The Beach Boys
The Smile Sessions (Capitol)
Seven years on from Brian Wilson’s good-enough-for-now “official” recording of the Beach Boys’ famously unfinished masterpiece, Capitol’s new restoration of Smile finally offers what rock geeks had only dared dream: a flatly definitive version of what should have ended up being the American Sgt. Pepper. Intending to build on the triumphs of Pet Sounds, Wilson spent much of 1966 composing (with lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and recording his “teenage symphony to God” before suffering a breakdown that shuttered the project. More than 40 years on it’s still easy to see how Smile managed to push him to the brink.
Though anchored as ever in five tracks mostly identifiable as Beach Boys-style pop—each of them among the finest Wilson ever wrote—the album occurs as a series of loose suites that meld pop sounds with baroque arrangements, cacophonous asides, and refrains pulled from folk songs and nursery rhymes. The approach can be credited to Wilson’s obsessiveness in the studio, which in Smile’s case meant tracking everything from fully orchestrated movements to the sound of his bandmates chewing vegetables and making animal noises, then pasting it all together into something that might cast new light on the song, or one adjacent to it. (The standard issue of the new Smile Sessions includes a number of bonus tracks offering a peek into the studio, but fans of means will do well to spring for the deluxe box set, which includes more than five hours of endlessly listenable chatter, fragments, and false starts.)
This glorious scatter has a lot to do with why Smile’s shape and sequence remained such a mystery until Wilson settled the matter in 2004; that construction generally carries over here, trimming the fat from bootleg incarnations while offering a version of Smile that’s more fulfilling by default, but also in turn more tasteful and adventurous than Wilson’s recreation. It’s challenging, messy even, in its final form, and every bit the Smile we’ve been waiting for since 1967.