Album Review: Glen Campbell’s searing, soaring send-off, ‘Ghost On The Canvas’

 “Ghost on the Canvas” is Glen Campbell”s album of a lifetime…literally.

The stunning set, out Aug. 30, reflects on the multiple Grammy winner”s career and times often through the prism of his life-altering diagnosis of Alzheimer”s Disease.  The 75-year old announced he had the disease earlier this year and that “Ghost on the Canvas” would be his final album.  He starts a goodbye tour later this fall.

Without ever skirting the dire future he now faces, Campbell and producer/co-writer Julian Raymond, have made a poignant, often breathtakingly vulnerable album that never wallows in pity, and despite its very strong profession of faith, never seems pollyanna-ish. It”s Campbell”s equivalent of Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin”s “American Recordings.”  Even if you”re too young to have ever given Glen Campbell a second thought, “Ghost On the Canvas” is worth every repeated listen and, in fact, should be a Grammy contender for album of the year.

[More after the jump…]

On album opener “A Better Place” Campbell sings “Sometimes I”m so confused Lord, my past gets in my way. I need the ones I love, Lord, more and more each day.”

On “Strong,” he accepts his fate. “This is not the road I wanted for us, but now that it”s here, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. All I want to be for you is strong,” he sings to his wife, calling himself a “broken prize.”

The album”s most autobiographical track, “A Thousand Lifetimes,” he sings, “I”ve held onto coal in my bare hands, praying for diamonds/I trusted in the words that to my face turned out were lying…each breath I take is a gift that I will never take for granted.”

Though Campbell disappeared from pop radio decades ago-his last hit was 1977’s massively successful “Southern Nights,” penned by Allen Toussaint, there was a time when he ruled the TV and radio airwaves.  In the late ’60s, he was one of music”s biggest superstars at both pop and country, churning out hit after hit, including such priceless Jimmy Webb-penned tunes as “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “Galveston.”

The solo success came after Campbell”s  turn as a member of the legendary band of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Among the tunes he played guitar on -in and out of that star-studded assemblage-were Frank Sinatra”s “Strangers In the Night,” Elvis Presley”s “Viva Las Vegas,” The Righteous Brothers” “You”ve Lost That Loving Feelin”,” and The Beach Boys” “Pet Sounds.”  He even toured with the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson.

After “Southern Night”s” success, his career began to fall off and he very publicly battled alcoholic and drug addictions, but, like Cash, returned again and again to his faith to sustain him.  In 2008, he released “Meet Glen Campbell,” his first album in 15 years. Produced by Raymond, the critically acclaimed album included covers of tunes from U2, Tom Petty and Green Day among others.

Just as “Ghost on the Canvas” reflects on Campbell”s life lyrically, Raymond has cleverly, but not overly cutely, referenced past Campbell songs, such as “Wichita Lineman” on “A Thousand Lifetimes,” or even “Gentle On My Mind”  on the title track.  Sonically throughout the album falls straight down the pop-country line that made Campbell so appealing to millions originally. Its simple production, appealingly bolstered by the occasional strings, places the focus squarely on Campbell”s still resonant voice and his astonishingly vibrant finger-picking guitar style.

Though Campbell and Raymond wrote the bulk of the set, Raymond collected a few from some of his songwriting buddies, including The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, who penned the title track.  Campbell makes these tunes completely his own, perhaps none more so than Teddy Thompson”s rollicking “In My Arms,” and with the help of fellow guitar slingers Chris Isaak, Dick Dale and Brian Seltzer, turns it into an irrepressibly catchy surf-flavored shoot out.

On Jakob Dylan”s simple, gorgeous “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,”  Campbell canvases his life and his faith, plainly singing  “God wants us busy, never giving up/He wants nothing but the whole world for us” with the faith of a child.  (Dylan wrote the track for Campbell, but since “Ghost” took more than two years to make, Dylan recorded it for his 2010 album, “Women & Country”- in fact, his album”s title comes from this song).   Guided By Voice”s Robert Pollard contributed “Hold On Hope,” a tune that first appeared on GBV’s 1999 album, “Do The Collapse.” 

There are a number of interstitial short instrumentals that tie the songs together, such as the sensational, “riding-off-into the-sunset” coda “Valley of the Son,” that link “Hold On Hope” and Westerberg”s other contribution “Any Trouble” together or the calliope in “Second Street North” that bridges “It”s Your Amazing Grace” and “In My Arms.”

The album closes with “There”s No Me… Without You.” Almost four minutes of the  six-minute plus track are instrumental, as Campbell and Billy Corgan, Cheap Trick”s Rick Nielsen, Marty Rifkin and Brian Setzer twist and gently bring the musical trip to an end, as Campbell lets his guitar get the last word.