Album Review: Beach Boys' brilliant 'SMiLE' Sessions box set
Glorious. There. That’s my one-word review of “SMiLE,” the never-released/never-completed Beach Boys album that is finally seeing the light of day 45 years after Brian Wilson and his band mates entered the studio.
Rolling Stone has called “SMiLE,” “the most famous unfinished album in rock & roll history.” Still unfinished, Capitol is, nevertheless, releasing the “SMiLE” sessions on Nov. 1. For diehards, a deluxe package includes not just the original tracks, but four CDs of studio outtakes, including 30 different snippets from the recording of “Heroes & Villains.” There are vinyl versions, digital only versions, and even a version that comes with a surf board.
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For those not familiar with “SMiLE,” it was supposed to be the follow-up to the 1966 masterpiece, “Pet Sounds.” However, 14 months into recording the album, the Beach Boys walked away from it for myriad reasons: Wilson was descending into mental illness, his band mates were disenchanted with the process and were feuding and Capitol was not happy with the direction of the set.
To be sure, there are some wacky moments on the collection (“Vega-Tables,” anyone?), but to listen to it now, after all this time, is to rediscover Wilson’s utter brilliance. He was a man ahead of his time, a musical genius creating sounds that may seem easy enough now (not really), but technologically 45 years ago, were groundbreaking and nearly impossible to capture. Just listen to the layered, gorgeous vocalizations on opening blessing “Our Prayer.” Or the cascading, whimsical beauty of “Heroes and Villains,” which contains several songs in one. Or, of course, the set’s best-known song, “Good Vibrations,” which took seven months to record and features Glen Campbell on guitar. Wilson spoke in a vocabulary that had yet to be invented.
Wilson’s goal with “SMiLE” was a lofty one indeed: to create a record that told the story of America’s journey, of westward expansion, starting on the east coast with “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” and ending as far west as America goes with “In Blue Hawaii,” (listed here under its title from 1967, "I Love To Say Da Da." However, on the recreation that Wilson released in 2004, it was under "In Blue Hawaii"). Wilson took the motif so literally, there are the sounds of horse hooves in “Heroes & Villains.”
Wilson has referred to “SMiLE’s” songs as “little teenage symphonies to God,” and it’s pretty impossible to argue against that assessment— many of the tunes here take on a towering triumph as he seems to be reaching for the heavens. Even ditties like the 51—second “Gee,” with the introduction of horns at the end following the harmonies, are studies in studio craft.
The production is fearless: there are animal sounds at the beginning of “Barnyard,” strange instruments weave in and out like the now-classic theremin segment on “Vibrations,” train whistle vocalizations stand in for the real thing, it goes on and on. There is so much going on here that an obsessed fan could spend a whole lifetime (and some have since the bootlegs of “SMiLE” have circulated for a very long time) lovingly dissecting each and every note, crawling into the vocal sounds, the instruments, and the magic of the music.
The outtakes, some of them less than a minute long, serve as both a masterclass in music making and as a documentary of the recording sessions. One entire disc is devoted to “Heroes And Villains” outtakes and it is stunning to hear Wilson — before drugs, mental illness, and whatever other afflictions overtook him — in utter and complete control of the process. His direction is razor precise. There is no doubt that he knew exactly what he wanted and his frustration at the inability of his band mates and other musicians to always grasp his desires is evident at points. Also a sign of the times: a reference to drugs. At one point, someone asks if the acid has kicked in yet. In another segment, he pretends to have fallen into the piano and is trapped between C and C Sharp.
The only way to fully appreciate “SMiLE” is to let it surround you, focus on nothing else, feel the music as it pours over you, and listen to the majesty of what Wilson tried to create with each and every note. He now says that another reason for the album’s initial failure was that it was ahead of its time. I’m not so sure mere mortals can ever catch up with what Wilson was trying to achieve way back then, but we now we can at least witness it.
Glorious. And essential.