Never mind Pet Sounds. Good record, but a totem. That leaves three great Beach Boys albums. First comes a fun-fun-fun best-of: With the canonical Endless Summer deleted, settle for 2003’s longer, less pristine Sounds of Summer. The other two are quickies that fit neatly on one must-own CD: Buy Smiley Smile/Wild Honey while EMI lets you.
Smiley Smile and Wild Honey get respect now, but in 1967 they peeved hard-core Pet Sounds fans, who were waiting gape-mouthed for Smile, described by those in the know as the American Sgt. Pepper — proof that our Bea-boys belonged in the same league as their Bea-boys. But Brian went bonkers, Mike Love got busy, and we ended up with only “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” — stopgap singles that made it onto the belittlingly titled Smiley Smile — and dribs and drabs thereafter.
Only you know what happened? Brian Wilson survived his saner brothers and rebuilt his career, which the completely rerecorded SMiLE is supposed to crown. Since much of Wilson’s 2004 Gettin’ In Over My Head could have been sung from a crypt, this seemed like a terrible idea. Instead, it’s a triumph.
SMiLE began as a concert concept for Wilson’s expert alt- rock road band, which by 2002 had exhausted Pet Sounds. Never completed, SMile existed only as a jumble of alternate versions, song fragments and ill-cataloged tapes. Sifting through these was a collaborator as crucial as lyricist Van Dyke Parks: keyboard player, harmony vocalist and “musical secretary” Darian Sahanaja. With Sahanaja and Parks jogging his memory, Wilson revised and composed until the best pieces formed a forty-seven-minute whole that started shortly before “Heroes and Villains” and climaxed with “Good Vibrations.” While no symphony, it cohered and flowed. The sparer, simpler recorded version follows the pattern of the ecstatically reviewed live performances. Anchored by deft quotes and thematic repetitions, SMiLE is beautiful and funny, goofily grand. It’s looser and messier than Sgt. Pepper and, one suspects, always would have been. But its sui generis Americanism counterbalances its paucity of classic pop songs. Not in the same league — just ready to play a World Series.
Although Parks is a well-traveled arranger who must have left some marks on Wilson’s music during their hash-fueled 1966-67 brainstorming sessions, his words do the talking. They’re poetic in a manner Wilson has no gift for: now idiomatic, now archaic, now obscure, pervaded by images of fleeting youth and a frontier that stretches to Hawaii. Although stoned confusion and mild pastoral pessimism are endemic, the world they evoke is as benign as a day at the beach — yet less simplistic (and deceptive) than the Beach Boys’ fantasies of eternal Southern California teendom. In this the lyrics are of a piece with the jokey songlets of Smiley Smile, where five SmiLE titles first surfaced, and the good-natured rock & roll recidivism of Wild Honey. What elevates them into something approaching a utopian vision is Wilson’s orchestrations: brief bridge melodies, youthful harmonies more precise and uplifting now than when executed by actually existing callow people and an enthralling profusion of instrumental colors. Trombone, timpani, theremin and tenor sax brush by and disappear; a banjo shows its head; strings vibe around; woodwinds establish unexpected moods and pipe down.
That the pros who surround Wilson are up to all of this is gratifying but not startling. What the auteur himself had in him was more questionable. And that’s the central miracle of this gift of music. Wilson’s voice has deepened and coarsened irreparably. Although he hits the notes, he can’t convey the innocence SMiLE‘s content seems to demand. But he can convey commitment and belief — belief that his young bonkers self composed a work that captured possibilities now nearly lost to history. SMiLE proves that those possibilities are still worth pursuing.