One's first real introduction to The Beach Boys is not like an introduction with any other band. You learn of the Beach Boys often as that fun, woozily romantic surf-pop band with upbeat, time to hit the water heralds. Example A: "Help Me, Rhonda" or to be obvious, "Surfin." Eventually, someone will put on Pet Sounds, and the realization that emotional complexity and instrumental arrangement can be embedded in a product so effortless shakes all the sand from your ears. And in a tremulously upward spiral, there's SMiLE—the album that almost never got made. SMiLE is one of the few recorded instances of man's psyche dilated, pushed and preened towards certainty, an experiment that changed the way popular music could sound. To put it basely, it's some of the best music ever written and recorded, hidden under 44 years of unanswered myth—those psychedelic drugs, rumors of hatred festering between band-mates, and sheer exhaustive studio time. To quote Brian Wilson himself, "it sounds like jewelry," a willfully mosaic whole. Each shard is remastered to shocking perfection.
While polishing and doing final editing for Pet Sounds towards the tail-end of 1966, Brian Wilson met songwriter Van Dyke Parks. These two understood a looming project, to use words and music as incisions across an American consciousness fading. If the early-60s Beach Boys materialized a Californian aesthetic utopia, that location of milk and honey, where dreams are born, wealth is found, then SMiLE is about every other influence or location that brought them there. These include but are not limited to: home on the range sprawls, cartoonish chants, dancehall rags, jazzy respites, classical brushes, the eponymous barbershop quartet, those carousel chimes (of course), and psychologically rich rock and roll that all swirl in a kaleidoscopic daydream.
SMiLE is a paradoxical thread between past and present: I cannot ascertain that this album belongs in 1960s psychoactivity nor as the link to current surrealist pop music. Wilson certainly utilized postmodern recording techniques and the technology of the time to craft what could be defined as avant-garde and experimental tonalities. These innovations did not fly with other Beach Boys. The recording sessions for "Good Vibrations" alone cost a reported $16,000—the electro-theremin work (its influence rendered clearly and AWESOMELY) taking a hefty chunk of that sum. Wilson insisted on breaking up the songs into segments and recording each piece separately (an explanation for seven fragments of "Heroes and Villains"). This meant for all the multi-instrumentation on this record, that often a dozen musicians recorded at once, and these modular sections were meticulously affixed using just tape and razorblades. The sheer volume of instruments can be elucidated on the extra track "The Elements: Fire Sessions" where Wilson asks "All the fiddles to be ready to start."
Some tracks are dissected into parts, preludes, and beginnings. Surprisingly, no material is superfluous and unnecessary. Instead the listener is allowed to take part in the evolution of a song, all its polyphonic identities, to watch it inscribed and feel it pieced together. Songs dribble one into the next, incarnations of that liminal space in which they became physical. Starting with the harmonious hymnal "Our Prayer", transitions to the cheeky cover of The Crows' 1953 hit "Gee" and into "Heroes and Villains" are seamless, an easy transport into the perfect realm of each individual song and a stunning success for the album as a totality. Bounding between the guttural doo-wopping of "Do You Like Worms" and the chomping melancholy of "Cabin Essence", shines the orchestral and heartbreaking "My Only Sunshine". Baroque pop is one of nebulous genres that could furnish "Child is Father of the Man" or "Surf's Up", but these pieces are textured so beautifully in chromatic nuances that they cant belong to anything except themselves.
Safely guarded by memory, The SMiLE Sessions is musically, emotionally and historically more than a compilation of disposable cotton-candied affirmations—but take note: no matter how bad things get, Brian Wilson understands.