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BY ED KING, ROCK EXPERT Along with Dionne Warwick, the late-60s hits by Glen Campbell represent, in my memory, the best of the failed aspirations of middle-class America. I still see those albums sitting in front of the huge, wooden stereo consoles in our neighborhood, resting on plush, burnt-orange carpeting. Some elongated sculpture of a conquistador on a horse decorates one end of the console. A reproduction of some painting by one of the Dutch Masters is centered over the stereo; it matches the colors of the heavy velour drapes and couch. “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” made vaguely country music safe for those of us on the more urban coasts–East Coast city dwellers and California dreamers alike. Plus, Campbell was pretty cool and sophisticated for a guy playing twangy guitar tunes. As some of us grew into rock nerds, leaving behind the fractured dreams of middle America circa 1968, there were unexpected depths of Campbell to plunder, such as his work as a session man for The Beach Boys and his role as mouthpiece to the surprising cult of Jimmy Webb, The Great Songwriter. It was these after-the-fact revelations that kept the increasingly irrelevant Campbell on the right side of “cool,” despite the cheesy career apex of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the rough-and-tumble Tanya Tucker years, the coke slide, and the more-recent Jesus-friendly infomercials. When I first heard of this album — a good 24 hours before it showed up in my mailbox — I thought, “Oh man, another Rick Rubin reclamation project! What’s he going to do next, produce a ‘cool’ comeback album for Vicki Lawrence?” (Turns out it’s not a Rick Rubin production, but the brainchild of Julian Raymond, who’s produced Roseanne Cash and The Wallflowers, among others.) After a few minutes I thought, this is Glen Campbell, we have a history together. So I pushed Play and got down to the business of sharing my thoughts, feelings, and other observations.
“Sing”: Campbell’s tenor rises above the alt-adult contemporary fare of this modern-day wall of sound, complete with a skipping drum beat, orchestration, and the insistent plucking of a banjo. Turns out this is a song by Travis, a band I’ve heard of but have never passed judgment on. Do they do, like, iPod ads or something?
“Walls”: I know this song. Is it by someone I don’t typically like? Campbell’s delivery has a way of making me drop my defenses. His performances carry no baggage, have no agenda. He expresses nothing but love and joy for his material, and it’s contagious. OK, I peeked: this is a Tom Petty song. I haven’t been “duped” into digging, like, a REO Speedwagon song.
“Angel Dream”: Here’s another loping Tom Petty cover. This is what we call a nice cover: nothing earth-shattering but completely professional, befitting the studio cat that a young Campbell once was. If this is where this album’s heading, it’s a dignified comeback album we’ve got cooking.
“Times Like These”: Man, this song’s familiar and well constructed! There was always something refreshingly straightforward and good natured in the delivery of Campbell’s classic hits, which mixed the pride of country music with the optimism and hope of Southern California pop. This song has that combination in spades. Whaddaya know? It’s a Foo Fighters song! A lot of older dudes have been telling me there’s something to Grohl’s songs. It’s funny, this is the most like what I would have expected in an album presenting some producer’s version of a comebacking Campbell, as if Elvis Costello had been commissioned to write a song in the Jimmy Webb style. There may have been more to the singer than the song than revisionist hipsters would like to believe.
“These Days”: This song’s off to a lovely start. I’m afraid I’m falling in love with a song by an artist I’ve never much liked…Oh man, I’ve got to take a minute to let some tears flow. This is beautiful…I KNOW THIS SONG: it’s friggin’ Jackson Browne! Truth be told, this is one of the only songs by that guy that ever made the slightest impression on me, but hearing this preternaturally wise song through the voice of a guy who’s royally screwed up his life and lived to tell about it makes it really moving. I’m taken back to that huge, wooden stereo console; the burnt orange carpet; and the aspirations represented by those conquistador sculptures.
“Sadly Beautiful”: A Replacements cover. Much better, to my ears, than hearing it on a flagging Replacements album. Like the first few tracks, a “professional” cover.
“All I Want Is You”: Is this a U2 song or that horrible Rod Stewart song, “Forever Young”? It’s U2. As is often the case when I can get past the band’s stock digitally mystical production I’m impressed by how simple and direct the band’s music can be. I MUCH prefer hearing this song in Campbell’s plaintive voice than through the emotive Christ-worthy self-love of Bono.
“Jesus”: JESUS!!! I’m not kidding, this is The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus”! And it’s right on the mark and totally in line with the flow of this album. This album ain’t no museum piece! It’s no hipster appropriation of an oldie but goodie who doesn’t know better. Glen Campbell is in the moment. The man is a pro! After a long irrelevant ride on a trail of white lines, he’s singing other people’s songs to pick up with the story of those ultimately smashed, already fractured dreams of our parents’ generation. I don’t know how all this will play to those of you who don’t remember the heavy velour drapes of my generation’s youth, but this is quite a trip.
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”: Green Day. Now that’s what I would have expected from one of those Rick Rubin-Neil Diamond affairs, but Campbell plays it straight, as always. The guy never comes off like an Artist–in a good way. It must be hard to do, to be around as long as the guy’s been around, to be as musically accomplished, and yet to be nothing more than a singer of songs. I need to find clips of Campbell’s old variety show. It was such a friendly, welcoming world, inviting folks of all ages and beliefs to sing together, just as this new album invites us to do.
“Grow Old With Me”: Meet Glen Campbell concludes with this stately, hymnal love song, not the kind of tune you’d want to waste on a Tanya Tucker, poor girl. This version is kind of chilling in how earnest and square it is. It wasn’t ringing a bell. Then I looked it up: it’s one of the last songs John Lennon would write, obviously for the love of his life. It was released posthumously in demo form on Milk and Honey. It’s all too much, man.
GLEN CAMPBELL & LINDA RONSTADT: Carolina On My Mind