In the wake of the media blitz that accompanied the release of Brian Wilson’s mythic Smile album, it re-occurred to me how much fun it is to read about music and the artists who create it. As someone unable to claim more than a tenth of the talent possessed by your average street musician, I’m a sucker for an articulate piece of writing that pushes me deeper into the psyche of the creative mind. Especially when that mind is as brilliant (and warped) as Wilson’s.
The claim that Brian Wilson is a genius receives probably the least amount of opposition when people who care about these things get together to determine what is, in fact, musical genius. There’s simply no use arguing otherwise. The sky is blue, Tupac is dead, Brian Wilson is a genius. End of story.
But here’s something you can debate: People love the idea of Wilson’s artistic orgasm Pet Sounds more than they enjoy actually listening to it. It’s crackpot eccentricity and studio legend, not songs, that have preserved the record’s legacy.
Same holds true for Smile, which is really more a companion piece to Sounds than an evolution of its craft. If you don’t know the thirty-seven-year-old legend behind Smile, I won’t tie you up with it here. Know that Wilson quit working on it in 1967 and that it was never supposed to be finished; that it was overshadows any discussion of how relevant or valuable the material now is.
Here is that discussion: Smile is fun. It can bounce from the naiveté of a twenty-three-year-old (“Heroes and Villains”) to the wisdom of his grandpa (“Child Is Father of the Man”). It slows down, speeds up and evens out. At once it’s wildly colorful and carefully controlled. It’s the sound of someone so desperately wanting to go outside but afraid of the dangerous realities that await. The window will do just fine, thank you.
Smile is in a bubble. Of course it is — it’s thirty-seven years old. Everything about the record is painfully dated: the hokey poetry, the muted drums and kazoos (kazoos!), the splashy Technicolor cover. At one point Wilson interpolates “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s as embarrassing as it sounds.
It was a brilliant move, then, to end things with “Good Vibrations,” which sounds as fresh and exciting here as the day it was recorded. Like it or not, Wilson knows how to bring the old to the new. But Smile should’ve seen him introduce the new to the old.