Brian Wilson

Smile (Nonesuch 04) Rating: A

Arguably the most eagerly anticipated album ever, with the longest gestation period (37 years!), Smile had a lot to live up to, to put it mildly. Facing down his demons (at least partially chronicled in my Smiley Smile review) and finally completing the most famous unfinished album ever was itself a major accomplishment; that the album is such a triumphant, fun listening experience makes it all the more gratifying. Much credit is due to his backing band The Wondermints and his reunited lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks for helping Brian realize his vision, but of course it is Brian's genius that shines brightest. True, he doesn't sing as well as he used to, Carl and the rest of the Beach Boys are mildly missed as well, and it's hard to listen to some of these songs and not compare them (sometimes unfavorably) with previously released versions. But I try not to do that, because these individual pieces fit together wonderfully well here; whether it be major songs like "Heroes and Villains," "Cabin Essence," "Surf's Up," and "Good Vibrations" (with Tony Asher's original lyrics rather than Mike Love's rewrite), or the several lighter shorter pieces or mood enhancing segues, these are all pieces of a puzzle that is at long last whole. I'm sure it was hard for Brian to fit it all together, and I'm sure that tackling some bad memories was part of the process, but the seamless whole here is indeed greater than the sum of its individual parts, much like Pet Sounds had been. Unlike his prior masterpiece, and yes Smile is every bit the masterpiece that Brian's many acolytes had long hoped for, this album has more variety, veering from lightly goofy humor ("Barnyard," "Vege-Tables") to more serious, and occasionally even spooky ("Mrs. O' Leary's Cow" and the beginning of "In Blue Hawaii") moments. Parks' poetic, abstract, humorous lyrics are a far cry from Tony Asher's intimate confessionals, and as such this album doesn't hit me with quite the same emotional wallop. Rather, what I most enjoy about this album is its sumptuous melodies and amazingly creative vocal arrangements. I don't like every song here, but most of the lesser efforts (on the album's second half) are over and done with soon enough, and besides even these songs serve a purpose towards the overall whole, as Smile is an album that's meant to be listened to in its entirety. Among the other highlights are "Our Prayer" (perfect choice as the album opener), "Roll Plymouth Rock" (previously known as "Do You Like Worms?"), "Wonderful" (far better than the Smiley Smile version), "Song For Children"/"Child Is Father Of The Man" (like many songs here you can't think of one without the other), and "In Blue Hawaii" (the lighter rest of it after the spooky start). But the whole album is a hard won triumph that's easy on the ears, as above all else Smile is simply an aural feast. True, the album's history weighs heavily upon it, as one can't help but wonder what might've been way back when, but Smile should offer sweet solace to long suffering fans, as it's a wonderful piece of work in its own right.

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