Looking at Soul – Glen Campbell’s “Ghost on the Canvas”

I love getting the question “what are you listening to lately”? It usually allows me to turn someone on to an album I believe deserves their attention. And it’s usually a relatively unknown band or artist, at least to that person. Win for the person seeking my input, win for the artist hopefully gaining a new supporter. But since the end of August, I think I’m freaking people out by answering with “the new Glen Campbell album is AWESOME”! The initial reaction goes one of two ways; a wry smile, like they want to be in on the joke. “Yeah, Glen Campbell. “Rhinestone Cowboy”. Okay. So, really – who have you been listening to”? Either that or, with my younger friends, I’m met with a blank expression followed by “who”?

The new Glen Campbell album is AWESOME! Seriously.

If you’re under 30, you likely have no sense of who Glen Campbell is or what he meant to country and popular music. That may also be true if you’re over 30. But hear me; whether or not you like it, Glen Campbell is a legend. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the guy had an incredible string of hit country songs, many of which crossed over to the pop charts. In fact, I almost don’t even consider the guy a “country” artist. He just makes good music that happens to be categorized as country. In 1968 he recorded “Wichita Lineman”, one of the greatest things in the history of all that is knowable (someday I will write about my unusual fascination with this song, released in the year of my birth – it is close to perfect). Many other hits followed.

Granted, the 80’s and 90’s were mostly forgettable, unless you are a hardcore fan (I am not a hardcore fan. But “Wichita Lineman” should still be considered for inclusion on the “Welcome to Heaven” playlist God has been putting together for me). But then along came Meet Glen Campbell in 2008. And along with it was Glen’s first legitimate industry buzz in more than 20 years. The album was a surprisingly good covers collection of contemporary artists such as U2, Green Day, Travis, and Foo Fighters, that managed to be completely sincere and void of irony (go check out Times Like These – he owns it).

But following that success came some devastating news; in 2010, Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the wake of that news, he has created his final (according to his liner notes), and greatest (according to me), album of new music.

Ghost on the Canvas is an incredible collection of stories and sounds that seem to summarize the life of this 75 year old legend. It hasn’t always been glorious – Campbell is remembered by some more for his private struggles than for his public successes. The album’s opening line, “I’ve tried and I have failed, Lord”, seems to acknowledge this. But he has always pushed through, striving to be better. He is unmistakably human. In “A Thousand Lifetimes” he sings: “I have washed upon the shore, I’ve fought and conquered demons. I’ve broken down and broken up without a rhyme or reason. I’ve held the ring of brass and many times smashed it to pieces”, but follows that up with “Each breath I take is a gift that I will never take for granted”.

The list of guest contributors on Ghost on the Canvas gives support to the notion that Campbell is bigger than any genre. Brian Setzer, Billy Corgan, Chris Isaak, Rick Nielson, and Dick Dale are among those who perform. There are song contributors as well, with Jakob Dylan and Teddy Thompson among them. Paul Westerberg tosses in a pair of songs, including the haunting title track (which seems to be produced in a manner that deliberately harkens sonically to the sound of “Wichita Lineman”, a song that, in case you didn’t know, I really like. In fact, there are a few moments on the album that feel like homages to a piece of Campbell’s past). Most affecting is a cover of the Guided by Voices tune “Hold on Hope”. When Campbell sings “There rides the cowboy. Campfire flickering on the landscape that nothing grows on. Time still goes on through each life of misery. Everybody’s got a hold on hope. It’s the last thing that’s holding me,” it’s hard to believe the song was written for anyone but him.

But the strongest Ghost on the Canvas songs are the ones that Campbell lent his own pen to. These are deeply personal songs, probably more so than anything he’s written previously. On the opening track “A Better Place” he writes “Some days I’m so confused, Lord. My past gets in my way. I need the ones I love, Lord, more and more each day”. This is simple and heartbreaking, especially in light of his recent diagnosis. He is letting us in to his daily struggles. On “Strong” (which features musical support from the Dandy Warhols), Campbell sounds like he is willing himself to be the man he desperately wants to remain – “This is not the road I wanted for us. But now, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. All I want to be for you is strong”. Taken at face value, it’s an endearing lyric. With knowledge of his diagnosis, it’s devastating. On “There’s No Me…Without You” he sings “I’m never gonna fade away. Your love won’t allow me to. Can’t you see…I love you? We shall be forever two. There’s no me…without you”. This song also features an extended outro with guitar solos from some of Glen’s guests, but it’s Glen himself that closes things out. And it’s beautiful.

The songs are great here, but the production of this record is phenomenal. It is an ALBUM – best listened to as a complete whole, rather than as a collection of unconnected pieces. Weaving in and out of these songs are mini instrumentals which insert themselves seamlessly in the soundscape. Some of these pieces are quite beautiful, and they become a necessary fabric upon which the albums’s songs are stitched.

There may be better individual songs out there this year, but I’m not sure there has yet been a better album. The same is true for Campbell’s career – he may have recorded a few better songs than anything you’ll find here (though I’m not totally sure that’s true), but he has not come close to creating a complete album this special.

So, yes. The new album by Glen Campbell is AWESOME! It’s called Ghost on the Canvas. Go listen to it.

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~ by themattmorrisshow on November 11, 2011.

One Response to “Looking at Soul – Glen Campbell’s “Ghost on the Canvas””

  1. And this is why you should be a famous music journalist. You just made me want to listen to Glen Campbell. I think you’ve got a future, kid. 😉

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