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Bargain Bin Babylon: Glen Campbell: Wichita Lineman

Bargain Bin Babylon: Glen Campbell: Wichita Lineman

Wichita Lineman is a bargain store lament of unexpected depth, worth far more than its price tag in salty wisdom, the crackling vinyl recollecting a long-gone past.

“A change has come over country music lately. They’re not shuckin’ it right off the cob anymore.” That’s Glen Campbell leaning into the good old boy shtick in a 1968 New York Times profile. But that unassuming (and maybe faux) downhomeiness is at odds with the musical sophistication of a then-new single that, much more than the cheesy ’70s staple “Rhinestone Cowboy,” would be his signature work as a pop artist. You know the song, and the multi-platinum selling album that accompanies it is easy to find for peanuts.

The still haunting title track aside, Wichita Lineman may on the surface seem like basic pop fluff: Take a seasoned session guitarist, some reliable players from the Wrecking Crew, countrify recent hits from Otis Redding and Tim Hardin and voila: a soufflé that goes down easy. Indeed, it sold millions. But for all its audience-friendly appearance, it’s a fairly dark album that reflects the volatile era in a way that was firmly in the mainstream, but still tapped the anxiety of the time.

Think of the rock albums that endure from 1968: Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The Beatles. Dr. John’s Gris-Gris. The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. All leaps and bounds beyond the pop music of even five years earlier. Wichita Lineman isn’t nearly so progressive, but its masterful title track alone makes it worth the dollar it will cost you. Opening with a quintessential Carol Kaye bass lick, Campbell’s understated vocal hit Jimmy Webb’s ballad of the lonely worker with just the right amount of weariness and alienation. Webb has explained that he was inspired by a drive past a seemingly endless line of telephone poles, but Campbell recorded it before Webb felt the song was finished. On paper, the famous chorus sound like the most ordinary observation “I hear you singin’ in the wire/ I can hear you through the whine/ And the Wichita lineman/ Is still on the line.

But the arrangement—starting with Kaye’s bass fills—is a production miracle. When Campbell starts into the verse, he’s supported by perhaps conventionally lush strings, but a horn section subtly amplifies his distant longing—after all, he’s falling for a woman he’s listening to through the wires, who doesn’t even know he exists. He asserts his sad station in life, “still on the line,” a metaphorical extension of “hanging on a string,” that string in this case being the very conduit through which American reaches out to touch someone; but that infrastructure, which he helps maintain, in a thankless job, makes him feel as alienated as if the Kansas prairie were a distant planet and he was intercepting transmissions from a faraway home.

And then comes the eerie keyboard pulse–orchestrator Al De Lory evokes the staccato rhythm of Morse code–that defines “Wichita Lineman”: it conveys the dry fact of telecommunication, but its persistence also suggests a phone that’s never answered, a journey far from loved ones, a message never received.

Nothing else on the album, or in the history of pop music, quite reaches those heights. But nearly every other song continues the melancholy tone. Campbell doesn’t get near the original on “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” but the lyric suits a song cycle that consistently hits a note of desperation: “‘Cause I’ve got nothin’ to live for.” His own composition “Fate of Man” tells the story of a man’s struggles from 21 to 70, anticipating an old age air of resignation worthy of Ozu: “now all he can do is just sit and sigh.

Still, there’s hope; Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” which perhaps had its definitive recording a few years later on Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story, conveys the artist’s commitment to someone who “lied straight-faced while I cried.” But even though this is the poppier side of country music, but the genre’s domestic troubles are there at every turn. This faith is followed by “You Better Sit Down Kids,” a Sonny Bono composition originally recorded by his then-wife Cher. It tells the sad story of a father breaking the news that mom and dad are getting a divorce.

The Billy Graham-penned “That’s Not Home” ends the bleak concept album, about a man walking away from a broken relationship–or, perhaps, simply walking away from the phone line: “Maybe you might never see me again maybe that’s the best way/ I’ll join myself to some south blowing wind leave here and find my own way/ And maybe I’ll find home someday.” If you’re listening on a streaming service, you might hear an optimistic shift to Campbell’s 2008 cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These,” which redeems the album’s defeated conclusion. But in its dollar bin form, Wichita Lineman is a bargain store lament of unexpected depth, worth far more than its price tag in salty wisdom, the crackling vinyl recollecting a long-gone past.

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