Still melting in the dark
Jimmy Webb has been giving interviews to promote his new album, and when someone asked him which he considered to be the best of the countless recorded versions of “MacArthur Park”, I was pleased by his answer. “Richard Harris,” he said, clearly harbouring no resentment over the Irish actor’s insistence on rendering the title as “MacArthur’s Park”, despite attempts by the 21-year-old composer, arranger and producer to correct to him during the sessions in 1968 for A Tramp Shining, the album from which the seven-minute track would be plucked to become a huge hit.
Forty-five years later, the composer sings it as he originally intended in the version included on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, in which he recruits a bunch of guests to help him on the album’s 14 tracks. Lyle Lovett appears on “Sleepin’ in the Daytime”, Joe Cocker on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, Art Garfunkel on “Shattered”, David Crosby and Graham Nash on “If These Walls Could Speak”, and so on. Mostly, these aren’t real duets: the guests either add background vocals or, like Rumer on the title track, pop up to deliver a verse or two. Webb is unquestionably at the centre of the stage, ensuring the album’s overall coherence, something assisted by Fred Mollin’s production, which is full of banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros on top of a de luxe rhythm section: the epitome of LA-goes-to-Nashville polish.
The tracks I like best include the singularly beautiful “Elvis and Me”, in which he touchingly outlines the story of his real-life meetings with Presley, assisted by the Jordanaires (recorded before the death of Gordon Stoker, their last original member, earlier this year), and the duet with Keith Urban on “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”, a lovely song which didn’t do quite as well for Glen Campbell in 1968 as its trio of Webb-composed predecessors, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. But the pick of the lot is the remake of the thoroughly eccentric song that turned a wayward thespian into a star of the pop charts.
The wonderful choice of guest on Webb’s new version of “MacArthur Park” is Brian Wilson. We’re given the full seven minutes and 21 seconds of this extraordinary song, all four movements, without the lavish orchestration of the original but with an arrangement that more subtly reproduces the full dramatic range and makes marvellous use of Wilson’s celestial harmonies, stacked behind and around the lead (and we won’t ask how they were achieved: just enjoy the result). The third movement, originally the orchestral interlude, is now opened up to feature a majestically soaring dobro solo from the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglas, as the rhythm team races alongside him.
There’s always an extra dimension of poignancy that a composer with even half a voice brings to a performance of his or her own song, and Webb sings his great lyric — what an opening: “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance” — as well as it has ever been sung. His homespun delivery makes him sound like a modest sort of chap. But in the future, if anyone asks him which he considers to be the best version of “MacArthur Park”, he can say: “Mine.”
* The photograph of Jimmy Webb is from the insert to Still Within the Sound of My Voice, and was taken by Jessica Daschner.
America’s greatest living songwriter (Dylan is beyond being just a songwriter). His lyrics, his music, his arranging skills have always been top draw and Mac Park by Mr H is still definitive, although I agree that the version on Still Within is gorgeous. I do, however, doubt that Brian Wilson is anywhere on that record. Deep in the credits it says Jeffrey Foskett, Wilson’s longtime cohort. A shout out for Rider from Nowhere with america, a relatively unknown JLW song, but a blast.
Thank you, Richard, for pointing out such varied gems, as always. I remember driving back from France two weekends ago and hearing Radio 4’s ‘Loose Ends’, where Jimmy Webb was interviewed before accompanying Glen Tilbrook, the studio guest, who was singing Wichita Lineman. Jimmy seemed a very generous and amusing man.