What a Beach!

Reissues reveal troubled brilliance of Brian Wilson

Discard the preconceptions. Despite the moniker, the Beach Boys didn't live a beach party life. According to accounts in Keith Badman's recently published The Beach Boys (Backbeat Books) — a chronological day-by-day breakdown of the group's studio sessions, tours and additional activities from 1961-1976 — the recording of 1966's Pet Sounds caused a irreconcilable rift in America's greatest pop group. Much like it is today, a Mike Love-led Beach Boys toured the country, while Brian Wilson sat at home composing what he described as "pocket symphonies."

Sitting at a grand piano placed in a sandbox that he had constructed in his living room, Wilson, who was locked in friendly competition with the Beatles, played architect, piecing together what would become the Beach Boys' apex. In the process, the frenzied 24-year-old burned through loads of cash, blowing $50,000 on the 22 sessions used to complete the song "Good Vibrations," which didn't even make it on the Pet Sounds album. Nevertheless, Pet Sounds became his biggest critical success.

SMiLE was intended as the follow-up to Pet Sounds. It was to be Wilson's answer to the Beatles, an American Sgt. Pepper's (which itself was the British Pet Sounds). But instead of coming out in January 1967, as originally scheduled, the album was essentially shelved. Wilson had a nervous breakdown, and songs from the SMiLE sessions were parceled out on other Beach Boys' albums. SMiLE became a mythical totem, an album fans would construct from fragments sprinkled throughout the group's other output (especially following the release of the Pet Sounds sessions boxset).

Now 37 years later, Wilson has completed and finally released SMiLE (Nonesuch), his "teenage symphony to God" and an exercise in "modular" recording. Now the obvious question would be does SMiLE live up to its legend (because it's certainly been lived in)? As a whole, SMiLE stands up proudly, not hobbled. What's amazing is not the songs themselves, some of which will be recognizable to those familiar with the Beach Boys' other albums and countless bootlegs. Nor is it the animal noises, kazoo fire sirens, percussive crunch of vegetables and obtuse lyrics. Instead, the wonder is how the album remains so spry.

Unlike Wilson's fragmented solo albums, SMiLE is an example where what seemed fractured was merely needing the right prism to properly refract and extract the spectrum of sounds. There are elemental suites, and cascades of falsettos and counter-harmonies in opulent orchestration.

The question will always remain whether this would have been a vastly different album if completed while under Wilson's nervous breakdown duress as opposed to his post-recovery delight, but who really cares? As much as SMiLE can be said to be a story of fleeting youth, with its ending on "Good Vibrations," it can also be seen as an arc ending in graceful transition and faith. Fans will have their belief in Wilson and in SMiLE's power rewarded.

In addition to finally putting out SmiLE, Wilson has also re-released Pet Sounds in DVD audio and surround sound. The new presentation doesn't result in anything as revealing and contemplative as SMiLE, but the multi-channel mix gives the already angelic material an even loftier character. The mix simulates the experience Wilson must have had hunkered dead center in the studio conducting the tracking sessions. The Pet Sounds and SMiLE releases let you take a turn in Brian Wilson's head and creative hot seat.