Music Reviews
The SMiLE Sessions

The Beach Boys The SMiLE Sessions

(Capital) Rating - 10/10

“Truly,” as Brian Wilson writes in his liner notes for the newly released SMiLE Sessions, “my creative heart was broken.”

In 1967, Wilson’s ambition and the pressures associated with various factors seeming to work against him, forced Wilson to indefinitely shelve his opus, SMiLE.  Thirty-seven years later, SMiLE emerged into the big post-millennial world and was deemed a triumph for Wilson, one that bit its thumb at any and all of the album’s previous detractors and finally showed whomever awaited its arrival what he had in mind.  And though Wilson’s vision was finally realized, the Beach Boys were essentially left out of this happy ending, the unified group’s attempts at SMiLE still mostly unheard save a few singles and whatever runoff provided enough spare parts to fill up the substituting Smiley Smile.  Factors?  Yes, many:  Mind-eroding, artistic breakdown, label demands as The Beatles were gearing up to release Sgt. Pepper, disputes within the group regarding lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ part in SMiLE’s authorship, money, time, the Beach Boys’ prospective Brother Records label and the very expensive and time-sucking studio technique that was to be used (modular recorded pieces, analog tape, razor blade).  The legacy of SMiLE is the stuff of redemptive storytelling too perfect and rife with overt drama and adversity to constitute non-fiction and it still remains one of Rock’s most poignant and compelling struggles.

And, here we are:  Even after Wilson seemingly put the legend to rest, the Beach Boys will finally be heard singing what he’d released in 2004.  The SMiLE Sessions features the full suite compiled with outtakes, singles, studio banter and direction.  The included bonus track of a sales pitch, (“If that isn’t incentive enough to sell one million units, how about adding one more?  The Beach Boys.  SMiLE.”), seems to reflect the existence of SMiLE now since this compiled artifact is considered worthy of a record label’s attention.  The album’s financial viability has been proven and its audience, so eager and patient to hear it in its completion, has come forth bearing green.  So, to have a version of the suite sung by those originally intended could only enhance the album’s meaning and further convince audiences of its importance.  Right?

With The SMiLE Sessions, though, what you do get is an overwhelming sense of what could’ve been, which is both intriguing and disillusioning.  Based upon the studio technique utilized for Good Vibrations, which consisted of separate movements recorded on tape which were randomly split apart and then spliced together, (one of pop music’s happier accidents), SMiLE’s construct had never been determined because this process hadn’t yet been applied.  So, The Beach Boys’ hypothetical SMiLE was built out of selected pieces the band had recorded and then put together using Wilson’s finished product as the basis.  As disingenuous and possibly inauthentic as this might sound, there is something fascinating about how the recorded pieces sound musically, the studio compositions from now forty-plus years prior benefitting from its analog origins.  The voices of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston do sound as though they should’ve carried this off in the first place and this is confirmed once Our Prayer begins, their harmonies perfect and beautiful. 

Next to Wilson’s 2004 version, the instrumentation in Heroes and Villains sounds as though it were better produced alongside the vocals, certain textures easier to comprehend and absorb.  I think this is also true of Do You Like Worms? (Roll Plymouth Rock in SMiLE 2004) where the percussion seems subtly colossal and the keys sing out with a little more grace.  The obscuring flurry of instruments you hear in Cabin Essence almost buries a lot of the vocal harmonizing into a distancing jumble, but it’s a more haunting mix, one that doesn’t overwhelm you with its collage but instead allows you to drift in the haze.  Obviously the evolution of studio recording techniques and capabilities is going to mean significant differences in music quality present in either version of the album, so acknowledging those differences is just going to seem unnecessary and already understood by anyone well versed in SMiLE 2004.

Between the two though, even if its existence does seem to reek of a payday, The SMiLE Sessions is a superior version, its sound undeniably belonging to its era and the true brilliance of Wilson’s compositions seeming to shine a tad truer.  Though Wilson’s success can be better measured by his accomplishment in 2004, this was meant as a Beach Boys record and to hear it sung and performed as such is validating.  The version of Wind Chimes heard herein and its wonderful transition into The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow in SMiLE 2004) should not be performed or heard any other way.

Other than the suite, some points of interest are You’re Welcome, (which is sung directly after Good Vibrations as if to close out the album differently) and many versions of Heroes and Villains including a stereo mix and sections.  There are also selections of backing vocals for the album and a solo version of Surf’s Up performed with a piano that's worth listening to.  Also, hearing The Elements: Fire being performed as sessions is, for lack of a better or possibly more overused word, fascinating.  The inclusions never seem like filler and relate well enough to the finished product and it’s history that they don’t bore or resemble tedium. 

As far as formats go, the 2-disc set (also available in vinyl) is a great acquisition for any collector though the box set contains 5 CDs, 2 LPs and 2 7” singles.  Overkill?  Probably, but not if you’re a completist.

Though Brian Wilson had to make his dream a reality decades after he would’ve liked, he was thankfully able to bring SMiLE to the masses.  Inasmuch as The SMiLE Sessions could enliven some cynicism, (because it’s not as if Mike Love was so keen to aid Wilson in his creative endeavors before they became lucrative), the compilation does better represent Wilson’s intent and ably demonstrates what kind of creative mind he truly is.  The personal triumph of a tortured artist might be removed, but not to the detriment of a great album.