So, the greatest album never made has finally been made. Thirty-eight years on from its conception, Brian Wilson has painstakingly gathered up all the shattered mosaic pieces, and with the help of the best little tribute ensemble in the world, The Wondermints, has produced a reasonably faithful facsimile of the bold, ambitious masterpiece that nearly cost him his sanity back in 1967. The resulting work, rigorously road-tested during this year’s tour dates, is a 17-track song suite in three movements which clocks in at a second over 47 minutes. As on the Pet Sounds tour of 2002, The Wondermints have proved themselves capable of recreating every last kettle drum thump, banjo pluck and ocarina squeak of the ‘original’. They combine fluidity and muscularity to great effect, particularly on the opening “Heroes And Villains” section, and the intensity they bring to “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow” (aka the legendary “Fire Music”) is worthy of the original unreleased Wrecking Crew performance. Vocally, though, they are clearly not The Beach Boys?but then they’ve never pretended to be.
That consideration aside, it’s immediately noticeable that, compared with the bootleg recordings, the almost hallucinatory tint to the high vocal and Hawaiian chant section of “Roll Plymouth Rock” has been toned down considerably. Likewise the unearthly, and audibly wasted, bottom-end harmonising on “Child Is Father Of The Man” has been smoothed into something less eerie. It all sounds perkier, bouncier, less druggy and barber-shop raga than the performances on those holy grail outtakes.
However, anyone who has seen Brian Wilson struggling with the trickier diction of “Heroes And Villains” or hoarsely gulping his way through the “Auld Lang Syne” section of “Surf’s Up” in recent live performances is going to be pleasantly surprised by the studio versions. The timbre of that aged voice brings an unexpected richness to all three of SMiLE’s lynchpin moments: “Heroes And Villains”, “Surf’s Up” and “Cabinessence”. The latter’s “crow-flies” coda now evokes the spirit of Walt Whitman rather than a pissed-off Mike Love complaining about acid-alliteration.
The tonal, harmonic and lyrical sophistication of the second section alone (“Wonderful”, “Song For Children”, “Child Is Father Of The Man”, “Surf’s Up”) virtually justifies the entire project. Did Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks ever create a more beautiful song than “Wonderful”? And did Brian ever have a more appropriately idiosyncratic collaborator? Listening to this work afresh, forged as it was in the lysergic-tinged tumult of the mid-’60s, it’s noticeable how much of it harks back, both lyrically and musically, to the past.
Those who wish to heap gravitas upon SMiLE will offer up comparisons to Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, but they might just as well have cited Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter. For a supposed pinnacle of pop-modernism, it’s pretty trad, Dad. “I’m In Great Shape”, one of the previously unheard great lost tracks from the original project, turns out to be a pleasingly upbeat raggedy little waltz which commences the third and arguably least cohesive movement. As on the recent tour dates, the somewhat miscellaneous grouping together of “Workshop”, “Vega-tables”, “On A Holiday”, “Wind Chimes” etc, sounds overcrowded and over-condensed. And there’s little in this uneven section to dispel the notion that the tracks which make up the so-called “Elements Suite” would perhaps have worked better as a totally separate project, an extended tone poem which would either have taken The Beach Boys’ harmonic interplay to new heights of intricacy and abstraction, or would have ended their commercial career in one cornfield-circling swoop. But I think that’s where we all came in, isn’t it?
SMiLE is, and always clearly was, thematically overloaded, but inherent in that over-reaching, in Brian’s obsessive quest to realise his “teenage symphony to God”, in Van Dyke’s attempt to weave a grand narrative of elliptical Americana, in its dumb angelic humour and innocence, lies the album’s true worth.
Viewed as a bunch of miscellaneous songs, it’s still pretty damn impressive. As rock’n’roll Icarus moments go, I’m not sure anyone will ever fly closer to the sun and live to retell the tale. In the recent rush to eulogise, or, in a few notably grumpy cases to pour scorn on the live concerts, few reviewers seemed to notice the most significant occurrence of those evenings. The split between those who were there to pay homage to a great lost masterwork and those who just wanted The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits was palpable, especially at the provincial gigs. At the Liverpool and Manchester shows in particular, you could almost hear the sighs of relief as those who had sat patiently through all that wood-chopping and fireman’s helmet nonsense sprang joyously to their feet to frug along to “Good Vibrations” and the crowd-pleasing encores of “Help Me Rhonda” and “Fun Fun Fun”.
In that reluctance to embrace SMiLE’s brave, bold ambition, we finally got a definitive answer to the great What If… If SMiLE could still baffle and confound the mainstream audience now, how on earth would they have greeted it in 1967?
And those of us who subscribe to the situationist maxim, “Be reasonable, demand the impossible,” well, we finally got our wish. Sessionographers and bootleg archivists will continue to quibble about the running order (and ending with “Good Vibrations” rather than the cyclical reprise of “Surf’s Up” does seem like a sop somehow).
Meanwhile the musicologists can, and should, continue to hypothesise about the project’s tortured and turbulent genealogy and cultural significance. And, hey, maybe one day they’ll release a deluxe connoisseurs’ box set with a bonus CD of those original bootleg bits which sustained us devotees through the wilderness years, and which now suddenly sound like blissed-out, airy, ambient relics from a bygone era compared with the brisk, robust confidence of the 21st-century model.
But for now, though, unless McCartney is about to do something amazing with those “Carnival Of Light” tapes, SMiLE is likely to remain a unique and unlikely moment of retrieval, restoration and renaissance.