Glen Campbell: Ghost on the Canvas

Written by August 30th, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Glen Campbell
Ghost on the Canvas
(Surfdog)
Rating: ★★★★☆

It’s not often that we hear a major artist officially declare the end of a career; usually, they tend to fade away or mount perennial “comebacks”. But at age 75 and with the recent diagnosis of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, Glen Campbell has decided to say farewell to his five decade-long run with the release of an emotionally satisfying career testimonial, Ghost on the Canvas.

This is his second record in a row produced by Julian Raymond, who has attempted to revive Campbell’s career a la Rick Rubin’s contemporary treatment of Johnny Cash with the American Recordings series. While not as revelatory as Cash’s late, stripped-down reinvention, Campbell’s interpretative gifts as a singer/guitarist shine throughout this eclectic set.

Like the first collaboration with Raymond, this collection brings Campbell in touch with non-mainstream songwriters such as Robert Pollard, Jakob Dylan, and Teddy Thompson.  Who would have guessed the man who brought us so many countrypolitan classics such as “Galveston” and “Gentle on my Mind” would cover a Guided by Voices tune–of all the possibilities?

From the stirring, acoustic leadoff track, “A Better Place,” it’s clear Glen’s voice has barely lost a shade along the way. Behind gentle strummed arpeggios, Campbell testifies to his role in the world and to God’s presence in his life. With gracious humility, he sings, “One thing I know/The world’s been good for me/A better place awaits/You’ll see.” This is one of several spiritual tunes cowritten by Campbell and Raymond, and Glen’s not known for his songwriting.

The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg as always expressed his love of ’70s AM radio gold, and now he’s helping to provide a worthy finale to such an illustrious career, contributing “Any Trouble” and the title track. “Ghost On The Canvas” finds Campbell embracing a lush swell of fingerpicked guitar overladen with strings, which can’t help but echo “Witchita Lineman” in its exquisite melancholy and telegraph pulse. It’s true that Campbell’s medical diagnosis brings an extra poignance to these songs, and especially to “Ghost on the Canvas.” Even the cover photograph shows Glen fading into the background between two guitars, as if he’s ebbing away in front of us.

One of the early standouts is “In Your Arms”, the Thompson cover, in which a veritable guitar army composed of Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Chris Isaak accompany Campbell. It’s a catchy, rockabilly number with a heavy hook of a chorus and an unexpectedly restrained guitar solo–considering the six-string talent involved–that still pulls us in to the group’s energy.

Interspersed through the record are short instrumental interludes with nostalgic titles like “Billstown Crossroads,” an ode to Campbell’s hometown in Arkansas, and “May 21st, 1969″, the date when his TV variety show debuted. With its calliope sound, the latter snippet even recalls the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds era, a period when Glen played guitar for the Californian band.

Pollard’s “Hold on Hope” fits Campbell well both in sentiment and with its anthemic chorus. It’s a treat to hear Glen sing these left-of-the-dial numbers, and these songwriters must be proud to take the place of Campbell’s main muse, the great Jimmy Webb.

Campbell checks out for the final time with “There’s No Me… Without You”, the last cut which spills out into an extended, lyrical guitar coda featuring Billy Corgan, Rick Nielson, Brian Setzer, trading slow-burn leads iced in reverb. This is spot-on appropriate, because though he’s best known for his voice and songs, Glen was also an in-demand session guitarist in the ’60s. With the right material, this man as an artist has few flaws. Ghost on the Canvas allows Campbell one more chance to prove that again.

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