THE ALTERNATE REVIEW: The Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions (Capitol)
By Scott Creney
That sure is an awkward title. It makes sense if you’re familiar with this album’s backstory, but it’s got to be confusing as hell if you aren’t. Here’s a link if you’re interested. Or you can watch this video about it.
When The Basement Tapes came out after years of circulating in bootleg form, Bob Dylan famously cracked, “I thought everyone already had them”. And that’s probably the case with this album. Since the internet came along, it’s been widely available to anyone who wanted it, though in widely different versions. And like this year’s release of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King, engaging with Smile Sessions means accepting that there IS no definitive release. There is no ending. We have to accept that this album is the closest we’re going to get. The running order, like everything else with this album, was never finalized, but this release pretty much mirrors 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents Smile, only this version features the original recordings rather than interpretations made by (extremely competent) arrangers. And there’s a noticeable difference between the two releases. This one feels warmer, more full — it’s analog to the other’s digital. Plus, the harmonies are being sung by the actual brothers/cousin/buddy. It’s well-documented that there’s something that happens when relatives sing harmonies, and well — let’s just say The Smile Sessions kind of proves it.
Don’t misunderstand me. As someone growing up in Southern California, I couldn’t stand the fucking Beach Boys. Be true to your school, having fun-fun-fun, she’s so fine my 409, and all that bullshit. Later I found out that Brian Wilson, the guy who wrote all those songs, never went to the beach, spent all day sitting at the piano writing songs, and had a dad who beat the shit out of him — which certainly made the songs more interesting. It gave them a certain tragic weight, but the stuff still sounded like Ronald Reagan to me — tan skin, perfect teeth, and neutered by its naïve, sunny-eyed, morning-in-America optimism. My Southern California sounded like X, Jane’s Addiction and NWA. It was rude, aggressive, and likely to end in either violence or death.
But hell, this is fantastic. As a magnum opus, it is 100 per cent suburban — one can be pretty sure that Wilson never heard The Velvet Underground — but whitewashed suburban America has its own kind of darkness, one this album’s creator knew pretty well. Nearly every song references death in all of its wide variety — Wild West (‘Heroes and Villians’), Genocide (‘Do You Like Worms’), Universal (‘Child Is Father Of Man’), Food Chain (‘Vega-tables’), Cosmic/Architectural (‘Surf’s Up’), etc. It’s an album-long symphony of myth, death and America.
But let’s dive into this album. Find the room in your house/apartment/trailer with the highest ceiling, put on the album and turn up opening track ‘Our Prayer’ as loud as you can stand it. This is as close to religion as western music gets. It pisses all over the Gospels, all over those repressed European monks singing “om”, and is even better than Jesus Christ Superstar.
It’s hard not to use the word beautiful over and over again with a big stupid grin on your face. ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Wonderful’ in particular are as close to godlike as music gets.
Melody and harmony that just tugs at your belly, music that creates a feeling of weightlessness.
‘Barnyard’ shows that Wilson was into recording farm animals long before fellow eccentric ‘genius’ Lee Perry. By the way, I put that word in quotes for a reason. Somewhere on CB right now, there’s a raging debate taking place about whether or not Brian Wilson was a genius. I don’t really care one way or another, but for the sake of debate. Let’s acknowledge that if Brian Wilson is a genius, then so is Lora Logic. And Kate Bush for that matter. And Timbaland. And Grandmaster Flash.
Of course, in the typical fashion of major label reissue/ripoff bullshit, you can’t buy JUST the Smile album. You have to get, at minimum, a double-CD set retailing in the neighborhood of $30 featuring an additional 20 bonus tracks with titles like ‘Cool, Cool Water (Version 2)’. It’s fascinating for the fascinated, but pretty much precludes the uninitiated from going out and buying this album. Even The Rolling Stones had the dignity — this may be the only time that word gets trotted out to describe the world’s greatest rock’n’roll corporation — to release last year’s Exile On Main St. reissue as both a single disc and a deluxe package.
The Smile Sessions represents a pinnacle of sorts from a time when artists, upon reaching #1, wondered what else they could achieve — creatively, not commercially. They didn’t seek to consolidate their position at the top. They sought out new challenges. They saw the pop charts as an art form to bend and shape to their imagination and will. Brian Wilson never scaled these heights again. But, y’know, I think everything Dylan did after Blonde On Blonde (and even a lot of that) pretty much sucked. That’s the funny thing about being a genius. It doesn’t last forever. The Smile Sessions is a candle made out of wax collected from the melted wings of Icarus — a claim that sounds ridiculously cheesy, yet feels frighteningly accurate. Nostalgia sucks. But go get a copy of The Smile Sessions, revel in the ambitions both fulfilled and thwarted, and try hard not to weep for the music of today.