Record #25: The Beach Boys – SMiLE (1967/2011)

As the legend goes, after the Beach Boys created the piece of pop perfection that is Pet Sounds, Paul McCartney heard it and wept for joy. He then joined the rest of the Beatles in the studio and recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, regarded by scores of critics to be the greatest pop record ever recorded.

Brian Wilson heard it, and, like Rubber Soul before it, he became obsessed with topping it. The project, called SMiLE, was among the most highly anticipated albums of all time. The anticipation only doubled when an early single, called “Good Vibrations,” was released.

Unfortunately, tensions between Brian Wilson, the High-Brow Producer and Composer, and Mike Love, the Fun-loving Performer were growing at astronomical proportions, and Wilson’s mental state, beset on all sides by his increasing drug use and the incredible pressure by the public, the studio, and himself, collapsed almost entirely. In an uncharacteristic move of self-preservation, Brian Wilson sealed the session tapes away in a vault and walked away from what was to be his opus. SMiLE was dead.

However, years of separation and healing, as well as live performances of SMiLE material emboldened Brian Wilson, and he was encouraged to finish it, which he did in the late 00s. Much to his surprise, it was a smashing success.

In fact, the public and critical reaction to Brian Wilson’s re-recorded version was so positive that he decided to finish it again, this time using the original master tapes. The result is spinning on my turntable now.

So, pop folklore aside, does the album meant to top Sgt. Pepper’s (and Pet Sounds) succeed? It’s a difficult question to answer. Unlike Pet Sounds, which was made out of the sweetest simple pop songs the world had to offer, SMiLE is a much more ambitious affair.

The whole first side of disc one runs together with merely one song appearing clearly through the lush rolls of vocal and orchestral reverb. That one track, “Heroes and Villains,” itself plays like several songs running together instead of adhering to the simple pop structure of the cuts on Pet Sounds. Instead, this song-cycle approach is the new archetype for SMiLE. Throughout the record, tempos jump and drop like someone is playing with the metronome, songs run into one another, and proper choruses are few and far between (considering the Beach Boys are primarily a vocal group, lyrics at all are comparatively rare).

Rather, this album is more of a symphony than a pop record, and the tracks are more akin to movements than songs. The lyrics, when present, are often simple–childish almost–and ambiguous, like the repeated line “Child is the father of the man” in the song of the same name, or the love of green foods song about in “Vega-tables.” Much more often, the Beach Boys return to a variation of the scat vocalizations of their earlier singles, weaving wordless passages of harmonies through reverb soaked atmospheres (like the a cappella opener, “Our Prayer”). Only “Good Vibrations,” which closes the album out (barring the extra side of bonus material) offers a traditional verse-chorus-bridge structure and a proper singalong chorus.

At times, the ambition behind SMiLE outshines its material. Listening to it, there’s no doubt that Brian Wilson put a lot more thought into this record than Pet Sounds, but in doing so, he sacrificed the pop sensibility that made its predecessor such a masterpiece. This isn’t the kind of album you’d put in to sing along with. But, that’s not always a bad thing. Rather, this is a record to put on after a long day at work and just let it wash over you. And I expect that will happen pretty often from now on.

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