The SMILE Sessions (Capitol)
Quite possibly the greatest record that was never released, SMiLE is shrouded in mystery, surrounded by legend and clouded by myth. Ropey bootlegs have done the rounds for years, while bits of Brian Wilson’s rambling imaginings from 1966 and 1967 surfacing on later Beach Boys’ sets like Smiley Smile and 20/20. The actual record was abandoned in late ’67 as Capitol pulled the plug on sessions that had lasted more than a year with only the worldwide number one Good Vibrations to show for it.
As much as that track was/is a masterpiece of recorded creativity, the brilliant successor to Pet Sounds, it was clear that Wilson all but fried his mind in its creation, trying the patience not only of the music business, but his band and even his own acid-hungry demons.
In 2004 Wilson assembled a band and toured a version of SMiLE that only added to the mythology. Could it be that good? Is it worth the wait? The answer, unavoidably, is… Yes! Yes! Yes!
There are various versions of the sessions available, with up to five discs of music housed in various takes on pop artist Frank Holmes’ instantly familiar sleeve. For all but the most ardent students of aural possibility, the two-disc box should suffice with a version of the album augmented by a wealth of out-takes, alternative mixes, chatter and bonus elements. Wilson’s introductory notes in the booklet are illuminating and further essays explain the history, but this is (and always should be) about the music first and foremost.
At its most recognisable – Good Vibrations, Heroes And Villains, Surf’s Up, Wonderful – SMiLE is simply breathtaking, the exquisite harmonies knitted seamlessly together with Brian’s musical creations and Van Dyke Parks’ off-kilter lyrical stories. The twists and turns defy expectations from the opening Our Prayer onwards and if sometimes the whole thing drifts off into abject silliness there’s still the consolation of marvelling at the sheer artistry behind the creation of daft interludes like Vega-Tables and Holidays.
Never mind pop music, this transcends the avant garde. SMiLE is a folly of epic scale, a genuine symphony constructed of words, music and creative use of space, an audio artwork that exists beyond the confines of its time. It pays no heed to the grit and grease of soul music or the emotional commentary of Dylan and his kind, but it is far too out-there to have made sense to the pipe and slippers mainstream either. Listening to it is a wondrous, breathless, eerie, melancholy, slightly scary experience – let’s not forget that for all its artistry SMiLE is also the sound of a mind disintegrating. Astonishing.