Glen Campbell: “Meet Glen Campbell”
Even aside from the fact that Glen Campbell had been recording music for over four decades, the title of his latest album, Meet Glen Campbell, is a bit misleading– not that it’s a misnomer, exactly, but it’s at least a little ambiguous. It could be taken as either a statement of reinvention– i.e., meet the new Glen Campbell– or it could be seen as an album that re-introduces us to the artist’s strengths– i.e., meet Glen Campbell, all over again. But of course, the truth really lies somewhere in between, as the album is both a consolidation of Campbell’s strengths and a striking new direction, one that finds Campbell taking a bold step toward engaging a whole new generation of listeners without compromising that which made him so special to begin with.
Some might say, of course, that Campbell has been in need of a reinvention for several years; others, that he was never all that great to begin with. Those in the former camp would be entirely correct– Campbell has been making bland, faceless albums for years now– while those in the latter camp are, in all fairness, probably more averse to Campbell’s style than to the man himself. After all, Campbell’s claim to fame is smooth, schmaltzy, string-laden countrypolitan, a genre that hasn’t aged well and receives only ridicule in most circles, a legacy that is understandable but not totally deserved. At its best, Campbell’s brand of countrypolitan blurs the lines between country and pop, not unlike a lot of what’s going on in mainstream country today, and wears its heart on its sleeve with big, heartfelt emotions. At its worst, it’s just downright corny.
The accomplishment of Meet Glen Campbell, then, is a rather remarkable one: Here the artist strips away all of the excess and sap from the countrypolitan sound but maintains its slickness and its rich emotions, creating an album that is, simply put, big, sweeping, hook-laden pop, music that sounds clean and goes down smooth but lingers in the brain and the heart because of its catchiness, its simplicity, and its feeling. And there’s certainly a lot of feeling to this record, slick though it may be; in fact, its slickness is half of what makes it work so well, as Campbell is enjoying the kind of production he’s always deserved, big and glossy, but very smart and immaculately crafted. So sure, there are plenty of bells and whistles, not just in the string arrangements on every song, but also drum loops, banjos, and electric guitars, as well as some electronic effects; but crucially, these flourishes don’t distract from the songs, but rather enhance them, highlight their pop hooks and their craft and make them sound like the radio hits they deserve to be.
And the songs themselves, of course, are the other half of the equation. Like a lot of other veterans hoping for a comeback, Campbell turns here to some fresh, young rock and roll blood to enliven his music, and, surprisingly, it does just that. Rather than make him sound like an old fart desperate to regain some hipster cred, these songs highlight his earnestness and his sincerity, his big heart and the crags in his well-worn vocals. These aren’t songs chosen because of any thematic heft, or because they address issues of mortality and old age the way most of Johnny Cash’s latter-day cover selections did– they’re chosen because they’re great pop songs, and because they suit Campbell incredibly well. So there are a few sweeping, driving pop songs here– Travis’ “Sing” is the clearest example, opening the record with its chiming, joyful crescendos– but most of these songs are achingly emotive ballads, elegiac pieces like U2‘s “All I Want is You,” Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” Green Day‘s “Good Riddance,” Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These.” There’s an impressive array of talents represented here– Campbell also covers Tom Petty, The Replacements, and The Velvet Underground– but that might be a bit deceptive, as these ten tracks all fit nicely into Campbell’s comfort zone, playing to his strengths and allowing him to connect with the material better than he has in a good while.
Of course, “comfortable” isn’t generally a positive thing when it comes to great music, but in this case it works. A big part of the album’s charm comes from its easy warmth, its unabashed appeal to Campbell’s strengths even as it stretches ever so slightly in some directions he’s never quite gone before. So calling it a comeback might be a bit inaccurate– it seems too modest for that– but it certainly makes one glad Campbell is back, and it arguably makes his talents easier to appreciate than ever before.