In the hopefully clear light of 1998, the three years-or-so after the non-release of Smile and the release of it's odd offpsring Smiley Smile are worth a lot of re-examination. The reality is that in this period, the Beach Boys released five albums (Wild Honey,Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Surfs Up) all of considerable merit and each with a fair share of new songs from Brian. This was also period in which other songwriters in the Beach Boys emerged, most notably Dennis.
This is the period covered by the third disc of the Good Vibrations box set and many people have been surprised how good the music is there. In fact that disc is one of the reasons I am such a great Beach Boys fan. I was a bit of a Pet Sounds fan first, having bought that album on the hype that it was a classic and a Beatles influence. Then I bought the box set on an off-chance, and I heard it had Smile music on it. But it was listening to the third disc of mostly unknown songs that convinced me of the depth of Beach Boys music.
Consider the statistics of Brian's participation over this period. Excluding Smile tracks retreaded for albums in this period, and including single releases, 32 new Brian songs were released in this period. By today's standards, that is pretty productive. Amongst these songs are five that were selected amongst the classic songs redone for the I Just Wasn't Made For These Times project. Five songs from this period were also selected amongst the 30 best Brian songs by a number of high-profile fans in the June 1998 MOJO magazine. Two songs from this period are generally regarded as amongst Brian's very best....Til' I Die and This Whole World.
The Brian music of this period was very different to Pet Sounds and Smile. Brian very deliberately moved away from the sophistication and deep emotions of Pet Sounds and the artiness of Smile, to retreat to making music celebrating simplicity. The arrangements were far simpler, the themes were the simple joys of love and sometimes even just doing nothing (Busy Doin' Nothing, I Went To Sleep).
Musical history will tell that after the sophistication of 1967, many artists went "back to basics", most notably the Beatles, Stones and Dylan. It would be too much to assume that they followed Brian and the Beach Boys, but it is certainly all the more reason to re-assess the music from this phase.
Both David Leaf and Brad Elliot record that Brian was actively involved in the Sunflower sessions and that period was amongst the most productive in Beach Boys history. It seems that the failure of that album hurt Brian and one guesses that the bad vibes in the group also took their toll. By the time the Surf's Up album came up, Brian's contribution and participation was much reduced. But that album presented to the world the truly astonishing Til' I Die. It was a statement that ,despite the apparent simplicity and contentment of the previous music, Brian still felt tormented , and it was a portent of worse times to come.
So compared to the commercial success of the early Beach Boys and the major artistic statement that Pet Sounds was, and Smile would have been, Brian's work on the five albums from Wild Honey to Surf's Up seemed like minor works at the time, and maybe even now at first listen. However, my final verdict on this period must be that this was a period where Brian was still at the height of his powers and produced some of the most memorable music ever.