Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch)
Why not refer to Brian Wilson's latest CD as simply Smile? Because, essentially, it isn't that record. Smile, as pretty much anyone with even a passing interest in pop music is aware, was shelved by an increasingly mentally ill Brian Wilson in 1967. And, for all intents and purposes, it remains there, forever unfinished. Brian Wilson Presents Smile is a recasting of the original material, finished and finally assembled 37 years later by Wilson, original lyricist Van Dyke Parks and Wondermints' keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. Splitting hairs? Not really. This, the first officially sanctioned compilation of the tracks written for the Beach Boys' follow-up to Pet Sounds, isn't the record the Beach Boys would ultimately have made. Without Carl Wilson, without Bruce Johnston, without Al Jardine, without Mike Love (whether you happen to love him or hate him) and, to a lesser degree, no Dennis Wilson, there's no Beach Boys. And with no Beach Boys, there's no infamous Beach Boys Smile album. All that aside, however, Wilson's presentation of his self-proclaimed "teenage symphony to God" is not without merit by a longshot.
Whether or not the chronology of the album's 17 tracks represented here was what Wilson originally intended shall always remain unclear, as there's little doubt that the man himself has more abstract flashbacks to the '60s as actual memories of them. But rabid fans who for years speculated over what Smile was supposed to sound like as a whole can finally take solace in knowing they've got a blueprint for the album straight out of the head of Brian Wilson, and no longer need feel compelled to assemble their own ad hoc versions from countless bootlegs and officially released tracks scattered about the Good Vibrations box. There are fans who wouldn't have dared to hope for anything more.
Beyond that, there's the "new" record itself. Some nearly unrecognizable changes to the music have been made, and Wilson handles all lead and most of the harmony vocals himself. Where the originally released single versions of "Wonderful" and "Good Vibrations" featured brother Carl on lead vocals, here are versions sung by Brian. Not better or worse necessarily, but plainly different. Among few other minor changes, “Do You Dig Worms" appears as "Roll Plymouth Rock," and the infamous "Fire" instrumental, which Wilson once claimed to be so powerful that it was somehow responsible for a succession of fires in Los Angeles during the original tracking sessions, is listed under its alternate title, "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow."
While Wilson's voice has deteriorated over the years, it's surprisingly agile here, and Brian handles most of the high harmonies with at least some of the aplomb that made songs like "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl" give listeners the shivers. And in the few places he couldn't quite stretch to the upper regions of his former vocal capabilities, his eight-piece band filled in the blanks rather expertly. Likewise, the instrumental performances sting of utter perfection, save for a few instances of synthesized brass.
Ultimately, though, for all its absurd grandeur and carnival-esque insanity, Brian Wilson Presents Smile suffers in a slightly sad way from 37 years of hype, mystery and fan- and press-generated legend it never had a chance of living up to. It's emotional music to be sure, with hints of Wilson's past genius all over it. But it neither surpasses nor equals Wilson's true masterpiece, Pet Sounds, as was hoped and expected in the days before and after the material was abandoned. Even so, hearing these songs together for the first time in a context Brian Wilson himself intended is a pop music miracle. God only knows what we'd be without it.