Walk the Dog and Light the Light
By John McAlley
The winter of '69 must have been a heady time for Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb. Nyro had just turned 22, Webb, 23, and the two songwriters had placed eight songs in the Top 10 in the preceding year and a half. From the West Coast, Webb, the chief architect of the stentorian pop ballad, was spinning gold for Richard Harris ("MacArthur Park"), Glen Campbell ("Wichita Lineman") and the Brooklyn Bridge ("Worst That Could Happen"), while Nyro, the Bronx-born Wunderkind of urban pop who had become a recording star in her own right with Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, watched as the Fifth Dimension ("Wedding Bell Blues"), Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming") and Blood, Sweat and Tears ("And When I Die") plucked hit after hit from her pop-soul songbook.
Nyro, of course, dropped out shortly thereafter, swapping her chart success and eccentric chic for marriage, motherhood and a reclusion that has since been only intermittently suspended for a scattering of albums and stage appearances. Walk the Dog and Light the Light, her first studio offering since Mother's Spiritual in 1984, is utterly irresistible, if slight and—as the title suggests—a little daft. In a New Jack world in which synths, samples and rhythm boxes prevail, Nyro's piano-based soul music, so retro and spare, and her remarkable singing voice, so exuberant and expressive, sound transporting.
Walk the Dog kicks off evocatively as Nyro sets the ingenuous blush of the Crystals' "Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby"—another of her superlative R&B covers—against the soul-deep maturity of her own "A Woman of the World." Nyro's genius for crafting pop-soul confections continues unabated with "The Descent of Luna Rosé," which hitches its propulsive groove to a lyric that is dedicated to—and this is where things start to get weird—Nyro's period ("It's that time of the month/So lighten up"). Any truly provocative writing ends there, however, as the soul sister-turned-earth mother essays a panoply of PC themes. Delectable but evanescent odes to world peace, animal rights, "kick-ass women artists," Native Americans and life on the road sail by before Nyro ends the set with a remake of her own "To a Child" and a medley that merges Curtis Mayfield's "I'm So Proud" with the Shirelles' "Dedicated to the One I Love." All undeniably melodic, all irrefutably sincere, all faintly insubstantial, all in 37 minutes. Lite delite, indeed.
At precisely the time that Nyro was fleeing the spotlight, Jimmy Webb was yearning for it. So total was his desire for recognition as an interpreter of his own work that Webb spent the better part of his young adult life pursuing it. Six albums released between 1970 and 1982 were credible artistically but ignored by consumers. Although his stature as a pop craftsman never flagged, such was the depth of Webb's disappointment that he moved east, abandoning the West Coast and its mockery of dead-end dreams.
This is but one of the disillusionments that reverberate so poignantly throughout Suspending Disbelief, Webb's first album in more than 11 years. Produced by George Massenburg and Webb's longtime friend and collaborator Linda Ronstadt, Suspending Disbelief is a powerful meditation on mortality and middle life that drifts in and out of autobiography. Alternating between styles as diverse as L.A. rock, country pop, show tunes and the lush romanticism of his trademark ballads, Webb reflects on loss, relives old glories and lays bare youthful ambition. "Too Young to Die," the record's opening track, deploys a guitar arsenal and a scorching Steve Lukather solo to ignite Webb's nostalgia for his "misspent youth," the "joys of running away" and the "peace in losing control." "Sandy Cove," in which Webb longs to "put the ship back in the bottle," deepens its plaint of the ravages of time with a haunted arrangement reminiscent of Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River." Superior among a handful of ballads are the epic and despairing "I Don't Know How to Love You Anymore" and "It Won't Bring Her Back," a hit waiting to happen that should put Webb—or the first Joe who covers it—on the country charts.
Webb's voice, once sturdy if indistinct, has taken on a Zevonesque edge that evokes the Everyman who walks these shadow lands. It is in the most autobiographical of Webb's songs, however, that Suspending Disbelief strikes its deepest chords. "Elvis and Me" is such an earnest retelling of his chance encounter with Presley in a Vegas hotel that it flirts with embarrassment. Yet Webb's awestruck wonder and humility at having been embraced by the King is rendered so vividly that each listener can claim its transformational power. Still more moving is "Adios." A standout track on Rondstadt's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, it is Webb's swan song to the "endless summer" that was his time spent chasing dreams in Southern California. Wouldn't it be ironic if, as the emotional centerpiece of this impassioned album, it helped bring Webb his elusive audience and the fulfillment of his all too real dreams.