Issued in late September 2004, “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” was not the long-awaited release of the lost Beach Boys masterpiece, “Smile.” That Beach Boys album, for which many tracks were recorded in 1966 and ‘67, was never completed, even if the marketing behind the 2011 boxed set “The Smile Sessions” suggested otherwise.
In 2003, Wilson, working with Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics for most of the songs intended for “Smile,” and Darian Sahanaja, an essential member of Wilson’s band, revisited his decades-old compositions, some of which had appeared on Beach Boys albums from 1967 to ‘71. They shelved some old songs, composed new themes, crafted new arrangements and created a track listing – all of which knitted together the concept album. The result was a remarkable work that, along with “Pet Sounds,” stands as a monument to Wilson’s extraordinary vision, talent and originality.
The concept behind “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” was a panoramic view of America, beginning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and concluding in Hawaii. However, it wasn’t a linear journey and the tale often diverted from the geographic trip. For example, the two most familiar hits that were to appear on the original “Smile” – “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations,” the latter written for “Pet Sounds” – had nothing to do with the overarching topic. Both were represented on “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” by powerful versions that adhered to Wilson’s original form rather than the edited and altered versions the Beach Boys issued almost a half-century ago. On both new renditions, Wilson’s voice was a shadow of its former glory, but it seemed to speak of the arduous and painful experience he went through to bring the original “Smile” to life.
As those who saw the 2014 film “Love & Mercy” know, Wilson suffered a psychological breakdown as he tried to complete “Smile” while confronting resistance from the band and their record label, coping with the after-effects of childhood abuse and mind-altering drugs, and other factors. As his mental health improved, Wilson resumed touring in 1999, but shied away from performing most songs written for “Smile.” In 2004, when I moderated a panel on “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” at the CMJ Music Marathon that featured Wilson, Parks and Sahanaja, Wilson described the release of “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” as the end of his “forty-year nervous breakdown.”
Given its distressing backstory, “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” was full of goofy humor: a woozy version of “You Are My Sunshine”; an out-of-nowhere snippet of Johnny Mercer's "I Wanna to Be Around"; a tribute to vegetables; and slide whistles and sirens in the chaotic “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” But its centerpiece was the exquisite ballad "Surf's Up," which was ushered in by "Song for Children" and “Child Is Father Of The Man” in which the layered voices seemed to collide and bounce away as often as they chimed in unison. A call for a return to innocence, “Surf’s Up” was an astonishing achievement that transcended the boundaries of pop.
Thus, "Brian Wilson Presents Smile" incorporated the sense of joy and invention of Wilson’s early work with the Beach Boys into modern interpretations of his and Parks' original vision. Though it has its roots in the long ago, the album stands on its own as one of the best of the new century.