Pop music’s great lost album has finally come home. SMiLE (or Smile, as I’m going to call it to save effort) was going to the record that changed everything and confirmed Brian Wilson as the greatest songwriter and producer America has ever known. Instead, it became the 1960s’ Icarus Moment, as he soared too close to the sun and came crashing back down to earth. Over 40 years later, does it live up to its reputation?
Simply, yes it does. But, of course, this release of The Smile Sessions comes at a time when we already know a lot of the music that had been locked up for so many years. There’s been countless bootleg versions, and some of it emerged on the Good Vibrations box-set, while Wilson’s own recording of it came out in 2004 and was mind-blowing brilliant in a way you wouldn’t have expected. However, all of that doesn’t take away the excitement of hearing an official Beach Boys version of the album, even if we’ll maybe never quite know what the original album would have ended up being.
Of course, we’re all now so familiar with the 2004 version that it’s hard not to compare the two, and the first thing you take from this is that Wilson and his current band did an incredible job recreating and updating these sounds. Other than sounding ‘finished’, there’s only his damaged vocal cords that give away that Brian wasn’t at the peak of his powers when he recorded his solo Smile. But obviously it’s fantastic to hear the songs with Carl’s astonishing voice and those Beach Boy harmonies that nobody could ever quite duplicate, particularly on heavenly opener Our Prayer, one of the the most breathtaking intro tracks ever recorded.
It’s also hard not to be reminded when listening to these original recordings that it is the sound of a young man (it’s incredible to remember that Brian was only 24 at the time) effectively having a breakdown. In 2004, Smile became a triumphant stage in his recovery, being able to revisit his darkest hours and come out smiling. Here, in some of its most haunting moments (Wind Chimes and Fire) there’s only the abyss ahead for him and you can almost hear its echoes. We know there’s a happy ending eventually, sure, but it still makes The Smile Sessions an affecting listen for different reasons than The Pet Sounds Sessions, which was all about his genius.
You can certainly hear in Fire why Wilson might have thought his music was so dangerous (he heard about fires breaking out while it was being recorded and quickly abandoned it), because it certainly comes from a dark place, even without the modern day crunch of guitars that dominates the re-recording. Sometimes great beauty comes out of the bleakness, most obviously on Surf’s Up, the centrepiece of the album and its heart in every sense. It’s nothing new, having eventually been released on the Beach Boys album of the same name, but set in Smile it becomes even more stunning, and took my breath away when I first heard Wilson perform it on his Smile Tour.
That sense of the now-familiar being heard in different ways is what makes The Smile Sessions so worthwhile. I’ve got the 5-disc set to work my way through and I’m sure there will be lots of similar moments, but just the ‘album’ itself has been worth the money. It’s hard to imagine how it would have been received in its day. You’d hope that in a world of Strawberry Fields Forever (a Beatles song that crushed Wilson when he heard it) that Smile would have been rightly recognised as a masterpiece, but the likes of Mike Love certainly didn’t think so. He does now, of course, or at least says he does when it can make him some cash, but this kind of music was never for him anyway. Thankfully now we all get to listen and decide for ourselves whether it is for us. I know my answer to that.