Of all the improbable stories in the improbable history of pop music, the history of Brian Wilson's SMiLE remains unique. Originally begun in 1966 when Wilson was chief-cook-&-bottle-washer for the Beach Boys, SMiLE was long considered one of pop-rock's great crash 'n' burns. A concept album built upon the studio wizardry and proto-hippie worldview that had yielded one of the band's biggest hit singles, "Good Vibrations," SMiLE was created in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, an eccentric L.A. music figure known for crafting alternately whimsical and opaque Joyce Lite lyrics, as a song cycle with thematically connected themes and leitmotifs. A daring move for a band that was primarily thought of a singles machine: Sgt. Pepper had yet to hit the stores, so it's hardly surprising that the rest of the band didn't know what to make of this musical soufflé. Unsupported by his family (the Beach Boys being largely a family act), overindulging in drugs, Wilson ultimately suffered a breakdown, scuttling the project.
In an attempt to salvage things, an album filled with "comedy" cuts and underproduced dribs of SMiLE material was released as Smiley Smile, with only one full Parks/Wilson collaboration, "Heroes And Villains," on the platter. Over the years, other snippets of the aborted work would appear in Beach Boys records, rarely as full tracks ("Surf's Up" being the notable exception), more often as part of other songs (as when backing tracks for SMiLE's "In Blue Hawaii" were used for Sunflower's "Cool Cool Water"). Occasionally, hints of what might've been surfaced on bootlegs and as CD bonus cuts - a more extended version of "Heroes And Villains" was attached to Capitol's two-fer reissue of Smiley Smile/Wild Honey, for instance - but for many hard-core Beach Boys fans, endlessly replaying their old albums and sighing about lost chances, the uncompleted SMiLE was the Great Abandoned Album.
Now, of course, Brian - away from his old group - has revived his work, with the help of Parks and fannish power poppers like the Wondermints. Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (Nonesuch) the cover cheerily announces, and, surprisingly enough, the guy actually delivers on his promise. From its opening acapella sighs to its trailing Theremin, SMiLE shows us what was in the "young and often spring" man's mind. The results are everything that his admirers would hope to hear.
The disc opens with "Our Prayer/Gee," which blends one of Brian's trademark wordless vocal harmonies with the Crows' doo-wop classic "Gee" (other clipped bits of Americana songwritery that'll appear: "You Are My Sunshine" and "I Wanna Be Around"), then segues into the extended version of "Heroes And Villains." With the help of musicians that he'd earlier assembled for a concert tour of a finished Beach Boys classic (Pet Sounds), Wilson effectively reinvigorates his old band's sound, while, placed in their original context, Parks' lyrics achieve their own quirky flow. (Separately settled on a disc like Surf's Up, surrounded by the rest of the group's more plain-spoken lyrics, they stuck out like a geek wallflower at the high school prom.) If at times, Brian's vocals betray a hint of psychotropic slurriness, this only adds to the whole work's evocativeness and helps to sell the songs. When Wilson sings about a ruined life momentarily lifted by song and the sight of playing children, you believe him.
The album as a whole is structured as three movements: the first, which includes "Heroes and Villains," conjures up the early California frontier (with a nod toward blue Hawaii) and the atrocities committed in the name of American expansionism ("Look what you’ve done to the Church of the American Indian"); the second, which opens with the previously underdone "Wonderful" and caps with "Surf's Up," evokes childhood innocence and the adult quest for redemption ("Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave") while the third section shows Old Man Wilson as he attempts to build a healthy life for himself within the 60's counter-culture. (That it ended in failure only adds to the piquancy.) The last ends with a slightly more deliberate version of "Good Vibrations," which has some of the single's more physical lyrics ("The way the sunlight plays upon her hair") replaced by more spiritual ones ("And she's already workin' on my brain.")
In between, composer and producer Wilson continually throws aural surprises at the listener: pennywhistles and tiny jokes (as when he follows the classic torch line "I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart" with the sound of tools being used in a workshop); front porch instrumentation and hints of Tin Pan Alley; gorgeous harmonies, tempo shifts and an instrumental meant to conjure up the Great Chicago Fire. This last reportedly so freaked a hash-smoking Brian back in the 60's that he was convinced his recording had sparked a series of California brush fires. (A fraction of a few backing tracks showed up on Smiley as "Fall Breaks And Back to Winter," but that only gave a hint of the sonic chaos Wilson had created.) Listening to it now, you can almost imagine he was right.
Heard today for the first time, SMiLE benefits from its status as a work of Sixties Madness: its multi-colored use of grizzled Americana is tinged by its slightly sad counter-cultural associations. And in a period where the actions of the sixties keep re-emerging as fodder for nasty political debate, Parks & Wilson's magnum opus provides a wholly unexpected slice of musical relief. Quintessentially beautiful and loopy, an unmatched creation that sounds as fresh today as it would've if it'd come out on schedule, SMiLE is a pop work like no other. When most pop or rock folk revisit projects from their youth, the results are typically dire. Leave it to nutty ol' Bri Wilson to successfully beat the odds. . .