Brian Wilson

Nonesuch Records, 2004

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


If you read my review of Scissor Sisters a few weeks back, you would have read how I considered it to be an album of the year candidate. Little did I know that a few mere days later, I would find myself presented with THE album of the year. That album is (drum roll please…) SMiLE.

So much has been written about the history of SMiLE that I cannot provide you with all the details. Suffice it to say, SMiLE is the most infamous of all the unreleased albums in rock history. People who listened to the early tapes proclaimed it to be superior to Sgt. Pepper's. Four hundred thousand album covers were printed when unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons (not the least of which was Brian Wilson's mental breakdown), the album was shelved, and deemed unfit to be released. Some songs from SMiLE eventually saw the light of day, but the entire album did not. This has all changed now in 2004, 37 years after the failure of the SMiLE sessions.

First and foremost, SMiLE is not Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds was a collection of brilliant singles and sounds that had never been heard before on a rock album. And while SMiLE may resemble Pet Sounds at time, it is primarily a "teenage symphony to God" in the words of Brian Wilson himself. There are blasts of the timpani ("Song for Children"), short orchestral interjections ("Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine"), haunting a capella arrangements ("Our Prayer/Gee"), bursts of 60's pop ("Heroes and Villains"). These are what Wilson call "feels," bits of music that evoke various emotional responses. Structurally, the album is divided into three suites: "Americana," "Cycle Of Life," and "The Elementals." Portions of the three appear in the others, and bring cohesiveness to the work, something I believe was lacking on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Pet Sounds. "Good Vibrations" is one of the greatest singles off all time, and has been called the ultimate "pocket symphony." I will not deny that, however when placed in the context of SMiLE, the song packs much more of a punch. It is the perfect track to close an album that deals with "vibrations" and "feelings."

Pet Sounds was years ahead of its time in terms of how albums should sound (some would say we are still catching up). Make no bones about it, SMiLE does bear a sonic resemblance to Pet Sounds. It was Wilson's goal to recapture that '60s magic, and he and his crew went to great lengths to obtain that sound. At times I felt like I was back in the '60s, that's how authentic SMiLE sounds. However, with the benefit of modern day technology, the sounds on SMiLE are crisp, clean, perfected as Wilson saw fit. Arguably, SMiLE would not have sounded nearly as good had it been released back in the '60s.

The Beach Boys as a group had the best harmonies in rock. They allowed for Wilson's ambitions to be fulfilled. The Beach Boys do not perform on this album, yet that did not stop Wilson. The backing vocalists perform superbly, never faltering. Wilson himself no longer has the range he did as a youth; age has taken a toll on his voice. The innocence that would have shone through on the original SMiLE has been replaced with a world-weariness, that somehow isn't at odds with the sound of the record. The ultimate vocal high point comes at the end of the album, at the 2:53 mark in "Good Vibrations." In an added layer to the song, Wilson and company serenade us with a "humm me da," chorus, reminiscent of "Surfer Girl" and "Don't Worry Baby," that tells us where Wilson has come from.

Van Dyke Parks is the man who wrote the words to SMiLE, and they are perfectly suited to the kind of album SMiLE is. Whimsical at times, childish at others, sincere, evocative, the lyrics to SMiLE are one of a kind, and only Brian Wilson could make them work. The moment I have to highlight is an example of the perfect marriage of words and music. This occurs during the track " In Blue Hawaii." Soaring, ethereal vocals bring life to the image of the rolling, blue waves of Hawaii. I have listened to the album for about two weeks non-stop, and I get goose bumps every time.

SMiLE has reaffirmed the greatness of Brian Wilson, one of the most influential minds in music for the past 50 years. He has given us a gift, a reminder of how brilliant pop can sound. When compared to the albums of today, SMiLE stands head and shoulders over the competition. Not only is this the best album of the year, but also some contend it will become one of the greatest of all time. While it is much too soon to tell, one thing is for sure: Brian Wilson can still make me smile.

Rating: A

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© 2004 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Nonesuch Records, and is used for informational purposes only.