So here it is, some 44 years after it was abandoned, 15 or so years after an initial box set was scrapped and seven years after Brian Wilson debuted a completed version of it: the Beach Boys’ Smile, the record planned as the sequel to Pet Sounds but destined to exist as pop’s greatest myth. Like all myths, Smile is fueled by mystery. Theories abound to the reason why it remained uncompleted, we never know quite what the album would have been, nor do we know what its impact would have been if it came out in the thick of the summer of love, all things that built Smile’s legend. Now that an official Beach Boys version of Smile actually exists—presented as either a double-disc set or a five-disc box filled with session outtakes, many of which have never been bootlegged before, which is impressive considering the hundreds of boots that have circulated over the years—it’d seem like we’d be closer to having a definitive answer to some of these questions but The Smile Sessions winds up preserving the legend instead of providing any new revelation.
Part of the reason for this lack of surprise is that Wilson’s 2004 completion of Smile eliminated the biggest question mark, which is what form would the album may have had. That ’04 album, which Wilson completed with the assistance of lyricist Van Dyke Parks and his backing band The Wondermints, provides the template for this ’11 set and there are no great deviations from that blueprint here, meaning the biggest difference is that this was assembled from the actual Beach Boys recordings from the ‘60s, giving this an album an almost tactile presence via Wilson’s innovative studio techniques and the unearthly harmonies of the group. Nevertheless, Smile—in either its ’04 incarnation or this ’11 revival—winds up playing not as a pop record but a mini-symphony, complete with repeated motifs and long, dreamy instrumental interludes. Even the centerpieces—“Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” “Surf’s Up,” “Good Vibrations”—are mini-suites masquerading as pop songs, all feeding into a larger piece that never has the kinetic rush of rock & roll or the heady hooks of pop.
Or to put it another way, Smile did not quite fit into any part of the pop or rock world in 1967, a point underscored by the Americana fantasia of the piece. Parks’ lyrics are filled with imagery pulled out golden age Hollywood and Wilson’s similarly has echoes of saloon piano from the Wild West, barbershop harmonies and the majestic sweep of George Gershwin. Combined, Parks and Wilson wind up with an aesthetic not too far removed from the nostalgia peddled by Disneyland—not coincidentally, just a few weeks before The Smile Sessions appeared Wilson released a loving, largely effective, collection of Disney covers—a sensibility that can not be erased no matter how intricately written the compositions are written or how expertly the studio was manipulated.
This overarching, amber-tinted Americana likely would have fallen on deaf ears if Smile actually was released in 1967—after all, Pet Sounds was not a hit and the Beach Boys weren’t exactly hip amongst the hippies—because it was an album that existed out of time: it looked wistfully at the past in a way the vibrant “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” never did, creating a myth around cowboys & Indians, heroes & villains, railroads and Plymouth Rock instead of spinning childhood memories into the present, and whatever modern compositional or production flourishes it had were blissfully uncommercial. All these quirks likely would have sunk Smile in ’67 but those are the very things that make it enduring art: it is certainly a product of the ‘60s but it’s not about the decade nor does it belong there, it fits within the broad spectrum of the century, casting back to the past to forecast the future. All this was evident on the countless bootlegs—along with all the scraps, fragments and outakes that fill The Smile Sessions, either as a double-disc for quintuple-disc box—and the ’04 but the finally-finished Smile presented in 2011 trumps them all because it’s been created from the same aesthetic that propels the piece: it’s dreamy nostalgia for a world that never existed assembled from the relics from the past.