October 7, 2004

Brian Wilson: Smile

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by Jared Wolfe red letter daze staff writer Easily the most anticipated rock album in history, Smile is finally here. Thirty-seven years after Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys first abandoned his ‘teenage symphony to God’ and blah blah blah. The context of this record is unprecedented, and can be found in any review of Smile one comes across. But not this one! DAZE can only give me so much space to review what has been discussed for four decades by many as perhaps the most important album of all time (had it ever been released), so I will use my space wisely and describe the music itself. Smile pushes the pop album to territory not even hinted at on the Wilson”s seminal masterpiece, Pet Sounds, and never before have such ambitious themes been articulated on a modern pop album. With that said, it”s not the magnum opus it has been insinuated as over the years. Lower your expectations just a little; it”s certainly revelatory and one of the most exciting, cerebral musical experiences one could go on. Smile is organized into three immaculately arranged suites, each revolving around an ostensibly unique theme, with the emphasis placed more on the ideas behind the songs than the actual music itself. The first and most evocative suite is Wilson”s ode to Americana, where he successfully dives into our collective unconscious of an America that never really was or will be. Wilson and his backing band the Wondermints begin with ‘Our Prayer/Gee,’ three minutes of lyric-less harmonizing that finds the now sixty-two year old painfully and poignantly inciting the spirits that founded this mythic America. This soul-seeking transitions into the manic ‘Heroes and Villains’, which, as indicative of the other songs on Smile, uncannily reproduces the sound of the version the Beach Boys recorded almost forty years ago. What”s more, hearing it in the context of Smile ultimately gives it greater meaning and resonance than it previously had. The centerpiece of the suite, at least in terms of evocation of Americana, is ‘Barnyard’, with a jaunty, rolling beat creating a perfect musical manifestation of romantic rural farm life. The Americana suite concludes with ‘Cabin Essence’, which brings the listener into a harmony-ridden maelstrom, concluding with a haunting section that ends the suite on a disturbing note of ambiguity, as if the American paradise described all along may not be as simple as it first appears.

The theme of Smile”s second suite is the life cycle, and begins with ‘Wonderful’, a sublime nod to the innocence of childhood. A perfect example of the importance of a song being placed in the context of its album, ‘Wonderful,’ although a virtual recreation of the original recording, is given new layers of meaning as the opening song to this cycle, which describes the rise and inevitable fall of each individual”s life. ‘Wonderful’ segues with a ridiculously juvenile pun on that songs title (‘Maybe not one, maybe you too … ‘) into ‘Song for Children.’ which twists the Beach Boys trademark aesthetic into something much more ethereal.

The final suite is Wilson”s ode to the elements, making his way through Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and concluding bewilderingly with ‘Good Vibrations,’ the album”s only failure. You just don”t go and change most of the lyrics to a song as deeply engrained in our psyches as ‘Good Vibrations.’ But forget that; you simply can”t improve on Perfection. Bill and Ted tried to do that with Bogus Journey and the result ended up bogus. The same goes for ‘Good Vibrations 2004,’ where Wilson simply cannot compare with Carl Wilson”s angelic timbre found on the original and definitive recording.

While many may find trivial things to complain about on the re-recordings on Smile, the fact that it has finally been completed is a miracle in itself. Brian Wilson has been through a lot the past couple of decades: He had to endure constant fighting with his band and family, drug addictions, and dealing with the fact that he spawned Carnie Wilson. Thirty seven years after its genesis in Brian Wilson”s head, Smile is finally finished. And it”s wonderful.

5 Stars

Archived article by Jared Wolfe
Red Letter DAZE Staff Writer