by Edd Hurt
Ghost on the Canvas appears to be Glen Campbell's final recording — as you probably know, the singer and guitarist announced this summer that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. As such, it's a mostly successful attempt to modernize Campbell's style up to the late power-pop era: Producer Julian Raymond uses a group of musicians that includes former Jellyfish members Jason Falkner and Roger Manning Jr., along with guest stars Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Billy Corgan. Much like Raymond's previous Campbell collaboration, 2008's Meet Glen Campbell, the new record gives the Arkansas native his due as an interpreter, singer, songwriter and guitarist — Campbell essays Robert Pollard's "Hold on Hope" and Paul Westerberg's "Any Trouble" very effectively, and writes a few with the producer. Ghost on the Canvas marries Campbell's vocals and guitar to a production and songwriting style that reminds me a lot of the high-end power pop of XTC, Big Star and Jellyfish.
For all its musical energy and inventiveness — Raymond layers acoustic guitars, strings and keyboards with formalist ease — Ghost does perhaps depend a bit too much on aural deja vu and, well, formalism. Apart from Westerberg's and Pollard's contributions, some of the record seems merely a modernizing strategy. For example, Dandy Warhols back up Campbell on "Strong," a tune Campbell wrote with Raymond. The song strikes me as well-intentioned but generic — something that would be better placed in a soundtrack. The same goes for "There's No Me ... Without You," which closes the record.
On the other hand, the Westerberg-penned title track is great, soaring pop, complete with strings that echo the melody and deep-toned guitar by Campbell that plays the melody straight, just like the old days. With its Beatles-esque vocal harmonies and spare rhythm-guitar parts, "A Thousand Lifetimes" is probably the record's most XTC-like moment. Meanwhile, "A Better Place" sports acoustic guitars that remind me of the texture of such Big Star tunes as "Give Me Another Chance" and "ST 100/6." Ghost has a subtly revisionist feel that recalls Jeff Lynne's work, and I quite like Campbell's take on Teddy Thompson's rocking "In My Arms," which features some of the record's most telling lines: "Keep it on the recent / Keep on the now / Give me an easy way out."
Campbell's voice sounds remarkably intact throughout Ghost — his high notes are clear and precise, and he sounds to me as accomplished and unknowable as he did in his '60s and '70s heyday. The more I listen to Ghost, the more Campbell reminds me of Gene Clark — his sense of displacement and vague dissatisfaction is very similar to Clark's view of the world. What makes Campbell's voice so elusive is its combination of melancholia, strength and detachment, along with what seems to me a total immersion in the hard truths that pop music lays out with such ease.
Ghost on the Canvas addresses Campbell's long career as session man, interim Beach Boy ("The Rest is Silence" is a loving Smile tribute) and sometimes troubled superstar. I don't think it always works, but Raymond's production gives Campbell the kind of backdrop that allows the singer to investigate his own myth — not to mention the fantasies of the fans who have loved Campbell forever. It's a fitting end to a remarkable, if flawed, career, and you don't even have to believe in pop stars to love it. "Don't pin your hopes / Don't pin your dreams / On misanthropes / And guys like me," he sings in "Any Trouble." He says that, but we do it anyway.