TCS Daily

Reason to SMiLE

By S.T. Karnick - October 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Though pop-culture partisans have strenuously denied it, the gap between popular art and genuine brilliance has always been real and very seldom bridged successfully. Popular music, including rock, goes through cycles of increasing and decreasing sophistication and complexity, to be sure, and some pop musicians have created works that looked suspiciously like capital-a Art. Nonetheless, any fair assessment of the matter would have to recognize that there is simply a difference in kind between pop art and classical art. (Bad art is bad regardless of what form it takes.)

A common approach for popular artists trying to broaden the scope of this music has been to attempt to place a grander, more "orchestral" sound on a rock foundation. This strain has been quite common in rock music, as in "MacArthur Park," Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Dark Side of the Moon, and the works of countless other pop artists from David Bowie to the Smashing Pumpkins and Dream Theater.

Influenced by the highly successful music producer Phil Spector, this was the approach that Brian Wilson, the main songwriter for the Beach Boys, took in the early 1960s. He grasped the producers' reigns and began to create music of increasing ambition and sophistication, to complement the engaging girls-sun-surf-cars songs which had earned the band such great popularity. From "In My Room" to "God Only Knows," Wilson's more ambitious songs brought the band increasing critical respect and established their composer as a major popular artist.

From the beginning, Wilson was undeniably a fountain of gorgeous melodies (consider, for example, "Don't Worry, Baby," "Help Me, Rhonda," and the opening passages of "California Girls"), a master of instrumental textures, and a devisor of incredibly complex harmonies. But no matter how splendid this music might be, it had the limitations of its form. It could not take you where Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky could.

Bubbling with optimism and ambition, the 24-year-old Wilson set out in 1966 to rectify that deficiency. He began work on what he described as "a teen-age symphony to God and laughter," which he would call SMiLE. Wilson saw the album as not only the next step in his own art but also as a positive answer to the increasing disorder and pessimism of mid-1960s America. The album was to combine a non-naïve, non-jingoistic appreciation of America with a religiously inspired sense of rapture in the beauty of life. Yes, it was that ambitious.

The rest of the band, however, had become increasingly concerned about the strangeness of the music Brian was putting together. They feared that the group's teenybopper audiences would reject the new album, and the relatively low sales of Pet Sounds lent credibility to their assessment. In addition, Brian's father, Murry [sic] Wilson, a frustrated songwriter himself, continually browbeat Brian to push the work in a more obviously commercial direction. In response, Brian began to hang out with shabby artsy types and started taking drugs.

All of this was simply too much, and progress on the album stalled. The Beatles released Sgt.. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and grabbed the glory, and Brian literally retreated to bed and ceased work on his magnum opus. The band released Smiley Smile, a spotty album that included tantalizing excerpts from Brian's aborted project.

Additional songs from the abandoned album were included on various Beach Boys albums in the next half-dozen years, and these indicated that SMiLE would indeed have been an impressive piece of work, even though torn from the overall structure. Thus a musical legend was born, in which SMiLE was lamented as a lost masterpiece that would have changed the world of popular music. While battling physical and mental problems for the next couple of decades, Wilson worked intermittently with the Beach Boys, and began to release solo albums of widely varying quality.

Little wonder, then, that Wilson was only able to complete SMiLE this year, nearly four decades later, after three things finally fell into place. One, he found the right treatment (a mild regimen of antidepressants) for the serious mental problems from which he had suffered since his initial breakdown and perhaps well before that. Two, he found a sympathetic and talented backup band (largely from a contemporary pop group called the Wondermints) that he enjoyed working with. And three, a member of his new band was able to put the various song fragments from the original SMiLE sessions on a notebook computer so that he and Wilson could sift through them and figure out where everything was originally meant to go.

Once the composition was reconstructed, Wilson and the band toured England earlier this year, performing SMiLE in its entirety, with the backing musicians running from one instrument to the next as the elaborate arrangements required. The response from both audiences and critics was uniformly adulatory, and Wilson announced plans to release the long-awaited album, recorded not with the Beach Boys but with his current backup band. (Wilson's brothers and fellow Beach Boys Carl and Dennis had both died, and Brian originally would not have used the band for much more than their voices anyway.)

Wilson's writing and recording process for SMiLE, both then and now, was rather different from his previous approach and that typically used by others seeking greater scope and grandeur for pop music. Instead of adding layer upon layer of sound onto a basic rock rhythm track, he developed an innovative and ambitious modular recording process. He combined short pieces of music into songs and then, far more ambitiously, into long suites that would themselves be tied together into a coherent whole over the course of the entire album. Musical passages recur both within the songs and across the suites, tying the entire composition together tightly.

As the finished product now shows, this approach has the great advantage of respecting the attention span of both artist and audience while fashioning a work of far greater overall scope and complexity. It also allows the artist to excerpt particularly catchy sections of the work and release them as individual songs, to promote the album to a larger audience. "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" were intended to do that for the original release.

The music itself, both in composition style and in instrumentation, shows a great delight in the variety of music to be found in America. Featured instruments include banjo, vibes, ukulele, harmonicas, penny whistle, strings, French horn, barrelhouse piano, glockenspiel, trombone, xylophone, full orchestra, sound effects, and of course the marvelously lush vocal harmonies for which his previous band was known. Musical influences evident in the album include rock, classical, jazz, folk, Gershwin, Broadway, the Brill Building, country-Western, Native American, Hawaiian, Latin-American, Stephen Foster, the English music hall, liturgical music, and much more.

Rather than creating conflict, however, with all this eclecticism, Wilson achieves a continual sense of reconciliation among the very different elements. Structure is the essential factor here. Whereas the suites that compose side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road are stitched together quite nicely, they are fashioned from unrelated songs that happen to sound good in proximity. Other well-known rock suites -- such as Procol Harum's "In Held 'Twas in I," Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick -- though artfully devised and quite enjoyable, also betray such Frankenstein-like stitching. SMiLE, on the other hand, hangs together naturally, even when the transitions are quite abrupt, because of the careful and elaborate interweaving of common musical and lyrical themes.

"Roll Plymouth Rock," for example, prominently includes a variation on a musical theme from "Heroes and Villains," musical and lyrical allusions to "On a Holiday," "In Blue Hawaii," and "Wind Chimes," and musical textures evoking "Wonderful" and "Cabin Essence." Similarly, "Barnyard" has musical and lyrical themes that recur in "Vega-Tables," and "Song for Children" includes musical passages alluding directly to "Child is the Father of the Man," "Surf's Up," and "Good Vibrations." "Cabin Essence" employs lyrical allusions to a four-song section, in suite three, about the elements of earth, fire, air, and water. And so on, in great proliferation.

In fact, the cross-references are so multitudinous that to outline a few, as I've done here, risks giving the impression that the internal allusions are an artificial device intended strictly to impose a false sense of unity on the project. Listening to the album, however, gives the opposite impression: that it grew organically -- and indeed quite prolifically -- from a small set of common musical and lyrical ideas. That, of course, is exactly what good classical compositions do.

The lyrical conceits also help to hold the disparate pieces of music together. The complex and allusive wording, by Van Dyke Parks, reflects two main themes: the greatness of America and the small joys of life, which Parks and Wilson clearly see as strongly related to each other. The best-known songs from the album, "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations," reflect these two themes most vividly, perhaps, but the entire composition cleaves to various aspects of this same subject matter.

With SMiLE, Brian Wilson has indeed taken pop music into a new realm of sophistication, bridging the gap between popular art and classical standards, in a way that nobody has managed to do before. That is because SMiLE does not emulate the sounds or structures of classical music but instead creates a new form of musical organization that combines the interconnectedness and complexity of classical music with the immediacy and allusiveness of pop music.

Now in his sixties, Brian Wilson probably does not have many other albums in him. It remains to be seen whether other artists will be able to recreate his innovative approach and use it to, well, raise the intelligence of popular music and bridge the gap between pop and art. The great classical composers, after all, were able to do exactly that, and Wilson's story suggests that modern technology can make that kind of popular artistry possible once again. Hence, it would be a great pity if Wilson's SMiLE should prove to be the last of its kind.

The author is senior editor of the Heartland Institute and associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute.


TCS Daily Archives