Just a few months ago, the world learned that long-time country start Glen Campbell has received a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Campbell is currently on his farewell tour, and he released his final album, “Ghost On The Canvas” at the end of August. This album includes several songs he co-wrote with the album’s producer, Julian Raymond, as well as songs written for him by Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg and Robert Pollard.
When I heard about this album, I knew I wanted to listen to it. Glen Campbell is already popular among many of the folks I see for music therapy, and I thought it would be fascinating to hear the artistic work of a person who has been diagnosed with dementia – a person who is nearing the end of his career and facing a daunting disease process. “Ghost on the Canvas” did not disappoint.
To be honest, I am not overly familiar with Glen Campbell’s previous recordings. I had heard some of his greatest hits, and I’ve known of his contributions to the country and pop music worlds, but I wasn’t one who grew up with his music or who listened to it all the time. To that end, I can’t really compare this album to his previous work, and I can’t really say whether he sounds “worse” than he did on earlier albums.
I did wish, though, that I could hear Campbell’s age more in his singing voice. That was one of my favorite things about Johnny Cash’s last set of albums, hearing his voice as an older man. In “Ghost on the Canvas,” it sounded to me like the producers used recording studio tricks to refine the sound of Campbell’s voice, perhaps with pitch correction software or audio effects to make his voice sound stronger. I wish I could have heard just his voice, the way it sounds at this point in Campbell’s life and career. I think there is a particular kind of beauty in that, the authentic sound of an older person’s voice. That might not be true for the record-buying public, though, and the producers might have felt it necessary to make Campbell sound as pitch-perfect and strong-voiced as possible.
Even if the sound of Campbell’s voice was varnished, the sentiments in the songs did not seem to be, and I admire the range of emotions portrayed in this album. The music was at times defiant, grateful, reminiscent, and even optimistic. Actually, the album overall was more upbeat than I expected, but it felt honest to me, not naively hopeful. Some songs had very frank lyrics about memory loss and a new need for support from others. Take this section of “A Better Place” for example:
Some days I’m so confused, Lord
My past gets in my way
I need the ones I love, Lord
More and more each day
Campbell also uses the words in this song and others to express the weight of a lifetime of experiences and the wisdom that comes from that experience. Take these words from “A Thousand Lifetimes”:
I’ve lived at least a thousand lifetimes
Walked down a road with no one in sight
I’ve seen miracles in moonlight
And lonely goodbyes
I’ve faced the consequence and sorrow
Still I stood up and faced tomorrow
I’ve had dreams I’ve feared and followed
I found my way home
Through these songs, Campbell sings messages that could be helpful for listeners who are in the early stages of dementia as well as listeners who are caregivers. The song “In My Arms” repeats the line, “keep it on the recent. Keep it on the now,” which is certainly good advice for people fearing what is to come from a disease process. In “Strong,” Campbell sings a message to which I imagine many people with dementia and caregivers could relate:
As I look into these eyes I’ve known for all these years
I see for the first time in my life, fear
This is not the road I wanted for us, but now that it’s here
I want to make one thing perfectly clear
All I want to be for you is strong
I’m going to be the one you can count on
I’ll always be for you strong
These lyrics are paired with the sound of strings, bells, and heavy drums and guitar that lend to the sound of defiant strength.
What follows that particular song, though, is a short interlude that is much more reflective and ethereal in sound. There are a few of these quieter interludes interspersed among the strong, brave and defiant songs, and they contribute significantly to the feeling that this album is a deeper, more complete portrayal of all the emotions and experiences Campbell is going through at this time of his life.
This album is a beautiful example of how art can portray life in a meaningful way, differently than with words alone. I highly recommend giving it a listen.
Have you heard any of the songs from “Ghost on the Canvas?” What did you think? Please leave your comment below!