Is memory simply a filter that reduces all things to a nostalgic trip where the best times remain holy and everything else is swept under the rug, forgotten forever and for good? The legend that is Brian Wilson's "lost Beach Boys album," Smile, would seem to fall under that rubric.
Thirty-eight years ago, when Wilson was at his creative peak following the recording of the glorious Pet Sounds, he recorded a three-part American epic that he called a "teenage symphony to God." The other Beach Boys, then out touring goofy surf songs, had less kind words: "freaked out," "fucked up," "a whole album of Brian's madness." Extremely sensitive by nature, Brian gave up, turned on, tuned out and eventually mentally disintegrated, shelving Smile. Until now.
Rerecorded note-for-note with pop revivalists The Wondermints, Brian Wilson Presents Smile is now available for all to enjoy, and less importantly, to wonder, "Would this record have successfully (as often opined) challenged The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper as the most creative pop work of the '60s and beyond?"
Topped by Van Dyke Parks' nonsensical lyrics, Smile is a journey through layers of experimental Americana, as if the Gershwins, Stephen Foster, Walt Disney and a deranged barbershop quartet dropped acid together and collaborated on these immaculate nuggets of pop perfection. This version of Smile is a success, the songs rolling out beautifully with Wilson and the musicians in exceptional form, finally, making the legend flesh.
But for all of the new album's attention to vocal and instrumental detail, there are missing elements that will forever keep the original (found piecemeal on various bootlegs and official compilations) untouchable. One is Wilson's own voice. Reflecting the shell of the man that he is today compared to the 24-year-old who recorded the original album, Wilson's voice is disturbing, especially when singing the newly composed lyrics to "Good Vibrations," surely the album's most glaring misstep. Also obviously missing are the golden voices of the other Beach Boys, especially Carl Wilson, who was the bird set flight by Brian's brilliance. These can never be replaced, no matter how exceptional a recreation may be.
Smile also has the weight of the '60s to deal with. Entwined with the music are the shadows of an era passed, of opportunities missed, of perhaps a better America when pop music seemed regularly touched by beauty and genius. By comparison, the new album is cold, lacking the intimacy of the original, as well as that long-lost feeling of California as a mythical, magical place at the end of the continent. Should you buy it? Most definitely. But to hear the full majesty of Smile, seek out the recently reissued Smiley Smile/Wild Honey and Sunflower/Surf's Up two-fer album sets and the Luna Records bootleg of the original Smile album.
Equally essential (if not as confounding) is Keith Badman's book The Beach Boys, an indispensable and exhaustive chronology of the group's day-by-day activities from their early days in Hawthorne to Brian's recent global tour. Jammed with tales, pics and copious amounts of documents, it does for The Beach Boys what Anthology did for The Beatles: It makes every seemingly insignificant rehearsal or concert seem to be part of a grandiose musical myth.
(Brian Wilson will perform Smile in concert at the King Center in Melbourne on Monday, Oct. 18)