Thursday, March 22, 2007
It was no surprise after the incredible success of their A TRAMP SHINING album and MacARTHUR PARK single that Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb would join together for a second album. It was a surprise that they would choose to make an album as dark and uncommercial as 1968's striking THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER turned out to be.
While their first collaboration had centered on a man remembering the past and lost loves THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER would feature the perhaps the same character at the end of not only his life but of the world itself. Again produced, arranged and written by Webb with Harris delivering anotherseries of, at times, over the top vocal performances THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER is an album unlike any other; futuristic with its eyes firmly on the past and mysterious while retaining a clearly lamenting view of modern culture.
The title track begins with a group of singers asking the question, "Is everybody safe? Has everybody got a place to hide?" alerting us immediately that this is going to be a very different beast than A TRAMP SHINING. The song soon turns from gentle into one of Webb's monster productions with one of his most crazed arrangements that recalls the mid-section of MacARTHUR PARK. Harris is pretty magnificent throughout this album, one can imagine him strolling into the studio after a night of heavy drinking ready to sing about the apocalypse. His vocals got snickered at a lot but there is never a moment when we don't completely believe him.
Webb's end of the world is an industrial nightmare that is felt everywhere by everyone, from the 'Nagasaki houswives' of the title track to the cruel 'Gayla' of the narrator's past.
The album has very few silent spots, everything seems to connect in this man's memory of the world that he knew and is remembering. After the bombast of the opening we are treated to one of Webb's finest compositions, the lovely and haunting WATERMARK. Art Garfunkle would later record an album of Webb songs and he turned this into his title track. This features some of Webb's most distinctive lyrics, "I'm looking through old varnish at my late lover's body caught on ancient canvas". At times THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER feels like THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, one imagines our narrator as being completely and totally alone in some sort of isolated bombed out shelter scribbling his final few memories on any scrap of paper he can find.
INTERIM and GAYLA are both songs of domestic drama and memories with Webb's dark muse from many others songs, Sue, making an appearance. Again Webb's lyrics and production are unlike anything else recorded in 1968 or any other year, who else would have the insight to write a line like, "It's all that I can do to count my skeletons and take my paid vacations"?
The album continues with the near ten minute THE FIRST HYMN OF THE GRAND TERRACE that details when the 'earth caught fire' and Webb compares this ultimate disaster with the narrator's most missed lost love.
THE HIVE is the album's most bizarre and brutal moment. With a piano that Tori Amos would copy for her track PRECIOUS THINGS on her early 90's debut and hyper kinetic percussion (by none other than the great Hal Blain) that sounds like something off a Ministry album, this sounds like a soundtrack to a lost Italian horror film more than a late sixties pop album. Webb again, much like on the 5th Dimension's PAPER CUP, will lyrically foreshadow the shoegazing movement of the early 90's with, "God bless our happy cubicle, keep it safe and sanitized, homogenized and pasteurized, there's no place like numb".
After the psychotic sounding HIVE the album ends with two pretty and deceptively optimistic sounding songs. LUCKY ME chronicles are narrator celebrating his solitude and his sudden loss of emotion. It is a subject that Webb explores again and again in his music; the world ultimately won't end with bombs but with indifference.
THAT'S THE WAY IT WAS ends the record with the narrator trying to explain the way the world used to be, a place where you could actually "have a dog" where "there wasn't any smog...and a man could find a woman and a man could fall in love". The haunting final last line of "the yard went on forever" seems even more relevant today as the world is increasingly being overtaken with mini strip malls and the obsessive idea that everything needs to be covered by something that might possibly make a profit.
It is of course no surprise that THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER was a major flop. I am willing to guess that Jimmy Webb and Richard Harris knew they were making something that wasn't going to be a popular success, and I am willing to bet they didn't give a damn. Harris would go onto record a couple more booze soaked albums without Webb that are at times ridiculous but mostly sublime in their ferocious over the top nature. Webb would soon start his own mesmerizing solo career that would have him becoming more and more obsessed with sound; while his lyrics, music and arrangements got more and more focused and even greater.
THE YARD WENT ON FOREVER remains one of those rare albums that really stands alone, it doesn't sound or feel quite like any other album. It also remains, along with The Pretty Things S.F. SORROW and The Kinks VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, as one of the great records of the sixties that were able to lament a past that they were literally watching the present strip away from them.