Review: The Beach Boys’ “SMiLE” Albums

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Unless one is charmed by odes to teenage hedonism, the Beach Boys can easily appear ridiculous and vaguely disreputable. Theirs is not the ignominy of the has-been so much as the might-have-been: having produced one timeless album, Pet Sounds, they (so the story goes) set their sights disastrously high with its quasi-symphonic successor, SMiLE, and flew straight into the sun. According to this narrative (favored by biographers Timothy White and David Leaf, among others), the record that followed, 1967’s Smiley Smile, was at best accidentally charming, a hollowed-out wreck of the unfinished SMiLE, and the two albums after it—Wild Honey and Friends—only confirmed the band’s irrelevance. The home-recorded simplicity of these albums represented a retreat from artistic ambition that would continue until today, where they earn their keep singing the songs of youth to aging audiences in sit-down venues.

To my ears, this is far from the truth. These three post-SMiLE albums are rough and small. They can fit end-to-end on a single CD-R, and they betray little interest in any cultural or countercultural concerns of the late ‘60s. They bewildered the public then, and they still bewilder today—but this is precisely because of their clarity of vision. These are great albums, and their mixture of avant-garde barbershop, primitive R&B, and sunshine pop is as wild and vital as anything ever put to tape. As much as SMiLE or the career-defining Pet Sounds, as much as any Beatles or Dylan record, these are ambitious records on the frontier of pop music, but almost invisibly so, because their ambition is to convey a little, domestic sort of beauty. They are unassuming, yet they are still “complete statements,” as Brian Wilson once said of Pet Sounds, and this period, far from a time of artistic decline, was the most fertile and successful in the band’s career.

Smiley Smile is the oddest of many odd Beach Boys records and thus the oddest pop record of the 1960s. The product of Brian Wilson’s abrupt decision to produce a stripped-down SMiLE with “an entirely different mood,” the album was recorded in his home—living room, shower, swimming pool—with radio broadcast equipment. The album deconstructs SMiLE’s grandiose compositions into a minimalistic mixture of spoken word skits, heavenly a capella, and sloppy piano-driven sing-alongs. Where SMiLE aspired to elevate rock and roll to the symphonic, Smiley Smile is a study in the recorded medium’s ability to convey domesticity and smallness in all their hidden wildness. One imagines the songs drifting in on a breeze from the cottage on the record’s cover, nestled in a vibrant jungle that evokes the paintings of Henri-Rousseau. The way that it conveys its moods is inseparable from the unconventional manner in which it was recorded; indeed, it is the first self-consciously “low-fidelity” album I know of, a study of the many ways in which spaces and recording equipment can invest sounds with their own special ghosts.  Like the Beatles’ Revolver or Abbey Road, Smiley Smile is an album about the recording studio—namely, the home studio—as an instrument.

Like a dreaming mind tumbling through obscure associations, the tracks cut abruptly between disparate sessions with different acoustic and emotional landscapes. If the album’s sonic concept can be summarized, it’s in the technique Brian Wilson first discovered when he pieced together “Good Vibrations” from sessions at four different studios: the way that tape can allow ensembles recorded in different rooms to trade off with one another, their singular moods bumping against one another like castaways’ rafts. In songs like “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful,” the rollicking and absurd are never more than one room over from wistfulness or overpowering ennui, and each effect strengthens the other. These emotional dioramas lend an unnerving resonance to the wisps of mundane poetry they enclose: “sure would like to have a little pad in Hawaii.” “Though it’s hard, I try not to look at my wind chimes.” The album’s heart is this aching desire to convey the mystery of the everyday, and it’s as if Brian Wilson could think of no way to get close enough to this mystery except to invite the listener into his own home.

Wild Honey is similarly narrow. It shares with its predecessor a hazy, slightly seasick quality (Brian’s detuned-on-purpose piano underpins both) but the music is remarkably uncomplicated, far from Smiley Smile’s warped pastiche. Its twenty-four minutes of amateurish blue-eyed soul are as precise a mood as the Beach Boys ever conjured. Like Smiley Smile, it represents a deepening embrace of the album as a whole, interconnected musical landscape, but its particular topology—amateurish R&B, roughly recorded and primitively arranged—seems to rebel against the notion of a rock album as a gesture of great consequence.

The title Wild Honey is an apt metaphor for the way the album takes its influences and transfigures them, through some dark metabolic process, into something new and strange. It’s at once too choirboy-pretty and too loosely performed to have the same appeal as the soul music it emulates, and yet it is sublime in its own way. Brian Wilson’s strongest characteristic, which is both his strength and tragic flaw, is his impressionability—yet his imitations are always unmistakably his. This seems to have caused him some distress, but it needn’t trouble us. After all, it is such lovely music. While it might fail as proper soul music, what it conveys with unqualified success is the love of soul music. That this love is attached, again, to the homeliest subjects (“I wash the dishes and I rinse up the sink, like a busy bee”) makes this only more affecting, an homage not just to the music but to its place in ordinary life. As with Smiley Smile, its homespun nature is not accidental; like its cover, a stained-glass window in Brian’s own home, the music is an invitation into an inner life.

The final album in this home-recorded trilogy is the most scattered and the most conventional, and yet it is also a culmination of this theme of understated, quotidian beauty that runs through Smiley Smile and Wild Honey. It represents a decentralization of the band’s efforts, with other members contributing more to the songwriting and production, and yet its field of vision is even narrower than its predecessors’. Its songs, whether about nervously anticipating the birth of a child or drifting away on a bird’s song, are almost all explicitly about moments of introspection. The album’s mindset, and its charm, are summarized by the breezy faux–bossa nova of “Busy Doin’ Nothing,” in which a singularly angelic-sounding Brian explains, at comical length, how to get to his Bel-Air home. “Take all the time you need,” he croons, “it’s a lovely night.”

Of the three records, Friends most unwaveringly embodies a deep affection for everything small and everyday, things usually below the notice of pop music with its self-important sensuality. This love is at the center of Brian Wilson’s music; it animates every product of his dubious genius, and without it that genius would have little power. As drugs and illness would drive him further into himself, his music would grow less conventionally brilliant, more unhinged, and yet this warmth would only grow stronger, his primitive ‘70s tunes about airplane rides, moviegoing, and baseball shot through with sad vespertine light and a desperate longing to fit within ordinary life. Other artists may claim loftier accomplishments; the Beach Boys are my favorite band because they are so terribly human.

The smallness of these records could never be cool. The conviction that there is as much drama and poetry in the everyday as anywhere is unfashionable in every age, and it’s no wonder that the zeitgeist of the late ‘60s in particular had no use for it. But for the same reason, this music is as eternal as Pet Sounds’ paeans to adolescent romance. In years to come the Beach Boys would become socially conscious, face relentless hit-making pressure, cater to others’ nostalgia, descend into a fitful twilight of regret and self-abuse; but these records stand, little and intricate, a window into a kinder world where the Beach Boys made music to please only themselves, and it was very good.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Harrison Lemke

Harrison Lemke lives in Austin, Texas. He graduated from Baylor University in 2013. He writes and records music under his own name and with his band, Dragon Warrior. He tweets at @hplemke.