Glen Campbell: Ghost on the Canvas
by Brett Milano
Confession time: I‘m one of the small minority who was never moved by the string of death-rattle albums that Johnny Cash made with producer Rick Rubin. Anyone who followed Cash’s career knows he’s a complex character, complex enough to record his unofficial theme song “Man in Black” shortly after he did “A Boy Named Sue”. The Rubin records stripped Cash’s persona down to pure foreboding; making him edgy in the 90’s marketing sense. There’s no doubt that his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” spoke to the very real grief Cash was feeling, but it also spoke to the fact that he always respected a potential hit record. And it spoke to the conceptual vision of Rubin, whose history with Slayer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers is enough to qualify him as a first-division huckster.
On the surface, Glen Campbell’s new Ghost on the Canvas is the very same kind of album: Aging country icon looks into the abyss, with a stack of unlikely cover songs under his arm. But it resonates to these ears in a way that the Cash albums never did, in part because the overcast feel is entirely out of character. And not least because the most heartbreaking song on it was supposed to be optimistic: Guided by Voices’ “Hold On Hope.” Originally on the Ric Ocasek-produced Do the Collapse, the song was written off by many GBV fans as a sellout power ballad; the bridge lyric “there rides the cowboy” seemed to ruffle the most feathers. Campbell is of course the right man to sing about cowboys, rhinestone and otherwise; and producer Julian Raymond makes it sound like one of his ‘70s hits—down-home steel guitar, wide-open spaces ambiance and all (and yes, that is Robert Pollard’s answering vocal on the choruses). But there’s something deeper going on here: Between the album’s recording (now more than a year ago) and its release, word got out that Campbell has Alzheimer’s; he’s currently soldiering through a final concert tour. So when he sings “Everybody’s gotta hold on hope, it’s the last thing that’s holding me,” he means that in a pretty literal way; and the song takes on the chilling beauty that GBV’s version just about suggested.
It’s doubly affecting because confessional songs have never been Campbell’s style. Sensitive songs, sure—In his late 60’s heyday he had one foot in the plains and one in the bachelor pad, covering emotive types like Jimmy Webb, Roy Orbison and Rod McKuen (under 40’s can Google that last name). Yet he was also a natural entertainer with a cornball streak: I was a proud owner of his 1969 live album, which had some cringeworthy jokes I’ve subjected girlfriends to ever since (seriously: He claims he drank a Milk of Magnesia and vodka, which was a Phillips screwdriver). Moments like these got him saddled with an unhip image, with his status as an A-list guitarist often overlooked (at least till recent years, when people started figuring out who was in the L.A. studio mafia known as the Wrecking Crew). When he did become a Jesus-loving family man during the 80s (with a short, well-documented relapse in 2003), it was safe to assume he’d gotten a lot of hellraising out of his system; and possibly a few Phillips screwdrivers into it.
From the sound of things, he’s still repenting. Not that the whole new album is quite as sobering as the GBV song…but yeah, most of it is. Instrumental quotes from his old hits pop up throughout the album, as if they’re poking through a half-remembered haze. The title track leads off with the “Wichita Lineman” keyboard lick rendered as Morse code; the tune continues with the kind of middle-of-the-night reflection that its author Paul Westerberg (of The Replacements) always specialized in. Westerberg turns up again to provide one of the disc’s two light moments with the rockabilly “Any Trouble” (the other is Teddy Thompson’s love song “In My Arms”). And whatever the state of Campbell’s memory, his voice is in great form, the better to put across lines like “Some days I’m so confused Lord, my past gets in my way.” It’s the same voice that once longed for Galveston and stuck out for Phoenix, and now the “Better Place” he’s bound for ain’t on the map.
So how do you end an album that’s supposed to sum up your life? With a whole bunch of guitar solos, of course. The six-minute “There’s No Me” ends the disc, and its second half is all six-string—all tasteful, elegant soloing, even those by Billy Corgan and Rick Nielsen. The lineup gives Campbell what every cowboy deserves, a long slow ride off into the sunset.
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