BRIAN WILSON: SMILE (Nonesuch '04)

There are two types of people in this world: those who believe the world is easily split down the middle and those that don't. For instance, there are those who have spent half their lives waiting for Brian Wilson to complete his unfinished symphony, Smile and those that... well, haven't. For those that have, the long-awaited result ends decades of speculation, community, discussion, do-it-yourself production, editing and reinterpretation. The open-endedness of the Smile phenomenon allowed the self-professed "nerds" to imagine what could and should have been, what might have happened in a hypothetical universe where the genius of Wilson was realized to the end. Given the individualized bits of music, some barely even snippets of a song, they set about and formed their vision of what Smile should be. Along the way, the music became mythic and eventually a personal possession. Now that Smile is here for mass-consumption, the speculators can sit and listen to the album beginning to end, the way it was intended which is either a satisfying epilogue or a complete downer depending on your opinion of the final product.

In the end, were the dedication and the wait worth it? Here, the world might not be so easy to dissect. The music does sound deliciously pure. Wilson has full function of his production skills and he quilts a thick blanket of sounds from those classic Beach Boy harmonies to an impossibly wide assortment of instrumentation. From banjos to bassoons, the intention is undoubtedly for epic. Sweeping themes duck and bob across multiple disparate tracks with each sonic morsel honed and placed with immaculate precision. The result is impressive, but one sometimes feels that the music is over-orchestrated. There is a difference between "Tommy" and the "Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack of The Who's Tommy" and sometimes Smile feels too much like a musical than a pop masterpiece. This is not to mention the awkward religious thematic underpinnings woven through the album nor the fact that, at times, Wilson (and the music itself) occasionally seems much too old to maintain the sweet innocence of his youthful efforts.

In the end, Smile succeeds despite itself, purely on the strength of the songs. In the end, that's all that matters and thankfully Wilson wrote these when he did. The last track of the album is "Good Vibrations" which was one of those songs that Rolling Stone magazine got right and it shines brilliantly here, barely updated for the occasion. The lyrics throughout are irresistible, from the most austere and honest outpourings to throwaway verses on the sillier songs like "Barnyard."

Was Smile worth the wait? That depends on which side of the divider you started on.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 12/19/04]

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