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Brian Wilson Finally Cracks A 'Smile'

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page C01

Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," Dickens's "Mystery of Edwin Drood": These are all works of art left incomplete by their creators, works that have invited speculation and fantasy for years. Those with a love for American popular music would immediately add "Smile" -- the legendary, lost Beach Boys album, begun and abandoned in the mid-1960s -- to this list. It has inspired articles, books and millions of hours of conversation.

Some fragments from the recording sessions were issued commercially (including two hits, "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains"). Much more has been bootlegged and circulated like holy writ among collectors, most of whom would agree that "Smile" was the greatest album never made.

Wilson, shown in the mid-1960s, wrote songs on "Smile" as a celebration of innocence. (Guy Webster)

It is difficult to convey now the eagerness with which it was anticipated. In the middle of 1966, the Beach Boys had issued "Pet Sounds," a cycle of unfailingly imaginative, painfully tender melodies that charted the blossoming and wilting of a love affair. "Pet Sounds" dazzled everybody from Leonard Bernstein to Paul McCartney, and seemed to herald a new sort of pop music that would meld an all-but-unprecedented intimacy of expression with near-symphonic scope. "Good Vibrations" followed -- the precursor to an album that would be known as "Smile." And then there was a long silence.

So what are we to think of "Brian Wilson Presents Smile," a new CD released yesterday? Thirty-seven years later, is it -- can it be -- the Thing Itself, even without the rest of the band? Nobody disputes that Wilson was the leader of, and raison d'etre for, the Beach Boys, nor that "Smile" was his pet project -- one for which he fought furiously against the Philistines in his band, who did their best to stop any diversion from the lucrative musical formula that had made them all millions.

But the original "Smile" was conceived as a celebration of innocence -- a "cosmic giggle" -- by a man in his mid-twenties. Innocence is now experience, and Wilson is now 62. He has spent most of his life struggling with drugs, depression and mental illness; his brothers (and fellow Beach Boys) Dennis and Carl are dead; and whatever remained of the group itself long ago dissolved into a squalid series of suits and countersuits.

Still, here it is -- a finished version of "Smile." Should you get it? Of course you should. It contains almost an hour of rare and idiosyncratic music by an American master. But whether the disc bears much relation to the "Smile" that might have been is a more difficult matter.

As a confirmed obsessive, as somebody who has tracked down everything he could find having to do with "Smile" over three decades, I have now spent the better part of a month with "Brian Wilson Presents Smile." And it seems to me not so much a completion of the original work as a sort of suite assembled from "Smile" fragments -- "Smile's Greatest Hits," as it were. Aside from a few fairly rudimentary, connective passages, virtually nothing on the record is freshly composed, except for the sequence in which the songs are presented. If you own the "Smile" bootlegs, you own virtually all of the music on this album, and nothing about the 2004 running order feels inevitable or even especially organic.

It's handy to have the material all in one place, of course, and the arrangement (by Wilson and principal lyricist Van Dyke Parks) is both plausible and professional. Moreover, Wilson is working with members of a fanciful, highly virtuosic Los Angeles-based band, the Wondermints, and they obviously revere and understand his work, even though most of them weren't born when the songs were written. They bring to Wilson's music a quality it has mostly lacked since the 1960s: exuberance.

The songs themselves? Gorgeous, giddy, ambitious, strange. I've always felt that Wilson was better judged as a creator of electro-acoustical soundscapes than as a traditional songwriter. "Smile" was made up of fractured, elaborately ornamented musical tableaux, distinguished by their brevity, their vaporous, all-but-intangible beauties and their sheer sonic splendor.

It is this last quality that I find missing from "Brian Wilson Presents Smile." The original "Smile" recordings were enveloped in a luminous sheen that was attainable only through countless hours in the studio (there were a total of 72 sessions before the project was abandoned); this could truthfully be described as electronic music, however willful and eccentric. "Brian Wilson Presents Smile," on the other hand, sounds like what it is: polished, efficient work from a terrific, versatile band that visited the studio to lay down some tunes and Get the Record Finished.

Compare the two versions of "Cabinessence," for example. The first, initially issued on the album "20/20" in 1969, has an icy, windswept, ethereal beauty that still sounds like something written on another planet. The new version is charged with such fresh, healthy energy that one could almost imagine it playing in a gym. Which is all well and good, but "Cabinessence" was once a thing of mystery, and nothing is less mysterious than a gym.

Still, there is much to love -- "Child Is Father of the Man," with its dizzy vocal counterpoint and wah-wah trumpet; the legendary "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," better known as the "fire" music (which its very stoned composer suppressed for fear that Los Angeles would burn down); and a rollicking remake of "Good Vibrations" that just might give Wilson his first hit single in three decades -- and reason to smile.

Brian Wilson is scheduled to appear Oct. 10 at the Warner Theatre.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company