Saturday, December 25, 2004


He calls it his symphony to God.

For better or worse, I'm living the last few days of 2004, where making new music gets harder every second. Then along comes Smile. What can’t the songwriters of my generation create something this vital, this fundamental, this unique, and (dare I say it?) this holy -- something set apart from everything else. Not better or worse -- as if those descriptors meant anything when describing music -- just wholly other.

I’ve written about having difficulty finding my Steven Patrick Morrissey, my Dylan, my Purple Rain, my "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I want music to speak directly to me, lyrics and arrangements and instruments and all. It’s hard to find, but Brian Wilson manages.

I’m not sure how to even categorize Smile. Is it a piece of the past, an album that was never made in any concrete sense, but has existed in bits and pieces for almost 40 years? Or is it something new, something that speaks of the here and now? If this is the leftovers, what glorious leftovers they are. Could the remaining Beatles ever dream of writing and arranging something this important at this stage in their lives? I think not. But Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks have. And they should receive all the credit in the world for it.

Whether this is a lost artifact from an age gone by or an entirely new piece of work for the America in which we now live seems a topic worthy of conversation only when not listening to Smile. Once it's popped into the stereo, all that becomes irrelevant. All that matters is how much this music sounds like the delights and afflictions of the human condition set to lyric and harmony. This is life -- and what a life it is.

What other artists could sing:

Sleep a lot, eat a lot, brush ‘em like crazy.
Run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy.
Da da da da...

and still seem to sound so transcendent? I don’t use that word lightly. This is one of those few albums that seems to transcend the time period from which it was born.

Take a step back, and see this as truly American music, some of the first of its kind -- the perfection of the 20th century art form known as rock and roll in the hands of one of America’s greatest artists. Very few musician/composers make me want to weep, laugh, mourn and rejoice all at the same time -- even fewer if we limit ourselves to American artists.

But Brian Wilson makes me want to jump off the high cliffs and get lost in the tall grass for days on end. In our favorite songs, we know where the good parts are, the parts that quicken the pulse and make it hard to breathe, the parts that make the filler somehow worthwhile. But Wilson has managed to create an entire album that leaves you out of breath and near as you can get to heart attacks of joy as long as it keeps spinning. Repeat buttons beware.

It’s so hard for me to write about music most of the time. It’s so hard to get excited about new bands and artists these days. There’s good music. There’s smiley music. There’s toe-tapping, hand-clapping music. There’s beautiful music and music for tears. There’s music for heartache, music for courtship, and music for long summer nights. Then there is music that captures it all. Music that can be played just as easily on Christmas day as on the Fourth of July -- wedding days and contemplations of suicide. Inside and out the walls of every church, synagogue, mosque and temple on the planet. Music that echoes along streets of gold.

He calls it his symphony to God. Contemporary Christian artists take note: you don’t have to rip of the Psalms to submit an offering of worship. You just have to have the patience and insanity to wait 37 years to perfect your best for the glory of God. In the face of Brian Wilson, the modern worship movement seems like shit strewn across the barn yard. It makes it hard for me to even pick up a guitar, because if I can’t write the best, why should I even bother?

This is the album of 2004. It takes everything, because it gives everything. It is a last will and testament and a proclamation of life itself. It testifies to the glory of God and to the incredible value of human life. It is the good vibration.

Thank you, Brian, for sharing your symphony with the rest of us. We weren't sure if we could, but somehow, we love you all the more for it.

Oh, and post script....Happy Christmas!

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