For me, the greatest songwriter alive. What astounding technical skills: the haunting, eccentric harmonies, the soaring melodies. And what emotional depth and variety: passionate love songs with melodies worthy of Tchaikovsky, but that express the wide open spaces of the American spirit; hymnlike songs of offbeat spirituality; grand, towering rock songs. Webb's lyrics can be melodramatic at worst, but can be beautifully told stories at best. But because our shallow culture puts its emphasis on the performer, not the composer, he's not famous even on the level of a David Bowie or Elton John. So his musical output is split neatly in two: his early songs, sung by other performers, sold millions of records and became part of our musical consciousness: "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Up Up and Away," "MacArthur Park." Then he began a career as a solo artist, and our shallow entertainment industry ignored him because his vocals were not polished, or because he lacked the sensationalism of a Madonna or Michael Jackson. But there are songs on the solo albums that are unsung jewels; I have no doubt that they will come be recognized as classics ranking with "Wichita Lineman" and the rest.
Here are his albums, each one a revelation to me: Words and Music (Reprise 1970), which to me ranks beside Revolver in showing the musical, creative possibilities of rock; And So: On (Warner Bros. 1971), the theme song of my early twenties, full of overpowering laments and rapturous love songs; Letters (Reprise 1972), which introduced a real bite into Webb's lyrics; Land's End (Asylum 1974), which I sometimes think is Webb's best record, and one of the three or four great records of our generation, ending with the long, eerie, experimental, majestic, rock song "Asleep on the Wind"; El Mirage (Atlantic 1977), produced by George Martin, including Jimmy's very non-country version of "The Highwayman," and his string-drenched version of the incomparable "Moon is a Harsh Mistress," as opposed to versions by Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt and Joe Cocker (this last was the first recording, with piano and understated arrangement by Webb, on I Can Stand a Little Rain (A&M, 1974) and it may be the best version); and Angel Heart (Columbia 1982), just standard Webb greatness.
With Suspending Disbelief (Elektra 1993) we've finally entered the CD age; track this down--it ranks with Land's End as his best album. It includes the great Elvis song, "Elvis and Me," the achingly beautiful country-western ballad, "It Won't Bring Her Back," the anthemic rock song of freedom and youth, "Too Young to Die," and three radiant paeans to love and love lost, "Postcards from Paris," "Just Like Always," "Adios." Finally is Ten Easy Pieces (Guardian/Angel, 1996), fine, startling, solo piano performances of some of Jimmy's more famous songs, that do not so much re-interpret them as re-create them. "MacArthur Park" here is especially renewed. Then there is a Garfunkel album of Webb songs, Watermark (Columbia 1978), with Jimmy on piano, and fully in the same upper reaches as the other Webb albums, with the addition of Garfunkel's trademark vocals. Garfunkel, with Amy Grant, also performed on Webb's Christmas oratorio, The Animal's Christmas (Columbia 1986),
a brilliantly original and moving creation. And I'm leaving out great songs and performances like Glen Campbell or Linda Ronstadt, "Still Within the Sound of My Voice" and Linda's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind (Elektra 1989), which has three other superlative Webb songs, "I Keep It Hid," "Adios," and "Shattered"; the Nanci Griffith rendition (backed by Webb's piano and vocal harmonies) of "If These Walls Could Speak" on Red, Hot and Country (Mercury 1994) (or the Amy Grant or Sean Colvin versions); or Garfunkel's "All I Know," "Another Lullaby" (both on Art's first, Angel Clare, 1973), and "Scissor's Cut" (on Scissor's Cut, 1981); Glen Campbell doing "Light Years," on an album with the same title, mostly Webb songs. And then there are exquisite, haunting songs I've only heard Jimmy perform live, such as "Just Like Marilyn," "Yours for the Asking," "Kangaroo Shoes" and "When This Moment is Through."
Jimmy Webb's early albums are not on CD, one of the great lunatic cultural disasters of our age. However, a magnificent 78-minute overview of the solo albums, Archive, 1970-1977 (WEA 1994) is available in Europe. You can find it in the big on-line CD stores. Also on CD are Angel Heart, Watermark, The Animal's Christmas, and Richard Harris's A Tramp Shining (1968, now on MCA), which last album has all Webb songs, including the infamous, irreplaceable first version of "MacArthur Park."
If you value musical imagination and creativity, and the emotional integrity and power of great art, you owe it to yourself to hear these albums and songs before you die.
Link: "Jimmy Webb's Official Home Page"