I could say that I've been waiting for Brian Wilson's "SMiLE" for thirty-seven years, but I'm not that old. I tried to remember when I first heard the Beach Boys. I'm sure it was early, but I surely didn't recognize it for what it was. Fun beach music, maybe, but the most influential American band? Probably not. It took years for me to be mature enough to understand "Pet Sounds" in context. Even then, I can't grasp the zeitgeist.
SMiLE isn't a remake of an album that never was or a "lost recording" suddenly found. It's a complete redo that seems not timeless, but actually out of time. Wilson's voice isn't as facile, though technology covers for him well. The Van Dyke Parks lyrics are as inscrutable now as they might have been then without the benefit of free love and cheap drugs.
What SMiLE is not is much less than what it is. It is not greater than "Pet Sounds." That album is the pinnacle of a career that took a long, slow decline once Brian Wilson had stepped into the sandbox, some notable exceptions like "Sail On Sailor" and "Carl and The Passions" aside. "Pet Sounds" remains a crowning achievement. Some may not put it on the same pedestal as "Sgt. Pepper's" but it should be. There is no more direct influence then that of Brian Wilson on Lennon/McCartney. The echoes of the Beach Boys are heard in everything from today's harmony-based boy bands (don't hold it against them) to Van Halen's Wilson-esque choruses. Brian was the original tortured genius singer-songwriter, heard in everyone from Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley to some of Radiohead's more cryptic studio work.
It's difficult to listen to SMiLE because it is unlike anything, yet it resonates with the familiar. The opening contrapuntals of "Our Prayer" recalls "One for the Boys" from Wilson's 1988 solo album, but are pitch perfect creations of a modern digital studio. "Heroes and Villians" stands as both a great pop song and a folksy classic. "Surf's Up" is not so much a call to hit the beach like so many Beach Boys tunes, but seems elegaic.
Sure, there's plenty of self-indulgent sounds. Brian brings back pet sounds for "Barnyard" and brings out the kitchen sink - literally - for "Vega-Tables". He even has the audacity to re-create "Good Vibrations." For Beach Boys fans, this borders on heresy. Once past the initial shock of hearing the greatest American rock n' roll song redone by its creator, the song continues to shine, swooping theramin and all.
The album is not an album. It's a symphony or a soundtrack to a movie that Brian Wilson has in his head. It opens amazingly, closes strong, and bogs down in the middle, much like Brian's life. I can only hope that when he hears it through his one good ear and drug-addled brain, Brian feels like he's finally released his masterpiece. I hope he smiles.