The Beach Boys
The Smile Sessions


5.0
classic

Review

by SowingSeason STAFF
February 11th, 2021 | 57 replies


Release Date: 2011 | Tracklist

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.

Smile 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 or Smile, 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.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
Gyromania
February 11th 2021


32278 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Excellent review! I remember hearing this back when I worked at a record store in 2011. An employee put it on during a midnight inventory/restock shift and it blew me away. Definitely agree it's on par with if not better than Pet Sounds.

AsleepInTheBack
Staff Reviewer
February 11th 2021


7113 Comments


praise be, he hath returned!

Colton
February 11th 2021


9159 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Nice review, I like the idea of staff reviewing old classics, cause why not. And the last paragraph is very true. It's not just about who's the most talented, but who is able to actually make that talent manifest into something. I'm glad Brian got it done, albeit 44 years behind schedule

Trebor.
Staff Reviewer
February 11th 2021


57770 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Good stuff

dedex
Contributing Reviewer
February 11th 2021


7623 Comments


excellent rev Sowing, you just got a bbcode thingy in the middle of the last para: "[/i]Smile[/i]"

Digging: Paysage d'Hiver - Geister

Veldin
February 11th 2021


4368 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Elephant 6 Collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, etc.) hailed this unreleased work as "the holy grail" and they considered this sound their "religion".

CaliggyJack
February 11th 2021


6127 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

I had a feeling a Sowing review was incoming for this masterpiece!



Nice rev SowBow

manosg
Staff Reviewer
February 11th 2021


12222 Comments


Great read! Growing up, this had a certain mystique and always felt like a missed chance, but I'm glad that it was finally released and it's close to what Wilson planned.

Ryus
February 11th 2021


23176 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

def better than pet sounds for me

Digging: woesum - blue summer

bigguytoo9
February 12th 2021


998 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

good-good-good

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
February 12th 2021


45003 Comments

Album Rating: 4.4

nice review. my only real complaint with this version of the album is the tracklist (closing on Good Vibrations is just a weird delayed gratification thing, it needs to end with Surf's Up)



still better than Sgt Pepper tho

Digging: Brockhampton - Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

Ecnalzen
February 12th 2021


10715 Comments


Only familiar with the greatest hits album I have from them

I don't think I have ever actually listened to one of their albums

Colton
February 12th 2021


9159 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

^ listen to Pet Sounds and this dude



better than Sgt Pepper [2]

Gyromania
February 12th 2021


32278 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

'better than sgt pepper'



honestly kind of faint praise lol. sgt pepper isn't even top 5 beatles, i have no idea why it's hyped as one of the greatest albums of all time. abbey road absolutely shits all over it

SowingSeason
Moderator
February 12th 2021


37210 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

I think saying this tops Pet Sounds is much bigger praise

(which it does)

Digging: Manchester Orchestra - The Million Masks Of God

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
February 12th 2021


35030 Comments


nice nice nice stuff i should finally hear this

for some reason i always assumed this was vaguely analogous to a demo - was it fully mixed and mastered etc?

big hooray for archival revs in general

Digging: Xiu Xiu - OH NO

Gyromania
February 12th 2021


32278 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

"I think saying this tops Pet Sounds is much bigger praise"



definitely!

GhandhiLion
February 12th 2021


11310 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

It was bootlegged in 83

Digging: Suffocate For Fuck Sake - Blazing Fires and Helicopters...

CaliggyJack
February 12th 2021


6127 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

"honestly kind of faint praise lol. sgt pepper isn't even top 5 beatles, i have no idea why it's hyped as one of the greatest albums of all time. abbey road absolutely shits all over it"



I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear this pure heresy

SowingSeason
Moderator
February 12th 2021


37210 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Thanks all. It's been increasingly difficult to find time to write but I've been obsessed with this for like a month so I had to review it. If I made a list of my 10 favorite albums ever this would be on it, same if I made a list of what I think are the 10 objectively greatest albums of all-time. That's quite the intersection of personal taste and indisputable quality. This is one of a few albums I would recommend to anyone, young or old, regardless of their taste.



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