Understand this: The Beach Boys’ Smile is unfinished. It was unfinished back in 1967, when Brian Wilson decided to abandon the project that was literally driving him insane, and it remained unfinished even after Wilson recorded a simplified version of Smile in 2004 and took it out on the road. The rudiments of what Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks intended for Smile were there in the ’04 album, which sequenced the album’s scattered songs—many of which had ended up on later Beach Boys records in some form or another—into three suites, loosely engaging with the story of America and the sense of the divine that can be found in music. But when Wilson and The Beach Boys were actually working on Smile in the year after the creative breakthrough of Pet Sounds, they recorded hundreds upon hundreds of fragments, which Wilson intended to shift and weave and stack much as he did with the hit single “Good Vibrations.” Wilson—who, admittedly, was pretty high at the time—spoke of reaching listeners on a pre-conscious level, rekindling the childlike joy of making musical sounds by combining his own songs with nursery rhymes and classic Americana. So he and his bandmates (and an army of session men) created sound after sound after sound, which Wilson tried to sort through and combine, the way a symphonic composer would use the instruments in an orchestra. In the end, the mission proved both too complicated and too vague to complete.
It’s telling that the new Beach Boys box set is called The Smile Sessions and not Smile, because nobody involved with assembling this behemoth intends to imply that this is the album Wilson was going to make before it all slipped away from him. The Smile Sessions is available in various configurations, but each of them is anchored by a version of Smile that follows the blueprint of the 2004 album, using the original 1966-67 tracks. The more expensive sets add alternate takes and snippets, including over an hour’s worth—each!—of “Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations” material. These aren’t complete performances of the songs repeated over and over; that’s not how Wilson worked on Smile. These are anywhere from thirty-second to eight-minute recordings of musicians laying down riffs and making noise under Wilson’s direction, for purposes even Wilson couldn’t have fully explained at the time. In the case of “Heroes And Villains”—a three minute song that sounds like 10 other songs cut-and-pasted together—the hour of outtakes amounts to roughly two dozen original Beach Boys instrumentals, some of which the band later repurposed, on Smile and elsewhere.
Will anyone but the most die-hard of Beach Boys fans want to listen to these repetitive song-segments more than once? Probably not. Even Beach Boys devotees will likely give these discs the once-over, throw a few of the best pieces into a Beach Boys playlist, then file the rest. It doesn’t help that many of the tracks on the expanded set are start-stop affairs, interrupted by Wilson’s voice in the control booth. They’re more documentation than music. But they’re important documentation, preserving the way Wilson honed each second of melody and harmony that his musicians generated, storing them for future use.
And that’s why this new version of Smile is so essential. The 2004 rendition was therapeutic for Wilson and a treat for fans, but it was a performance, not a sound-collage. Granted, taken simply as a composition, Smile is still pretty amazing: Park’s elliptical lyrics and Wilson’s gently lapping melodies produce that warm buzz Wilson was aiming for, and whenever the album reaches one of its high points—“Heroes And Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Surf’s Up” or “Good Vibrations”—the sense of coalescence is profound. But there actually aren’t that many proper songs on Smile, because Wilson was striving to do something entirely new, blending pop and folk and classical and avant-garde. Which means Smile isn’t really Smile unless it’s constructed from those brief recorded passages, which echo throughout like a happy hum.
Also, the original recordings just sound better. They have the texture of 1966—youthful, experimental—and are more like the natural sonic sequel to Pet Sounds. Even the many fan-made bootlegs of Smile have mostly relied on the simpler versions of the Smile songs that were released on later albums, along with the few released excerpts of the original sessions. This Smile doesn’t radically reinvent what’s come before, but it is different. It’s more filled-out, and more cohesive, such that when the “Heroes And Villains” or “Child Is Father Of The Man” melodies recur, they seem to be expressing an idea that won’t stop bubbling up, not holding a place until Wilson can find something else to say.
For those who want to splurge, one of the best ways to experience Smile is via the vinyl copy that comes with the six-disc set. With each suite on its own side, there’s more a feeling of three separate but related pieces, each aiming to take the listener on a journey into our tumultuous shared past and our potentially more harmonious future. Wilson has always said he wanted to make a “teenage symphony to God.” This Smile is so wonderfully close. Hallelujah.