2021 Music Essays

‘Smiley Smile’: The Perfect Summer Soundtrack for a Weird Year

The Beach Boys - Smiley Smile

The Beach Boys’ 1967 follow-up to the influential masterpiece Pet Sounds is their most bizarre record. The kooky album consists of two huge singles and several short, musical non-sequiturs with off-kilter lyrics on topics like vegetables and women going bald. While it wasn’t the ambitious release songwriter Brian Wilson planned, Smiley Smile nevertheless is brilliant and now a cult favorite in the annals of rock history. As 2021 hipsters search for the perfect retro record to play while they celebrate beach-bound pandemic liberation, Smiley Smile stands at attention. The anxiety of self-isolation and re-acclimating to the world at large merits a funny, joyous and strange experience that only Smiley Smile can provide. All these decades after The Beach Boys experienced their peak in popularity, few groups are associated as readily with summertime.  

As we enter the summer of 2021, and it is finally becoming acceptable to congregate at the beach after a year of isolation, our collective depression is not magically healed. The warmth of the sun feels good, but the nourishment can’t erase how we encountered our darkest selves so boldly and blankly while sequestered in our domiciles. Maybe the past year made us question our career choices, our love partner choices or perhaps our overall mental health. As we attempt to get back to normal this summer, this is the record to stream in a quiet place or on that trip to coastal waters.  Any appreciation of Smiley Smile will be couched in the understanding that this was a misunderstood release of its day but now it sounds like nothing else. Savvy listeners who have all music at their fingertips appreciate that.

“Our new album will be better than Pet Sounds” Brian Wilson told Melody Maker magazine in advance of the release of Smiley Smile. Wilson moved the recording operation into his Bel Air mansion. This served to blur the barrier between work and home life, and probably led to more experimentation among the band. Just two years before, The Beach Boys were the clean-cut boys of summer; the ultimate band of sun, fun and surfing. Their songs were all about the pursuit of girls, racing cars and the free-spiritedness of a being a boy in California. The party atmosphere of their most popular singles belied an excellence in vocal harmonies that had no peer in rock music. The Beatles considered them rivals by the mid-1960s, a pop highwater mark for both groups that would shortly find them in pursuit of new bizarre sounds. Wilson’s delicately attenuated and musical ear enlisted dog barks and trains to accompany “Caroline, No,” the concluding song on Pet Sounds. He would have brought a horse into the studio as well, if sound engineer Chuck Britz hadn’t refused him. Coming off of that level of ambitious invention with their next record meant that The Beach Boys were emboldened to continue to push the envelope. That next record was intended to be Smile, an even grander undertaking than Pet Sounds. When those recording sessions imploded under an unfocused (and admittedly inebriated) studio atmosphere, the album got permanently shelved. In 2011, a collection of alternate takes and demos was released, and the album now enjoys legendary status as one of the most desired unfinished rock albums of all time. Out of the ashes of Smile came Smiley Smile, as if the name didn’t already tell you that.  

Significant to the story of The Beach Boys is how Wilson’s songwriting had evolved around the time of Pet Sounds. The head Beach Boy, who’d been promoted as a genius by the band’s publicist to distance the group from their surfing dander, was no longer competing with anyone other than himself. His new approach to recording music had less to do with composing songs with a progressive modal structure and more with crafting musical snippets that would then be edited together through studio tape splices. By editing, Wilson could unite musical passages with dramatic shifts in tempo, instrumentation and rhythm that would be difficult to perform live. The result is sometimes akin to the experience of a thought disorder, where one musical idea is bumped up against the next, followed by a hairpin turn in another direction. The first track, “Heroes and Villains,” is like taking your little deuce coupe down a windy stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, with the pronounced musical transitions from acapella to a wall of sound approach more akin to what Phil Spector was doing at the time. Wilson’s own experience with mental illness culminated in a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder after years of self-medicating his insufferable depression with street drugs like LSD.  For this reason, Smiley Smile is a profoundly interesting listen.      

When The Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds released in 1966, The Beatles considered a gauntlet to have been thrown. Paul McCartney claimed he would listen to the album alone to have a good cry.  Musically, Pet Sounds is incredibly sophisticated, with production values that create a poignant atmosphere. The Beatles felt that they had to match the greatness of this record to maintain their status in rock music, so they came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. It was a rivalry of dueling boy bands whose main songwriters developed genius complexes that elevated their sound out of teeny-bopper territory and into drugged-out euphoriaSmiley Smile was the lowest-charting Beach Boys album in the U.S. up to that point, peaking at number 41.  The peculiar, unprecedented sound confused many listeners; this was not the follow-up to Pet Sounds people had hoped for.

Smiley Smile bears some resemblance to the 1965 album Beach Boys’ Party!, which has a running thread of party-like ambience in the form of playfully talking before and after (and during) tracks. The image of the band by this point was of several guys (many from the same family) who just want to have a good time, thereby inspiring the listener to do the same. That playfulness is evident in Smiley Smile, only the material they’re playing with has nothing to do with the beach, summer or surfing. The standout single is “Good Vibrations,” written and released a year prior to the album. While it was a massive hit, it was also a harbinger of the cut and paste mode of songwriting that Wilson would later employ. “Good Vibrations” features a theremin, that ghostly electronic sound common to science fiction films of the day. When the group bursts into spontaneous uncontrollable laughter on “Little Pad,” one may wonder if the band members were stoned. This is not the soundtrack to catching a wave — it’s the soundtrack to stepping on a jellyfish and feeling it squish between your toes. The surfer dudes have clinical depression that isn’t going away, despite the open beaches. The lifeguards are questioning their life choices and going insane thinking, “What if I had just stuck with nursing school?” The metal soft-serve pump is being pulled unnecessarily hard as the Tastee-Freez employee has to put his whole body into it after 14 months of muscle atrophy from gaming on the sofa in his parents’ living room. Sales of sunscreen are soaring as pasty beachgoers venture out of their homes and disrobe. The light breeze on our chins feels tender and sensitive; we can now see each others’ smiles. We have a reason to smile, yet does it all feel too soon? With COVID-19 variants looming as a perpetual possibility, who knows how long our mask-less revelry will continue? Smiley Smile has long been known as a helpful aid to hallucinogen users who experience a bad trip and need to come down safely.

The soothing peculiarity of the music somehow makes frightening thoughts float away like a candy-colored balloon adrift over the ocean. We’ve all just been through a collective bad trip that lasted an entire year; can’t we use some wholesome silliness to take us back to our normal lives? Throughout The Beach Boys’ career, the consistent thread was that they just wanted us to have a good time, even when they themselves were going through difficult situations. Wilson never took out his emotionally tortured state on his fans. After a year of our own emotional torture, we could all use some good vibrations. This is a time to heal — just as Wilson’s music was a kind of therapy for himself to create in 1967, so it is for us to listen to in 2021. Those who suffered during quarantine, perhaps most commonly from depression, can appreciate how Smiley Smile takes us on a journey through Wilson’s strange, whimsical mind more unquiet than our own. By the end, we emerge happier for it.

Philip Józef Brubaker (@lens_itself) is a writer-filmmaker and has contributed video essays to Fandor and MUBI. He lives in Florida where he avoids stepping on lizards daily and draws inspiration from Spanish moss.