Recording of December 2004: SMiLE

Nonesuch 79846-2 (CD). 2004. Brian Wilson, prod., mix; Mark Linett, eng.; Kevin Deane, Daneil S. McCoy, Pete Magdaleno, asst. engs.; Darian Sahanaja, mix. AAD? TT: 47:01
Performance ****½
Sonics **** (footnote 1)

Give Brian Wilson credit. Few artists, let alone those who've had to do battle with an abusive father, drugs, quacks, chemical imbalances, and the pressure that comes from being, at age 24, a group's sole creative force, would have the guts or the inspiration to return to the scene of their greatest folly. Yet that is precisely what Wilson, 37 years after the fact and aided by his original collaborator and lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, has done with this newly recorded version of his once-lost masterwork, SMiLE.

Perhaps the most storied and bootlegged album in rock history, SMiLE was originally recorded in the late summer and early fall of 1966. As the follow-up to Pet Sounds, the 1965 Beach Boys album that was lauded by critics yet failed to sell, SMiLE began when Wilson threw himself into finishing a single he'd begun work on during the Pet Sounds sessions: "Good Vibrations." With a band of hired guns that included guitarists Glen Campbell and Barney Kessel, pianist Leon Russell, and drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine, "Good Vibrations" was at the time the most expensive single ever made. Bristling with then-far-reaching innovations such as the Theremin wail and the battery of cellos chugging away on triplets behind the chorus, "Good Vibrations" would be the Beach Boys' artistic and commercial peak, becoming both their first million-selling No.1 single and, as time would tell, the apex of Brian Wilson's songwriting and arranging career. He never again came close to equaling it.

After the success of "Good Vibrations," Wilson began to build an album around it—one he thought of as an effective counterpunch to the British Invasion, which by 1966 was fast becoming an occupation. Extra pressure came from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had in turn been influenced by Pet Sounds, and which was scheduled for release in mid-1967. It had become a two-band race to see which could first release its scene-changing masterpiece.

When it came to actually recording SMiLE, Wilson used the method he'd used to make "Good Vibrations": taping and editing in very small, modular sections. He recorded the same parts in different L.A.-area studios, to take advantage of the unique sonic qualities of each. On top of this laborious process, which he alone orchestrated, he ran into fierce resistance from cranky Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love, who railed against Parks' obscure lyrics and finally drove Parks off the project completely. A lawsuit between the band and Capitol Records added another layer of torment. When Sgt. Pepper's was released in June, Wilson abandoned SMiLE, withdrew from the Beach Boys, and, as a recent review in the Guardian put it, "took to his bed."

Some of what had been completed—songs such as "Heroes and Villains," "Wonderful," and "Good Vibrations"—appeared in 1967 on Smiley Smile, the doomed album released in the aftermath of SMiLE's collapsed expectations. In 1993, on the Beach Boys' boxed set Good Vibrations, much of the unreleased SMiLE material finally came to light, though not assembled in whatever meaningful sequence Brian had envisioned.

In 2002, with Wilson having beaten back his demons and resurrected his career to the point of releasing good, if not great, solo albums, he and his group, the L.A. retro band the Wondermints, began toying with the idea of working up a SMiLE concert. To that point they'd been playing Beach Boys oldies, reproducing them with scary efficiency, Wilson's solo work, and, in 2002, Pet Sounds. When the February 2004 SMiLE debut concert in London received breathless reviews, Wilson and Parks, who'd by then come aboard as well, decided to give their abandoned opus one last go.

What they've wrought, now in three suites but still roughly in the sequence and spirit of the many bootlegs "reassembled" from the original leavings, is breathtaking. Everything on this new SMiLE is newly recorded. Although the original tapes were certainly listened to for inspiration, and at times replicated to a T, nothing from them was used in this reconstruction. The natural suspicion that only some of Wilson's original genius and concept are present here—that this is a stripped-down version, sonically, intellectually, and musically, of what he'd originally intended—makes this reimagining's strengths all the more powerful, while also making you wonder what might have been.

Like the completed tracks that have been released, officially or not, since the late 1960s, SMiLE's strengths lie in Wilson's sweeping melodies and singular talent for arranging, especially voices. These are heard to great effect throughout the album, but most particularly in "Song for Children" and its continuation, "Child is Father of the Man."

The tracks released on Smiley Smile remain the landmarks here. "Heroes and Villains," with its slow interludes, timpani flourishes, and almost Christmas carol-like vocal accents, all cast in ahead-of-their-time dynamics of loud and soft, is the fresh breeze it's always been. Another great quality retained from the original is the variety of instruments that Wilson has layered into the production. In "Cabin Essence" (sometimes spelled "cabinessence"), the banjo, harmonica, and chimes blend perfectly with the rising and falling vocal gymnastics.

While the music remains ahead or at least abreast of current levels of creativity, the sonic wonders once pioneered by Wilson are now commonplace. Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production style, which Wilson and many others since have imitated, is now a hallowed but commonplace relic. That said, the dynamic ranges and shifting soundscapes here far surpass what was possible in 1966.

Perhaps the biggest difference in this mammoth work—which, in its pace and its structure of resolution and climax, is very much like a highly textured orchestral piece—is Wilson's voice. While he and his enthusiastic young collaborators all hit the right notes, Wilson's voice, now lower and more ragged than it was nearly four decades ago, is a poignant reminder of the miles of personal bad road Wilson had to traverse to bravely return to this thicket. While most artists can't relate to what they recorded even two or three years ago, Wilson's leap backward to his 24-year-old state of mind is the new SMiLE's most astonishing achievement.—Robert Baird

Footnote 1: I would subtract a star for some decidedly grainy sound at times.—John Atkinson