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"Smile"  Brian Wilson  Release date: 2004  Label: Nonesuch/Warner

How to review this album? There's so much weight that comes with something like "Smile" that a rational, prejudice-free assessment of its merits or otherwise is all but impossible. I'm a Beach Boys fan, so I might as well declare bias here. I really, really want this album to be brilliant. The potential for disappointment is massive. Imagine a Christian who witnesses the Second Coming only for Jesus to say, "nah mate, the Moslems were right all along, I'm just a prophet". That's what it could be like.

Anyway, let's be optimistic and imagine that this album just dropped out of the sky in 2004 with no baggage, pure, unsullied and ready to be judged in the context of the current music scene. Well, the first thing you'd probably notice is that this sounds a lot like The Beach Boys, and that it seems to develop on ideas in "Pet Sounds". Bands like The Polyphonic Spree, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips have also taken American pop psychedelia in all manner of new directions over the last ten or twenty years, and "Smile" sits alongside and then surpasses the best of any of these bands' work. In a modern context, this is a really, really good album.

Wind back in time then, and imagine this back when it should have been released in 1967. As a follow-up to "Pet Sounds" it isn't as immediately catchy, with many of the tracks forming pieces of "suites", repeating and expanding on certain themes, particularly the "Heroes And Villains" refrain. It is also a far more ambitious and imaginative work than its predecessor, but perhaps one whose appeal is slower-burning. Elsewhere in the world, The Beatles have just released "Sergeant Pepper' Lonely Hearts Club Band". "Smile" again lacks the immediately catchy melodies of The Beatles' effort, and inevitably, given the array of unique songwriting talent that The Beatles could deploy, there is less variation here. However, while "Sergeant Pepper..." is content to simply allow some tracks to run into each other, "Smile" is a far more unified piece. In a 1960s context, this is a staggeringly ambitious and forward-looking piece of work.

An interesting point about "Smile" is that, for an album that Brian Wilson conceived as an album about laughter, there is something dark and weary at its heart. The happiness and joy hinted at in the first flowerings of the "Good Vibrations" theme in "Song For Children" and "Child Is The Father Of The Man" are balanced off against the spine-tingling piano and orchestral flourishes that introduce the album's centerpiece, and the reason for Super Furry Animals' existence, "Surf's Up". Similarly, the ostensibly cheerful (and McCartney-esque) "In Blue Hawaii" begins, "Is it hot as hell in here, or is it me? It really is a mystery/ If I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take my misery/ I could really use a drop to drink..." with the ageing Wilson's vocals bringing a sense of uncomfortable reality to the panic attack hinted at in the lyrics that the clarity of his youthful voice might not have captured so well. Oh, and "Good Vibrations" is the closer. That's a good song. -Ian Martin, Oct.20.04.

Brian Wilson [Smile] 2004 Smile

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