The Smile album as it was to be recorded by the Beach Boys was worked on for a year before being shelved indefinitely. The original failure to complete Smile has been attributed to several factors: internal resistance towards the project, legal battles with Capitol Records, technical difficulties with recording, Carl Wilson's draft battle, and Brian Wilson's escalating drug use, mental health issues, and creative dissatisfaction with the project.
Following the recording of the album Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 (1996), the group discussed finishing Smile, but Carl rejected the idea, fearing that it would cause Brian another nervous breakdown. After Carl's death in 1998, Brian began reemerging with a string of solo albums and his first solo live tours. In 2000 and 2002, Wilson performed the entirety of Pet Sounds at several venues as part of a world tour. Recordings from Wilson's 2002 concerts were released for Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live.
After many years of being asked about possibly completing Smile — or even performing any of the songs from it — to mostly negative responses, Wilson reluctantly began to integrate some of the album's songs into his touring setlists upon being urged by his peers. In March 2001, this brought Wilson to perform "Heroes and Villains" for the first time in decades at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City for "A Tribute to Brian Wilson". Filmed as a televised broadcast, various artists covered Wilson's other Smile compositions including "Our Prayer" by the Boys Choir of Harlem and "Surf's Up" by Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb and David Crosby with Wilson's backing band providing accompaniment. A performance of "Cabinessence" was considered, but dropped due to its complexity. When members of Wilson's band suggested performing the majority of Smile in concert as a follow up to his Pet Sounds Live, they were shocked to find Wilson approved the idea. Starting in 2003, he proceeded to complete the album's unfinished structure with help from his band and original Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks. The new version of the album and its performance was made whole by the addition of either lost or newly composed lyrics by Parks that filled gaps left open by the unfinished 1966–67 Beach Boys sessions. On May 22, 2003, it was formally announced that Wilson and his band were to perform a live reinterpretation of Smile at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
Darian Sahanaja of Wilson's band was integral to the album's completion. He has said that he acted as a secretary and facilitator for Wilson's and Parks' ideas, and helped test ideas for the duo by sequencing individual song sections using Pro Tools as a digital audio workstation. He explains: "I gave him everything we could find as multitrack Pro Tools files, so that [Parks] and Brian could listen to the tracks as isolated as possible, learn and teach parts to the band, and work on sounds. With Brian's stuff of that period, if you try to dissect it from the finished product, especially where you have vocals on top of the instruments, you're never going to get it all." To relieve Wilson from the burden of deconstructing and reconstructing his own music, Sahanaja handled the task for him by transcribing the recordings as much as he possibly could, then presenting the resultant work back to him for necessary adjustments. Not all material stemming from the Beach Boys' Smile sessions were used by Wilson. According to Sahanaja, the tracks "He Gives Speeches" and "You're With Me Tonight" were played to Wilson, but declined for use. Sahanaja reasoned: "I imagine that it's just like when you're making a movie — you film a lot of scenes, and then it's impossible to fit them all in. You're most likely going to leave footage on the cutting-room floor." Altogether, these writing sessions ran for about two weeks in the fall of 2003. Wilson explicitly stated that he could recall very little of Smile before revisiting the tapes with Parks, who reminded Wilson of the project's early Americana themes.
Parks was not initially involved in the project. It was reported that during rehearsals between Wilson and Sahanaja for the unfinished song "Do You Like Worms?", Wilson was able to recall the track's original melody, but not the lyrics. Confronted with this dilemma, he telephoned Parks for help. Parks soon showed up at Wilson's doorstep, and the two extended their collaborations on several other tracks' arrangements and lyrics. For these new versions, Wilson, Parks, Sahanaja, and woodwind player/string arranger Paul Mertens based their arrangements on the original, unreleased Beach Boys tapes to give it an updated yet non-anachronistic sound.
On February 20, 2004, a live performance of the newly completed version of Smile was enacted by Wilson along with his backing band, which included former Beach Boys back-up guitarist Jeff Foskett, members of Wondermints and percussionist Nelson Bragg at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Among those in attendance that first night were Paul McCartney and George Martin. Other attendees included Jason Pierce of Spiritualized and Paul Weller. It was presented in the form of three movements, with a half-hour intermission between movements two and three. Upon completion, Wilson received a lengthy standing ovation and invited a tearful Parks onstage. Sahanaja reported that afterwards, Wilson rocked back and forth backstage — out of relief that he had finally conquered his fear of Smile — exclaiming "Darian! Darian! We did it! We did it!" The performance was then repeated at the Royal Festival Hall five more times for the next five nights, with each playing recorded for posterity on film and a 48-track Genex hard disk recorder.
