Named ”most famous unfinished album” by Rolling Stone, the Beach Boys‘ SMiLE was slated to be the much-anticipated follow up to the highly-influential eleventh studio album Pet Sounds. The recording of SMiLE was strange in itself, as it marked creator Brian Wilson‘s spiral into a state of depression and paranoia, famously concerned that fires breaking out in the neighborhood of the studio where they were recording were a result of the music.
Session musicians were made to wear fireman’s hats to record songs, a grand piano was placed in a colossal sandbox in the living room and another room was decorated as a bedouin tent. Despite bizarre behavior and mental collapse, Wilson was praised as both functional and professional in the studio. “Our next album will be better than ‘Pet Sounds,’” he said in 1966. But it never happened, and SMiLE was shelved, presumably because it was just too far out for the time and the other band members.
Now, almost fifty years later, SMiLE has been unleashed on a new generation. Wilson tells us via phone that the simple hope behind releasing The SMiLE Sessions is that “people like what we did, because it was really good music.”
And good music it is, perhaps made all the more intriguing by its twisted past. Listening to an album meant to push the boundaries of popular music forty years ago in this new strange future where Lady Gaga rules the charts is enough to make any music fan reassess the road to rock revolution. You’d be hard pressed to find a band these days that doesn’t count the Beach Boys as an influence. Daniel Rosen of Grizzly Bear “fell in love with [SMiLE] as a piece of music, even though I didn’t know quite what it was supposed to be.”
You can either be confused by SMiLE or just go with it. A sprawling, contorted work with a massive track listing and disorienting cycle of orchestral miniatures that fight each other in transition from one song to the next. But the highlight here is imagining what was, and what could have been. The sessions material provide a glimpse at Wilson’s madness-fueled-genius as he patiently discusses mood, tempo and timing, with only the occasional hash or LSD discussion. “We were quite thrilled with what we discovered in the can,” he says. ”It was hard to remember because we were doing so many drugs, you know.”
Wilson resurrected SMiLE in 2003, and released the newly recorded version the next year. But he calls this month’s release “a more extensive and extrapolation of the theme, like many, many extrapolations of ‘Heroes and Villains’.” Almost a full disc of “Heroes and Villains” fragments, actually, with another entire CD of “Good Vibrations” available as part of a limited edition 5CD box set.
“If you’re gonna write the song,” Wilson says, “Write the whole song. Don’t crap out halfway through it.” SMiLE may never be completely finished, but its certainly more than just a collection of songs that were never fully realized. The SMiLE Sessions are a deep and disturbing relic of what may have been the Beach Boys’ magnum opus, an unanswered love letter to the psychedelic era. No crapping out here.
Buy SMiLE now and check out the extensive track listing after the jump.
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