For many music fans today’s release of the legendary sessions for The Beach Boys Smile LP is the equivalent of finding a lost chapter of Huckleberry Finn or a few pages of scribbled sheet music between the pages of a book in Beethoven’s library. Quite simply, it’s the most famous unfinished album in rock history, achieving legendary status mostly for what it could have been more than for what it was. But what it was (and now is) is a snapshot of a 24-year-old artist (Brian Wilson) only months removed from writing and producing one of the greatest albums in music history (1966’s Pet Sounds), trying to push the boundaries of pop music even more, and instead creating a project so complicated that it could never be finished. All that remained were a few bits of music from the sessions strewn across The Beach Boys late 60’s output, hundreds of rumors, and the opinion of the faithful that “if it had only been finished it would have been more influential than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Today’s release contains a “best efforts” attempt at a mix of the unfinished tracks as a completed album and over six hours of outtakes from the fabled sessions themselves. Smile fanatics will, of course, already be familiar with “finished” versions of the songs from Brian Wilson’s 2004 Grammy award-winning album, Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Great thought that album is, this is different. This has Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, and the famous Wrecking Crew providing the instrumentation. This has the six Beach Boys singing on it, quite possibly the best blend of voices in rock/pop history. And, most importantly it has a window into Brian’s creative process during the sessions themselves. Sessions which achieved mythical status almost as soon as the album was scrapped and Brian began his descent into mental illness.
I will have much more to say about this album once I have had a chance to digest all six hours of it. Even though I have heard some of the material through the acquisition of bootlegs over the years, the quality of the recordings that only an official release can bring makes it all sound new to me once more. And while the music itself is an acquired taste (a haunting, sometimes jarring mix of harmony, chaos and cuckoo clock-like themes that repeat themselves over and over and over again) there is still something compelling about it. The what-ifs remain. Even though the 44 year old riddle has been solved, the questions surrounding Smile are likely to be around for years to come.