A decades-long wait for an unforgettable trip to the beach

Brian Wilson Presents Smile

Music Review

Cover Story

September 26, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Brian Wilson, Smile (Nonesuch Records, $19.98)

The legend that Smile is one of the greatest pop records ever to come undone has floated around for nearly 40 years. It was supposed to be Brian Wilson's ultimate masterstroke, an album that would surpass the magic of his previous work, the Beach Boys' celebrated Pet Sounds from 1966. The arranger-producer and driving force behind the Beach Boys would render the Beatles irrelevant with this wondrous, sonically rich dream.

But the recording sessions soon became a nightmare. Several things kept the incomplete album away from the public -- Capitol Records' indifference to (or disdain for) the material and Wilson's fragile mental state chief among them. Plus, the Beatles, the Beach Boys' label mates and rivals, came out with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the summer of '67 and squashed all competitors in the experimental pop-rock game. After Wilson heard it, he spiraled deeper into depression.

But now Smile has emerged, newly recorded and complete at last. Does the record live up to the mythology? Was it worth the wait?

Well, after all these years, it's practically impossible for Smile to measure up to its legend. But if you were around in '66 when pop was at its most bizarre and experimental (and you dug it), or if you belatedly discovered the wonder of Pet Sounds, then you'll want to check out Smile.

Although it was freshly recorded with a new band in the new millennium, the record is still of its time -- an instant ride to '66 on rolling and crashing waves of baroque-style pop. Haunting harmonies -- provided by new singers; the Beach Boys appear nowhere on Smile -- abound.

After sitting through the album's three movements and 17 tracks for the first time, you will undoubtedly feel perplexed, perhaps a little high. But the last tune -- the classic "Good Vibrations," which is all but identical to the original -- gently brings you down. It's the only cohesive (and familiar) tune on this sprawling, 38-year-old project. The album is ambitious with brilliance blossoming here and there. Even after repeated listens, you won't get everything at once. And maybe that's just how Wilson intended it to be. (Even he didn't get all of what he was doing back in the day, and probably still has no clue.)

Every style that had influenced the mad producer up to 1966 -- doo-wop, classical, early rock, art-pop -- ebbs and flows through Smile. The most captivating element of the record is the vocal harmonies and how beautifully Wilson layers them throughout. They soar and float, lingering like a fine mist over arrangements that feel serene before veering into something jarring and strange -- barnyard noises, drills and saws 2 / 3 pounding percussion.

Smile, overall, is a visceral record that you're supposed to feel. With no formal training in music, Wilson was driven by feelings, his ever-changing moods induced by reefer, LSD or depression. Listening to the album, which clocks in at a little over 46 minutes, you experience the musical wonderland inside Wilson's head. It's an organic place -- sometimes pretty, other times downright weird. Even a little scary.

One of rock's strangest, most heralded "geniuses" has finally opened the gates to a legendary place and polished it up for visitors.

You won't forget the trip.

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