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Brian Wilson - Smile

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Artist: Brian Wilson

Album: Smile

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Nov. 30, 2004

Let's face it – it’s an almost universal truth that when an artist attempts to revisit the past the results are doomed to, if not failure, at least disappointment. This holds true for musicians, filmmakers (George Lucas' Star Wars revisionism is a fine example), any creative person. The impulses, influences, inspirations and circumstances have changed since the original endeavor, and recreating those is not only impossible but foolhardy. Attempting to place yourself back where your head was at sometime in the past is simply unwise.

Having the odds stacked so strongly against it, then, makes this "recreation" of the Beach Boys' legendary Smile album even more of a triumph than it might be. The fact is that, against all expectations, Brian Wilson has achieved what should have been impossible, and has produced what may be the year's most thrilling album.

Originally conceived back in 1966, Smile was to be the Beach Boys' coup de grace in their polite rivalry with the Beatles. After the Fab Four's Revolver, the Boys had a challenge set. With drugs in the air, Wilson collaborated with lyricist Van Dyke Parks and went into the studio to create something that took the group's harmonies to someplace very new. And frankly, if the album had been completed and released, Sgt. Pepper's wouldn't have been nearly as startling as it was.

Stories abound about what happened, but one way or another, Smile ended up unreleased, Wilson was never the same, and the Beach Boys slowly wandered into irrelevance. Various bits and pieces of the songs intended for Smile appeared here and there, offering tantalizing glimpses of what might have been, and innumerable bootleg versions with various songs in varying running orders have been out there for the past four decades.

It is interesting to listen to some of those and compare them to this now-finished version – it’s true that the originals are somewhat more experimental and "out there." But ultimately that sort of second-guessing doesn't really matter. What we have here is an inarguably superb pop album that, given the way music has gone, doesn't sound particularly dated. Groups from Super Furry Animals to Grandaddy to Olivia Tremor Control have mined inspiration from this sound; now that the original has been remade, it sounds perfectly at home in 2004.

The harmonies of "Song for Children," the flowing movements of "Heroes and Villains," the rhythmic interplay of drums and voices in "Cabin Essence," and of course the unforgettable "Good Vibrations" – these moments and more all add up to an album that, yes, actually is better than Sgt. Pepper's. Had this been released in 1967 as planned, who knows: It's possible it might have changed the path of pop music.

In any case, Brian Wilson has reached back almost 40 years and righted wrongs, in the process giving 2004 its best pop album. Whether you want to consider it a reissue, a remake, or a new album, you need it regardless. I could have wished for a better package with a more detailed story (David Leaf's intro is far too brief and fluffy), but it's the music that matters, so I can't really complain. I can only be astonished, and grateful, that Wilson pulled it off.

By Mason Jones

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