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Not Fade Away - Reissue Review from Issue #56 March-April 2005

The Cat Who Walked Through Walls

Jimmy Webb

The Moon's A Harsh Mistress: Jimmy Webb In The Seventies (Rhino Handmade, 5-CD box)

The essence of Jimmy Webb’s artistry is exemplified in an unlikely place on this five-disc set, which collects all of his 1970s studio albums plus a 1972 live concert and an assortment of outtakes. It’s the last of those outtakes, a duet with Harry Nilsson on Boudleaux & Felice Bryant’s “Love Hurts”, that reveals the truth.

Webb had recorded the classic ballad for his 1972 album Letters, then cut this subsequent take with Nilsson in London but decided not to use it. In the liner notes here, Webb explains he and Nilsson were “smashed out of our minds” when they cut the track, and confesses he nixed it because he felt Nilsson’s vocal was too melodramatic: “Somewhat hypocritically perhaps, I felt he was too far gone…”

Hypocritical indeed — Webb’s own vocals frequently push the bounds of emotional excess — but in a fascinatingly illustrative way. Listening to the two versions back-to-back, it’s clear Webb went for the “safe” choice — to the fundamental detriment of his art. Nilsson’s performance is histrionic, certainly, but the passion makes all the difference. Webb’s album version is smoother, sweeter, and, well, staid. Nilsson’s contribution on the alternate track makes the music instantly more heartfelt, more memorable. “When I hear it now,” Webb confesses in the liner notes, “sure, it’s a little over-the-top, but it really is Harry.”

Precisely. Such no-holds-barred personal artistry pervades almost every aspect of Webb’s 1970s catalogue; his misstep with “Love Hurts” merely serves as the exception that proves the rule. These records remain worth revisiting three decades later because Webb routinely rushed headlong through the bounds of convention.

Though Webb remains best-known for writing some of the most enduring pop standards of the 20th century — “Wichita Lineman”, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “MacArthur Park”, “Up, Up And Away” — there is an entirely different legacy on display in Webb’s oeuvre as a recording artist. It’s much less known — Webb never had anything even remotely approaching a hit single or album under his own name — but it’s also considerably more fascinating to explore. The five studio albums collected here document a young songwriter who had already achieved enormous mainstream success pursuing a decidedly non-mainstream path.

It’s often assumed Webb must have written for others because he wasn’t much of a singer, but that’s not really the case. Glen Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt and the dozens of others who covered Webb tunes regularly may have been blessed with better vocal instruments, yes. But the art of singing is the ability to make an impact vocally, and Webb’s soulful emotional investment frequently left an indelible impression on the material.

His 1970 debut Words And Music contained one folk-pop gem, “P.F. Sloan” (a tribute to a fellow maverick songwriter), that should have been all over AM radio of the era, but in general the album was a highly unorthodox and ambitious work. Side two featured the three-part, 16-minute suite “Music For An Unmade Movie” (the intro to which was played on a sort of prototype sampler featuring prerecorded car horns), followed by the brilliantly beautiful “Three Songs” (an overlapping tapestry of three classic ballads rendered as a single entity).

The 1971 follow up And So: On — available here on disc for the first time ever (the rest had been issued individually as Japanese imports) — pushed the envelope even further, and is the hidden jewel of Webb’s catalogue. There’s a certain schizophrenia at work, with garishly theatrical prog-rock portraits such as “Highpockets” and “Laspitch” (castoffs from an aborted musical) nestling up next to stunningly gorgeous ballads such as “Met Her On A Plane” and “If Ships Were Made To Sail”. The contrast is encapsulated on “One Lady”, a seemingly middle-of-the-road piano pop tune until Fred Tackett, Webb’s instrumental right-hand man, breaks the mold with a stinging, screaming guitar solo so audacious that, years later, Paul Westerberg and early Replacements manager Peter Jesperson would spend hours playing the track and debating whether it was perhaps the greatest guitar solo ever.

Letters (1972) was a left turn by comparison, more laid-back and organic (thanks to the production of Larry Marks, who’d helmed the Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace Of Sin, among others). The dramatic flourishes gave way to gentle humor, resulting in a less striking but more even-handed album. Its unqualified high point is the opening track, “Galveston”, the only one of Webb’s late-’60s smashes he recorded on his ’70s albums. It recasts the Glen Campbell version so completely, you’ll never be able to hear the song in the same light again.

Land’s End (1974) serves as a sort of culmination, distilling all the lessons and directions of the first three albums into a single sweeping musical statement. The final track, “Land’s End/Asleep On The Wind,” a nine-minute epic with full orchestration — “I’m not exaggerating when I say there may have been more than a hundred pieces,” Webb recalls in the liner notes — remains his piece de resistance. Those who know his hits routinely quote the “Wichita Lineman” couplet, “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time,” as Webb’s finest lyrical moment, but I must point to this track’s opening line: “Love is a glass of wine, balanced on the siderail of a ship.”

El Mirage (1977), produced by George Martin, is a sort of grand postscript, a signpost of transition in his personal life. “Christiaan No”, written for his young son, acknowledged the impact of fatherhood; two other tunes, “The Highwayman” and “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, became the best-known selections of his catalogue since his fabled late-’60s run.

The five albums have distinctly different personalities, an aesthetic that’s diluted here by the decision to cram them onto three discs. The disc of outtakes and demos is, however, a welcome and occasionally revelatory bonus; the live disc from a Royal Albert Hall performance is less so, though it does include Webb’s versions of most of his biggest hits (better documented on his 1997 studio album Ten Easy Pieces). Ben Edmonds’ liner notes, featuring interviews with Webb and other principals, are exemplary.

Describing the mammoth session for “Land’s End/Asleep On The Wind,” Webb comments, “I knew going in that it wasn’t gonna be a lot of people’s cup of tea, and it wasn’t, but I’m proud of the way it turned out.” And well he should be. It was when he took this approach that his music blossomed most magnificently.

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Originally Featured in Issue #56 March-April 2005

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