Alright, let’s go over the Brian Wilson primer one more time…
Brian creates quite possibly the greatest American musical group ever, the Beach Boys, with his two younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love and school pal Alan Jardine. The Beach Boys top the charts on numerous occasions, performing some of the quintessential American pop songs, like “I Get Around” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Beach Boys record what is arguably the greatest American album of all-time, Pet Sounds. Brian sets out to create his masterwork, which turns out to be an abstract, over-inflated, LSD-influenced train wreck that alienates his band and never sees the light of day in the form that Brian intended. Brian becomes largely unstable, participating only sparingly on his band’s work through the ’70s, and drops out of the band and society completely in 1980. Brian employs Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychiatrist whose influence on Brian is said to be almost a complete mental takeover. Brian records lone solo album in late ’80s. In the mid-90’s, American power pop band co-opts description of intended masterwork as a title for their finest album (Velvet Crush’s Teenage Symphonies to God). Canadian pop band records semi-biographical song and turns it into their American breakthrough single (Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”). Brian re-emerges in late ’90s to record another solo album, and performs on a series of tours. Rumblings of long-lost masterwork being finalized and released are tossed about.
As crude a summary as that is, it brings us to today. Or close enough, at least.
If you’ve had even a passing historical interest in pop music, you’ve heard it a million times if you’ve heard it once that Brian Wilson is the greatest composer of pop music in the rock and roll era. Endless arguments have resulted from this assertion, but it’s one that is hard to argue with. On taking note of the timeless, classic pop material he recorded with the Beach Boys, one becomes hard-pressed to say that he doesn’t at least share the distinction with a handful of other great musicians. Even in spite of his great musical prowess, and the fact that Pet Sounds is regarded by many as the seminal American pop album, it’s the one thing he never completed and the subsequent personal collapse that so many people remember first about Brian Wilson. Until recently, that is.
To the ear that has been spoiled by thousands of cheap hooks and cold, polished production on album after album (I’m as guilty as everyone else in that regard), SMiLE is the broccoli to 21st Century American pop’s Pixy Stix. It’s an album that sounds like it was pulled out of a time capsule from an alternate reality, the bizarrely slanted, unromanticized America that rang through the drug-addled minds of Wilson and co-writer Van Dyke Parks. It’s a jarring listen, full of sudden, drastic tempo and tonal shifts, with broad, sweeping orchestrations that have little to no interest in giving the listener anything to latch onto. Just as you think that Wilson is rolling out a nice melodic run or a hook, he pulls the rug right out from under you, and stops on a dime to move into another passage that sounds completely unrelated. The album is made up of three loosely-related movements, each of which culminates in one of Wilson’s more famous compositions, “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up” and “Good Vibrations,” respectively, the last of which closes the album.
The harmonies that Brian made famous with the Beach Boys are present in many places, but they don’t pack the same punch they would have had Brian’s late brother Dennis been involved. His 10-piece backing band, the Wondermints (including Wilson understudy Jeffrey Foskett and Poi Dog Pondering reedsman Paul Mertens) fill out some spots with massive crescendos while deftly stepping aside at others. Parks’ lyrics are unchanged from the original version, which means that legendarily unconventional lines like “columnated ruins domino” are still present. SMiLE is idiosyncratic almost to a fault; it has no traditional characteristics, and it’s not even one cohesive whole. What it is, however, is probably the truest representation of Wilson’s vision of SMiLE, uncompromising and living in its own universe. That being as it is, it makes this “official” version of SMiLE a significant accomplishment, just as much for what it represents as what it actually is.
It’s a wonder in itself to think what SMiLE would’ve turned out to be had not their consciousnesses been so royally distorted by their drug dependency. Maybe it would’ve come out when it should have, in 1967. Maybe the American public would’ve gotten to hear and revel in obviously-affected lyrics like “columnated ruins domino” in an era where it made at least some sense. Maybe the course of popular music would’ve been sent down another path, one where SMiLE was the lasting musical impression from that year instead of Sgt. Pepper’s. But as it is, it’s still a wonder to behold, and noteworthy just for the reason that Wilson actually finished it. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, and nothing my spoiled ears ever really intend to partake in again. But I know significant when I hear it.