The British Jimmy Webb compilation Archive is drawn from the five albums he originally released on Reprise, Asylum, and Atlantic Records between 1970 and 1977. Achieving renown in the late '60s for his success as the composer of with such songs as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "MacArthur Park," Webb launched his own recording career, issuing three albums -- Words and Music, And So: On, and Letters -- within 20 months. With the exception of a spare performance of "Galveston" (a 1969 hit for Glen Campbell) on Letters, these albums did not feature his versions of his best-known songs, but rather a combination of lesser known and newly written material, and none of them sold. The same was true of Land's End (1974) and El Mirage (1977). Subsequently, "The Highwayman," introduced on El Mirage, became a number one country hit for the quartet of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, and a Grammy winner for country song of the year, and such songs as "P.F. Sloan," "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," and "Crying in My Sleep" have attained some recognition through cover recordings. Drawing three songs from Words and Music, four each from And So: On, Letters, and El Mirage, and five from Land's End, the compilation traces Webb's development as a performer from the uncertain vocals and rough, under-produced sound of his early recordings to much more polished work. That development would be even clearer if the set were sequenced in exact chronological order. Instead, the tracks from El Mirage, produced lavishly by George Martin of Beatles fame, are placed in front of those from the three-years-earlier Land's End, a disc Webb produced in the U.K. with session musicians including members of Elton John's band and Ringo Starr. Still, there is a big difference between the first 11 tracks and the final nine. Since there are few real "hits" in any quantifiable sense, it is possible to quibble with the selections. For example, "Songseller," a somewhat caustic reflection on the music business that Webb thought enough of to record twice, is missing, as are "Marionette" and "Pocketful of Keys," both songs that have attracted good covers. On the other hand, his medley of "Let It Be Me," "Never My Love," and "I Wanna Be Free," songs he did not write, could have been eliminated. But Webb's own annotations are included, suggesting that he had a hand in the choices. In fact, at 78 minutes, this lengthy disc gives a good sense of Webb in the 1970s, demonstrating his craftsmanship as a writer and his improvement as a performer. It cannot, however, be thought to contain his "greatest hits," since, as of 1977, he had not made his own studio recordings of most of those songs.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann