She belongs there, left with her liberty.
Never known as a non-believer,
She laughs and stays in the Wonderful.
She knew how to gather the forest when
God reached softly and moved her body.
One golden locket quite young
And loving her mother and father…
Farther down the path was a mystery
Through the recess, the chalk and numbers
A boy bumped into her, Wonderful.
Na Na Na
Hey bobba reba...
[Don't think you're God]
[Missing verse: All fall down and lost in the mystery,
Lost it all to a non-believer
And all that’s left is a girl
Who’s loved by her mother and father.]
She'll return in love with her liberty.
Never known as a non-believer,
She'll smile and thank God for Wonderful.
Na Na Na
Much has been written about the Beach Boy’s Smiley Smile album, and much made of the legend of the SMiLE project's collapse under the pressure of the psychedelic monument, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album, in the psychedelic context, was widely considered to be under-produced, and it was received with indifference and confusion upon its release. The album performed poorly on the charts, and received bad reviews. Good Vibrations had been widely appreciated as a gem of psychedelic artistry, and when Heroes & Villains came out nine months later during the Summer of Love as the Beach Boy’s next single, most were surprised that it didn’t have more technical and engineering wizardry, schooled as the audience had been by the Beatles. Most listeners failed to appreciate the vocal and compositional intricacy displayed in the album’s songs.
I agree with Richie Untermeyer, who wrote on the allmusic website: “For fans expecting something along the lines of Sgt. Pepper (and there were many of them), Smiley Smile was a major disappointment, replacing psychedelic experimentation with spare, eccentric miniatures. Heard now, outside of such unrealistic expectations, it's a rather nifty, if rather slight, effort that's plenty weird — in fact, often downright goofy...Wind Chimes, Wonderful, Vegetables, and much of the rest is low-key psychedelic quirkiness, with abundant fine harmonies and unusual arrangements.”
Brian Wilson claims that he and Van Dyke Parks wrote Wonderful along with Heroes and Villains, Cabinessence and Surf’s Up in a giant sandbox with a piano in it that Wilson had built in his living room. He shared the Beatle aesthetic that creativity should be playful and fun, and that LSD helped tap childhood innocence and wonder. But Brian Wilson also took his art very seriously and was the only rock composer at the time who called himself a “genius”. Like the Beatles he considered the Beach Boy’s music as a pop art form, but he wore it more self-consciously. Brian Wilson was known to be intensely competitive, and his inability to pull together an album that could stand among the several contenders to the throne held by Sgt. Pepper led him to extreme insecurity. Though he doled out impressive compositions from the SMiLE sessions in the following years, he would for the most part give up on the psychedelic project.
Herb Bowie in Reason to Rock wrote of Smiley Smile, “In an art form where collaboration is an essential element, the growing myth of Brian Wilson as solitary rock genius isolated the group’s key member just when he most needed the support of the group’s other participants and co-creators. So while the world (and the rest of the group) waited breathlessly for the masterpiece to be revealed, Brian continued to tinker and change direction, ultimately losing whatever focus on the next stage of the group’s evolution he may have once had.” Still, he left behind a good many songs from the SMiLE sessions before he lost his way.
The melodious Wonderful begins with a single low pitched voice and an organ, a shadowy impression of harmonium in the background. The word wonderful in the first verse is sung by the Beach Boys, and is slightly speeded up for a comic accent, similar to Alvin & the Chipmunks. The second verse starts as organ with harmonium dissonances, but blends into piano, and is also sung solo. The second verse doesn’t resolve itself in the pause of “wonderful” but wanders off to a melody of its own (and loving her mother and father) which drifts seamlessly back to the third verse. The piano is sustained in the third verse, and the wonderful pause is sung in a soft, awed voice. Following this comes another new fragment of yearning melody accompanied by nonsense syllables that I indicate as na na na. Brian Wilson then splices in an entirely different texture, built on a new melody made of nonsense syllables (hey bobba reba...) and set in what seems to be a Beach Boys party (reminiscent of the group’s single Barbara Ann). The Beach Boys are talking in the background the whole segment, sometimes in funny voices; a pinched high pitched voice (like someone was using helium) comes through the chatter clearly saying Don’t think you’re God. The party and the piano slows down and Wilson returns to sing the main song, its fourth verse. He whispers the wonderful at the end of the song, followed by a return of the yearning na na na melody.
There are no instrumentals, no musical intros or codas, in Wonderful though there is a spliced-in vocal break. One could argue the background music is sketchy, and some of the nonsense syllables may be standing in for unwritten lyrics. To whatever degree Van Dyke Parks was involved in the lyrics, his influence seems to be light compared to Heroes and Villains and some of the other songs in the SMiLE project. “She knew how to gather the forest when God reached softly and moved her body”, sounds most like Mr. Parks. The rest of the lyric content seems like Brian Wilson conjuring up a girl’s first love at grade school and the faith in God that seems so natural to a happy childhood. The song seems to participate in that innocence as well as recreate it.
There are several versions of Wonderful available now that were not available to the public during the psychedelic period. A more formal and clearly “baroque rock” version, played on harpsichord, was released in 2011 without the nonsense syllables or the Beach Boy’s “party”. These splices seem to have replaced a missing verse which I’ve included in parenthesis. I would argue that the “party” and the yearning nonsense syllables are an adequate replacement for the explicit missing lyrics, particularly as part of the Smiley Smile album overall was to intermix disparate “takes” into most songs. It is worth noting that in the final verse of the 2011 release, the girl “sighs and thanks God” rather than smiles.