Album Obsessions: Brian Wilson’s SMiLE


In 2004 Brian Wilson released his long-awaited Smile, which had been Smiley Smile as a Beach Boy project and was scrapped due to drugs, mental illness, the Beatles and trying to get the sound he wanted on ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’. All that, it’s lore, and the unfinished album is legend.

Anyway, 37 years later or however long it was he finally recorded this beast with members of his backing band and The Wondermints. Critics universally agreed it was genius, brilliant, etc., and it did ok in sales considering how long it had been ‘out there’. I bought it and listened a few times but got lost early and for long stretches in all the harmonies and lack of guitar and oblique syncopation. Much singing, strange lyrics, and almost too much like a capella/choral singing to ‘hook’ me.

For whatever reason – actually I know why, because our car has a CD player now – I grabbed a few underplayed discs I’d been meaning to listen to and started them on the rotation during car trips. Smile in particular worked well when the kids were sleeping and aIl I needed was something to keep me awake but lulling enough not to disturb them.

Damn if it didn’t start to grab me. Unexpectedly. Slowly but surely. It is getting into me, and I am getting into it. Granted, this is like a dozen listens now and I am still learning about it, but it is a journey of discovery and the thing is I like it more every time I listen to it, and I’m now hearing moments of beauty I cannot believe I didn’t ‘hear’ before. You just pray for albums like this to enter your life once in a while.

Tommy or Sgt. Peppers, it is not. But it is a remarkable work of art. I recommend if you have a few afternoons when you are looking to try something new, while doing something else like driving or whatever, check it out, you might find it rewarding. It ‘reveals’ itself as they say.

The first song, ‘Heroes and Villains’, for example – how we all as a culture don’t know this song is astounding to me. It is beautiful, has superlative melody, great lyrics, it’s moving, mysterious, all the things you want in an epic song. And this record is a cohesive work of art with themes that run through it musically and lyrically. It has three major suites and walks through American history going East to West with references to everything from Plymouth Rock to the Wild West and the American Indian, to old folk songs and eventually even Hawaii.

Also, if you haven’t really dove in and explored it yet, Pet Sounds too is a slow-burner which also yields rich rewards if you are in the right space. There are no ‘Surfin’ Safari’s’ on this, some are closer to Gershwin, or as they are sometimes called pocket symphonies, but certainly as an antidote to cynicism, and as a celebration of the romantic possibilites of popular music made for the young they are portable masterpieces.

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