So much has been written over the years about SmiLE—the “teenage symphony to God” Brian Wilson composed in 1966, only to have it rejected by his more commercial-minded Beach Boys bandmates the following year—that it seemed nigh impossible for the album to live up to the hype when Wilson finally released a completed version last month. Having his vision shunned during the original sessions only contributed to Wilson’s fading mental health, so he shelved the nearly completed album. In the nearly four decades since, SmiLE became the albatross around his neck—the greatest pop album never heard, save for a few songs here and there (and on bootlegs). [See Geoffrey Himes’ Brian Wilson feature from the Oct./Nov. 2004 issue of Paste.]
With the help of his stellar, sympathetic backing band—the core of which came from L.A. group The Wondermints—and original collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Wilson resurrected SmiLE, first in live performance and then on Brian Wilson Presents SmiLE. The album—more a cantata than a symphony—finally reveals the sounds Wilson had only heard in his head, and sets a new standard for the synthesis of pop, classical and jazz. Comparisons to Ellington, Copland and Gershwin aren’t merely hyperbolic; SMiLE is a beautiful work, as accessible as it is complex, and every bit as good as anyone hoped it might be. (Comparisons to Frank Zappa’s best work are also apt, but Zappa’s work was never this welcoming.) It might have fewer great songs than Pet Sounds, but when heard as a whole, it’s clearly the greatest work of Wilson’s career.
And when heard live, it becomes something else entirely. At the new Overture Hall in Madison, Wis., last Friday night, SmiLE was only part of a breathtaking two-hour show. Bookended by two sets of Beach Boys standards and Wilson’s underrated solo work, SmiLE emerged as something both singular and of a piece with the composer’s entire catalog. With 18 musicians—who traded instruments and vocal parts with gleeful aplomb—the differences between “simple” pop songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Help Me, Rhonda” and the more complex “God Only Knows” and “Sloop John B” became meaningless, connected by the reminder that art music can be fun, and fun music can be art.
As wonderful as those performances were, the 47-minute SmiLE was the show’s centerpiece. The fragile Wilson held center stage in front of a keyboard he only occasionally played, not so much conducting as providing an anchor as the band—which included the eight-piece Stockholm String and Horn Ensemble—executed his vision. Structured in three movements, ostensibly called “Americana,” “Cycle of Life,” and “Elements,” SmiLE embraces everything from Wilson’s own California pop to Gershwin (“Heroes and Villains”), from sacred choral music to doo-wop (“Our Prayer/Gee”), from playful funhouse romps to ominous rock (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”). Always playful—the string section donned plastic firemen’s hats and two players grabbed a firehose during “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” while Wilson feigned burning his hand on a silk flame blowing up from the stage. The effect was a wonderful combination of opera and grade-school pageant. Toy drills emerged during “I’m in Great Shape/I Wanna Be Around/Workshop,” and, yes, leeks and carrots filled musicians’ hands during the so-goofy-it’s-profound “Vega-Tables.”
SmiLE ends with a new version of “Good Vibrations,” perhaps the Beach Boys’ greatest record, the one Wilson called “a little pocket symphony.” The lyrics have changed, emphasizing the spiritual subtext of the original, and snippets of the song pop up earlier in SmiLE, during “Song for Children,” so in performance it achieves full flower, a fitting end to the work and the show’s main set. With this as a the evening’s high point, the songs that both preceded SmiLE and followed it—including not only the classics but lesser-known songs like “Marcella” and “Sail on Sailor,” the latter of which was originally sung not by Wilson but by Blondie Chaplin on The Beach Boys’ last great album, 1973’s Holland—gained new meaning. Clearly, everything Wilson’s ever written has been part of a larger “symphony to God.”
Wilson himself was in fine voice, even if has neither the range nor strength he did during his heyday (“falsetto specialist” Jeffrey Foskett provided fine “shadow vocals” for many of Wilson’s parts). But to see him perform in his element, surrounded by musicians who both love his music and understand him, was more than just a little moving. They’ve allowed him to capture that thing he’d only dreamed and are helping him share it with the world. “I took a trip through the past,” Wilson sang during 1997’s “Your Imagination,” which he played Friday night. “But something’s way out of reach.” After almost forty years, he’s finally grabbed it.