JIMMY WEBB El Mirage (East West Japan/Atlantic)

Having only previously experienced the genius of Jimmy Webb tangentially via Art Garfunkel’s “Watermark” album, which he wrote the bulk of, the full-strength experience comes as something of a shock. With its crystalline arrangement, swooping, cinematic string and horn charts and time-travelling storyline, “The Highwayman” - later adopted as a theme tune by the eponymous Johnny Cash/Waylon Jennings/Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson supergroup project – is heady stuff. Perhaps such vaulting ambition is only to be expected from an album dedicated to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kurt Vonnegut and Timothy Leary.

“If You See Me Getting Smaller I’m Leaving” immediately ups the already not inconsiderable ante. With its million dollar chorus and deliciously tactile hand-clappin’ outro I can’t listen to it without grinning – precision-drilled feelgood AOR at its absolute zenith. Waylon Jennings, again, sneaked his version into the racks a month ahead of the composer’s on his “Ol’ Waylon” album, somewhat obscuring the identity of the Willie to whom the song is directed, and its tales of “A madman full of beer/A four piece band and a charter bus/My borderline career”.

Not all of “El Mirage” ascends to such staggering heights – it would make for an almost unbearably brilliant 40 minutes if it did. “Mixed-Up Guy” drops the baton, only George Martin’s exquisitely polished production separating it from, say, a David Soul track. However, like all of “El Mirage”, it’s a sonic delight – this Japanese CD simply doesn’t sound like it was sourced from 28-year old tapes. The inevitable crush of West coast session talent also contributes, alongside Kenny Loggins, a pair of Little Feat and Elton John’s rhythm section. A tinkling music box opens the staggering “Christiaan No”, a paternal indulgence inspired by the once and future Webb Brother. Marvel again at Jimmy’s creamy, velveteen voice, rich, warm and expressive as it darts and leaps.

“Sugarbird” is jaunty froth, as disposable as its title suggests, and “Moment In A Shadow” is a maudlin wallow, something he does with far greater Úlan on “Where The Universes Are”, undercurrents of darkness and despair surging beneath its ever-immaculate surface. “P.F. Sloan” is irresistible, glossy meta-nostalgia, the composer’s first released version of a song originally donated to The Association. Similarly, the twinkling majesty if “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” previously saw service on albums by Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker and Judy Collins. The space muzak of “Skylark (A Meditation)” seems rather unnecessarily tagged on at the album’s end - surely half the potential greatness of a Jimmy Webb song lies in the lyrics, immediately rendering a Jimmy Webb instrumental a thing of diminished interest. Nevertheless, despite its uneven nature, the troughs of “El Mirage” throw its Olympian peaks into even sharper relief.

JIMMY WEBB Archive + Live (Warner Special Marketin

A repackaging of the 1993 “Archive” compilation, “Archive + Live” adds, as if you couldn’t guess, a live disc of recordings made in London in April 1972.

The bright, shiny but resonant pop music of opener “P. F. Sloan” recalls Webb’s compositions for the likes of The Fifth Dimension, its indictment of hipsters given some spine by the hoarse frosting atop his vocals. It’s quirkily arranged, with a nagging chorus and unconventional subject. Webb failed to heed his own advice - “Don’t sing this song/It belongs to P. F. Sloan/From now on” – revisiting it on his 1977 masterpiece “El Mirage”. “Love Song” falls prey to Webb’s tendency towards verbose sentimentality – well, if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen on something called “Love Song”. Given that one of the main attractions of a Jimmy Webb album is the songwriting, the triptych of covers that is “Three Songs” (melding together “Let It Be Me”, “Never My Love” and “I Wanna Be Free”) might seem a bit redundant. Admittedly initial impressions are of the kind of nostalgic medley often found at the close of Carpenters albums, but this is a slimmer, more artfully entwined fusion. Like much of Webb’s work, “Met Her On A Plane” never settles for the obvious: sumptuous AOR it may be, but it never slips its grip on intelligence.

