Today, a pop album is released that was 38 years in the making. Some devotees—I'm one of them—will tell you that its quality and heft make it worth every minute of waiting.
The album is called Smile. In 1966-67 it was in the works as the Beach Boys' follow-up to their now-acknowledged classic Pet Sounds, and a further step into the abstract from their surf- and cars- and girls-rooted early successes. Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson, who composed the album and worked with Van Dyke Parks on the lyrics, eventually decided to abandon the ambitious project, even though it was already widely praised in the burgeoning pop press at the time.
Some of the songs meant for Smile appeared on what became Pet Sounds' follow-up, the low-key and charmingly addled, but still beautiful and joyous, Smiley Smile. Other tracks appeared on later Beach Boys records or box sets, but much of Smile's wreckage was searchable only through hours of bootlegged session tapes that fed a stream of fanatical underground devotees, who in turn fed Smile's legend and awaited its return to claim its glory (usurped by the British Beatles' Sgt. Peppers) like clandestine squadrons of sixties-pop Jacobites.
Smile as a concept has been one of the most argued about works in popular music history, with entire books and reams of fanzine articles and Internet postings speculating endlessly on the mysterious song titles in the vault tapes, on the "link tracks," on what really constituted "the elements suite" (a part of the original Smile myth completely elided in this finished version), on what overarching concept ties together songs as disparate as the endlessly charming goof "Vegetables" and the almost disturbingly lilting "Cabinessence," and on what was the real reason Brian abandoned it. Was it that he really hated the music (as he sometimes asserted over the years), that he feared he'd never be able to top it, that the philistine objections of his reputedly art-hating, cash-hungry colleagues sapped his will, or that the decision was just made out of neurotic fear and then doggedly stuck to for decades. (That a Beach Boys band craving formulaic success released Smiley Smile, an even more uncommercial record than Smile would have been, to me has always put the lie to the notion that their perfidy killed the original work.)
Every once in a while for decades rumors would spread that either the Beach Boys, or the suits at Capitol who bankrolled Brian's months-long obsession with this project (and even printed up hundreds of thousands of record sleeves for the album he never delivered), would finally pick up all these glistening shards of melody and construct the album that would blow the world away and show, as patriotic lyricist Van Dyke Parks wanted, that even in the wake of a British invasion, American music and American voices and the spiritual history of America still mattered.
Now the myth is over and Smile exists, as a Brian Wilson solo project, not a Beach Boys album. And while the saga of Smile has its own fascinations even beyond the music—I've probably spent as much time over the years reading and talking about it as I have listening to its existing fragments, as have many fans—you'll forget the lore upon hearing the songs as presented here.
There are quibbles that any obsessive will have. For example, it wasn't the greatest idea to re-record "Good Vibrations" with its original, inferior lyrics. (The only thing they seem to have going for them, to some people, is that they aren't by Mike Love—now an estranged villain in the Smile saga for questioning Parks' avant-garde lyrics, although he gamely sang them, and very well, in the original sessions.) And a "Cabinessence" without Carl Wilson on lead seems a leaden thing indeed after years of being awed by the original Beach Boys version.
But tracks like "Wonderful" seem even more a thick swirl of pure love in the new version. Newly completed tracks like "Barnyard" and "Song for Children" brought this old fan to tears, and I believe it could do so even to those for whom the phrase "George Fell into his French Horn" is meaningless, not argument-starting. As someone who believes that the arranged voices of Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al are about the most beautiful sounds imaginable, I do miss the Beach Boys' voices on this. But Brian and his current gang have done an impeccable job of making this sound glorious even without them.
How this was all able to happen is an interesting saga in how the machineries of pop production, both legal and illegal, work to create magic despite being bogged down, as an endless string of laments launched by the Byrds "So You Wanna Be A Rock n' Roll Star" attest, by motives sleazy and venal. Brian, as the fabulously successful leader of the Beach Boys, got money and support from Capitol Records—even while he was suing them for back royalties—to record the basics of his extreme vision in Smile. Then waves of bootleggers, profiteering off work the artists didn't want us to hear, kept afloat the Smile legend, and helped create Brian Wilson superfan Darian Sahanaja of the quirky L.A. pop revivalists Wondermints, who have formed the nucleus of Brian's touring band since 1999.
Upon first witnessing the Wondermints play his music at a Beach Boys cover charity show in 1995—I was there that night as well, and was as amazed as Mr. Wilson—Wilson famously declared that, if he'd had them at his disposal in 1967, he could have taken Smile on the road. In 2003 he did, and he did. He added final touch-ups and some material, some remembered by Wilson and Parks and some freshly conceived. With the supervision of Sahanaja, who knew more about this project then either of its creators at this far remove (he spent more time listening to and loving the bootleg tapes over the years than they did), they took that road show into the studio. The Time Warner imprint Nonesuch—famous for rescuing Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, another piece of pop art unwisely dismissed by studio suits at the band's label, Reprise—released it today.
The saga of Smile turned out as mythic-American as its music, an interesting side note and another part of the often fascinating webs with which modern plentitude embraces art. We can have endless fun fun fun, as Beach Boys fans have, not just with base works of culture, but with the equally endless discussions they engender.
But listening to this heartwarmingly gorgeous slab of vocal melody pop, the final processing of the ambitions of a young Southern California man with lots of money, lots of success, lots of ambition, and lots of love for the sound of American voices (particularly the voices of his brothers, cousin, and school chum) raised in song—from old work songs to western ballads to turn of the century pop to doo-wop—makes all the myths of genius ignored, thwarted, throttled by considerations of gross commerce, seem a whole lot less interesting than adding this music to your day.
The music was too good to die. Its relentless bootlegging and mythologizing helped bring it to the attention of Sahanaja, the godfather to its rebirth; all the machineries of pop production and pop mythology clicked and churned in ways as mysterious as those of the American history that parts of this album limn so lovingly: the rolling trains and chanting voices that took us west on the iron horse to make Grand Coulee dams and sail to Hawaii.
Smile makes something lilting out of tragedy ("Bicycle rider/see see what you've done/To the Church of the American Indian") and heavy out of love ("Lost and found a kiss below there/Constellations ebb and flow there") and while it is almost certainly a conceptual mess, that's more than fine: The best thing about it is, you don't need to know any of the history, believe any of the myth, take sides in any of the debates (art vs. commerce, America vs. Brit, artist intentions vs. fan desires) that dog Smile's history, to groove to this brilliantly unique and joyous work.