Sunday, 19 January 2014

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE

There is a lot of back story to this release, it was started in 1966, as a Beach Boys album follow up to the amazing Pet Sounds album,  a lot of work was done on it and it was abandoned in 1967. It's primary architect Brian Wilson then went into artistic and personal decline suffering from depression, mental illness, he went very low, but staggeringly he came back, started touring, recording and eventually completed SMiLE first for live concert and then recorded it in 2004 38 years after it was started, and recently they released the original Beach Boys session tapes.

This album is unique, it is a pop masterwork of breath taking intensity and musical richness. To me it doesn't stand as part of any genre in pop music, it has no near relatives, it is the work of an incredibly gifted artist (and his collaborators).

Brian initially described it as a "teenage symphony to God" and Humour was an important part of it. This album was to be constructed from musical snippets, like a tapestry strung together, a friend of Brian's described it "if Pet Sounds was his Blue period, then SMiLE was his cubist period". Brian wanted a creative lyricist to match his musical vision and uncannily found the perfect partner with Van Dyke Parks. They wanted the work to have a visionary/mythological character exploring the American dream which in the late 60's was beginning to unravel.

This recording groups the songs/sections into three suites.

Suite One

Our Prayer - Probably the most beautiful A cappella piece Brian ever wrote, it serves as a prayer and invocation a declaration of high artistry, this moves into

Gee - a short cover snippet announcing that there is going to be fun and silliness too, which moves into...

Heroes and Villains - This is one of the Wilson/Parks classics, ostensibly a song, but it has so many sections, variations, changes, pauses, exclamations, there are dense musical textures, single instruments or spoken voice, and even so they all flow effortlessly into one another. Van Dyke's lyrics are abstract, I don't think you should get hung up on trying to work out exactly what they mean, because I think he is trying to convey images and multiple meanings but this song is basically a western. By having the lyrics abstract they retain a musicality and can be revisited over and over again without them becoming flat or prosaic. For me Brian's aged voice, in 1966 he had the most gorgeous falsetto, adds the right ambience of age and time to convey the sense of the huge North American continent, it's battering adds a richness, pathos and maturity to the work which would have been lacking if it came out in 1966.

Then we get the timpani drums making a bridge to the next song snippet "Roll Plymouth Rock" and here we get the idea of a travelogue across USA from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii. Also worth saying here although it was obvious from the start that this is an album that makes unapologetic use of the recording studio, cuts, fades, effects, they are all part of the tapestry...

Then into "Barnyard" humour is the predominant element here with band members all making animal noises and the song a delightful twisting dance in the barnyard amongst the animals...

This goes into "Old Master Painter/You are My Sunshine" a famous cover, it lurches downward and has an unsettling sadness in it but ends with a comic trumpet, which still has something of the tears of a clown about it.

Then into the final track of the first suite "Cabin Essence" this is another major song and features the steam locomotive making its way across the vast plains, a lonely cabin and fields of corn and wheat uncovered over and over by the crow cries.

This first section has sketched out the vast spaces of the USA with a touch of nostalgia.

Suite Two

This section focuses on childhood, the growth of the individual from innocence to decadence or maturity. And opens with the aptly titled "Wonderful" this song has a fairy tale quality to it, an enchanted music box, it is another major song but it has a very small feeling about it and is full of tenderness and delicacy.

"Song for the children" and "Child is the Father of the Man" are closely connected works, there is a muted trumpet that forms a strong image in the next song...

Surfs Up, the final song in this suite and this is another great song, one of Brian's very best, the lyrics make up a gorgeous tapestry, the development of art and culture and the possibility of its collapse. This is the only song where I really miss Brian's 1966 voice, he handles it admirably with a little help from Jeffrey Foskett, luckily there there is a version with Brian and Carl singing and it can be appreciated as a stand alone song.

Suite Three

This features the elements songs for Earth, Wind, Fire and Water but it seems to me the most disparate of the suites, it is a real joy, but features no major songs as i am not counting Good Vibrations which to me doesn't seem to be part of the suite but rather a coda to the album.

I"m in Great Shape - a charming introduction that dissolves into "Workshop" which has a short romantic snippet and then sounds of building, sawing, hammering, power tools and into

Vegetables - this to me is his greatest humour song a real delightful appreciation of eating vegetables, including the sounds of celery being bitten with nice load crunching sounds. The song ends with a fabulous A Capella section and then into. This song represents the element of earth (I think)

"On a Holiday" complete with pirates playing up also includes some great tuned percussion and we get to Hawaii where their queen "Lilluola Kalani sings for us.

Wind Chimes - Which starts as a beautiful restful piece and represents the element of air. i love this song, it explodes into large vocal and instrumental patterns, then contracts, it leads us on a merry dance until...

"Mrs O'Leary's Cow", who was supposed to have started the great fire of Chicago, this is obviously the Fire element and it starts with a comic kids version with toots and whistles before it lurches into a pretty scary piece of music that won Brian his only Grammy award for best instrumental, the strings make sirens and the drumming is relentless after this we need some...

Water, this element is represented by "in Blue Hawaii" this song fabulously cools us off and really ends our journey at the outer edge of the US territory then we have a partial reprise of Our Prayer which began the album.

Then a coda which states what we need are "Good Vibrations", this song is a great variation on the song we all know so well, it reverts to earlier version of lyrics which are more zany and more interior "she's already working on my brain" and fit better with the tenor of the album that it is closing. There are also a few extra sections that you don't hear on the original single, a fitting celebration a great song to end a great album.

Have I conveyed how much I love this album? I hope so.


  1. One of the ironies of Smiles original demise is Brian was both undermined by criticism (by Mike Love) and overwhelmed with priase (Bernstein). Both contributed to his failure to finish it. But who can blame either Mike or Bernstein. It is a work of genius with moments of breath taking beauty and extra ordinary invention. But it is also very brave. The juxtaposition of elements like Barnyard and Workshop, displaying elements of off the wall humour, alongside the weighter music would confuse the vast majority of serious music fans who like their diet to of music to operate with certain internal rules.

    I forgive Mike and Mr Bernstein, for by finally releasing the music 38 years later we are presented with the clearest possible indication it was timeless.

    Your love of the music keri is indeed vibrantly clear and entirely justified.

  2. Thanks for the comments Michelle. Yes, i suspect that the mis of the silly with the sublime might have bewildered listeners at the time. having that 38 year gap might have been required to prepare us for what was to come.

    I am amazed that the story of the SMiLE album had a happy ending. I know when i first heard the finished album, I was stunned, I literally had tears in my eyes, it was just so good.

  3. Keri,
    I had not heard Brian's new version of Good Vibrations until just a few minutes ago, inspired to do so by your review. Wow! I love all of the additions. They sound like they should have been there all along. That fade out in the middle of the song on the original never seemed right to me, never seemed that it was the way Brian would have written it. The extension of that section on this new version is like the long lost missing piece.

    1. Rich,
      The original lyrics were written by Tony Asher (but apparently they were never intended as a final lyric) and Brian wanted Van Dyke Parks to finish it off, but van dyke wanted to start fresh with new material, so Mike Love wrote the lyrics which are kind of pretty but a bit light on substance. The single version suits the lyrics, but for me the album version has a more inventive vibe to it and the extra instrumental piece adds to that. Glad you like it, I think it works perfectly in the context of a coda to the SMiLE album.

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