“All My Love’s Laughter” may be familiar from Art Garfunkel’s lovely “Watermark” album (itself almost entirely a Webb portfolio); Jimmy’ll never have Art’s choirboy purity but he chews through the words gamely enough. The intended creamy romance of “One Lady” is rather curdled by its stinging electric guitar solo. The entirety of the first minute of Webb’s own version of “Galveston” is consumed by Fred Tackett’s slashing, one-note acoustic guitar work, demonstrating exactly how much he cared about airplay. The jaded LA ennui of “Once In The Morning” demonstrates a Randy Newman-esque sardonicism, and “When Can Brown Begin”, written in response to a Sammy Davis Jr. challenge, was never going to heal a riven nation but it’s a helluva lot more eloquent than “Ebony And Ivory”. “Piano” is a tender ballad about a boy’s love for the eponymous instrument, somewhat undone by the unseemly barroom jangle emitted by the joanna deployed on this recording. George Martin’s staggering Technicolor arrangement sends “The Highwayman” into orbit: yes, it’s mired in excess, but it works. Yet “Christiaan No” tops it immediately, a tinkling, twinkling ode to the power of positive parenting. It’s a shame that, for my money the “El Mirage” album’s towering peak, “If You See Me Getting Smaller I’m Leaving”, is absent here: I would have happily swapped “Where The Universes Are” – a song Webb admits writing for Ringo – for it. Rather more fully-formed is “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, already recorded by Joe Cocker, Glen Campbell and Judy Collins ahead of its author’s reading. Couched in metaphor, Webb says in his too-brief booklet annotation “Yes – it’s about a real person – and yes – she was unattainable”.

Due to a bizarre anti-chronological contrivance, the disc closes with selections from Jimmy’s previous album, 1974’s “Land’s End”. “Feet In The Sunshine” is – predictably – sunshine pop, with Joni Mitchell very apparent on backing vocals, but it treads (hah!) on the toes of The Beach Boys’ earlier “Take A Load Off Your Feet”. His conscious attempt to emulate “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, “Just This One Time” scales the side of the 70s power ballad without ever really reaching the summit: the sweat and craft are there, but the tune seems to have been left behind at base camp. “Crying In My Sleep” is almost comically overwrought and self-pitying, but if you can suppress the urge to giggle it’s a work of wonder, although one that’s outdone by Garfunkel’s smoother, lighter reading. The closing “Land’s End/Asleep On The Wind” sprawls over nine minutes, half of which is consumed by a turbulent orchestral overture that catches Webb at his most bombastic. All is instantly forgiven and forgotten with the poetic promise of the opening lines – “Love is a glass of wine/It’s balanced on the siderail of a ship” – and, with giant drums thwacking and reverberating across the soundstage amidst great craggy gobs of celestial melody, it’s as if the destination aimed for with “Just This One Time” has finally been attained.

The problem with assembling a comprehensive overview of Jimmy Webb’s career is that many of his most famous compositions never appeared on any of his albums, which is where the second disc comes in. Subtitled “Live At The Royal Albert Hall”, even though almost half the 17 performances were recorded in Barking, it opens with more of that darn orchestral flatulence, the Royal Philharmonic hacking and sawing through a lumpen melange of the melodies Webb may or may not be about to play. “Sleepin’ In The Daytime” sounds like a slightly uncomfortable synthesis: Webb’s backing trio provide unkempt but elastic rock, and the orchestra splurge all over the spaces. The epic “MacArthur Park” was later appropriated by the Wu-Tang Clan (why, are you going to stop them?!) in all its cake-as-relationship-metaphor gooeyness. “Wichita Lineman” is so good he plays it twice: at the close of the first, instrumental rendition Webb says “If you didn’t know that you’re to be excused because I forgot to sing on that one!” “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” is introduced as one of Frank Zappa’s “more tender ballads” (which, with delicious irony, Webb plays on piano) and with the orchestra away on a union-negotiated tea break the band are allowed to get funky unfettered. “Pocketfull Of Keys” takes a keyring as a map of emotional desolation; with just Webb and his piano, it’s one of the disc’s highlights. Equally solo and unaffected, “When Can Brown Begin” and “Song For My Brother” (later covered by Art Garfunkel as “Wooden Planes”) are the stripped-down essence of a singer/songwriter. In “Jerusalem” Los Angeles steels itself for a holy smiting (a rejected entry to a songwriting competition run by the city’s mayor!), “Galvaston” (sic) reveals its Vietnam roots and “Piano” is played on a rather better maintained instrument than that used on the studio version. Finally there’s that long-delayed vocal performance of “Wichita Lineman”, and if it’s not the greatest rendition ever – for me Glen Campbell and R.E.M. have both bettered it - it remains a masterclass in wistful longing.

For too long Jimmy Webb’s 70s output has only been available in the form of a ruinously expensive Rhino Handmade box set, although I’m delighted to learn that the individual albums are being reissued practically as I type. As a primer of what you’ve been missing, as brilliant as it can be frustrating, “Archive + Live” does an admirable job.