“What is this?” you might be thinking. “The Beach Boys? You mean like ‘Surfin’ USA,’ old guys wearing Hawaiian shirts, those Beach Boys?” Well, I hesitantly reply with a yes. Hesitantly only out of the fact that it is a shame how the majority of youth today will only ever associate the Beach Boys with songs about girls, cars and surfing. Although it is true they wrote many songs on those very subjects in their early days as a fun-loving “party” band, the band’s leader and creative genius Brian Wilson wanted to take the band in a completely different direction. This started with their top-selling 1966 album Pet Sounds, which was much more musically complex and psychedelic and notably was Paul McCartney’s inspiration for the Beatles’ iconic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This is where Smile comes in. Smile was intended to be released in 1967 as a further artistic progression and follow-up to Pet Sounds. However, after encountering multiple problems the project was put to rest, with some of the songs added onto later albums, along with “Good Vibrations,” which, after the failure of Smile, was released as a single and would become the groups’ biggest hit. After decades of Smile being referred to as the greatest album never made, it was resurrected by Wilson as a solo album in 2003 and then. It was finally put out by Capitol Records as The Smile Sessions, the closest thing to what would have been the original fully-realized album, in November 2011, which used no new material but instead the original studio recordings that had not seen the light of day until now.
This is why Smile is referred to by some as the “holy grail” for Beach Boys fans.
Had it been released at the time, it could have arguably been a launching point for years more of critical success, at an equal plane with bands such as the Beatles and other paragons of psychedelic rock/pop. Unfortunately front man Wilson’s decline into mental illness would keep them from realizing that dream. Nonetheless, the resurrection of Smile is considered by some listeners now to be one of the greatest albums of all time.
There is not a single bad track on this album. Each song is completely unique while still each maintaining a flawless multilayer complexity, beautifully sung harmonies and fun originality as well as, at times, jarring profoundness.
Take, for instance, two vastly different tracks, “Vega-Tables,” and Wilson’s original demo version of “Surf’s Up.” “Vega-Tables,” as one might infer from the title, is a nostalgic, fun and creative tribute to the singer’s “favorite vegetable,” including real vegetable-chomping sound effects, and a child-like mantra of “Sleep a lot, each a lot, brush ‘em like crazy/Run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy.” Music arranger Van Dyke Parks, a friend of the Wilson, contributed as a lyricist for “Vega-Tables” as well as most of the other songs of Smile, which gave the album yet another edge with Parks’ pun-laden, idiomatic style.
“Surf’s Up,” on the other hand, is an example of Brian Wilson’s brilliant melody composing ability, and features ethereal, poetic lyrics as well as one of Wilson’s most haunting vocal performances. One particularly profound line reads “A choke of grief hard hardened I/Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry.” “Surf’s Up” later became the title track for one of the band’s subsequent albums, however, as a song for Smile it proves how the album as a whole could have been the greatest of its time if released.
The reaction to Smile comes with both elation and melancholy. There has not been a single time when a bad day of mine could not have been cured by listening to Smile, because of the pure perfection of it as a work of art.
However, one still cannot help but wonder what would have been different if the world of 1967 could have been exposed to it. We will never know. However, listening to the 2011 release of The Smile Sessions is the next best thing.