“Smile” was always talked about as a beautiful vision. So much so that it was hard to believe that it could ever leave Brian Wilson's head.
Hell's teeth. It's not often that you can say, in the course of reviewing albums, that you are treated to something this amazing. It really is like finding an old long lost Rembrandt in the loft. However, at this stage I really must state that this no lost treasure, lovingly dusted down. It is a new album. It's certainly not something to stick in your back catalogue. So don't start moaning that it's not a set of long lost tapes, its far, far better than that.
"Our Prayer/Gee" is a beautiful monkish opener, beautiful plainsong harmonies, mutating into a barber shop shuffle. Then it's straight into "Heroes and Villains". This is where you can garner how Wilson might have wanted the track to sound in 1966. The reworking accentuates the brilliant vocal games being played, the stop start arrangement gives the track an abstract, off the cuff, jazzy air. You definitely get the impression that Wilson was drawing inspiration from Rogers and Hammerstein, or Gershwin, rather than worrying too much about emulating the Beatles.
The rest of the album finds musical snippets overlapping with sound-scapes filled with funny noises, such as "Barnyard", "Vega-Tables" and "Workshop". None of these tracks is in any way gimmicky, far from it There is never a whiff of cynicism anywhere. Rather, these tracks give the record a sense of depth and maturity. This album is not made by people who are hung up and embarrassed of showing their sensitive side. There is a definite feeling of the music hall; "On a Holiday" is like listening to the soundtrack of the Peter Pan stage play.
Then, of course, there are the beautiful melodies. "Cabin Essence" finds the beautiful melody intact, sweeping between folksy homespun melodies and a blissful troika chase through open meadows. It is so bittersweet. "Wonderful almost trips over its own harmonies, with the piano playing a blissfully slow game of tag with the spiraling arrangements. "Surf's Up" almost becomes a piano led prayer, simple as that.
"Smile" ends on a brilliant sequence of song segueing The innocent melody of "Wind Chimes' leads us into "Mrs. O' Leary's Cow", as ever, a delight with all the nonsensical instrumentation kicking off. The thumping end of "Fire" leads to a ghostly sequence of dismembered voices that quickly cut to a jaunty stop-start homage to "Hawaii".
Suddenly, as if to make sense of all that's gone before, "Good Vibrations" smashes into the room. It's so exciting in this new context, no longer the orphan in the Beach Boys canon. Shorn of its classic pop status, "Good Vibrations" sounds elegiac and rocking. Its monstrous.
"Smile" was always talked about as a beautiful vision. So much so that it was hard to believe that it could ever leave Brian Wilson's head. And lets be honest, given the contractual ups and downs, the inter-band strife, not to mention the drugs, it is surprising it has. And yes, it could have changed the face of pop in 1966. But now "Smile" has at last surfaced, none of us should give a shit. It's a brilliant piece of work, vital, up to date. A masterpiece, even. But of course, you already knew that.
Words and Illustration : Richard Foster