Smile was bookended by two setlists performed by Wilson of regular Beach Boys hits such as "Sloop John B" and "God Only Knows" along with obscurities "You're Welcome" and "Time to Get Alone". Reportedly after Parks took the stage on the first night, he played shaker during "Do It Again".
Music critic Jim DeRogatis categorized Smile as an album of orchestral pop. Mikael Wood of Slate magazine called it a psychedelic pop album. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune called it a "quirky orchestral-pop song cycle". Wilson himself said that Smile is a pop album. Smile was intended to be explicitly American in style and subject, being chiefly motivated by the overwhelming British dominance of pop culture during the time of the album's inception. It follows a musical journey across America from east to west, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in Hawaii, as well as traversing some of the great themes of American history and culture. It seems chronological, moving from early America through the Victorian era and ending with Hawaii, which in terms of American statehood was still a very new state for 1966. In subsequent interviews to promote the album, Brian has concentrated on the happy, humorous qualities of the music, which are evident. Lyricist Parks has said that Brian has a "cartoon consciousness."
According to Beach Boys archivist Peter Reum, the first episode represents "Americana", while the second is named "Cycle of Life". The presentation begins with the Wilson composition "Our Prayer" coupled with the 1950s doo-wop song "Gee". This segues into "Heroes and Villains" followed by "Roll Plymouth Rock", "Barnyard", a medley of "You Are My Sunshine" and "The Old Master Painter", and finally "Cabinessence".
Some of the themes of "Cycle of Life" are childhood and fatherhood. After the opening "Wonderful", what follows are "Song for Children", "Child Is Father of the Man", and the closer "Surf's Up".
The third movement refers to "The Elements", or alternatively, "Spiritual Rebirth—Elements". It begins with an introductory piece involving "I'm in Great Shape", "I Wanna Be Around", and "Workshop", which then leads into "Vega-Tables". What follows are "On a Holiday", "Wind Chimes," "Mrs O'Leary's Cow", and "In Blue Hawaii".
"The Elements" are represented by "Vega-Tables" (Earth), "Wind Chimes" (Air), "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (Fire), and "In Blue Hawaii" (Water). Smile's final track, "Good Vibrations", replaces the well-known lyrics of Mike Love with earlier lines penned by Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher. However, since Asher never wrote lyrics for the completed version, it was still necessary to use some of Love's lyrics, and credit him along with Asher and Wilson. It also includes an extended "humm-be-dumm" harmony section taken from an alternate 1966 edit of the song. "Good Vibrations" broadly goes through three distinct phases, as the album does, and features a custom-made Electro-Theremin.
Inspired by this success, Wilson began considering a studio recorded version of his Smile performances. After two weeks, it was decided to go ahead, and so Brian Wilson Presents Smile became a fully-fledged studio album. Recording began in April 2004 with his ten-piece touring band, augmented by a ten-piece string section and an acoustic bassist. The basic tracks were recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders in four days, with overdubbing and mixing continuing until July with some stops at engineer Mark Linett's Your Place or Mine studio. Wilson began a Smile tour during these recording sessions.
When played live, digital keyboards were used to replicate the sound of various instruments such as harpsichord and tack piano, and electric drums were used in place of timpanis. These digital keyboards were kept for the album's recording, though a real upright piano and timpani was used. Some alterations were also made to tracks' specific arrangements, since they had been arranged with an audience in mind, along with the logistics of only having ten performers on stage. Linett elaborated: "For the studio version of Smile, Brian and the band eliminated some of the flourishes that were designed just for live performance and substantially reworked the instrumental arrangements." Most engineering for the album was modeled after practices common during the 1960s, and tracks were recorded and sequenced in discrete sections the same as they would have been on the original Smile. The vocals were recorded using a tube console identical to the one used by the Beach Boys at United Western Recorders in the 1960s.
On September 28, 2004, Brian Wilson released his newly recorded studio version of Brian Wilson Presents Smile. This was followed by two US tours, with its featured stop in New York's Carnegie Hall; a combination of the two shows were broadcast on NPR's Creators at Carnegie series. The concert series also went to Australia and New Zealand, as well Europe. Three singles were released to promote the album:"Good Vibrations" was released on CD and 7" vinyl prior to the album's release and included live versions of "Our Prayer" and "Good Vibrations" from the live debut of Smile recorded at Royal Festival Hall, in London on February 20, 2004.
