Review Summary: A once-in-a-lifetime classic.
The Beach Boys will always be regarded as the melodic, surf-loving dreamers whose collective voice still defines summer to this very day. While nothing screams fun-in-the-sun quite like ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ or spells summer romance like ‘Surfer Girl’, the band’s creative and emotional depth was left largely untapped until 1966’s Pet Sounds
– which befuddled normie beachgoing Americans with its lush atmosphere and dynamic arrangements. Enter Smile
, the band’s 1967 answer to Sgt Peppers
and their magnum opus/crowning achievement. It was never officially released due to a variety of reasons ranging from label-imposed constraints to Brian Wilson’s deteriorating mental health. As a result, Smile
was born into the same studio that it would proceed to die in, never escaping those walls for mass consumption. Smile
’s mystique made it the subject of widespread speculation and intense fan scrutiny, driving it to a legendary cult classic status. As such, Smile
is widely regarded as the greatest unreleased album in the history of American music.
The Smile Sessions
is the closest approximation to what Smile
was always meant to be: a "teenage symphony to God" as coined by Wilson himself, designed to surpass Pet Sounds with its elaborate arrangements while drawing on influences ranging from psychedelia and early rock n’ roll to doo-wop and jazz. Perhaps the most surprising facet of The Smile Sessions
is how beautifully these nineteen tracks (forty if you count the bonus tracks and studio demos) meld. Like a mosaic, Smile
is comprised of utterly different ideas that come together to form an even more breathtaking whole. It’s evident from the start with the forlorn hymnal ‘Our Prayer’ leading right into the joyful acapella ‘Gee’, and subsequently into the multi-suite pop epic “Heroes and Villains”. Smile
sounds the part of a band with no inhibitions, captained by one of the most ambitious and creative musical minds of all-time.
In the beginning, Smile
merely takes the Beach Boys and amplifies them like we’ve rarely (if ever) heard. The longer the album runs on, however, the weirder
it gets – further dragging us down a proverbial rabbit hole. ‘Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)’ is spellbinding with its alternating harpsichord and tribalistic chants, while ‘My Only Sunshine/The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine’ puts a melancholic twist on the classic nursery rhyme. ‘Cabin Essence’ is an absolute rush, blending lighter verses with a fervent psychedelic chorus which could have been a precursor to Animal Collective. As Smile
wanes, we’re treated to even more experimental bits such as the sample-heavy ‘I Wanna Be Around / Workshop’ and the alienating/unsettling ‘The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)’. While occasionally buffered by more down-to-Earth pop melodies like ‘Surf’s Up’ and the now-famous ‘Good Vibrations’, Smile
is able to maintain a focused/tight sound while simultaneously pushing pop music into unprecedented territory.
Generally speaking, Smile
was way ahead of its time. It’s incredible that these songs – the majority of them unfinished/incomplete/unpolished – would sound avant-garde if released today. The album is often cited as the band’s attempt to keep stride with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
, but I have no qualms asserting that Smile
is more impressive in both scope and production. Had it been released on-schedule, we would almost definitely be talking about Smile
as one of the greatest albums ever
made – which it still is, even if the honor feels slightly eroded by the record’s “unofficial” status. At the very least, it’s an improvement on Pet Sounds
– and that statement alone should be enough to convince any fan of pop music to add Smile
to her/his bucket list.
is inadvertently symbolic of the greatness that lurks inside us all: untapped, maybe even unfinished – but nevertheless eagerly waiting to break free. It’s not only a reminder of pop music’s zest for exploration during the 1960s, but a cue to always push yourself towards new opportunities for growth. Had the Beach Boys never created Pet Sounds
, we’d be losing such an enormous and valuable dimension of their identity. They could have gone on for decades writing songs about kissing girls and surfing in California – foregoing artistic expansion altogether – and none of us would have even known what we were missing. That’s what is so prudent to take away from Smile
: any passion you keep hidden is a side of you which the world will never know. Life is only a flash in the pan – so let every angle of your creative personality be known, sing as loudly as you possible can, and Smile.