The song was written by Jimmy Webb, who wrote many hit songs recorded by The Supremes, The Fifth Dimension, Waylon Jennings, Isaac Hayes, and others. Webb’s songs are probably most famously associated with Glen Campbell’s string of hits in the mid-to-late 60s.
Anyhow, in one of those kismet moments, while I’ve been enjoying the new recording of an old song by a current favorite band, an old grad school friend posted about the song on Facebook. He wrote that while he likes the song pretty well, can see that it has merits, sure, he doesn’t get why it’s SO beloved by so many people. He asked if anybody wanted to try to articulate why “Wichita Lineman” isn’t just a good song, but a great one. I thought I might be the right person for the job.
So I just now listened a few times, trying to do so with fresh ears, to the degree that’s possible.
To me, it’s the synergy among three elements that makes the song not just good, but great. Those elements are the lyrics, the arrangement, and the melody.
(1) Lyrics: There are very good lines, and the best is probably “I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time.” I also admire the double meaning of "still on the line" to mean both "having another long damn day at work" and "still in love, still thinking about you." But the whole thing is very strong, from the images to the way the words sound to the balance of concrete details (“if it snows, that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain”) to the speaker’s lost-in-thought flights of fancy. Just as important to the lyrical excellence of the song is what there isn’t: there isn’t much. The song is spare. And that minimalist approach reinforces the themes of empty space and loneliness. The song doesn’t get in its own way by being over-written.
(2) Arrangement-wise — and here I’m specifically referencing the Glen Campbell version that made the song famous — there is a cool high/low tension thing going on with the lofty violins versus Glenn’s down-to-earth singing and his rich baritone guitar solo. I also like the staccato section, the instrumentation that comes in just under and after the lyric “still on the liiiine.” In the Black Pumas version, the song starts with that. It sounds a little like an electric beeping signal or something. To my ear, it goes with the idea of an electric signal, or the pulsing energy that the lines carry. Anyway, all my reactions to the playing and the arrangement don’t need to make easily paraphrasable sense. There is plenty for my ear to do, and these elements of instrumentation sound good AND sound good together AND are theme-reinforcing.
3. But the MAIN thing among the elements, the aspect that is the strongest by far, is the melody. For decades, most pop songwriting has had just-okay melodies. Some writers, though — Paul Simon comes to mind — still labor to craft artful, beautiful, instantly memorable melodies that evoke a lot of emotion and could stand alone as instrumentals.
This comes and goes as a matter of artistic fashion, just like attention to visual detail versus big sweeps of color in painting, or the relative importance of clean lines versus ornamental detail in architecture. Melody is and has been at a low ebb for a while. In the music I grew up with, this was already true, but the trend is on steroids now. Hum to yourself part of a big hit from the 70s and forward, and chances are pretty good that it is simple. Maybe not a lot of range. Maybe not a lot of variety in how long the notes stretch. Maybe derived from some other song.
Whatever song you're thinking of, there's a decent chance that the song’s appeal lies elsewhere. It might be a forceful vocal delivery and presentation of persona, or it might be rhythmic complexity, a killer beat, or something about the storytelling. Maybe it is the virtuosity of a guitar solo, or the way the harmonies lift the song’s energy going from the verse into the chorus. With rock, with lots of radio pop, and with hip-hop, melody has steadily lost position in the ranking of how important each musical element is.
But not so for Jimmy Webb. He’s like one of those old school Brill Building or Great American Songbook writers, where the melody matters more than anything else.
And this one soars. As it relates to this character, the melody is the channel by which a beautiful and romantic longing bursts out of the prosaic details in his blue collar life. The melody elevates his thoughts. It lifts him from his ordinary dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of reality to something aspirational: true love.