I wonder sometimes when I listen to this album just how different would music sound today had Smile come out in 1967 instead of the complete disaster that is smiley smile.
There was a lot of hype for smile, everyone was looking forward to it and at the time it would have certainly done at least sorta well commercially despite being a whole lot less conventional than even pet sounds was simply due to the fact it had good vibrations on it which was their biggest hit at the time and yet due to a lot of things including Brian's deteriorating mental state and Mike Love being... fucking Mike Love y'know, along with other things I imagine like the album just taking a long time to be done, smile ended up being shelved in favor of the band trying to simplify the album and adding a lo-fi quality to it which resulted in smiley smile which frankly killed their momentum from pet sounds and good vibrations and they never got that momentum or hype back afterwards at any point in their career, they still had some hits but outside of Kokomo (which let’s not even talk about) they never quite got the same level of attention, their hits after 1967 were quickly forgotten by all but beach boys fans.
The album was almost released around 1971 or 1972 due to some contract but that didn't happen either (the band had to pay like a 50000$ fine for that I believe) and then there was basically nothing but bootlegs for over 30 years...and then ‘Brian Wilson presents SMiLE’ came out which sure might not have completely lived up to over 30 years of waiting due to the simple fact that Brian was 60 at that point and none of the other beach boys were involved (not that all of them could at that point, rip Dennis and Carl) but it was a triumphant moment for Brian, the band and music in general, finally after all these years the album is done and out…but the original recording were still not out so the story wasn’t quite done yet, until 2011 when we finally got smile sessions after like 46 years and damn it lives up to everything.
It's safe to say that if this was finished and came out in 1967, it would have continued the competitive streak with the Beatles and given them a real run for their money as this is way more out there and experimental than Sgt peppers is, it might have even been in the conversation for the best album of all time like pet sounds. I mean hell there was so much great material here that they kept reusing songs from this album up until Surf’s up in 1971.
Our Prayer, Heroes and Villains, Cabin Essence, Surf’s Up, Wind Chimes, Vega-tables, Good Vibrations, Cool cool water, I believe even I wanna be around/workshop all ended up on beach boys albums, I mean hell they even named an album after one song from smile (Surf’s Up) so you sorta get the message that they really regretted shelving it.
Though I should say it’s kinda hard to judge smile sessions, do you judge it on what it is or what it could have been, either way it’s amazing but still it’s hard to judge certain tracks when they’re clearly unfinished and who knows how they might have sounded had they been finished.
The songs presented in this collection are amazing still and even the shorter songs that feel more like fragments are great for what they are. For an unfinished work this thing flows extremely well, most songs transition from one to the next really well, the songs oftentimes reference each other and tease you on what comes next or reminds you of what came before.
Our Prayer is a great opening with a heavenly feel to it which transitions really well into Gee which is a short acapella track, like how you can hear someone singing 'heroes and villains' in the background, of course that song leads into the complete version heroes and villains, an almost 5 minute psychedelic, baroque and prog pop tune that has a cartoon-ish vibe to it and an odd structure that makes it feel like the song might just collapse on itself any second now but it doesn't and it's glorious.
Do You Like Worms is a really strange track, I like how it ends with a section from heroes and villains (the part before you're under arrest), the piano on this song sounds so good. The "Bicycle Rider" section is probably my fav part of the song. Afterwards we get a couple of shorter songs, I'm in great shape being less than 30 secs long and Barnyard less than a minute, one being one of the most unfinished tracks and the other being a really fucking weird number featuring a ton of animal noises, though those might have just been the band doing animal noises as far as I know lol.
My Only Sunshine/The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine is a stunning little number that then leads into Cabin Essence, a perfect Psychedelic Pop song, absolutely love those playful doing doing doings in the verses and the coda is amazing
We get Look and Child Is The Father Of The Man, 2 playful tracks that build up to the best song on the album, Surf's Up, a beautiful and dark track, the lyricism is on a whole other level compared to anything else they've done if you ask me, it's a lot more poetic and for lack of a better term, deep. The song is split into 3 movements, first 2 building up to the emotional peak of the song when Brian sings
"a choke of grief heart hardened, I
Beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry"
Before the last verse of the 2nd movement comes in just as the song builds this ominous and haunting air of hopelessness suddenly our narrator can get from the world around him and find some hope
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
A children's song”
Afterwards the song goes into the third movement which is a refrain of Child is the father of the man which is just such an amazing moment, I don't know how else to describe it.
The next track, I wanna be around/Workshop is a weird little interlude thingy that features workshop samples I guess, the song then goes into Vega-Tables, a cute little track about eating healthy and having a healthy lifestyle, it's weird, it's kinda dumb, also pretty catchy and ironic since Brian admitted he was very much not doing any of the things this song tells you to do lmao. It's way better than the smiley smile version, that version is to be frank pretty awful, but this one works well enough as the song actually sounds like a complete track and not like it was completely butchered in an attempt to make the song shorter for some reason.
Holidays is a great instrumental track, just as good as the instrumental tracks from pet sounds imo, love how playful it sounds, especially with the whistle.
The Elements: Fire is in many ways the point where everything started going wrong for smile, as the story goes Brian was recording this song and gave everyone fireman helmets and brought a bucket with burning wood or something in the studio to help the mood, and then a building near the studio caught on fire and that scared Brian really hard as he thought the song had something to do with it, it's a weird story and you can tell he was most likely on many drugs at that point but the song itself is really cool, it kinda gives me an anxious feeling, it's a very chaotic sounding track with tons of whistles, it's got a sinister vibe around it that gets carried on to the first half of the next track 'love to say dada'. Set track ends with a sample of Our Prayer to bring the whole album full circle right before going into the smash hit of the album, Good Vibrations.
To call Good Vibrations a classic would not be doing it justice, it's beyond me how this is not recognized as one of the best songs of all time, sure it was a huge hit back then and it's still one of their most popular and beloved songs but it 100% deserves the same level of hype a song like Bohemian Rhapsody gets. The theremin riff in the chorus represents the 'good vibrations' he's getting, that absolutely killer cello riff. Those beach boys harmonies in the chorus, the bassline, the episodic structure that takes over after the 2nd chorus, the beautifully simple lyrics, the added bridge in the smile version, those heavenly harmonies that launch into the last chorus, the extended instrumental outro. Everything about this song is simply fantastic, I could listen to this song for days and never get bored once. It’s that damn good.
I could go on and on about this album, I'm pretty sure I didn’t even get to mention Wonderful or Wind Chimes and how great those songs are.
Smile is an album that gets more and more interesting the more you look into it and it’s history. It’s a shame it never came out and that Brian suffered a breakdown that resulted in years, hell decades of pain and suffering for him but ultimately the history of this album is just as sad as it’s ending is happy. Ultimately we got Smile, Brian got a Grammy for it and the whole world got to recognize this genius piece of art for what it is and Brian Wilson as one of the most talented artists of the 20th century if not of all time.
Fav Tracks: Our Prayer, Heroes and Villains, Do You Like Worms, Barnyard, My Only Sunshine/The Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine, Cabin Essence, Wonderful, Surf’s Up, Vega-Tables, Wind Chimes and Good Vibration