There is a moment in this five-CD ocean of music when you agree with its creator, the Beach Boys composer-producer Brian Wilson, that the greatest pop album 'ever made is still within reach. It comes during an October 1966 session for "Do You Like Worms." "You were strumming too hard," Wilson tells bassist Carol Kaye after identifying a tiny irritant spoiling the track’s dreamy symmetry of kettledrum march and hula-dance sway. "I knew I'd find it," he adds brightly, "if I really searched and reached out."
It was a brief optimism. Smile – Wilson's attempt to extend the opulent mosaic ambition of the Beach Boys' 1966 hit "Good Vibrations" across an entire LP – was soon on its way to infamy: the best rock album never finished, a victim (after more than 80 sessions over nine months) of Wilson's indecisive perfectionism and his band's rebellion against the music's complex symphonic melancholy. Wilson's main conspirator, lyricist Van Dyke Parks, was exiled from the project, and his dream record was replaced by a pale shadow, Smiley Smile. Wilson’s long dark age had begun.
The first disc in this box features the closest thing we may get to the original Smile as Wilson envisioned it, with versions of songs later rescued and/or reworked for other albums, such as "Surf's Up" and "Cabin Essence." The episodic composition and instrumental surrealism, closer to acid-bent Aaron Copland than Dick Dale, explain the dissatisfaction of the other Beach Boys. Think of this Smile as Wilson's first solo album, with those voices as golden brush strokes. Look at Wilson's 2004 rerecording of Smile as the refined version.
It is easy to project a fear of failure in Wilson's obsession with revision and minutiae in the so-called "session highlights," including more than 30 takes and fragments of the operetta "Heroes and Villains." But there is delight and confidence in Wilson’s exchanges with his studio crew. And the Beach Boys' vocal rehearsals for "Our Prayer" are sublime evidence of Smile's fundamental greatness: the searching and reaching of genius in its prime. Wilson never found it, but the greatest pop album ever made is still in here, somewhere.
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