Album Review: The Beach Boys - SMiLE

By Graham Reid

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The Beach Boys album The Smile Sessions. Photo / Supplied.
The Beach Boys album The Smile Sessions. Photo / Supplied.

When, in 1967, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys abandoned what was to be his masterpiece, SMiLE, it was attributed to his increasing drug paranoia and a failure of nerve. He became a bloated recluse, the band carried on without him, a few tracks (notably the brilliant lead-off single Good Vibrations, Heroes and Villains and mysterious and wistful Surf's Up) appeared, and SMiLE passed into rock myth with bootleg versions passed among obsessives and aficionados.

Six years ago Wilson, original lyricist Van Dyke Parks and various musicians re-recorded the album and toured it as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. That template prompted Wilson, engineer Mark Linett and others to reconstruct the original album from the hundreds of hours of tapes.

So, some 45 years on, we have the Beach Boys' SMiLE as originally intended - and it comes in a double disc edition as well as a five-CD box set (with vinyl singles and much more) which includes rehearsals and outtakes.

While 30 snippets of backing vocals and piano parts for Heroes and Villains and a couple of dozen similar fragments of Good Vibrations will be too much for most, what the set shows is the good humour of the sessions and how perfectionist Wilson worked with modules of multi-layered vocal and instrumental passages to piece together later as he saw fit.

Perhaps the reconstruction of these beautifully sung and recorded fragments under the pressure of time was as much the cause for SMiLE being abandoned?

The double-disc version - with various outtakes, demos, stereo mixes and montages of some of those modules - is more manageable, but again you cannot help but be impressed by how exciting and fresh this music sounds. It would be an icy person who didn't melt to the technicolour Good Vibrations, the summer-shine harpsichord of Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock) and its wacky doo-wop vocals, or the emotional uplift of the elevating Heroes and Villains. Or grin at the whimsy of Vege-Tables, indulge in the escapist romance coupled with swirling psychedelia on Cabin Essence (one for the headphones) or laugh along with the surreal Mrs O'Leary's Cow.

And you can hear how those various modules interlock as aural signatures which unify the whole by their repetition and variations. SMiLE was to be a complex construction and even now remains quite singular in pop music.

Brian Wilson was a melodic craftsman who combined surf music, country, found sounds, doo-wop, baroque pop and elements from the Great American Songbook into something unique.

No work of art is worth losing your marbles over, but SMiLE was intended to be a beautiful, intricate and beguiling conceit and here, just a little late, is persuasive evidence it was. And still is.

A flawed and crazy masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.

The SMiLE Sessions double disc version is currently on iTunes but physical copies will be available on November 14.

Stars: 4.5/5
Verdict: The great lost masterpiece of pop reconstructed, and deconstructed, before your very ears


- NZ Herald

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