The Beach Boys

Cabin Essence

Song Review by

Although the Beach Boys' infamous SMiLE album went years without an official release, refashioned fragments of this album's music have slipped out over the years. "Cabin Essence" is one of the SMiLE-era tracks that comes closest to capturing the feel of that unfinished album. It was cobbled together by the group from SMiLE-era sessions, mixing the original "Cabin Essence" sessions with elements from another unreleased song called "Who Ran the Iron Horse." The result is musically schizophrenic but unforgettably powerful. The lyrics are a collection of hazy but evocative fragments, juxtaposing verses that praise a return to the country with the frantic question "Who ran the Iron Horse?" (an Americana-minded question related to the songwriter's interest in the history of American railroads) before closing out with the inscrutable declaration "Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield." These lyrics make no conventional sense but the music weaves them into a memorable experience: the verse melodies have a mellow, almost country-inflected tone, the "iron horse" sections have a frantic locomotive-inspired pace, and the "cornfield" finale is built on notes that spiral ever upward in a lovely style. The Beach Boys' recording of "Cabin Essence" lives up to the song's lyrical and musical ambitiousness with a cinematic production overflowing with details that leap out at the listener: the "doyn-doyn" background vocals and the sprightly banjo chords during the verse, the ominous cellos that underpin the "iron horse" question, and the swirling harmonies that finish the song are just a few. The end result is more of a sonic painting than a pop song but is mind-blowingly beautiful nonetheless. "Cabin Essence" remains a cult favorite today with the group's hardcore fans and is justly remembered as one of the group's most impressively ambitious moments on record.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
SMiLE [Not Released] 1967 Capitol 3:35
20/20 1969 Capitol 3:33
Friends/20/20 1990 Capitol / EMI Records 3:35
The Absolute Best, Vol. 2 1991 Capitol / EMI Records / Capitol Compact Disc 0:00
Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys 1993 Capitol / EMI Records 3:59
Capitol Years 1999 EMI Music Distribution 3:28
The SMiLE Sessions 2011 Capitol / EMI 5:17
Made in California 2013 Capitol / Universal 3:32