Releasing a landmark album is always a mixed blessing. A "perfect" album can overshadow the rest of a band's career, placing a burden of proof on all future output. Thus, every new Radiohead album is met with lamentations of "it's not as good as 'OK Computer,' " just as every post-1967 Beatles record was weighed against the achievement of "Sgt. Pepper." It seems like more of a curse than a blessing and, for many bands, the release of a seminal album can have a paralyzing effect.
Consider, then, the paralysis Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys must have felt back in 1966, after releasing what is largely considered the greatest album in the history of popular music, "Pet Sounds." That's right - the greatest album ever made.
For those who are only familiar with Beach Boys hits like "I Get Around" or "Surfin' USA," this may come as a surprise. It should be said, however, that The Beach Boys often are misunderstood. Really, there are two sides to The Beach Boys. There is the fun, hit-making surf band from the early 1960s and there is The Beach Boys of "Pet Sounds" - the album that changes most people's minds about the band.
"Pet Sounds" has won many accolades, including the No. 2 spot on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, and Paul McCartney's assertion that "no one is educated musically until they've heard 'Pet Sounds.' " When people find out that The Beatles wrote "Sgt. Pepper" in an attempt to equal "Pet Sounds," they give The Beach Boys another listen.
The trouble is that - in terms of musical ambition and scope - "Pet Sounds" is all we have. "SMiLE," which was meant to be the 1967 follow-up to "Pet Sounds," never materialized. Since then, a legend has grown up around the album that never was. The legend goes something like this: chief songwriter Brian Wilson, in his attempt to musically outdo himself, went crazy while recording "SMiLE" and shelved the album, which was so good that it would have surpassed "Sgt. Pepper" and altered the course of pop music history.
Given all this musical lore, you can understand the amount of hype that has been building since the announcement, earlier this year, that "The SMiLE Sessions" would finally see the light of day. There was so much hype, in fact, that it was difficult to see how the album could ever live up to it. Here's the good news: it does.
Despite being largely pieced together from unfinished takes, "The SMiLE Sessions" feels remarkably complete - it feels like an album and not a series of B-sides and outtakes. Many of the songs that make up "The SMiLE Sessions" first appeared on different Beach Boys' releases, which means that many of the songs on the new album will be familiar to Beach Boys fans.
So what, you might ask, makes the release of "The SMiLE Sessions" so exciting? For one thing, we finally have the original voices of the group singing these arrangements. Brian Wilson's 2004 rendition of "SMiLE" was wonderful in many ways, but it felt incomplete. There's no substitute for hearing the unmistakable and unmatchable harmonies of the band as a whole.
The production of "The SMiLE Sessions" also preserves the dreamy, echoing sound of "Pet Sounds," which dates the album in a good way: we know we're listening to tracks laid down during the musical golden age of the late 1960s.
The album opens with the stunning sequence of "Our Prayer," "Gee" and "Heroes and Villains," the last of which is a masterpiece of lyricism. The high point of the album is "Surf's Up," which rivals the best tracks on "Pet Sounds." It is every bit as haunting and delicate as "You Still Believe in Me" or "God Only Knows."
Even the familiar song "Good Vibrations," which many would consider just another hit from the band's surf rock phase, takes on new dimensions in the context of the album. The refrains and motifs from other tracks on the album are picked up on "Good Vibrations," giving us a new impression of the song's character and intention. The lyric "I don't know where, but she sends me there" is a good example of this. It's a beautiful summary of the ineffable quality at the heart of "The SMiLE Sessions."
Listening to "SMiLE Sessions" gives you deeper understanding of Brian Wilson's songwriting genius; especially when you consider that he was only 23 when he wrote and recorded "Pet Sounds" and 25 when he wrote and recorded the songs that make up "The SMiLE Sessions." To be in command of such immense talent at such a young age brings to mind Orson Welles. You might say that "SMiLE" is Brian Wilson's "Citizen Kane" - the consummation of his artistic vision.
So, will people forever measure "The SMiLE Sessions" against the ruler of "Pet Sounds?" No doubt. In that case, let me take up the measuring stick: "The SMiLE Sessions" is every bit as good as "Pet Sounds." It is an extension of the ambitious and experimental side of The Beach Boys, and we are richer for its release. "SMiLE Sessions" stands as a separate but equal achievement to "Pet Sounds," and its impact will only increase with time.