- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson Presents ‘Smile’

Nonesuch Records

Premature death is possibly the greatest maneuver in rock music. Ask Janis, Jimi or Kurt. As the years pass, legends grow taller and shadows grow longer. You leave at the height of your creative powers; you don’t make those horrible albums after turning 40; you don’t charge through the nostrils for that comeback tour that raises the ire of the cackling class.

You did everything right, because you died young. You never needed the box of Arm & Hammer baking soda in the back of your legacy’s refrigerator.

Now, take Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ musical architect, whose peers (Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, etc.) will tell you to this day, “There was no one better than that guy.” He flips out — LSD, nerves, paranoia, you name it — at his peak. Does not die (though his brothers, both younger, do). Battles more mental illness, dementia. Becomes obese. Falls into the hands of a shady, domineering shrink.

Mr. Wilson, now 62, has charged through that psychic pile with dignity and the kind of poise that is very difficult for him to maintain for longer than visiting hours at a sanitarium. What does he do? The audacious, the dangerous: He not only resurrects the famously abandoned Beach Boys project “Smile” — the one that was supposed to answer the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — but re-records it.

Joni Mitchell once compared pop music to painting, saying rock stars are asked to redo, say, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” every time they perform. In a way, that’s exactly what Mr. Wilson has done: repainted his “Starry Night.”

The stakes are nothing less than the last professional memories of Brian Wilson. The concept album Mr. Wilson envisioned as a “teenage symphony to God” has become a sexagenarian’s symphony to his own legacy.

As a bookend to Mr. Wilson’s career, “Smile” version 2.0 is a no-brainer. It has seen cut-and-paste jobs from fans for years. Its cycle of intricately layered vocal harmonies, pop hymns and romper-room experiments — co-written with lyricist-composer Van Dyke Parks — simply had to see the light of day under its creators’ supervision, not that of bootleggers and their best guesses.

Here’s the real question, though: Does the new “Smile” work on its merits?

To be sure, it’s impossible to take “Smile” out of its context; an album like this would not get written in 2004, for the same reason that no one today is crazy enough to write or compose in the styles of George Eliot or Mozart. Controlling for that fact, “Brian Wilson Presents Smile,” as overseen by Mr. Wilson and all-purpose musical factotum Darian Sahanaja, is still very satisfying.

After absorbing the thing for a weekend and visiting chunks of the original, I can say this “Smile” is wearier and yet as beguilingly innocent as its 1967 forerunner. Mr. Wilson often sings shakily at times, but when he does so on newly written lines such as, “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take my misery” (“In Blue Hawaii”), it makes perfect sense. You begin to hear him (and his excellent 10-piece touring band) molding the songs anew so that they sound “now” as much as they sound “then.”

When I think “concept album,” my mind immediately spits out the Who’s “Tommy” and looser, less grandiose Kinks records such as “Lola vs. the Powerman & the Moneygoround, Pt. 1.” Such examples don’t really prepare you for “Smile,” which is segmented into three crisp movements chockablock with musical ideas and motifs.

Sure, you can complain (along with earthbound Beach Boy Mike Love) that Mr. Parks was off his rocker when he put phrases such as “A blind class aristocracy” and “Abaft and forth/a starboard course/with north abeam/sherry of course” into Mr. Wilson’s mouth.

But no sooner do you cry foul than “Smile” is whistling like a Saturday-morning cartoon (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”), making farm noises (“Barnyard”) and conjuring up visions of your old man fiddling in the garage (“Workshop”).

When Mr. Wilson sings jauntily about his favorite vegetables (“Vega-Tables”), it’s quickly obvious that he means his favorite vegetables and not some euphemism for drugs.

Call it what you want, but pretentious it ain’t.

No devotee of the blues, Mr. Wilson nonetheless wanted “Smile” to embody something distinctly American. It’s Aaron Copland, Thornton Wilder and Pocahontas shaken and stirred and spiked with a little psychedelia.

Mr. Parks’ lyrics migrate from Plymouth Rock, Mass., across “waves of wheat” and, eventually, to the “shanty town” of Waikiki. The whole thing ends with a fresh take on the classic “Good Vibrations,” with some of Mr. Love’s lyrics excised for older ones by “Pet Sounds” lyricist Tony Asher that aren’t necessarily improvements.

The trip has its silly interludes — the “fire” section of the “Elements” suite still sounds like a summer-stock musical — but there are many more moments — “Our Prayer,” the Wilsonian chant that opens the album, the defloration story-song “Wonderful” and the sublime “Surf’s Up” — that are incandescent with beauty.

Ranking up there with the most important songwriters of his generation, Mr. Wilson pushed the boundaries of pop music. That he was willing — almost 40 years after the fact — to tamper with the boundaries and finally not sully one of his most beloved creations makes him all the more remarkable.

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