Brian Wilson’s Smile

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help wishing that Mark Felt had taken his secret to the grave with him. I wish he hadn’t destroyed the delicious fun of speculating that “Deep Throat” was Henry Kissinger or Patrick Buchanan, instead of some boring old FBI man.

You could have been forgiven for fearing a similarly underwhelming reaction when given the chance to hear the resolution of another Vietnam-era mystery—namely, just how good was the Beach Boys’ lost 1967 album, Smile?

You know the story—Brian Wilson gets into LSD, builds a sandpit around his piano, and writes Pet Sounds, an album that consistently figures in the top fives of successive “greatest ever album” listings. Smile was to have come next, only Brian’s, by now, addled mental state meant that its recording had to be abandoned.

However, those few people who had been present at the Smile sessions wrote rapturous accounts of what they had heard—and the songs from them that subsequently made it into the public arena (“Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up”) seemed to confirm the justice of those appraisals. Nor did Wilson’s skittish refusal to even discuss it during four subsequent decades do anything but enhance the album’s mystique.

But surely it couldn’t really be the greatest album in the history of rock ‘n’ roll? Surely Wilson was making a mistake when, last year, he finally finished Smile and released it under his own name? No, you weren’t about to catch me blowing $15 on a sure-fire disappointment.

But if Santa buys it for you, what can you do but press “play” and brace yourself for the kick of disillusion’s boot?

The kick that, in fact, never came. For from the first, haunting harmony of “Our Prayer,” through the subsequent sixteen songs—organized into three seamless “suites”—Smile‘s invention, sense of fun, and breathtaking, almost spiritual beauty are indeed beyond parallel.

The songs mostly adhere to Wilson’s experimental “modular” system, whereby different sections are recorded at different times with often startlingly disparate time signatures and instrumentations, and then fitted together during production. (Ninety hours of music was reputedly recorded for the original version of “Good Vibrations.”) The result is an album of rich, shifting musical patterns, like the shapes on sand left by successive waves.

This effect is particularly successful during the middle suite of the album, in which various musical and lyrical phrases ebb and flow with infinite grace before finally resolving themselves into the familiar opening bars of “Surf’s Up.”

The “elements” sequence is also particularly successful, with the searing, disturbing “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (the song whose original recording, featuring an orchestra wearing plastic firemen’s hats, was too “weird” even for lyricist Van Dyke Parks to stomach) melts into the gorgeous ocean of “In Blue Hawaii”—which, in turn, gives way to a re-recorded, slightly improved version of the already immortal “Good Vibrations” to end the album.

When Brian Wilson took LSD for the first time, he is reported to have hallucinated a meeting with God. During the writing of Smile, the two evidently met up again. And this time Wilson, for all his mental implosions, had the foresight to take a tape recorder.