It was 1966, and Brian Wilson had high hopes for the follow up to The Beach Boys’ critically acclaimed Pet Sounds. Smile would be a concept album, further eschewing the ‘surfer’ sound that The Beach Boys had been successful with and painting a coast-to-coast soundscape of America. A sandpit was built around the piano, fireman’s outfits donned and over $50,000 spent on the recording of one track alone. Smile was going to be The Beach Boys’ pièce de résistance. It didn’t happen.
Drugs, mental illness, fights and frustration set in and the project was shelved. The tapes were cherry-picked to cobble together 1967’s Smiley Smile, countless bootlegs were produced, and Wilson re-recorded the album in 2004, but the full original recordings have now been released for the first time ever as the The Smile Sessions. “Maybe I’m just trying to look for something that isn’t there.” Wilson can be heard musing on one of the hundreds of outtakes included in the complete 5-disc edition. 45 years after recording began, is the The Smile Sessions what fans are looking for?
Wilson’s genius is clear, and the album could arguably be propped up by ‘Good Vibrations’ alone. Over ninety hours of tape were edited down to 4 minutes of sonic delight. It simmers with the sensuousness of summer, romance and youth, with a bit of Electro-Theremin and the Doctor Who theme-tune thrown in. Elsewhere ‘Heroes and Villains’ excitedly whirls along like a surreal fairground ride, its refrain rippling through ‘Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)’, whilst ‘Surf’s Up’ hauntingly laments ‘a broken man too tough to cry’. Other gems include the nonsensically didactic ‘Vega-Tables’ and the serene ‘Wonderful’. But The Smile Sessions sometimes stutters and stumbles, with bridge songs, elevator music and clattering cacophony.
Nevertheless, for those interested enough to wade beyond the first disc, The Smile Sessions is a treasure trove for procrastinators and aficionados, with outtakes revealing both Wilson’s quirky humour and painstaking search for perfection. The Smile Sessions isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s almost there: a tantalising glimpse into what might have been.