Smiley Smile was famously summarised by Carl Wilson as a bunt rather than a grand slam, and it’s an accurate description; there’s nothing notable on Smiley Smile that wasn’t originally from the abandoned Smile project. Take away the key Smile tracks, ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes And Villains’, that open each side of Smiley Smile, and there’s little of consequence remaining.
The presence of ‘Good Vibrations’ alone, however, is enough to ensure that the album is important – taking six months to create, it might be Wilson’s single greatest achievement, which is saying a lot. The theremin, the vocal breaks – it’s so catchy and ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how eccentric and ambitious it really is. The short length of ‘Heroes And Villains’ makes it complexity deceptive – conciseness was one of Wilson’s greatest virtues, even on the ambitious pieces of Smile. Of the other Smile outtakes, ‘Fall Breaks and Back To Winter’ is a watered version of the fire suite from Smile, while the potentially gorgeous ‘Wonderful’ breaks down into doowop, while it’s also one of the several tracks that almost collapses into laughter – a manifestation of the stoned ambience that pervades the album. The new songs for the album are sometimes ridiculous – ‘She’s Going Bald’ and ‘Little Pad’ both have their cringe worthy moments.
Some fans do regard Smiley Smile as a minor masterpiece, and I guess it is possible to argue this – it’s certainly different than anything else that The Beach Boys ever made, the combination of mostly sophisticated compositions and mostly loose atmosphere making it a unique statement, and a contrast to Wilson’s carefully arranged studio craft. But coming from the perspective of hearing more coherent versions of Smile first, Smiley Smile is a waste of potential, despite how bizarrely charming it is in places.