Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Beach Boys’ “Smile”: Unfinished Symphony

As far as I can tell, one of the biggest events in popular music this year (or most years) went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media: The Beach Boys finally released the album Smile, nearly 45 years after its original due date.

Part of the reason for this event’s lack of attention is because time and Smile-related projects has dulled the album’s mystique over the years. Originally begun by the Beach Boys’ creative leader, Brian Wilson, as an attempt to outdo the Beatles’ Revolver (and eventually, Sgt. Pepper) as well as his own band’s innovative “Good Vibrations” single, the mounting creative and commercial pressures combined with his own psychological frailness and psychedelic drug intake caused Wilson to retreat into his own mad, mad world. He had set out to make what he once called “a teenage symphony to God,” but got lost in the terrain he was trying to map. After a year and a half of missed deadlines and incomplete song structures, the album was abandoned in late 1967. Wilson declared that he had destroyed the tapes containing the album and that it would be lost forever.

Only it wasn’t. Just after the Smile project was abandoned, songs from its sessions began finding their way out into the world on the Beach Boys’ albums – sometimes with new backing or lead tracks, sometimes largely unaltered. And then, in 1993, the Beach Boys released a thirtieth anniversary box set that contained a half hour of music straight from the Smile sessions. A little over a decade later, Brian Wilson teamed up with original Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks and members of the power-pop group the Wondermints to complete the album as Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004. The album consisted of entirely newly re-recorded versions of all of the songs, but they were largely based on original Smile session material, which had been circulating among bootleggers for years. And Brian Wilson played a brilliant international tour in which he performed Smile live with the Wondermints backing him up, and it looked as though a chapter of the Beach Boys’ discography was finished.

And that’s how things stood until earlier this year, when Capitol Records announced they were releasing a finished version of the Beach Boys’ Smile – as part of the build-up to the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012 – consisting only of the original session material that been declared lost so many years ago.

Given Smile’s legendary reputation as an unfinished lost album, it is often forgotten how close the album was to being finished. When I first heard Brian Wilson’s 2004 “completed” version, I was shocked to hear how little of it was actually new based on the recordings I had heard on bootleg albums. Part of the reason why Wilson was able to pull off the “completed” Smile was because he had already done the vast majority of the hard work some 40 years earlier.

So why should we care that, after the project was abandoned and its chief architect reconstructed and finished it, Smile now exists in its original Beach Boys recordings – unfinished, unpolished, and less unified?

Because the key to Smile’s power lays in the fact that it has always been unfinished. No amount of remodeling or varnish can alter its inherently incomplete state; it is, like the land that it comes from, an unfinished country. To declare an ending point would be a false gesture – to leave it open is to leave it free.

And what an open country it is!

I cannot think of any popular music artifact that provides such a complete picture of America. The only thing that comes close is the Band’s self-titled “Brown Album,” but that sounds like an old sepia-toned photograph compared to Smile’s Technicolor production. In Smile’s majestic sweep, one can find an epic landscape.

Wordless a cappella hymns turn into old doo-wop records; showgirls dance in the cantina while heroes and villains face off in a Spanish and Indian old western town; Plymouth Rock rocks and rolls over; the mystical, sparkling chimes of the bicycle rider cruise through the savage church of the American Indian; farm animals sing an animal symphony in the barnyard while the cooks chops lumber; the plunking banjo of a quiet home on the range gives way to the onslaught of the charging iron horse; atmospheric romantic music dissolves into the clattering hammers and buzzing saws of a woodworker’s shop; vegetables are harvested, celebrated, chomped, and carted off for sale; Mrs. O’Leary’s cow starts the Great Chicago Fire in a blaze of chaos and wonder before getting extinguished by sweet pools of cool water; and in the end, everything turns into good, good vibrations.

The music is as varied as the subject matter, as single voices and instruments unleash some of the thickest, densest sounds I have ever heard – all of the muddled excitement of a Phil Spector record combined with the muddy grit of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. This is what has been missing from all previous releases and remakes of the Smile material – the thick, dense sound that plays like the musical equivalent of the Big Muddy.

And like that waterway, there is much about the record that is unclear, unpolished, unrefined, and at times, seemingly directionless. There are words that get buried in sound and sound that fails to yield any words to shed light on them. At its messy, muddy root, it plays like an incomplete experiment.

But then again, so is the country it documents. As a nation and as an idea, America is an unfinished country, our forefathers brilliantly placing the power of change and amendment directly into the fiber of our governing Constitution. The major events of our history come from unfinished business – the Civil War emerging from the “peculiar institution” of slavery, World War II emerging from the unsettled alliances of World War I, the Civil Rights movement emerging from the broken promises of Reconstruction – and many of our greatest heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, to name but four – lived unfinished lives. Some compare America to a tapestry, but if that’s the case, it’s a tapestry that’s only partly finished, with strands that are just as likely to fray apart as they are to weave together.

And Smile plays as its national anthem.

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