A Brand New Day

BY ANDREW HOROWITZ AND ALEX WOLSKY
Daily Arts Writers
Published September 27, 2004

The Michigan Daily discovered in November 2004 that several articles written by arts editor Alex Wolsky did not meet the newspaper's standard of ethical journalism. Parts of these stories had been plagiarized from other news sources. The article below appears to contain plagiarism, and the Daily no longer stands by its content. The co-author had no knowledge of the plagiarism. For details, see the Daily's editorial.

Music Reviews
Can I please come down now? (Courtesy of Nonesuch)

 

It’s impossible to separate the myth from the legend — in 1967, Brian Wilson’s proclaimed “teenage symphony to god” was destined to become the greatest pop record ever released. The stories surrounding Smile were legendary — Dennis Wilson declared that it made Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, stink. Gonzo journalists and those around the Beach Boys’ sessions called it “genius” and “the best album ever made.” However, after the departure of lyricist Van Dyke Parks and intense pressure around Wilson from both Columbia Records and his fellow Beach Boys (notably Mike Love), Wilson scrapped the project and set the master tapes ablaze.

Smile was born in the summer of 1966 when Wilson and visionary lyricist Van Dyke Parks began working together. In response to the musical British invasion, they set out to make a very American response — both in its humor and wide-ranging subject matter — that would have been something radically different from the music of their contemporaries.

Over the past four decades, fragments from the original Smile sessions have appeared on various Beach Boys collections and bootlegs. The most infamous of them all, an official bootleg entitled Smiley Smile, included three final cuts from the original sessions: “Good Vibrations,” “Surf’s Up” and “Heroes & Villains.” However, no final sequencing ever surfaced following Wilson’s departure from the project until recently, when a member of his backing band, the Wondermints, approached Wilson about performing Smile live. After some hesistation, Wilson became enthused about the project and eventually performed the piece in the England.

It’s easiest to view the reworked Smile as a song cycle, a collection of 17 musically and thematically integrated musings covering all facets of life. Originally conceived as a conceptual journey across America, from “Plymouth Rock” to “Blue Hawaii,” Smile is a strikingly emotional opus in three parts. Ideas surface and reappear throughout the 47-minute piece, culminating in the reworked “Good Vibrations.”

The album’s opener, “Our Prayer,” is a choral number echoing the great works of Bach and Palestrina — a modern thesis on harmony, it’s perhaps one of the most beautiful works in Wilson’s catalog, and the most ambitious of the Beach Boys’ harmonies. The Wondermints equal Wilson’s musicianship with perfect harmonization and instrumental proficiency. Wilson’s voice is much coarser and less fluid than it was 37 years ago, but his enthusiasm and presence on the tracks triumph over any minor incongruity.

Wilson’s compositional mastery comes into play on the epic “Heroes and Villains.” A musical roller coaster that jumps from fully orchestrated passages to a cappella harmonies, Wilson’s disregard for the verse-chorus-verse structure and his wild, erratic tempo changes mark significant departure from typical pop music: Wilson not only challenged typical pop conventions, he advanced them as well.

Lyrically, Smile was a masterstroke and the culmination of a young genius in Van Dyke Parks. His playful poetry complimented Wilson’s musical craft. Often times, Parks finds the most intriguing lyrics come out of his clever word play. On “Wonderful,” he writes, “One / Maybe not one / Maybe you too / Are wonderin’ / Wonderin’ who / Oh, wonderful you / are wonderin’.” Parks rejoined Wilson in this endeavor to rework some of the original lyrics, casting a more reflexive tone in the words and making Smile feel appropriate for Wilson at present. This is most notable in “Good Vibrations,” the most famous track on the album. The first verse now goes, “I, I love the colorful clothes she wears / And she’s already working on my brain / I, I only looked in her eyes / But I think of something I just can’t explain.” Despite the reworking, the core of Parks’s lyrics still holds strong: an unpretentious look at humor, philosophy and love through the rose-colored glass of Americana.

Whereas the Beach Boys’s previous masterpiece Pet Sounds could be considered a study in instrumentation and orchestration, Smile comes off as an experiment in vocal polyphony. Nearly every track uses the voice as accompaniment to Wilson’s mostly doubled melodies. The second act, including “Wonderful” and “Child of the Man,” shows how on par the Wondermints were with the original Beach Boys. The way their vocals play off the incongruities in Wilson’s lead reverberates over the minimalist strings arrangement.

Smile is one of the grandest, most complex rock’n’roll productions ever. The loosely themed album is composed of fragments of pop melody, orchestral instrumentation, recurring vocal themes and even the sounds of crunching vegetables and barnyard animals. By releasing Smile, Brian Wilson has risked his entire career and the mythology surrounding him, resurrecting the most painful chapter in his life and offering it for the world to scrutinize. The album, in its present and final form, is not only a masterpiece, but exists as a milestone in the history of recorded music. It casts Wilson in a redemptive light, one in which he can finally earn the respect he deserves and smile alongside the greatest composers of the last century.

 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.