The Smile Sessions is being released in a variety of formats, and while each surely has its individual merits, I’ll tell you that my copy of the Deluxe 2-CD Edition suits me just fine. If the edition I have is considered the medium size, then I can only imagine the depths plumbed by the full box set — for these releases are bountiful and exhaustive in the riches they hold.
The second disc in the deluxe edition is largely comprised of tracks with names like “Heroes and Villans: Part 2”, “Heroes and Villains: Prelude to Fade”, “Surf’s Up: 1st Movement” and “Good Vibrations Sessions Highlights.” In short, there’s a reason that Smile became the lost Beach Boys album. It was conceived as the ultimate, sweeping, pop masterpiece, and just surveying the fragmented elements of this hubristically ambitious project are enough to get your head spinning. One can only imagine the mental stress of actually trying to orchestrate these pieces into one satisfying whole. It says something about the scale of this album that Beach Boy auteur Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown was just one of many issues that relegated Smile to its incomplete, mythic status.
But boy, what we’ve got here, disjointed as it may occasionally be, is nothing short of stunning. There’s no question that had Wilson kept hold of his faculties, quit drugs or learned to handle them better, convinced the other Beach Boys of the loopy logic in the lyrics of Van Dyke Parks and solved the other myriad problems plaguing the recording sessions of this album, he’d have achieved his ridiculous goal. Just listen to the multitude of vocalists barreling over each other in “Heroes and Villains” or “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock),” or “Child is Father of the Man” and you’ll realize how absurd it is when any other band is referred to as “Beach Boys-esque.” No band, before or since, could spin this kind of magic.
If the first disc provides unparalleled pop thrills, then the second disc serves as an invaluable curio for Beach Boys completists. Though Smile’s infamy is largely tied to Wilson’s breakdown, the recordings on disc two show him to be a joyful, if particular, composer and director (there are multiple instances of Wilson interrupting a seemingly flawless take in order to suggest a very minor change). Even if these moments are stocked with a certain dramatic irony, it’s still easy to enjoy the ecstatic delight Wilson clearly takes in his work. He was working towards something legendary, and even though his audience would wait forty extra years to hear it, the end result makes the hardships seem like a necessary rite of passage.