I strongly suspect that Rick Rubin will not be remembered primarily for starting Def Jam records – you know, where he not only launched the careers of countless hip-hop stars, but played a key role in shepherding rap music into the American mainstream. He’ll go down instead as the man who taught rock stars how to age gracefully. How to bring their careers to a dignified end, Johnny Cash’s Rubin-produced American Recordings series being the template that an increasing amount of older artists are (thankfully) adopting, e.g. Tom Jones and Neil Diamond. These are sober records that embrace, or at least confront, mortality rather than deny it by conjuring youthfulness. Some have accused of Rubin fetishizing death with Cash, which probably says more about our cultural hang-ups than anything else (what else was Cash going to sing about?!). Elderly pop music is uncharted, and potentially very rich, territory.
Glen Campbell is the latest and perhaps most touching example of the Rubin-informed approach. In 2008, after hooking up with producer Julian Raymond, he put out a return-to-form collection called Meet Glen Campbell, on which he covered songs by Green Day, Travis and Tom Petty, to name a few. It might sound like a shameless attempt to reclaim some commercial relevance, but, as with Cash and Rubin, the exact opposite was the case. He made the songs relevant, rather than vice versa, giving them a gravity that their writers could never have summoned on their own. The standout track was Campbell’s version of Paul Westerberg’s “Sadly Beautiful,” also the highlight of The Replacements’ swansong All Shook Down. It was a match made in heaven. Westerberg had long been outspoken about his admiration for Campbell’s Jimmy Webb-penned hits, and wasn’t exactly a stranger to melancholy himself. So I was thrilled to hear that Westerberg had been contracted to provide additional material for Campbell’s follow-up, Ghost on the Canvas. But then came the kicker: Campbell announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and that Ghost on the Canvas would be his final record.
It is very rare that an artist gets to tailor their swansong as such, to craft a last will and testament, as it were, which is precisely what Campbell has done here. A vocal Christian since getting sober in the mid-80s, he’s always seemed a little uncertain about how to integrate his faith with his music – even as recently as Meet Glen Campbell. There’s his “secular” output, and then there’s his “sacred.” That line has been erased on Ghost on the Canvas. In fact, it’s an album about grace as much as it’s about death. Campbell looks back on his life in the liner notes saying, “Fame can bring a lot of temptations, and I learned about that firsthand. I had some tough personal years, and it’s a big reason why the first line on this album is, ‘I’ve tried and I have failed, Lord’.” The rest of the verse, which Campbell wrote goes like this, “I’ve won and I’ve lost/I’ve lived and I have loved, Lord/Sometimes at such a cost.” The record begins on a repentant note, not a proud one, and it resounds throughout.
Ghost on the Canvas does not disappoint. The title track is one of the two that were commissioned from Westerberg and it’s top-tier PW, a glorious meditation on ineffability and soul, done up with “Galveston” strings and “Wichita Lineman” signals. The bridge finds Glen singing, “ring around the rosary/pocket full of prose you read/ashes to ashes we all fall in love/with ghost on the canvas… The spirit always knows what it sees.” Westerberg’s other contribution, “Any Trouble” is solid if not particularly noteworthy (other than the line it borrows from his “It’s a Wonderful Lie”). Elsewhere, Campbell covers Guided By Voices! In fact, he does more than cover – he redeems one of Robert Pollard’s most reviled songs, “Hold On Hope”. The lines “Everybody’s got a hold on hope/it’s the last thing that’s holding me” sound a lot more profound when sung through a veil of Alzheimer’s. Also dispersed throughout the record are a series of instrumental digressions from Jellyfish maestro Roger Manning, which give the whole affair a widescreen sense of space, best of all the stunning “The Rest is Silence,” which explicitly references Glen’s Beach Boys connection. (If you’re looking for the missing link between Brian Wilson and Paul Westerberg, look no further). The overall sound of the record wisely evokes Glen’s “countrypolitan” heyday without aping it outright. If it’s a bit polished for some, they at least come by it honestly – Glen has never been terribly gritty, pun intended.
The heart of the record is Campbell’s own songs, a remarkable fact in and of itself, as he’s never been known as a songwriter (remotely). Yet with the exception of the Dandy Warhols-assisted “Strong,” his five songs have about as, um, strong a Gospel center as one could imagine. In fact, “It’s Your Amazing Grace” sounds eerily like a CCM anthem at first, with the words taking on increasing weight as Campbell wraps them with his weary voice. “A Thousand Lifetimes” rocks surprisingly convincingly, despite its subject matter, i.e. how the road to gratitude is marked with failure and regret. “There’s No Me… Without You” ends the record, and his career, on a supremely thankful note and an exquisite extended guitar solo from the master himself (Glen was a session guitarist before he was anything else).
What ultimately makes Ghost on the Canvas such a notable addition to the ranks of dignified swansongs is not its tasteful song selection and subdued production, though those certainly enhance it. Ghost on the Canvas succeeds because it expresses the brave sound of failure birthing gratitude, of humility producing beauty, even in the face of death. It’s Gospel music, in other words. Johnny would be proud.