The real(ish) deal arrives, almost 45 years late but sounding as perfect as can be.
Matthew Horton 2011
Finally it's time to see what triumphs, reality or myth, the destination or the journey. We've waited almost 45 years for this, the near-as-dammit definitive version of one of the great lost classics. So was it worth the heartache, the horse-trading for bootlegs, even the filler surrounding the odd SMiLE relic on flaky later albums like Smiley Smile or 20/20? No doubt about it. The world has a decent sense of how this is going to turn out from those bootlegs and – more pertinently – the 2004 version fashioned by a croaky Brian Wilson, lyricist and co-conspirator Van Dyke Parks and Beach Boys understudies the Wondermints. But there's surely nothing like the real thing. Or the real-ish thing.
It all started with SMiLE's closing statement Good Vibrations, a 1966 number one and mini-masterpiece that reputedly took Wilson a year to complete as he experimented with ‘modular’ recording. Despite the sheer ball-ache, the modular method – the recording of individual elements that could be grafted together at a later date – was to inform the creation of this entire album, a move that put session musicians through ridiculous paces and tried the patience of Capitol Records and the other Beach Boys to such a degree that something had to give. That something was the actual release of the record.
That's one take, anyway. Memories are fuzzy, but the music now it's here is pure and gorgeous, the familiar mesh of brotherly voices exquisite as ever. Its glittering peaks are singles Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains, along with Surf's Up (a different recording from the finale of its 1971 album), harmonic jewel Our Prayer and Wonderful (far prettier and fuller than its cousin on Smiley Smile); but Wilson and Parks had envisaged SMiLE as a song cycle, a "cartoon consciousness" in Parks' own words, that would be naturally symbiotic, the songs hanging together as one. All the sadder, then, that it was shelved and then filleted for ensuing albums.
Some constituents aren't perfect, with Wilson's sillier side peeking out on beautifully constructed follies like Holidays, Barnyard and Vega-Tables of course, but even at their least remarkable these are stepping stones to the good stuff. And, my, if you want stepping stones (remarkable or otherwise) The SMiLE Sessions has got 'em: the standard release is one CD with the cherishable album and another with the best of the earlier/alternative takes, but if you're prepared to remortgage your sandbox you can get five CDs of this, serving up each fascinating (and occasionally less fascinating) ‘module’. Not to mention a 3D SMiLE shop and custom-built surfboard. That's one for completists, then. But your Beach Boys collection hasn't been complete until now, has it?