(Originally posted on NoExpiration)
Until the release of The Pet Sounds Sessions box set in 1997, I never had much time for The Beach Boys. I liked “I Get Around,” “Help Me Rhonda,” and “Surf City” (this last in an ironic way, due to its ludicrous falsetto chorus of “Two girls for ev-er-y boooooy!”), but not much else. Once I heard the stereo mix of Pet Sounds, however, I started to realize what all the fuss was about. That mix, and the session tapes that accompanied it, made me appreciate the brilliance of Brian Wilson’s melodic gift. When it was announced that Smile—the legendary, unfinished follow-up to Pet Sounds—would be given the same box set treatment, I anticipated a similarly revelatory experience. After all, Smile, according to the legend, was even better than Pet Sounds.
Well, yes and no. Mostly no. One of the strengths of Pet Sounds is the way its musical adventurousness is anchored by the professional craftsmanship of its lyrics. “Wouldn't It Be Nice” may sound like music from Mars, but the words are pure teenage yearning, as earthbound as you can get. “God Only Knows” is Wilson's outstanding spiritual statement, but it can also be enjoyed as a simple (if breathtakingly beautiful) love song. With the possible exception of “Good Vibrations,” the songs from Smile don’t have this advantage. Mike Love may have gotten a lot of stick over the years for objecting to Van Dyke Parks’ obscure lyrics, but it’s not hard to sympathize with him when confronted with lines like “Who rang the iron horse?” or “The crow cries undercover the cornfield” from “Cabin Essence.” As the careers of everyone from Little Richard to Michael Stipe prove, pop song lyrics don’t have to make sense—but they do have to deliver an emotional punch. Parks’ lyrics fail on this count. When sung to one of the most beautiful melodies Brian Wilson ever wrote, a line like the infamous “columnated ruins domino,” from “Surf’s Up,” is not just dumb—it’s almost an insult to the music.
But it’s not just the lyrics that are a problem here. Wilson famously called Smile his “teenage symphony to God,” and it shows in the songwriting, which strives for a symphonic effect by stringing together short “movements” in often unrelated musical styles. This pastiche technique works well on “Good Vibrations,” but less so everywhere else. “Heroes and Villains” goes from surf pop to barbershop quartet to piano ballad and doo-wop before finishing off with a one-two punch of cowboy ballad harmonica and English music hall trombone. It’s like a clip reel from The Lawrence Welk Show. “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” has a spooky rinky-dink piano section, a Hawaiian guitar interlude and vocal break that sounds like the awful “ooga chaka” song from that dancing baby video back in the ‘90s.* It’s all a bit precious—the kind of twee psychedelic experimentation that ruined a lot of music on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-‘60s.
After listening to The Smile Sessions, it’s hard to see how the finished album could have ever lived up to the hype it has accumulated over the years. Though it seems almost sacrilegious not to love this music, I don’t think Smile would have been the earthquake its fans dream about. Maybe The Smile Sessions is not the story of Brian Wilson at the height of his creative powers, but a snapshot of the moment when his creativity started to ripen and rot.
* - A search of the internets tells me that this song is Blue Swede’s mid-‘70s cover of B.J. Thomas’s “Hooked On A Feeling.” **
** - Two years after I wrote this, this song reentered public consciousness through its prominent use in Marvel's The Guardians of the Galaxy. There were so many better songs that could have picked, alas.