Too Much Glen Campbell, and I Still Don't Know Who He Is
Hey, I volunteered for this gig when I heard about it: a four-disc collection of Glen Campbell‘s career over 41 years! Hell, yeah, turn it up! I remember buying (and playing into the ground) the single of “Southern Nights” back in 1977, and I still think it’s one of the greatest pop songs ever made; I’ve taught my children more of “Rhinestone Cowboy” than anyone should ever do; I was intrigued at what I might find out about one of the best musicians that never somehow made that much of an impression.
Think about it: a southern guitar player and singer who ended up playing on some of the most important records in history (Pet Sounds! “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”!) and, as a solo artist, releasing some classic singles that still resonate today (Country Music Television just named “Galveston” as one of the five best country songs of all time; you should have heard Campbell’s solo on the TV special, just fluid and tender and flawlessly brilliant), hosting a popular prime-time TV variety show (yes, I watched it, I was a fan when I was like five years old, I admit it), pioneering Branson as a secondary Nashville—all that, and he’s never really registered more than a “oh yeah him” with the masses.
So was I ready for this set to redeem him? Yes, I think I was. I already had a large part of the review written before the discs arrived, the deathless line “this should certainly rehabilitate his reputation” at the ready. And once the discs arrived, of course, I liked having them around: nice clean transfers of “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, some obscurer stuff, live performances segregated off by themselves on Disc #4; everything seemed perfect to me. Like I said, I was ready to be blown away.
Well, I’m not. There are two reasons for this, and I’ll get to the most important one in a second, but let’s talk about #1 for a second: it’s a well-conceived collection, just not that well done. Legacy presents Campbell’s career like a seamless arc from folkie into country into pop into country again and into inspirational music, which is mostly true—but how can Capitol not include anything from his “rock” period in the early ‘60s? I mean, a man who recorded an album called The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell deserves a little more credit for rockin’ out. And to devote an entire disc to live performances is a fine idea, but then they focus on his vocal performances rather than his shit-hot guitar work (cuts like “Classical Gas” and “William Tell” aside) either means that they want to sell him entirely as a singer, a notion his nice but shallow voice cannot carry off, or that he’s always been packaged this way, which this compilation fails to redress in any way.
To be sure, all the big hits are here, and some other stuff that should have been big hits, so we can judge Campbell on his voice alone should we so want. And here’s where problem #2 comes in: a lot of these songs are very great, but mostly because that’s the way they were written, and anyone else could have gotten hits galore with them. Campbell knew how to get the most out of a Jimmy Webb song, that’s for real: the ambiguous “Wichita Lineman”, the haunting “Galveston”, and the mournful “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” My theory is that Webb knew that only undersinging could put across songs like this, and that he wrote them specifically for Campbell to achieve this effect.
But this can only go so far. It’s true that Campbell’s voice sounds pretty great on a lot of Webb songs, but there are others here that don’t come off so well. On his version of “MacArthur Park”, Glen Campbell himself is barely even present; there’s no real there there, no content to what he’s singing. Campbell is at his wit’s end trying to figure out how to sell this one considering the orchestral pop backing with all the floaty “aah aah aah aah aah” background vocals and lyrics about cakes being left out in the rain. And don’t get me started on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” or “Where’s the Playground Susie”.
So maybe it’s just a Webb thing . . . except that it isn’t. There is really no messing with “Rhinestone Cowboy” or “Southern Nights” or “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”, because they are all perfect pop songs that Campbell nails with his eyes closed. Some of the songs he recorded before he found God and gave up drugs are great; I especially love the jaunty Nashville hop of “Sunflower” and “I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Star” (Brooks and Dunn, you need to cover this now, or at least bury all existing copies of it so no one will know where you got your “innovative” country-rock-gospel sound). But so much of his late stuff is either “eh” or “ew,” from his sapmeister movie theme song “Any Which Way You Can” through his mid- to late ‘80s country chart hits, and it’s very difficult to make it through the last half of that third disc.
Actually, the Glen Campbell that comes off best is the young hungry one on Disc 1, the folksinger who pops up in “Universal Soldier” and “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”. Here he commits himself fully to each song, throwing his heart into the ring and granting an edge to his very pretty tenor voice. To hear him wail on the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” is to hear someone who gives a damn about a song; to hear him nail Roy Orbison’s “Crying” is to wonder what might have happened had Campbell ever had any artistic ambition at all.
Because that is what it comes down to here with so much Glen Campbell: there is never any sense that he ever took the path less traveled by. When pop went country in the late ‘60s, he was right there; when country went pop in the mid-‘70s, he was right there; when country went more traditional again in the mid-‘80s, he was right there with his Letter to Home record, with banjos and strings and L.A.-sounding guitars and drums. It may have been that his bravest move was to record Christian songs, but how did the horrid duet with Anne Murray called “Show Me Your Love” ever make any kind of recording called The Legacy? It’s like syrup poured on sugary candy and then rammed down your throat with a big ol’ “God loves ya!” . . . but that’s part of his legacy too, I guess.
Listen, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have Glen Campbell in your collection—he recorded six songs that you need to have in your mental rolodex at all time, and about sixteen more that are interesting or weird or something. But a box set celebrates a performer’s influence on the world, and I just don’t think Campbell had any influence at all. I’m certain that I could select a very nice two-disc set from these four albums, and I’d throw in some of the stuff that got left out, and I’d spend a little money and turn that live disc into a disc featuring the songs that Campbell lent his guitar and voice to as a studio musician. That’s the biggest part of the legacy that’s left out here, in a package that celebrates one of the most unknowable musical superstars we’ve ever had.