For the last few days I have been listening nonstop to Smile, the “lost” Beach Boys masterpiece finally released all these years later. Brian Wilson had begun it after completing the masterful Pet Sounds in 1966, the release of which the Beatles have said inspired them to make Sgt. Peppers. But he never finished Smile due to increasing mental and drug problems from which he’s only begun to emerge from in the last few years. Music press lately has been all over this story, with its themes of redemption and tortured genius. And the album deserves the attention its backstory has brought.
Even though by today he’s largely mastered his demons, Brian Wilson seems like he’s still missing a few cards in the deck. So there was reason to be skeptical about whether he could cull the assorted master tapes and finally finish this record at a level of quality even remotely approximating that of his original vision. After all, Smile was no mere rock record. It was so ambitious in incorporating a Gershwin-esque blend of classical and jazz that originally many surrounding the Beach Boys (the label, Wilson’s abusive father, perhaps even bandmates themselves) never wanted it released.
At first listen, Smile sounded disjointed. The traditional verse-chorus-verse structure of rock is followed a lot of the time, but the instrumentation and tempo change abruptly as songs go back and forth between sections. Ultimately, though, this was precisely what I came to like about the record. Wilson also does ingenious things to ensure that the album is a unified whole. A melody from one song often re-emerges briefly in another song, for example.
Then there are the lyrics, written by Van Dyke Parks nearly thirty years ago and touched up—both then and now with Wilson’s input—as the complete Smile was finally recorded over this past year (following a successful series of live performances of the album). Although sometimes they can get pretty corny, with talk of “eggs and grits” or their starry-eyed romanticism, I felt moved by the hopeful attitude. This album has something big to say, but it's smart enough to not spell things out. Perhaps the resulting transcendent quality is why Smile seems to resonate so much these days.
I say this because it’s four days before the presidential election. Kerry vs. Bush could really go either way, and the majority of us are passionately pulling for one or the other amid these politically polarized times. Bush voters seem to think he is the Abraham Lincoln for the war on terrorism (I’m laughing as I write this, of course), while us Kerry voters (not to mention pretty much the entire rest of the globe) see Bush as perhaps the most dangerous president we've ever had. My fear stems most of all from Bush Doctrine, which basically says we can invade any country we accuse of harboring terrorists, which became justification for Iraq predicated on faulty evidence of WMDs. That tells me fighting terrorism is under Bush's watch a chance to sucker punch Middle Eastern countries and secure access to their oil fields. Along the way, Bush seems to have almost deliberately fanned the flames of American hatred, especially frustrating to consider when you remember the outpouring of worldwide support after 9/11. But I'm getting off-point.
As happens with Oregon Ducks football--you know, that other life and death concern--I often get nervous enough come crunch time that I have to just tune it out. I stop watching it on TV, and I may even shy away from the paper. In these days before the eletion, what a nice antidote Smile has been. I find its inherent optimism especially attractive considering that this is both a 1967 record and a 2004 record, an odd collaboration between 24-year-old Brian Wilson and 63-year-old Brian Wilson. Smile was begun on the eve of his decades-long mental battles and completed on the other side. Anticipating events like the election, I always feel torn between hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Smile speaks to both sides at once.