Jimmy Webb wasn’t the only prominent songwriter to enjoy success in the 1960s, then launch his own solo career; Isaac Hayes, Carole King, and Neil Diamond all followed similar paths. As a songwriter, I rate Webb among the 1960s greats – like Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney, he was able to corral complex chord structures into accessible pop songs. He was a gifted lyricist as well, able to express interesting ideas in pop songs like the existentialism of ‘Wichita Lineman’ and the first person war protest of ‘Galveston’.
But despite a few chances at a solo career, he never broke through as a solo performer to the mainstream. While his voice improved with time as it thickened, at the start of his career his vocals were thin and wheezy. Additionally, given the chance to record solo, he seemed to regard it as an opportunity to self-express, and his early albums contained non-commercial rants against music critics and of Biblical judgement. Although his rants give his early albums some diversity, he’s at his best when he’s writing his harmonically complex, distinctive ballads, and songs like ‘Met Her On A Plane’ and ‘Highwayman’ are terrific.
Unusually for this site, I’ve covered most of Webb’s late period albums – largely because he’s only recorded a solo album each decade after the 1970s. He has also made three albums reworking his earlier songs – the first one, 1996’s Ten Easy Pieces, is a classic, but I’ve ignored the others. In many senses Webb’s discography is a good deal bigger, with albums of originals he produced for artists including the 5th Dimension, Richard Harris, The Supremes, and Art Garfunkel, and I’m planning to come back and cover some of those.
Jimmy Webb Album Reviews
Words and Music
After a successful career as a songwriter in the 1960s, Words and Music was Webb’s first official solo album – a previous album was a record company cash-in, plastering string arrangements over Webb’s demos. After years of writing songs for others, Words and Music is often focused on self-expression; the gorgeous, lush songs that you’d expect from Webb share space with rants about the music industry. While the latter songs are generally weaker, they do provide a balance to the album. There’s also a heavy emphasis on Webb’s faith, most notably on ‘Jerusalem’, which draws parallels between L.A. and the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Webb’s vocals are at their roughest here – while he’s not a great singer, he’s expressive and tuneful, but his voice would become a more effective instrument as it thickened over the years. It’s also sweetened by his sister Susan’s backing vocals.
The most notable song is ‘P.F. Sloan’, a shout out to a fellow songwriter, and the line “The last time I saw P.F. Sloan/he was summer burnt and winter blown” is one of Webb’s most memorable phrases. His musical adaptation of ‘Psalm 150’ is also effective. The second side is rougher going, with the rants like ‘Dorothy Chandler Blues’ taking up a lot of space, but the pop cover medley with the Webbs duetting is pretty.
Words and Music is interesting, but it’s the least satisfying of Webb’s early albums, and it’s like the chance to express his emotions is often overriding his song craft.
And: So On
And: So On is much more focused on what Webb does best, beautifully crafted pop songs. While Words and Music had a rough hewn quality to it, And: So On is much lusher, with strings and more detailed arrangements, which suit Webb’s harmonically rich songs.
‘Met Her On A Plane’ opens the record, and it’s a prime piece of Webb writing- capturing a feeling of regret and longing while remaining vague and universal. There are plenty of other understated gems, like the pretty ‘All My Love’s Laughter’ and ‘If Ships We’re Made To Sail’, but you expect Webb to excel at these. It’s the harder material that’s the marked improvement from Words and Music – the fuzz guitar of ‘Laspitch’ and the multipart ‘Highpockets’ are both hidden Webb treasures.
And: So On is a focused album of great songs from Webb – a nearly great record that’s lost in the shuffle of classic releases in the early 1970s.
A more confident Webb’s returns with Letters; his voice is clearer and he brings a sense of humour to songs like ‘Campo De Encino’ and the cocaine parody ‘Once In The Morning’. The critic baiting of Words and Music is back on ‘Catharsis’, which Art Garfunkel later adapted as ‘Mr Shuck and Jive’. ‘Catharsis’ is notable as the first album to feature the word “fuck”, beating out Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses by a couple of months.
But like most Webb albums, these are merely distractions from the main course of beautiful ballads. Glen Campbell had already covered ‘Galveston’, but Webb’s stripped down version is also effective. The closing two pieces are both gorgeous – ‘When can Brown Begin’ was originally written for The Supremes, and the trumpet line is gorgeous, while ‘Piano’ is elegant and heartfelt.
Letters boasts some exquisite ballads, but some of the other material is less convincing.
After not finding success with Reprise, Webb moved to Asylum records. Like And: So On, Land’s End focuses on Webb’s balladry, dispensing with the jokey songs and rants, and focusing on lush fare like the lengthy ‘Land’s End/Asleep on the Wind’ suite that closes the album. It’s noticeable that Webb’s writing voice is sometimes tending more towards the mainstream, songs like ‘Just One Time’ and ‘Crying In My Sleep’ are strong melodies, but they lack the distinctive voice that characterised Webb’s earlier material. There’s also little keyboard for a Webb album – the acoustic guitar and strings are more dominant instruments, while Joni Mitchell contributes backing vocals, and Ringo Starr and Elton John’s band are also involved.
But with its lush, consistent sound, Land’s End is still a satisfying effort from Webb. The closing suite with its grandiose choral and orchestral arrangement is the first time Webb had the chance to stretch out with a long running time and full orchestra on a solo record and it’s strong. There’s also the foot care advice of ‘Feet in the Sunshine’, and the pretty impressionist pop of ‘Cloudman’ and ‘Ocean in his Eyes’, while the bluesy rock of ‘Alyce Blue Gown’ works well.
I don’t know that there’s any top tier Webb material on Land’s End, but it’s an album full of pleasing, warm songs.
