Never one to reach out to the millions, songwriter Jimmy Webb has yet been a potent musical force since his first success in the 1960s. With covers by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Joe Cocker, many of his compositions have earned a lasting place among the classics of pop and country music.
Now that his songwriting well seems to be drying up, Webb has taken to re-recording tunes from his back catalogue with high-profile colleagues: Like Just Across the River (2010), Still Within the Sound of My Voice sees him teaming up with a respectable array of singers. Joe Cocker, Art Garfunkel, Brian Wilson, Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson and others help to revitalize such Webb songs as “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “If These Walls Could Speak” and “Sleepin’ in the Daytime.”
Included also is Webb’s most famous and notorious outing: “MacArthur Park.” With its sentimentality bordering on hysteria — coupled with bizarre imagery not necessarily conductive to the song’s emotional sincerity — “MacArthur Park” displays many of Webb’s trademark excesses. And yet, he somehow manages to blend the unlikely lyrics and sprawling harmonies into a heady mixture that is both original and strangely moving.
In this new version, with harmony vocals courtesy of Brian Wilson, most of the piano and orchestra parts have been transferred to more subdued acoustic guitars, toning down the over-blown drama to lay bare the song’s sentimental heart. It’s like meeting Lady Gaga on a lazy Sunday morning to discover that without all the make-up, dramatic antics, and outrageous “clothing” — she is actually quite appealing.
Webb takes a similar approach to many of the other songs. Banjos, mandolins and steel guitars take precedence over pianos and elaborate arrangements. Combined with excellent vocal performances by Webb himself and guest stars like Rumer, Joe Cocker and Graham Nash, the result is a perfect showcase of Webb’s songwriting abilities: an album of well-crafted pop, country and folk music with a sharp sentimental edge.
“There will be another song for me, and I will sing it,” the twenty-one year old Webb vowed on 1967′s “MacArthur Park.” Forty-five years down the line, he is still singing the same surreal and enigmatic epic of lost love. But, with Brian Wilson stepping in to sing harmony, who can blame him, really?