Album Review

The SMiLE Sessions

The SMiLE Sessions

By The Beach Boys

EMI
10 / 10
23rd November 2011

By Michael McClelland

Brian Wilson dreamed up a scarily accurate description of the due course of his own musical infamy in 1967: “I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.” How he pulled off such a premonition, we don’t know – but then again, there’s not a lot we do know for certain about one of music’s weirdest crackpots. Unlike his rival, Phil Spector, he never killed anyone, which we can thank him for. But instead, his quest for musical perfection basically destroyed his own mind in the process. And what we’re witnessing now, in 2011, is his return to the ‘city’ he sang of decades ago: a stitched-up, tacked-together, brain-in-a-jar reconstruction of the pieces that fell apart.

It’s funny to think how the Beach Boys went from sun-soaked illustrations of surf to this. Music that was essentially about fun became too serious a thing to create, turning to a tragedy fuelled by drugs and that thing geniuses get (other than drugs). No-one ever truly got teenagers like the Beach Boys, from petty outbursts like ‘I’m Bugged At My Dad’ to the melancholic ‘In My Room’. Moody either way, but still an incredibly accurate account of the most flippant stage of our lives. And what a ridiculously grand way to do it – teenage awkwardness almost looks good. Just listen to those hoarse vocals in ‘Then I Kissed Her’, their take on the Phil Spector landmark, and you’ll agree that hormones and chemical reactions have never sounded this sweet.

Pet Sounds’ more sensitive take on adolescence was the first step towards the introspective undercurrent of SMiLE: the great unfinished product of Beach Boys experimentation and the truest embodiment of its tragically flawed creator. Like Brian Wilson, it’s true potential never saw the light of the day, becoming an especially broken piece of masterfulness. Obsessive fans (including this one) would note that Pet Sounds resembles a gateway towards this legendary unreleased ‘album’, with its bits and pieces carrying a more mature sound that harnesses everything that those who grew up with the music were looking for but never quite received. Those who looked for it - from its original planned release date of January 1967 until only recently – found a wildness that no other Beach Boys album had ever approached, or even really bothered to consider. Even though the music of SMiLE is largely ridiculous and grandiose, even its weirder points seem to stand for something, somehow. It's wordlessness in parts and disjointedness in others represent something that even music can’t describe.

For many years, it was only a rumour marked by bootlegs of varying legitimacy, and hearing every new piece escaped from the Beach Boys vault was almost like hearing a new version of some famous legend. While this meant no one true way to view an idea so fragmented, every Beach Boys collector had their own individual take on it. There are few albums so personal – which is only helped by one of the most humanly relatable bands in pop music. A few years have now passed since I myself was given the album – but here I am, a member of a new generation, reviewing it officially for the first time since it was abandoned over four decades ago.

Age has done a few favours for SMiLE. Such imaginative experimentation would have been out of place at the time (even alongside Sgt Peppers), but in 2011 SMiLE sounds older, wiser and - while we’re getting reverent here - sacred. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a sense, but washed up on the shores of California, where Brian Wilson’s musical vision was founded. SMiLE is his way of returning the favour to his homeland as he chronicles a pilgrimage across the country in search of the final frontier – Manifest Destiny. Even for such an obtuse lyrical theme, it kind of shadows the self-obsessed sentiment Brian Wilson crazes over in ‘Surf’s Up’ – a personal journey or religious voyage.

The undoubtedly Christian influence stems back to childhood for the Wilson brothers, who were known to pray before every recording session. Appropriately enough, SMiLE's wordless prologue is titled ‘Our Prayer’. Before taking off into sequences of rhymes and alliterations carefully picked by co-lyricist Van Dyke Parks, this opening track is a moment of heartfelt meditation. Where Van Dyke Parks’ words could be accused of sounding pretentious and incomprehensible, they at least provide a little room for Brian Wilson’s craziness to do its thing, and ‘Our Prayer’ is Brian Wilson undistractedly using a primitive human function and a Beach Boys keystone - the voice - to communicate from the heart without needing to say a word.

Needless to say, without as much lyrical input from Brian Wilson, the naïve simplicity of Pet Sounds is lost. As it turns out, a lot more is spoken for by discarding it for abstract contemplations. Which is understandable when you consider that Brian Wilson was actually well into his twenties, even by the time Pet Sounds came out. SMiLE is the voice of a mature Brian Wilson, looking in on his teenage years from the outside.

You were my sunshine, my only sunshine
You made me happy when skies were grey
You never noticed how much I loved you
How could you take my sunshine away

Despite a poignant effort, whatever innocence that tracks like ‘Vege-Tables’ struggles to regain is hopelessly lost for cartoonish silliness instead. Illusions are pointless – Brian Wilson’s mental decline is sadly mirrored by these feeble attempts to regain coherence, which instead come off as convoluted and self-deceived. The sadder irony is on other parts of the album where Brian Wilson sings from the murkiest depths of his heart, through the curtain of Van Dyke Parks’ convoluted lyrics of intangible ideas and unrelatable poetics in the hope of revealing what human means of expression never could. A concept of SMiLE, if a vague one, that is still more understandable and far more insightful than than any of Brian Wilson’s shallow experiments of sound (impressive or not). All the same, the grand design says a lot about its creator. How the hell he achieved it is another matter, since it would be unimaginable to craft such levels of meta knowingly. Maybe he was probably too tripped out to notice.

