The story behind Smile has only gained mystique since The Beach Boys scrapped the album in 1967, but it's never really drowned out the music. Not that the story lacks riches: The infamous Smile sessions found surf-pop whiz Brian Wilson growing into his frazzled-genius persona, filling his bedroom with sand, wearing a fireman's hat in the recording studio, and sending entire orchestras home because of inappropriate "vibes." The anecdotesgathered in the priceless book Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!are legion, but the songs still stand out, thanks to bootlegs and occasional revisitations on later Beach Boys albums that hinted at the swooning masterpiece Smile was supposed to be.
The existence of the old tapes made Wilson's present-day remake seem like a bad idea from the start. His voice has lost the angelic lilt of youth, and few of his recent musical undertakings have answered to a muse worth rehiring. It's a surprise, then, that the new Smile not only justifies its bearing, but also serves as a major triumph. For starters, the re-recordings sound more or less the same as the originals, which is to say they're weird, woozy, fragmented orchestral works of the kind originally drooled over by both Paul McCartney and Leonard Bernstein. After an opening spell of monastic vocal harmonies, "Heroes And Villains" cruises into a pastiche of psychedelic Beach Boys grandeur: chugging parlor-room rolls, swirling barbershop vocals, quiet breakdowns with piano chords that prove breathtaking. Like all of Smile, it's an epic would-be pop symphony set against suggestions of vast Americana and bizarre exoticism.
Wilson's limited vocal range, thinner and sadder than before, actually better serves the bittersweet tang of "Cabin Essence," a springy song that moves between pattering banjo and clanging orchestration like it doesn't know the difference. "Surf's Up" sounds crisper and clearer than it ever has: Wilson's time-encrusted croon melds into Van Dyke Parks' bookish lyrics about opera glasses, muted trumpeter swans, and what happens when "columnated ruins domino." Smile's powerful push eases off in goofy snippets like "Barnyard" and "Vege-Tables," a song in which Wilson sings about beets and composes parts for carrot-chomping sounds. Threaded into other songs that beat with all the heart of hymns, they make up the devotional whole of an album that deserves a lot of devotion.