a deal with Satan. This insanity therefore transfers to the music itself.

Say you are a very popular 1960s Southern Cali band who are being overworked to the point of collapse. In the three years of your career, you released a mind-blowing ten albums, four in 1963 alone. But no one takes you seriously. Your undisputed masterpiece is ignored at the time of release. And then you try to take your pop band in a direction it doesn’t want to go. The subsequent work is shelved, with a few of the tracks being tweaked for release on some horrific thing called Smiley Smile. You finally lose it.

This is the story of the infamous Smile, long the lost masterpiece of rock and roll history, and Brian Wilson, musical genius and troubled soul.

When Wilson decided to re-record Smile as a solo project in 2004, I thought he was nuts. But still, to hear the music as Wilson did in his head back in 1966-67 would be a treat. I would later think that Brian Wilson can do no wrong. I still do.  Smile  is the pinnacle of his solo work, the apex of a long and difficult career. It’s near flawless.

I mean, the album was always meant to include “Good Vibrations”, the one Beach boys cut from the original that didn’t completely suck. The re-recorded version still has those amazing vocal harmonies, but I love the theremin being more up front and Brian’s piano work being so precise even now.  It is full of small changes, as it still sounds pretty much like the original, but those little touches makes the nerd in me giggle with joy.

The rest of the album is littered with some well-known material ( “Surf’s Up”, “Heroes and Villains”), and completely batshit insane stuff ( “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, which always throws me for a loop when it comes on). The volume of noise on some of these tracks is mind-blowing, especially when you remember this isn’t noise for noise sake, it’s carefully crafted to sound this way by a crazy perfectionist.

I found this album both endearing and maddening when it was released, but it quickly became one of my all time favourites, and was even put on my best of the Oughties list. It’s a difficult album to talk about due to the overwhelming happiness I feel that it was recreated and released so lovingly by Brian, who had dismissed the idea for years. It could have been a disaster. The legend had been so built up that topping the expectations of two generations of music fans and critics would have been nearly impossible. But somehow, Brian managed to answer back all those people who claimed that the music couldn’t have been that good, that it couldn’t best Sgt. Pepper’s, that Brian Wilson was the victim of mythologizing critics and fans.

It also serves critics right that the album is so upbeat and free feeling. The mythology around Smile was that it was heavy and dark, and it has its moments, but for the most part, Brian’s orchestrations and creative energy allows for the music to soar above the darker lyrics and creates a series of moments so pure it feels like a moment in a church where the choir hits the opening notes of “Ave Maria” and you know deep down that the world is fucked up but allows for moments this perfect.

But the big triumph here is the fact that Smile pushed Brian Wilson over the edge but also was his final redemption. The Beach boys had puttered on without him, giving us terrible music post Brian. Brian Wilson had nothing to do with “Kokomo”. So entwined are the legends of band and songwriter that I wonder if some people don’t realize things like that and dismiss Wilson as the man who wrote all those terrible Beach Boys songs of the 1980s. No. He wasn’t. He was the one who wrote, along with lyricist Van Dyke Parks,  a true work of sonic art.

I will always remember Smile as the moment where the world was all right.


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