Brian Wilson

At Long Last, A Masterpiece

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By Bill DeMain  

For the past three decades, SMiLE has been pop music's version of Roswell. The subject of speculation and cover-ups and conspiracy theories, it's a project that could've warranted its own FBI file. The magnum opus, created by Brian Wilson and his lyrical partner Van Dyke Parks, and slated to be released as a Beach Boys LP in 1967, was left unfinished for thirty-seven years.

If you've ever read a music magazines, chances are you've seen the glowing "bootleg" reviews for this record, saying that had it been released, it would've made Sgt. Pepper look pale by comparison. Now that it's finally here, it's entirely possible that those early, hopeful reviews were in fact too modest.

SMiLE is a masterpiece. It's complex and challenging. It's brave and outrageous. And it's unlike anything you've ever heard before, or will likely hear again. I was musing on possible new genre handles to describe it -- Surficana, Barbershop 'n' Roll, Pioneer Jazz, Mod-eville -- but really, it's a record that's just more far-reaching than any artificial labels.

While bootleg versions of SMiLE have existed for years, they only hinted at the grandeur, sounding scattered and disparate. What was missing was the proper song sequence. Imagine trying to read Great Expectations with the chapters out of order.

With the help of Wilson's amazing band, the puzzle pieces have been reassembled (and the man who raised the Titanic in this case is Brian's musical secretary, the wickedly talented Darian Sahanaja.) Presented in three movements, the completed album unfolds as a thrilling pop-meets-classical suite, with recurring themes and variations, and some of the most luscious harmony singing you've ever heard. Grand melodies from the centerpiece songs, "Heroes And Villains," "Surf's Up" and "Cabinessence," weave themselves into bass lines and counterpoints throughout, giving the record an elegant shape. And while there are '60s elements present in the instrumentation -- including harpsichord, theremin, and mellotron -- the music sounds timeless and fresh.

These songs make me proud to be American, and I don't mean that in a flag-waving, jingoistic sense. But they have that same rousing spirit as a lot of Aaron Copland's best work, conjuring up the inspiring geography of our country: mountains, rivers, and wide open spaces under gigantic skies.

Beyond the triumph of rescuing his lost album, this is a huge personal victory for Brian Wilson. It long represented his downfall, a kind of cruel undoing by demons and drugs. By returning to his pivotal moment, he's rewritten his own history. And you can hear it in the youthful surge in his voice. This is clearly Brian Wilson's finest moment, captured, and set free, at last.

Musician and journalist Bill DeMain writes frequently about music. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Entertainment Weekly, MOJO, and Musician.