The Beach Boys – Sunflower

sunflowerYeah, I shelled out for The Smile Sessions (2011). And I rate it as highly as I do the 2004 version. Here’s the rub: Like Sgt. Pepper, that other beast from the summer of love, Smile (1966-67) is a bit precious. It works, in part, because it’s unfinished. The roughness fascinates.

In his quest to best himself and his musical rivals, Brian Wilson (the brains behind the Beach Boys) sabotaged Smile, abdicating power to the rest of the band. Previously, Brian had run a tight ship. Singing about cars, surf and sun, he had excelled at a certain kind of pop; his crackerjack melodies had offset the cuteness of the barbershop vocal. Even remastered, the Smile worktape is a slightly embarrassing, self-conscious stab at artistic worth; at wresting a symphonic song cycle from studio noodling.

I’m a fan. The project deserves its cult, non-completion the best thing that could have happened to it. Still, for all its grandeur and the tongue-in-cheek, you can’t dance to Smile, much less relate to it1. The cohesive Pet Sounds model (1966) is proof that, with the right amount of focus, angst and creative resistance, Brian could have made a slew of great “adult” albums. Until now, Smile lacked the support it needed — from Capitol, from the other Beach Boys, and from nearly everyone else in Brian’s life, Brian included.


Skip ahead four years, and you have Sunflower, a tight, light advance on their pre-artiste period — a group effort, through and through — homegrown and grown up. With self-assured brevity, songs pace subjects like the love of music, nature and sex, and the difficulties of marriage and commitment. The sound is soulful, sharp, not at all fussed. It funs the Pet Sounds ache. Consequently, Sunflower is the best Beach Boys LP since 1966. Smile was always a dead end.

1If Brian’s goal was to make beautiful music that makes you smile, he succeeded on the basis of the fragments we have.

Rating: A

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