Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Master of Melancholy

I fell in love with Jimmy Webb after listening to his 1977 album El Mirage. I knew of him earlier before, of course, due to the fame he had achieved writing hits for the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up, and Away"), Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Galveston" and "The Wichita Lineman"), Art Garfunkel ("All I Know") and—how could you forget?—Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park" and "Didn't We").

El Mirage was my first exposure to him as a singer of his own material. I later learned that he'd been trying to make it as an act since at least 1970. (That year, as "Jimmy L. Webb", he'd released Words and Music on Reprise. Four years later Asylum—the label associated with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles— released his Land's End.)

Webb's voice is gravelly at some turns and thin and reedy at others. It's a taste I quickly adapted my ear to because the songs on El Mirage were so magnificent. There's the deep regret (a thematic hallmark) expressed in "If You See Me Getting Smaller I'm Leaving" and "Mixed-Up Guy". There's the utter poetry of "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (a hit three years earlier for Judy Collins) and the elegiac "P.F.Sloan"(a redo from the Words and Music album).

Webb's melancholy songs were beautifully arranged, produced, and conducted by none other than George Martin. El Mirage is gorgeous, but it was released at least five years late. It slammed into the disco wave and fell on deaf ears—save for my grateful ones, of course.

Around this time I also enjoyed Watermark, Art Garfunkel's masterful collection of Jimmy Webb songs. (Give "All My Love's Laughter" and "Marionette" a listen.)

I didn't hear much from Jimmy Webb again until I enjoyed Glen Campbell's 1988 release Light Years. What a fabulous album! I was entranced by it during a train ride from Chicago to Boston. (Yes, I was listening on my Walkman!) If you haven't thought of Glen Campbell for a long while and are looking to pick up something by him, grab this album. It features magnificent orchestrations, crystalline vocals, and unforgettable songs like "If These Walls Could Speak", "Lightning in a Bottle", and "Our Movie".

Searching for more Webb in record shops, I found 1982's Angel Heart. It's wonderful (of course) with many songs sweetened by background vocals provided by such luminaries as Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, and Michael McDonald. Some of these songs would appear on other releases by Art Garfunkel. None of them brought him the acclaim that he'd earned in the 1960s.

Singers with good taste couldn't forget Webb, though. Linda Ronstadt was also an admirer of Jimmy Webb, and she featured several of his songs on 1989's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, her last big album. Take a moment to sample her sweet interpretation of "Adios".

Four years later Jimmy Webb tested the waters again as a singer with Suspending Disbelief. (The early 1990s brought a renewed interest in the singer/songwriter.) After a decade or more away from the studio, Webb came back stronger than ever on this CD. It's chock full of his sweet melancholia ("I Don't Know How to Love You Anymore"), but it's also laced with humor ("Elvis and Me") and a song called "What Does a Woman See in a Man" that simply knocked me out. Check out these lyrics.

He stinks to high heaven—half-covered with hair
And grunts just like some old orangutan
While she smells of clean skin and a trace of jasmine
And speaks like a first rate librarian..

Doesn't she know that she's unique
Doesn't she know that he's just a freak of nature
Overbearing, insecure, wanting love but so unsure
Loving her because she's pure

And yet, dreaming of orgies in Vegas or Cannes
He preens and strikes poses Olympian...
He brags about knocking the world on its ass
But oh, when the shit hits the fan
She'll bail him out, she's the one with the clout
Only she knows how humankind ever began
What does a woman see in a man?

This release really sealed Webb's fate. He was destined never to have a hit album of his own. It's a shame that a wider audience has never become aware of his vocal talents. To this day, he's still insecure about his singing, but I think it's just fine. There are many who are much worse (hello, Tom Waits!) but have been overcome that obstacle.

Anyway, Jimmy Webb seemed to have thrown in the towel with 1996's Ten Easy Pieces. It's a lovely collection of his work from decades past done just with Jimmy singing and playing a piano. Very tasteful: it struck me as a CD you'd hear as you're going down for a meal at a bed and breakfast. I didn't expect to hear from him again. Still, I was glad to see that he began to make club appearances after this release. I recall a hushed and terrific evening hearing Webb solo in a jazz club during this time.

A year later Jimmy Webb produced Film Noir, a collection of saloon standards sung by Carly Simon. (She co-wrote the title track with him.) It's a gauzy and dreamy release that went nowhere.

In 2003 Michael Feinstein sang a program of Jimmy Webb songs called Only One Life. What a lush tribute! Jimmy Webb arranged the piano for all the songs and produced this masterwork. The crisp vocal renditions turned me into a Feinstein fan immediately. On the album he sings "Time Flies", a song that Rosemary Clooney had been including in her repertoire and that continues to be performed by cabaret artists.

The album was a complete triumph. Perhaps encouraged by its success, Webb returned with another collection of originals a couple of years later. 2005's Twilight of the Renegades is superb. Many of the songs on this collection were written over the past 15 years, and they're all winners. I especially recommend a song about Paul Gauguin that opens the set, and "Class Clown" about a boy from Webb's youth. But sweetest of all is "No Signs of Age".

But you show no Sings of Age, no sign
Still clear like a glass of good wine
The secret of youth
Surely is yours
Your beauty endures
And love never dies
It will not disengage
In my memory tonight
You show no Signs of Age

I hope this isn't the last collection of new songs from Jimmy Webb. Recently he's been doing publicty for Just Across the River, his latest release. I'll probably buy it, but not with great enthusiasm because it features all his old familiar work. It's like Ten Easy Pieces over again, but this time the trick is that Webb is joined by a cast of admirers: Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Mark Knopfler, etc. Not a strong drink for a huge fan like me.

But Jimmy Webb is 63, and I'm hoping that there's much more music to come from him. I encourage you to take the time to enter his musical world. It is rich music made for grown-ups. You'll fall in love with it.

Click here for a recent NPR interview with Jimmy Webb.

Click here for an interview with him in The New York Times.

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