Know When To Fold ‘Em: The Beach Boys should have fired Brian Wilson after Pet Sounds
By Joseph Kyle
I like pizza. I like butterscotch candy. I like chicken. I like coffee. I like water. I like spaghetti. These are things I love to eat. They contain elements and tastes I like to savor. Sometimes, the elements blend together.
I would never, however, put them all into a pot, stir them together, and call the end results an enjoyable meal. At best, it would be a mess. At worst, it would be utterly disgusting and could potentially put me off of said foods.
That’s exactly the feeling I get listening to The Smile Sessions. Capitol Records has taken bits and bobs of the sessions that have been released over the last 40 years, crammed them together, and called this an ‘album’. But this hodgepodge collection that Capitol has released isn’t as thrilling as the media campaign and the virtual advertising would lead you to believe. (It’s telling that the ‘sessions’ require one to spend at least a hundred dollars to access material that’s been released in bootleg form over the years.)
Frankly, though, The Smile Sessions? It is an utter bore.
Based on Smile alone, the genius of Brian Wilson is dubious. Yes, when he made Pet Sounds, he was a hermetic studio wizard, obsessing over his tapes and his orchestras and his musicians, and he produced one of the most beautiful works of art of the 20th Century.
So he decides to top it, by ‘tuning in’ to the times, which was really just a pathetic rationalization of “I’m going to become a heavy drug user”.
We must admit one fact: Smile is unfinished. It could never be finished. Its creator was so fractured out of reality. Yes, yes, I know – there are those that say that the album was close to completion when he shelved it, that production was slated to begin when it was shut down. But that doesn’t make the record truly finished, and this is probably the closest one comes to having the ‘finished record’ in hand.
We naively like to think that a genius can easily produce a second masterpiece. There are those itching for ‘new’ Neutral Milk Hotel material. There could be a very good reason Jeff Mangum hasn’t produced it – because he’s aware that he is incapable of reaching that height again – or, even worse, the expectations of a second interstellar work of beauty. Wilson got lucky with Pet Sounds. He’s never achieved that greatness again – and Smile sort of suggests that he couldn’t.
But what of the new set? It’s nice enough, but it’s going to send you cherry-picking because of the 40 songs found here, maybe a fourth of them are worth listening to repeatedly, and another fourth are somewhat as good. The other half should have stayed in the vault.
There are some puzzling decisions in terms of track-listing, too. To start off with the beautiful ‘Our Prayer’ is not a surprise, and is perhaps the best way to go about it. To follow it with ‘Gee’, a less-than-a-minute vocal tag ‘segue’ – and then follow it with ‘Heroes And Villains’? That simply doesn’t make sense. Take out ‘Gee’, and the segue is perfect. ‘I’m In Great Shape’ and ‘Barnyard’? Stupid little pieces that survive only because for a few seconds they sound good. ‘My Only Sunshine’ – a bastardization of the Jimmy Miller composition that sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. If you take those four songs out, you have a very, very strong 15-track album. With those in there, this version of Smile is off-balance. Taken out, the record is interesting. Not particularly great, nowhere near as genius as Pet Sounds, but it’s at least a much more interesting listen. It could have been a good starting point.
But it wasn’t.
As for the bonus material, many of these songs are not lost; they have appeared as bonus tracks on reissues and in box sets. In those settings, the songs are fascinating glimpses into the studio mind of Brian Wilson. Outside of those settings? It’s your call. And, really, how many versions of ‘Heroes And Villains’ do you need to hear? It’s an OK song, but it’s not ‘Good Vibrations’. That said, there are moments of transcendent beauty, and all of those have to do with ‘Cabinessence’ and ‘Surf’s Up’. Those songs were classics, and their release years after the fact, away from the whole Smile debacle, has helped to show them as the rare jewels in the Wilson canon.
“When choosing between the truth and the legend, print the legend.” The truth was, the Smile sessions were the work of a drug-addled brain beginning its ascent into mental illness. Brian may have felt that what he was doing was “genius”, but like most self-indulgent drug-addled works of art, it’s a hell of a mess to sift through. This collection is somewhat monotonous, oft repetitive, and, frankly, not that interesting.
But there is a much more painful truth at play here, one that, if anything, Smile most painfully highlights.