"Our Prayer" was released in the United Kingdom as a one-sided 10" single on clear vinyl. The track was remixed as the Freeform Reform Version by the London band Freeform.
"Wonderful" had a limited release of 5,000 on blue, green, and yellow vinyl backed with "Wind Chimes". The vinyl only release charted at number 29 in the UK singles chart in its first week of release.
To promote Brian Wilson Presents Smile, Wilson, through The Mail on Sunday, released Good Vibrations, a free compilation which included rerecorded Beach Boys songs. In response to this, Mike Love filed a lawsuit seeking compensation, arguing the free CD had adversely affected demand for the original tracks. The suit was dismissed after the court found there were no triable issues.
Smile opened at #13 in the US for a chart stay of 17 weeks; it reached #7 in the UK, and was certified gold (100,000). It received widespread acclaim from music critics. Robert Christgau, who was skeptical of the album back in the 1960s, praised Parks' lyrics and wrote in Rolling Stone, "what elevates them into something approaching a utopian vision is Wilson's orchestrations: brief bridge melodies, youthful harmonies more precise and uplifting now than when executed by actually existing callow people and an enthralling profusion of instrumental colors." He went on to give the album his very rare A+ grade. NME magazine said Smile "stands up with any of the great music of the 20th century. In its interweaved and repeated melodic strands it echoes Prokofiev's Kije Suite. In its appropriation of American folk it stands up there with the work of Gershwin and Copland. In its sheer contemplative beauty it rubs shoulders with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. One of the greatest albums of the 21st century." John Bush of AllMusic was less enthusiastic and believed Smile was "a remarkably unified, irresistible piece of pop music", yet decreed that it was "no musical watershed on par with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Wilson's masterpiece, Pet Sounds".
Smile received multiple nominations for the 2004 Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical (for Mark Linett). It won one Grammy, in the category of Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow". Smile also finished in second place in the Pazz & Jop, an annual critics poll run by The Village Voice. Christgau, the poll's creator, named it the best album of 2004 in his own list, Pitchfork named it fifth best album of 2004 and the 25th best album released between 2000 and 2004. Rolling Stone later named it the 88th best album of the 2000s decade. In his ballot for the magazine, Christgau ranked it as the 20th best album of the decade. The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
When asked for thoughts on the album, Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love commented in November 2004: "I guess it's a good thing for Brian to do. A friend sent me a copy, but I haven't had time to hear it yet because we've been on tour."
Co-founder Al Jardine admitted in 2013: "Honestly, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought; I didn’t want to go there at that time. They were good enough to send me a copy. So I dropped the needle, as they used to say, and listened to a few cuts, and it was very nice. But there’s nothin’ like the real thing. And remember the production value was quite unique to that period of time in the recording process. We used great outboard gear at the time – the tube gear, echo chambers and acoustical chambers and that made everything sound really great. That’s what I like about the vintage stuff."
Bruce Johnston, who joined the band in 1965, said of the album in 2008: "I think as an exercise in keeping him [Brian] occupied, it's interesting. (...) I talk to him every once in a while. But I'm never going to tell him that I'll take Pet Sounds over what he's doing now. Fate is very uncool. Fate says to Brian and Mike, "I'm going to mess with your head, and I'm not going to give you a Grammy for anything while you're hot. (...) Brian and Mike and the band deserved a Grammy in prime time, and it never happened."
The Showtime cable network released a documentary film entitled Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile in October 2004.
A 2-disc DVD featuring a concert performance of Smile (directed by John Anderson and shot in a Los Angeles studio with a live audience) was released in May 2005. Also entitled Brian Wilson Presents Smile, The DVD included the Beautiful Dreamer documentary.
The sequencing of Brian Wilson Presents Smile influenced the 2011 compilation The Smile Sessions. It features a newly assembled reconstruction of the Beach Boys' Smile album loosely modeled after the track listing for Brian Wilson Presents Smile. The project, supervised by Wilson, uses only surviving master tapes recorded by the group between the late 1960s and early 1970s.
All tracks written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, except where noted.
Per the album's liner notes.The Brian Wilson Band
Stockholm Strings 'n' Horns
Production and technical staff