Brian Wilson: Smile
Sound/Style: intricate choral pop, upbeat yet substantive
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- To fully understand the significance of Brian Wilson’s Smile, it’s necessary to step back a few decades. Wilson forged a truly original and hugely successful American style of music with The Beach Boys by blending the sound of white pop vocal groups like The Four Freshmen with the rock ’n’ roll of Chuck Berry. Some – including members of The Beach Boys themselves – wish Wilson would have stopped there, but the musical visionary had only gotten started. His friendly but earnest rivalry with his Capitol Records labelmates The Beatles spurred both bands on to some of their most heralded achievements: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album upped the ante for The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and in turn inspired John Lennon and especially Paul McCartney as they created Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (The dog whistle at the close of Sgt. Pepper, at a frequency too high for human listeners but not four-legged ones, was in fact a genial response to the barking dogs heard at the end of Pet Sounds.)
In 1966 at age 24, Wilson began work on the album that was to be not only his masterwork but also a redefinition of American music at a time when British performers ruled the radio. As his mental state deteriorated, exacerbated by drug use, Wilson became convinced that his work-in-progress could not compete with the then-revelatory impact of Sgt. Pepper. Wilson abandoned his endeavor and withdrew into creative hibernation, ballooning to over 300 pounds and eventually losing touch with reality. In the years that followed, the unfinished Smile became the stuff of legend. Portions of the unfinished work leaked out both in illegally obtained fragments and as individual tracks on subsequent Beach Boys albums. More than one unofficial bootleg version surfaced, compiled by musicphiles who couldn’t resist speculating. Now 37 years later, all such speculation has been rendered obsolete by the official release of Smile. The occasion is not quite like any other in pop music history – not only has the pop world reclaimed one of its seemingly withered heroes, but legend has become reality. The album – re-recorded in its entirety – captures the spirit of the time and place in which it was birthed, with only Wilson’s lead vocals seeming to have aged, and not too shabbily at that.
To pop historians and enthusiasts, Smile is comparable in significance to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and as such can’t be subjected to a standard review. There’s no denying the complex beauty of Wilson’s melodies and vocal arrangements and the expansive artistic vision evident throughout. What can be said, however, is that Wilson was both correct and incorrect in his assessment that Smile couldn’t compete with Sgt. Pepper – Wilson’s vision was so removed from what other pop artists were doing that it quite likely would have been misunderstood by most, and possibly lambasted by some. The ambitious lyrics, written by Wilson’s longtime collaborator Van Dyke Parks, are abstract and impressionistic at turns, a curious counterpart to the predominantly cheery music that houses them. To avoid chasing the merciless muse of modern sounds (circa 1967), Wilson retreated somewhat into early 20th century American popular song, lending the disc a nostalgic quality that has only increased with time. However, Wilson was forward-looking in certain respects, bringing his unique and sophisticated melodic vision to enduring, previously heard tracks like the ironically titled epic “Surf’s Up” and “Heroes And Villains.”
In truth, Smile is far more ambitious in scope than Sgt. Pepper, if perhaps less approachable, as it is designed to be consumed in one gargantuan bite. For those inclined to sample songs as separate delicacies, Smile is indeed a mouthful. Sgt. Pepper is a collection of songs randomly linked by musical segueways and an external concept, while Smile is a composition of almost classical-like proportions, conceived as a single, seamless work with recurring musical and lyrical themes. Many of those themes, though, are childlike and whimsical, particularly the short transition pieces that cement the record’s better known songs. While this is an endearing quality, the overall eccentricity of Smile is nonetheless a potential stumbling block to its enjoyment. Wilson – who referred to his creation as a “teenage symphony to God” – was naively but sincerely interested in imbuing his music with something spiritual, something that would impart to its listeners a sense of wonder and joy. This is most evident in “Wonderful,” a romantic number that references God, liberty and non-believers, and “Our Prayer,” a wordless vocalization that suggests an oceanfront Catholic mass. While the subject matter of the disc remains largely opaque, it clearly deals with aspects of American history, and one senses a wistful regret at the loss of innocence the country suffered after its glorious beginnings at the hands of the pioneers. Wilson’s intended meaning may remain as much a mystery as Smile itself did for nearly four decades, but even in its most bewildering moments, the pure heart of Wilson – as well as his musical brilliance – comes across like a glistening set of pearly whites.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.