Besides questioning the integrity of Brian Wilson’s sonic statements, this hallucinogenic influence proves worthwhile. There are some pretty far-out sequences on SMiLE which include Paul McCartney (yeah, of all people) chomping a carrot above workshop sound effects in a display of what can barely be accused of being ‘art’ anymore. In 1967, though, a few minds would have undoubtedly been blown apart by the impressiveness of these studio undertakings – reaching a new level for what Brian Wilson was already famous for. And then you realise that these parts aren’t even finished – so it’s impossible to think what could have become of them had Brian Wilson continued on his musical rampage. Sean Lennon once described SMiLE'sweirder parts as “Bach on LSD”, which is close enough to the truth, though I’d instead say Bach was Brian Wilson not on LSD.

Looking at Brian Wilson’s colourful yet vague attempts to subdue his increasing anxiety resounds like a picture of his former joys. Not necessarily sincere, but certainly stirring. In a way, his 69 year-old self lives it out today, a characterless frame holding an image of the past to which he will never return. About seven years ago, he picked himself up to give SMiLE one final shot with a taskforce team of totally unfamiliar session musicians to rejuvenate the album. But 2004’s SMiLE retry was no longer the Beach Boys, nor Brian Wilson. It was sparkly and polished, sounding far too complete. The only thing he brought back to life was the music, having forgotten in his old age that SMiLE had nothing to do with the music at all. That’s a fact about this album – the sound of it wears off eventually, but not the idea of it. Not Brian Wilson or all the revisionism in the world could bring SMiLE ‘back to life’ because it never actually died. His vision, on the other hand, passed away tragically when he let the album go.

Seeing him upon the stage in 2011 isn’t the same prospect of bliss that early Beach Boys music gave us. Attempting to get there again was what destroyed him, and now he stands as an empty statue. It’s not his weak voice or his slurred mannerisms that tell us this, but his eyes. They say that about veterans of war who return with a thousand yard stare, their window to the soul now foggy and characterless. And after so many years of expressing his bare soul through such an angelic voice, his eyes are all he has left.

This is why 2004’s SMiLE could never touch what the original album ever was. It was cohesive, it was conclusive, it was finished. Though people say the completed album could have been Sgt Peppers, Brian Wilson made something far better – he made it him. Unlike the Beatles, he had no proxies or stand-ins to tell the story for him. He instead created an accurate impression of himself as an artist and a person. If Brian Wilson were perfect, SMiLE would be perfect like him. But he is far from perfect, like this album… and so it goes round and round. As confusing as it sounds, this is exactly what makes everything about it so perfect.

There was never any one true way to reassemble the album, but if there were a good way to do it, this is it. The 2011 release is the closest the Beach Boys can get to representing the true value of a broken masterpiece. With its many shards put together in one box set package, it contains the ingredients that made the myth so alluring, providing the listener an opportunity to do the stitching themselves. Demos, session instrumentals and many, many vocal takes are part of the whole picture, unbound by sequencing. There is no restriction of tracklisting – even the vague ‘concept’ that ties it together comes second to the spirit of the album and its creator. He’s the Old Master Painter that an early song title refers to, having crafting the image of his broken self.





comments
Total: 5
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WOW! What could have been. This is far better than anything the Beatles ever recorded.It will be a long time before we hear something like this again.

Posted by Jake the Snake(Ancaster, Ontario) - anonymous 2 years ago

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Thank you for your efforts Michael. I have made a copy of your review and placed it inside my box set of The Smile Sessions. Over the last 30 years or so I have read anything or everything written about this unique and fascinating artistic project, but none better than your review. Well Done.

Posted by steve from brisbane - anonymous 2 years ago

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Michael, you nailed it. As I read in another blog, one person said,
how's it feel to meet the author of "the symphonic story of your life"?His creative flame burned out much too soon, but he created volumes
of melodic defying harmonies that will only be heard once in a lifetime.
Perhaps a true sevant. I feel for him for having to confront the demons
but he is a true survivor. Let the man be...everybody...as he hates all
of this but honor him the only way he wants. Listen carefully to his
music, because there is alot more underneath the surface musically. This
album defines it.

Posted by Colorado Bob - anonymous 2 years ago

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Incredible album, incredible review. Long Live Brian Wilson!

Posted by Hutch - anonymous 2 years ago

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A unique perspective and a raw edge review, honest, forthright, and shocking....but in the end, I think this reviewer nailed it. He nailed why I've waited so longingly for this icon of music history to reveal itself, and why, after all the years, I love this release so much!

Posted by ogie 2 years ago



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