The 5th Dimension: The Magic Garden 1967
Here it is on Spotify: The Fifth Dimension – Magic Garden
Jimmy Webb is best known for his evocative songs for Glen Campbell – ‘Galveston’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ – and before that, the two albums with Richard Harris (cheekily recycling Rex Harrison) which yielded, amongst other lesser known chunks of grandiose kitsch, the seven minute soft green icing of ‘McArthur Park’. Later, he’d pluck up the courage to sing with his own voice. (Check out ‘P. F. Sloan’, a loving tribute to an otherwise forgotten seventies non-iconic singer-songwriter, recently nicely covered by Rumer.)
Before any of that, though, he cut his teeth on two albums with the unlikely vehicle of this superficially manufactured vocal group (three guys, two girls, no stars). The first contained the bouncy ‘Up, up and Away’ but was otherwise unmemorable. The second was a masterpiece.
‘The Magic Garden’ is primarily a break-up album, in the form of a song cycle. It’s framed by a ‘Prologue’ and an ‘Epilogue’, with the words “Have you tried love?”, which I remember thinking was a clever trick, spoofing some kind of soap powder advert. In between, ten songs take you through the famous four stages of love – exhilaration (‘The Magic Garden’); doubt (‘Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe’*); resentment (‘The Worst That Could Happen’); and bitter resignation (‘Paper Cup’), with thematic links between tracks.
There are a couple of anomalies – ‘Ticket to Ride’, although a stomping version, juts out a bit like a leftover from an earlier meal, and the coyly titled ‘The Girls’ Song’ is clearly a technical exercise in out-Burting Bacharach. But these are minor blemishes – and they both fit into the story, actually.
And the sound! Believe it or not, it was the first record I ever heard on stereo headphones. Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps chemical enhancements played their part, but I had never heard music so deeply and widely before outside of a concert hall. I like to think that it was mostly due to the sheer quality. World-class production (the legendary Bones Howe) and performances (Hal Blaine’s ubiquitous West Coast ‘Wrecking Crew’), and of course the 5th’s finely honed vocals. Slap on the cans, press the pedal to the metal and catch track 7, ‘Requiem: 820 Latham’.**
Influential? Well, it certainly was on me. I spent the next twelve months trying to write Jimmy Webb songs – multi-structured, symphonically chordal, cryptically personal, cynically romantic. I failed, of course, and no-one has ever heard them: but the attempt justified the failure.
*Jimmy could do cryptic titles with the best of them.
** Like I said.