It's hard to talk about what's lacking about the new Smile
without resorting to hoary complaints that don't really have much to do with the actual music and frequently fall into the trap of "rockism," an old term that gained legs after being made subject of a recent New York Times cover story
. Writer Kelefa Sanneh explains that a rockist approach to music criticism privileges the old over the new, the raw over the slick, the artist over the producer -- and all strictly as a matter of course. And though rockism is usually used in defense
of folks like Brian Wilson -- "idolizing the authentic old legend ... while mocking the latest pop star," to quote Sanneh -- it's equally applicable to some of the more prevalent critiques of Smile
For instance: the new Smile
, some have said, isn't the real Smile
, since it wasn't the Smile
the band set out to make back in 1966. These critics want as faithful a recreation of the band's original intentions as possible, which means, for one, using the actual sixties recordings and, ideally, summoning Dennis and Carl Wilson from the dead. This line of argument, while romantic, is a moot point in the face of these impossibilities.
More interesting, perhaps, is the notion that, by finally being completed, Smile
makes vulgarly concrete what was once mysterious; in attempting to fulfill a potential, it only destroys the magic of its potentiality. Which, I have to admit, is awfully compelling. Listening to the old tapes, as I have, you feel privy to a secret and a sense of giddy excitement at imagining what might have been. You start to construct a Smile
in your mind, equal parts Brian Wilson's genius and your own good judgment, that's perfect only because it's intangible, unknown. Less a teenage symphony to
God as one, perhaps, from
Him. The new album, the mere fact of the new album, of course, ruins all this.
The problem with both of these points is that they seem to deny a priori
that a new recording could ever
be good. And they also seem to play into a canard about the sacred power of the primitive and the spontaneous in creative works. Never mind the fact that the recording process for the original Smile
sessions lasted over a year. In the mid-sixties flurry of rock history being invented at every turn, the original tapes are seen as a veritable inspiration
incapable of being resurrected -- especially since the myth tells us that the band was all downhill after that.(1) In this view, the 1966-67 recordings are the opium-induced dream in Coleridge's "Kublai Khan"; the 2004 version is the end of the poem: the more measured, faltering attempt to recapture what is gone.
And yet how else to explain what doesn't work about a project that's actually fairly faithful to the sound
of the original, without any obvious juiced-up, digitally altered production as some might have feared? The closest I can come is this: One thing I liked about the original tapes was their fragmentary nature, and not just because I liked envisioning how the puzzle pieces fit, but because I liked the puzzle pieces as they were (scattered), too. There's a moment in the song that's now called "Roll, Plymouth Rock," where a chorus of high voices chants, "Bicycle rider, just see what you've done, done to the church of the American Indian." In the sixties sessions, or at least the version I have(2), this line is suddenly followed by a soaring violin that's equally beautiful and ridiculous in its abruptness. Now it just goes back to the verse. I also like hearing the myriad variations on the "Heroes and Villains" theme, one after another, randomly, directionless. Whereas the new record is still strange for a pop album but less absurd
. And in streamlining some of this chance jaggedness, the 2004 Smile
begins to resemble nothing so much as a whimsical American musical revue.
Which isn't such a bad thing. Brian Wilson wanted to be taken seriously as a composer, and on Smile
you can hear the trademarks of a distinctly American style of composition, in the open-chord arrangements and the quoting of common folk songs. (Just as Aaron Copland stole old Shaker melodies, Wilson swipes "You Are My Sunshine.") But the new version also somehow reminds me, for the first time, of the songs in Waiting for Guffman
, the mockumentary about a community-theatre troupe who perform a musical about the history of their small town. And as much as I love the dizzying "Stool Boom" and the kitschy clip-clops of "Covered Wagons," it's not quite what I want out of Smile
. At the same time (lesson alert!), I recognize that if I'd heard these songs for the first time yesterday, without any prior context, I'd probably love it.
(1) Which isn't really true. At least not if my copy of Friends
(1968) is any indication.
(2) Cobbled mostly from the 1993 Good Vibrations
boxset, I gather. I'm not sure. It's an unmarked CD courtesy a friend of a friend.