Thirty-seven years later, Brian Wilson has completed and released Smile. With the help of original collaborator Van Dyke Parks and Wilson’s current brain trust—wife Melinda, house intellectual David Leaf, L.A. powerpop polymaths the Wondermints, and backup-band alumnus Jeffrey Foskett—he’s produced the first successfully conceptualized Beach Boys release since Kokomo, the most moving since Pet Sounds, and the funniest since Smiley Smile, as well as the only consistent post–Beach Boys Brian Wilson solo album ever. With the ongoing help of George Bush and John Kerry, it just might become the album of the year.
A musical genius unsure of his social context, Wilson has worked best when teamed up with somebody who can articulate or embody one: Gary Usher and car songs, brother Dennis the surfer, Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher. But over time, the story of the Beach Boys and Brian, including the decades-long Fable of the Unfinished Smile, has accrued a contextualizing power of its own, and the brain trust knows it. No longer perceived as a budding Beethoven to be left in his room, Brian is now understood and presented as a guy with a lot of problems and a lot of fans who’s struggled to come to terms with, broadly speaking, the 1960s.
Few others bridged the decade’s distinct halves the way the Beach Boys did; like their true opposite numbers the Beatles, they rivaled first the Four Seasons and then Jefferson Airplane. Emphasizing hits, Mike Love & Bruce Johnston’s touring franchise chose to toss out the late-’60s pretensions. With the successful release of SMiLE, Brian reclaims these pretensions—reclaims the struggle to stay simultaneously hip and marketable, a legacy that’s part of their continuing appeal. Once compared unfavorably to the impervious, Sinatra-like masculinity of the Rolling Stones, Wilson’s battered sensitivity and psychological pain have gained symbolic power over time as well. Because on some level the story of the early ’60s dealing with the late ’60s represents a key BeachBoysian dynamic—the story of young men who dealt with Vietnam, and an idealistic, confident country turned embittered and disoriented within a decade.
Over time the dangers lurking in the expectations for Smile—that it would resolve the unresolvable in the studio—have diminished. Disco, punk, and hip-hop followed Pet Sounds, not a flowering of overblown orchestral pop. The studio proved to have its limits. But those old expectations echo when we listen. Although newly recorded last spring, this SMiLE‘s got three cuts—”Surf’s Up,” “Cabinessence,” and “Our Prayer”—that reproduce Smile tracks released on other Beach Boys albums in the ’70s, while “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” mimic alternate cuts released on box sets and compilations. That puts the new or at least previously unreleased material at about 25 percent, and the reworked and rearranged at about the same. So we’ve got a half that’s new and a half that’s old. The instrumental tracks were quickly recorded after last winter’s live SMiLE concert in London, the vocal worked on longer by the current (old) Brian and his brain-trust backup band, making the whole thing a sonic realization of the historical dynamics of our only apparently anachronistic masterpiece. Does this SMiLE revive and then resolve the old pleasures and confusions? No. Does it help us recollect them? Yes.
The alternate takes of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” re-created here are less smoothed out than the original ’60s hits—spliced-together tracks that suit the cut-and-paste pace of the record as a whole, and add to the abrupt changes in texture that restore vulgarity and humor to the mix. In fact, Brian’s frequent inability to compose a fully completed song since Sunflower is turned to his advantage here. The snippets and jumps don’t have to function as anything other than parts of the sort-of symphonic whole. Likewise, Van Dyke Parks’s so-profound-you-can’t-understand-them lyrics don’t sound pompous—they’re just part of the flow. A phrase here and there floats to the surface, with the quotes from old pop songs and decipherable interludes like “Vegetables” or “Wind Chimes,” so who cares if “columnated ruins domino”? It’s enough to make you wonder whether Brian lost his grip while trying to get it around something bigger.
Whatever it was supposed to achieve originally, right now SMiLE sounds like a beautifully modulated, funny, sometimes unintentional meditation on a failed United States and counterculture, and the lost paradise, real or imagined, of Southern California, and the collapse and reinvention of the male ego. Of course, I might be affected by the fact that the current presidential campaign is about who did or didn’t do what during Vietnam and who that makes more or less manly and sincere and better able to lead us after the shock of 9-11. George Bush, John Kerry, and Brian Wilson all agree on one thing—the ’60s are back.
Brian Wilson plays Carnegie Hall October 12 and 13.