Goodbye surfing, hello God! The title of Jules Siegel's 1967 magazine feature on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys sums up how well the group was outliving the early-'60s beach fad -- and revolutionizing pop music in the process. During 1966, the twin shots of Pet Sounds in May and "Good Vibrations" in October announced first that the group had entered the vanguard of pop music and then, not content with mere critical praise, seized control of the singles charts with a chart-topper as catchy as it was complex and costly to record. Early on, though, "Good Vibrations" had actually been slated to appear on Pet Sounds, which reveals the long odds on whether Wilson could ever finish an entire album of his pocket symphonies (at least, in the time frame of a label circa 1966).
Nevertheless, beginning in August of 1966, he began planning a new album project, first called Dumb Angel and later SMiLE. Working from the ideas in his head, he and his studio musicians and bandmates recorded continually during late 1966 and early 1967, putting down hours of tape during dozens of sessions. He labored over every note and, more than that, every tone, often asking his musicians or the Beach Boys themselves to revise when the results didn't match his conception of the music going on inside his head. Such care and control produced music that was far beyond Pet Sounds, and when the impressionistic themes and lyrics of collaborator Van Dyke Parks were added, SMiLE began shaping up as the most unique LP ever produced by a pop group. That much is perfectly clear after listening to Capitol's release of The SMiLE Sessions, the first official SMiLE release ever. (As most music fans know, the album was never completed, although elements of the whole have trickled out ever since.) Each version of the SMiLE Sessions set begins with a re-creation of what a mono release of SMiLE could have sounded like, with a track listing patterned after Wilson’s 2004 recording, Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. Each version also includes some SMiLE sessions in stereo, in order to hear Wilson's working method in the studio. Peeling away the layers from these tracks, several instruments at a time, reveals more of the music's magnificence, how each element combined in ingenious ways to become the songs that have entranced Beach Boys fans over the years. The sessions and studio chatter also reveal how much of the SMiLE sessions were a family affair; far from the previous conception of Wilson holed away in the studio with a coterie of handpicked musicians, virtually all of the Beach Boys make themselves heard with suggestions and contributions both vocal and instrumental (and beside the infamous credits of Paul McCartney, even Brian's wife Marilyn, a singer in her own right, is heard on backing vocals).
It's difficult to object to anything about The SMiLE Sessions, considering the time and care invested into the entire package (which becomes yet more lavish with the varying Deluxe Editions available). Still, Brian Wilson's 2004 re-creation of SMiLE hangs over this set, and not just because SMiLE lost much of its mystery and taboo after Wilson re-recorded it. The choice to studiously re-create his 2004 rendition may have eased the burden of a difficult and controversial compiling process -- although thousands of hours still had to be spent compiling these sessions -- but it also forced principal reissue producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd into giving listeners a version of SMiLE that wasn't in stereo, even though roughly 80 percent of the tracks were available that way. (For the record, the liner notes state that mono was used because that would have been Wilson's original choice in 1967, and also because not enough of the basic tracks were available in stereo.) As it stands here, having a full SMiLE album in mono and a collection of sessions in stereo immediately positions The SMiLE Sessions as something less than a true bootleg beater -- which will undoubtedly lead fans back to extra-legal means (at least, any time they want to hear a virtual mixdown of these glorious recordings in true stereo).
Quibbles aside, everything about this package is richly detailed, immensely pleasing, and overall a wonderful experience. All of the CD editions include copious bonus tracks, such as nine minutes of a cappella vocals ("SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage"), whose beauty and fragility will help listeners realize that the Beach Boys obsessed just as much over their vocalizing as their music. Deluxe editions add essays from several angles, reminiscences from those who were there, and original artwork and photos from the period.
True, no one will ever know what effect a SMiLE release in spring 1967 would have had on music or pop culture, and with the music so circular and the lyrics so obtuse, it's likely that SMiLE would have become merely a curio of psychedelic excess rather than a work that transformed culture. But regardless, it shows Brian Wilson's mastery of pure studio sonics and his ability to not only create distinctive pop music, but give it great beauty as well. Those qualities have inspired musicians for decades, and it's clear they will continue to do so. [The SMiLE Sessions is available in several different editions, all of which begin with a re-creation of what a mono release of SMiLE could have sounded like. The two-CD packages add one disc of sessions tracks, while the Deluxe Edition box set includes a total of five CDs, two LPs, and two 7" singles -- including the one disc and double-LP of SMiLE in mono, three discs of SMiLE sessions in stereo, and one disc of sessions from the "Good Vibrations" single. The Deluxe Edition box set also features a 2' x 3' poster and a 60-page hardcover book, all packaged inside a three-dimensional shadow box lid.]