The three year gap between releases allowed Webb to stockpile a strong set of songs for El Mirage, and he wasn’t reticent about using songs that he’d already given to others artists, as well as recording a punchier version of ‘P.F. Sloan’. The result’s the strongest set of songs on his 1970s albums, given a lush 1970s treatment. George Martin provides orchestral arrangements, while ‘Mixed Up Guy’ dips its toes into disco, although it works fine.
‘Highwayman’ was already covered by Glen Campbell, but it didn’t become a Webb standard until Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson covered it in the 1980s, the tale of four unfortunate men in different epochs of history. ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’ is a beautiful, moody ballad, while ‘Mixed Up Guy’ and ‘Christiaan No’ were earlier recorded by Dusty Springfield and Glen Campbell respectively.
Lush and filled with beautiful songs, El Mirage is Webb’s strongest album of the 1970s, and it’s the approachable album that could have broken him into the mainstream as a solo performer.
Jimmy Webb’s recorded output slowed right down at this point, only getting to make one album of originals a decade. Angel Heart, his first album in five years, is very much a product of the late 1970s and early 1980s, somewhere between the smooth sounds of yacht rock and glossy adult contemporary. Much of the album was recorded in the 1970s, but after problems with finding a label to issue it, it didn’t appear until 1982.
Webb’s material is a little iffy, especially by his standards – some of these songs are almost dealing in Hallmark sentiments, like the doo wop of the title track and the sappy ‘One of the Few’, although Webb subverts the genre with the odd ‘God’s Gift’ (“don’t start thinking you’re God’s gift/Just because I love you”). The generic rock guitars make the faster songs difficult listening as well. The album has issues, but there’s one classic song, the closing ‘Old Wing Mouth’, which largely ditches the synths, tackles Tele-evangelism, and adds some terrific Michael McDonald background vocals. There are also a couple of songs that Art Garfunkel had previously featured, ‘Scissors Cut’ and ‘In Cars’ and they’re two of the better songs here.
‘Old Wing Mouth’ is wonderful, and there is some interesting song craft elsewhere, but Angel Heart is sappy and the slick sound hasn’t aged well.
If Angel Heart was a sappy love album, Suspending Disbelief is a jaded divorce album, as an older Webb looks back at a failed marriage. After the slick sounds of Angel Heart, the arrangements are much more stripped down, and have dated much more gracefully. The backing band includes the L.A. types you’d expect – backing vocalists include David Crosby, Don Henley, and Linda Ronstadt, while Ross Kunkel and Leland Sklar are the rhythm section. There aren’t the dazzling melodies of a young Webb, even though ‘Adios’ is pretty – the main appeal is Webb’s story telling.
While failed love is the major theme, there’s also plenty of nostalgic rumination on other subjects – among the most memorable songs is ‘Elvis And Me’, which recounts Webb’s friendship with Mr Presley. The best song is the closing rearrangement of the hymn ‘I Will Arise’- Webb hadn’t touched much on his faith on his solo albums since 1970’s Words and Music, but Webb’s gnarled voice is a perfect fit as it lifts into ‘I’ll Fly Away’.
Suspending Disbelief is a solid late period effort from Webb – its tasteful arrangements and story-telling mode are good directions for Webb to explore.
Ten Easy Pieces
Jimmy Webb always had the reputation of a songwriter who couldn’t sing, and he struggled to sell records even though he had written pop masterpieces like Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Galveston’. But by the 1990s, his reedy voice had filled out to a deeper and more attractive instrument, and his re-recordings of ten classic songs from his songbook are gorgeous; he’s not a virtuoso singer, but he’s more than capable of handling his own beautiful melodies. While there are a couple of dozen backing musicians credited, including Michael McDonald and Shawn Colvin on backing vocals, most of the time it’s easy to forget they’re there, as the focus is squarely on Webb’s piano and voice.
Most of these songs are among Webb’s best known – the anti-war protest of ‘Galveston’, the existentialism of ‘Wichita Lineman’, the elegance of ‘All I Know’, and the moody ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’ are among the all time contributions to the pop songbook from Webb, and his emotive readings here often eclipse the more familiar recordings.
I sometimes feel like skipping the eight minutes of ‘MacArthur Park’, but otherwise it’s an almost flawless collection of enduring pop songs.
Twilight of the Renegades
Jimmy Webb’s first album of original material for 12 years is an improvement on his previous collection of songs – while Suspending Disbelief often trod the well worn territory of relationship breakdown, Twilight of the Renegades gives Webb a wider palette to work with. It shares the same musical template as Suspending Disbelief – proven LA session musicians subtly behind Webb’s piano – but it’s much more playful, with light-hearted songs like ‘Why Do I Have To?’ and ‘Spanish Radio’. Webb’s singing has continued improving too – he’s very capable here, holding notes and using vibrato, and his deepened voice is pleasant.
As the title suggests, Twilight of the Renegades features several portraits of rebellious characters – both admiring (Webb surely shares an affinity with the artist he profiles on ‘Paul Gauguin in the South Seas’) and scathing on ‘Class Clown’, which ends with a refrain of “He’s Homeless”. While the air of calm nostalgia gives Twilight some dull spots, there are strong pieces like ‘Just Like Marilyn’ and ‘Paul Gauguin’, while ‘Driftwood’ is a dramatic closer.
It’s not as exciting as his earlier work, but Twilight of the Renegades is a worthwhile effort from Webb. At the time of writing it was his last solo album, and it would be a shame if he didn’t get to make another one.
Ten Favourite Jimmy Webb Solo Songs*
Met Her On A Plane
The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress
Old Wing Mouth
Land’s End/Asleep On The Wind
All My Love’s Laughter
*I didn’t consider songs that only appeared on Ten Easy Pieces and not on earlier Webb albums.