|BELIEVE THE HYPE? BRIAN WILSON'S SMILE.|
Brian Wilson's long-gestating, much-rumored Smile is a great album, but for whom? This 38-year-old ambitious follow-up to the classic Pet Sounds has received the sort of ecstatic press we don't
see for mere records anymore. Masterpiece, masterpiece, masterpiece if you didn't know better, you'd swear Smile was Angels in America or Schindler's List: a colossal, monumental, big deal Work of Art. But for all its delights, Brian Wilson hasn't achieved such a feat. But who's gonna tell all the true believers?
After the sonically adventurous Pet Sounds, Wilson envisioned Smile as an American answer to the
Beatles' kaleidoscopic mid-period releases. Unfortunately, his mental stability crumbled tragically, the Beach Boys lost their passionate focus and the in-the-works record sat in pieces, waiting for its brilliant creator to pull it all together. Now, if you didn't roll your eyes at the romantic pretension in that last sentence -- if you actually buy into that logic -- then perhaps Smile is for you. Beyond just the man's clear melodic gifts, cult fans adore Brian Wilson precisely because of his fragile mental health: It adds to the mythic aura around his work. Apparently, we want our legends to be as eccentric and mad as possible.
Popular art has many so-called "lost classics" that fill up the time of completists and geeks: Orson Welles' director's cut for The Magnificent Ambersons, the Fab Four's raw original version of Let It Be, whatever the hell J.D. Salinger's writing. Individual Smile tracks have crept up over the years -- and we all know "Good Vibrations" -- but the record has lived mostly in mystery. You know, it's an enduringly odd phenomenon in contemporary culture that rather than praising the great works we do get, we endlessly rhapsodize about the ones we've never experienced, going on and on about what could have been.
Do we need, then, to guess why so many people of a certain age have collectively gone nuts over Smile's emergence? Just as one generation undoubtedly waits with anticipation for this holiday's Nirvana boxed set and all its unknown treasures, so too does an older crowd greet Smile like the crown jewel of an era lost to history. For them, Brian Wilson's album isn't just an album. It's a reaffirmation of, ahem, The Sixties, a golden age of idealism. I don't mean to sound snide by that blanket statement; get me in the right mood and I'll be just as moony over Public Enemy's late-'80s/early-'90s. Ultimately, we all favor the music of our teenage years, and the Beach Boys' warm bed of beautiful vocals and wistful themes have deservedly continued to inspire bands to this day. But Smile's charms feel curiously distant to me. I get it, but I don't feel it. I wish I could. I really do.
Still, I don't think my reservations about the record are simply an age gap. After all, Pet Sounds always sounds terrific to my ears, and I didn't need to know anything about its backstory to love it. All that history doesn't mean a thing in the face of Pet Sounds' terribly poignant (and really catchy) distilling of the fading of youth and optimism.
Just barely in his 20s, Wilson (with the help of his brothers and band mates) sang about love's end and the impossibility of teenage freedom on Pet Sounds. To make those realizations all the more sad, he piled on a suite of perfect harmonies and orchestrations - utter splendor as a consolation for some pretty sobering news. While it evokes its time period, Pet Sounds speaks to any kid's first crush or first breakup. Wilson's lyricist, Tony Asher, matched the bittersweet songs with simple words anybody could understand. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" imagines a happy marriage while somehow disbelieving it could actually happen. "God Only Knows" is a love song that starts with the guarded line "I may not always love you." "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" explains the mindset of any sensitive outcast. "Caroline No" is the heartbreaking farewell to a girl whose hair change hints at the deeper isolation going on below the surface. Every track achieves its objective, building in cumulative power. Time erases as you listen. It's immediate, urgent. You get it instantly.
By comparison, Smile may be the first record to require footnotes in order to appreciate it. While I imagine knowledgeable Boomers can explain to me the intricacies of this song cycle, for me the pleasures are all aural. Wilson's voice may strain for the high notes, but he and his ooooooooohing background vocalists sweep you into a majestic prettiness. But, lyrically, I'm at a complete and utter loss. And for that you can blame longtime arranger Van Dyke Parks, who replaces the despair of Asher with a muddled tribute to well, what exactly? From the looks of things, I'd say kids and vegetables and Indians and farms and Hawaii. But not necessarily in that order. ("I'm in the great shape of the agriculture" might be my particular favorite bit of nonsense here.)
Granted, not every music fan cares about the stuff Wilson's actually singing. Eventually, lyrical themes start to gel in the mind, and you just give up and groove on the music. But for such a hotly anticipated album, for an album that first premiered in concert halls as if it was a concerto, Smile is uninteresting conceptually. I can tell you everything about what it sounds like -- how it swoops along for 47 minutes and tickles the ear consistently -- but I haven't the foggiest notion what any of it means.
Are Boomers (many of them music critics) letting nostalgia get in the way of good judgment? The same charge assaulted the masterful Love & Theft, but Bob Dylan saw the accumulated value of 20th century popular music as a launching pad for creativity, good humor, impossibly wonderful tunes. You didn't need Greil Marcus to tell you how terrific it was. In contrast, Smile shortchanges the gifts of Brian Wilson. He didn't just sing about surfboards; he was an expert of the poignant. Before there was a WB or an O.C., he recognized that our teenage DNA contained incredibly complicated strands of hormones and vulnerability, love and excitement, sentiment and melancholy. Balanced against what else he has achieved, Smile is mere fantasia.
All of which, I suppose, only validates what a genius Brian Wilson must be. Despite Smile's empty-headed profundity, I find myself getting wrapped up in the musical command, the way the instrumental flourishes segue into the actual songs confidently. His tiny symphonies are never less than extraordinary. But they're begging for a wordsmith like Randy Newman or Stephin Merritt or Tom Waits to give them definition and pathos.
The older critical establishment -- and the younger writers who fear looking callow -- heartily disagree. They want to look past the obvious flaws to welcome back their returning-to-glory hero. Well, let them enjoy the masterpiece they think they now have. Me, I take no delight in not loving Smile more than I do. But I feel what I feel. I guess I just wasn't made for these times.
Believe the Hype rating: 6 out of 10.
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.