If you’re a professional musician who’s been in the business for three decades or more, this would be a good time to get a record out. Paul Simon has just released one of the best albums of his career, while artists as wide-ranging as Gil Scott-Heron, The Feelies, Beastie Boys, Robbie Robertson, and Booker T. have been drawing kudos for their latest—some of which are arriving after lengthy hiatuses. Maybe it’s that in tenuous times we look to our elders for guidance. Or maybe it’s just that these old folks have nothing to prove or to lose, so their music seems refreshingly personal and un-calculated.
There’s a cycle that veteran artists tend to go through over the course of a long career. When they’re young, musicians work to forge their own sound, with periodic nods to their roots. Then, if they achieve any kind of success, they often try to cling to it by keeping up with the trends of the times—a stage that’s usually followed by covers albums, trad albums, experimental albums, and then a return to the “classic” sound in their golden years.
Jimmy Webb’s Cottonwood Farm finds the venerable 64-year-old singer-songwriter in the latter stage. Recorded in 2008 and 2009 with Webb’s sons—better known as the pop-rock band The Webb Brothers—and his octogenarian father, the album consists of classic Webb songs like “Highwayman” combined with new material, Webb Brothers originals, and American standards. A few modern sonic punch-ups aside, Cottonwood Farm sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1975. The younger Webbs deploy strings, flute, horns and soft-country-ish picking around papa’s piano and weathered voice, which sounds uncannily like Warren Zevon at times. The whole album has an enchanted feel, as though it were recorded in grassy field, then transmitted into the clouds to be redistributed as a light summer shower.
Webb has had one of the most distinguished and unusual careers in American popular music. He was barely 20 years old when he became one of the most in-demand songwriters on the West Coast, penning the late-’60s megahits “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Up, Up And Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “MacArthur Park” for the likes of Richard Harris, The 5th Dimension, and his most frequent and fruitful interpreter, Glen Campbell. Webb continued his run of success as a writer and producer in the ’70s—becoming one of the few behind-the-scenes players in the music business who was practically a household name—but he couldn’t carry that fame over to his performing career. Webb released a string of charmingly ragged solo albums in the ’70s, jumping from easy-listening ballads to choppy rock ’n’ roll, delivered in his singularly unsteady voice. He used records like the deeply weird Words And Music to show that he wasn’t just an adult contemporary/sunshine-pop/Top 40 kind of guy, but that he had eclectic tastes and an occasionally cloudy disposition (as seen in Words And Music’s epic trilogy “Music For An Unmade Movie,” which features an anti-critic diatribe in which Webb hisses, “How many shows did you close all by yourself?”).
Webb’s solo efforts sold poorly (though their best songs were harvested by other artists), so after releasing five albums in the ’70s, he made performing a lower priority and focused on stretching himself as a composer, working on music for film and the theater. The song on Cottonwood Farm that shows the most influence from Webb’s more esoteric pursuits is also one of the oldest in his repertoire. The 12-minute title track was written (but never released) in the early ’70s as a reflection on Webb’s Oklahoma and Texas roots. It’s a sophisticated and affecting song, moving gently through reminiscences of growing up in the country, while shifting perspectives from the grown-ups at work to the children at play. Webb conveys the in-the-moment feeling of those times, then pulls back to sing about what he knows now about what was really going on. Webb wasn’t yet 30 when he wrote “Cottonwood Farm,” not yet married or a father. The song was his gift to his future self, a man who would know exactly how to sing and record it.
Ivan Julian’s style couldn’t be more different from Webb’s, but his relationship to his own past isn’t so dissimilar. Born nine years later than Webb—in 1955—Julian was steeped in the mainstream pop and rock of the early ’70s before he moved to New York and fell in with the crowd of artists and poets who would help define the nascent punk movement. He became a key member of Richard Hell’s band The Voidoids, and his guitar playing on the seminal album Blank Generation—alongside the equally talented Robert Quine—showed that punk’s anarchic spirit wasn’t incompatible with musicianship.
Post-Voidoids, Julian formed the more groove-oriented post-punk band The Outsets, then settled into a role as the wise old man of alt-rock, working as a sideman or producer with younger artists. Until the release of the new The Naked Flame, Julian had never put anything out strictly under his own name.
The Naked Flame turned out to be worth the wait. Repurposing some the rowdier old Outsets songs and adding new material—including the stark acoustic lament “You Is Dead,” reportedly written in reaction to the 2004 death of Quine—Julian converts his 35-plus years of experience as a working musician into a cohesive statement of self. The album nods to Jimi Hendrix on the acid-rock title track, ventures into arty Euro-punk on the monotone cover of Alejandro Escovedo’s “The Beat,” and recalls The Voidoids throughout, particularly on the snappy Outsets holdovers “A Young Man’s Money” and “That Look.”
Julian recorded The Naked Flame in 2009 with the Argentine rock band Capsula, whose album Rising Mountains he’d helped produce. It’s a surprisingly fiery record for a man in his mid-50s, as Julian snarls about the hassles of urban life like a kid in his early 20s. Of course, in a way, Julian’s just channeling his younger self by borrowing his old sound and songs. But he’s not doing it as any kind of cheap cash-in on his legacy. Rockophiles haven’t been stumping for an Ivan Julian revival any more than they’ve been petitioning Jimmy Webb to make a comeback. Webb and Julian made these records because they could; they’re not counting on the royalties to pay their rent or feed their families. They’re both documents of musicians who made major contributions to their times, and now find themselves past middle age and casting themselves back to their heydays, in part to relive some of that old spark, and in part to admire how damn good they once were. And still are.