Since he reached his commercial peak almost a decade before I was born, most of my initial exposure to Glen Campbell was through his various tabloid appearances and his conservative political stumping, none of which did much to endear him to me. That he’s spent the better part of the last two decades in semi-retirement, while fellow Country Music Hall of Fame acts like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton have all been busy recording some of the best music of their careers, hasn’t really offered many new reasons to revisit Campbell’s catalogue either. Sure, “Galveston” is a classic single for a host of obvious reasons, and Campbell is undeniably a gifted singer and guitarist, but his super-polished brand of pop-country has never resonated with me.
That said, I believe it’s important to acknowledge how one’s biases shape perceptions and to be honest about what those biases are. After finding 2008’s Meet Glen Campbell an uneven, misguided attempt at launching a late-career renaissance, I didn’t expect much from Ghost on the Canvas. Still, given its context (Campbell announced in 2010 that he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and that Ghost on the Canvas will be his official retirement album), I figured it was a noteworthy enough release that I still wanted to hear it.
I’m glad I did. Ghost on the Canvas is an insightful, ambitious album of real reflection and depth. Collaborating again with Julian Raymond, producer of Meet Glen Campbell, Campbell has crafted an album that alludes to the various stages of his lengthy, storied career without becoming a proper retrospective or a simple exercise in easy nostalgia. To that end, Ghost on the Canvas plays as both an effective swan song and the most creative and varied album of Campbell’s career.
Because he hasn’t recorded all that often, Campbell’s tenor is still in fine shape, and he brings a genuine, lived-in authority to his vocal performances. His choices of cover songs are unexpected and uniformly excellent. Jakob Dylan’s “Nothin’ But the Whole Wide World” is especially lovely, as Campbell delivers a light-handed and affecting meditation on the feelings of security and optimism that his faith provide. “A Better Place,” written by Paul Westerberg, opens the album on a similarly hopeful note, as Campbell sings, “The one thing I know/The world’s been good to me” over a simple, fingerpicked guitar figure. A cover of Teddy Thompson’s “In My Arms” is the album’s most surprising cut, with Campbell turning in on a downright youthful, exuberant performance that matches the energy of the song’s rollicking arrangement.
It’s Campbell’s original songs that are the album’s strongest and most poignant. “Thousand Lifetimes,” which boasts the heaviest rock production in the singer’s catalogue, is a clear-eyed confrontation of mortality, as he addresses personal demons head-on and remarks, “Each breath I take is a gift that I will never take for granted.” In another context, that line might scan as maudlin, but there’s such force to Campbell’s delivery that it plays instead like a personal mission statement. “Strong” is even more impressive in its unflinching honesty, as Campbell sings to his wife, “This is not the road I want for us/But now that it’s here/All I want to be for you is strong.” It’s a song that trades in fear and uncertainty as much as it expresses perseverance, and it’s that willingness to disclose and to confront personal vulnerability that makes Ghost on the Canvas such a strong album.
Raymond, for his part, generally keeps the focus on Campbell and his thoughtful performances. He establishes a lo-fi aesthetic that reinforces the intimacy of the album, bringing occasional flourishes of texture to his relatively unobtrusive production. Though Campbell is considered a country artist, his pop leanings have always been strong, and Raymond certainly produces Ghost on the Canvas like a contemporary indie-pop record. There are a few significant missteps, including the overlong, indulgent instrumental outro to “There’s No Me,” and a few orchestral flourishes that recall some of Campbell’s schmaltzier singles.
The brief instrumental interludes that punctuate the album are also a distraction. Intended to pay tribute to specific eras of Campbell’s career (the lush, wordless vocal harmonies on “The Rest Is Silence” are a nod to his stint with the Beach Boys), they’re simply too short and too abstract to make many clear points or to add depth to the record. Fortunately, Ghost on the Canvas doesn’t need much assistance in that regard. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s honest and ambitious, and it allows Campbell to end his career both on his own terms and on a real high note.