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Why Brian Wilson "failed" with SMILE
, November 5, 2011
This review is from: The Smile Sessions Box Set (Audio CD)
Beautiful, inspirational, wacky, avante garde, often accessible, sometimes inaccessible, incredibly creative, like nothing you've ever heard, and even for a long-time Smile fanatic, there were endless sessions and material I had never heard before. I feel I finally understand SMILE thoroughly, and I offer four basic conclusions:
1) Brian was not only way before his time, he was way before technology's time. His modular approach to songwriting was an entirely new form of composition in pop music, and while he had SMILE in his head -- and probably multiple versions of SMILE in there at the same time -- the llimited technology of the day (small number of tracks on tape recorders, editing done by razor and tape, etc.) quite simply made his task IMPOSSIBLE. That he was able to piece together "Good Vibrations," "Cabinessence," the released version of "Heroes and Villains," and some other snippets is amazing enough. But to have expected him to release a 50- to 60-minute album with literally thousands of musical fragments and overdubs all managing to hold together as a musical whole would have been beyond the capability of ANYBODY in the decades before computers, digital editing, and other technological advances. Especially when all the time Capitol wanted more hit singles. SMILE was not about hit singles -- it was about a brilliant conceptual whole unlike any recording ever made in history.
2) There was never a SMILE that Brian's 2004 version can be compared to. It was a work-in-progress whose very nature allowed it to be shuffled and rearranged into an infinite variety of presentations. Had Brian finished SMILE in 1967, that would have been just one possible version of his music. So regarding claims that the original differed from the 2004 rendition because the bass sounded different or the strings sounded different, or anything like that just doesn't hold water. Not even cool, cool, water. Why? Because as a listen to the SMILE sessions reveals, Brian was changing sounds constantly. There's no way to know what a 1967-released version would have even sounded like. Brian might have totally redone "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes" and other parts that listeners today think are "perfect," and those might have been replaced by very different arrangements/performances. It's obvious that SMILE was a living, breathing thing that hadn't coalesced into any kind of final presentation. Had Brian released SMILE in 1967, you might be listening to the SMILE sessions now, but instead of loving them, you'd be feeling thankful that Brian didn't go with many of the takes and approaches you've loved all these years, simply because you would have already accepted some "other" version that had met Brian's approval at the time.
3) Because of #2 (above), Brian's 2004 rendition of SMILE is the ONLY legitimate version of SMILE. And it's a five-star version, so put it on and enjoy it!
4) After steeping myself in the 1966-1967 fragments from this box-set and then revisiting the 2004 recording, I have come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks the 21st century version is a letdown is NUTS! Brian's faithfulness to the sound of the original tracks, his compositions, and the melodic and structural flow is incredible down to the finest detail. As glorious as I felt his 2004 version was when I first heard it, I now see it as even more of a masterwork. Not only is it one of the most amazing albums ever released, the reconstruction that was done to keep it as faithful to the original also makes it one of the greatest re-recordings in history.
I hope this is the last word on SMILE. Maybe soon Brian will revisit his modular songwriting approach and come up with some other brilliant works along those same lines. He came close with "Rio Grande," done many years after he was supposed to be all washed-up.
Buy the new archival release, listen to it, and appreciate the fact that Brian Wilson was probably not defeated by the drugs, or the arcane lyrics, or The Beach Boys, or anything else other than the fact that he chose to produce an epic of such detail and perfection that was beyond the ability of any living musician or engineer or producer on the planet at the time due to the scope of the project and the technological limitations within which he was forced to operate. Brian was like a man with a single-lensed camera trying to film a 3-D movie. It just wasn't going to be possible to complete a work of such incomparable brilliance and creativity given the music studio equipment of the 1960s. Not without leaning dangerously close to insanity. After all, "Good Vibrations" took six months or more all on its own.
I hope the legacy of this incredible release is that Brian attempted to touch the Sun, but NOBODY could have touched the Sun. However, Brian probably got closer than anyone else in pop music history.
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