Al Stewart’s Present from the PastMar 22nd, 2016 | By Thom Lieb | Category: Reviews, Sorry Not Sorry
It seems only appropriate that during the week after “springing forward,” Al Stewart popped into my consciousness for the first time in a long time. After all, time was a constant topic in Stewart’s songs, and even his album titles played with the concept: Past Present and Future, Modern Times, Time Passages, Last Days of the Century — and, of course, Year of the Cat.
In a vaguely Proustian manner, Stewart announced himself in two totally unrelated activities last week. Playing with a Chinese karaoke app (who doesn’t do that for fun?), I looked for a singer whose work I knew well enough to try my voice at. Stewart came up, and I recorded a version of the title track from Year of the Cat that surely would have left him weeping — unfortunately, not for any positive reason. A few days later, I popped into my local supermarket and immediately was treated to the title track through the store’s PA system. It was destined that I revisit the album.
That little affair flooded me with memories of the few years during the mid-1970s when Stewart was one of my favorite musicians — and in fact, one of the favorites of countless other people who came across his work via the FM airwaves. I cued up the Year of the Cat album and listened a few times to refresh my memory, and I also took a listen to a few other favorites of his.
Listening to the album now — resisting an urge to eat a madeleine cookie dipped in tea — feels a bit like time travel. Stewart’s folksy songs are definitely from another era, but that era is not clearly the 1970s. Partly, that’s because of his lyrics. As with his other albums, Stewart uses many of his songs to explore names and places from long ago and far away. Take “Lord Grenville,” for instance: “Go and fetch the captain’s log and tear the pages out/We’re on our way to nowhere now, can’t bring the helm about … Send a message to the fleet they’ll search for us in vain/We won’t be there among the reaches of the Spanish Main.” Even “Year of the Cat” plays with the concept of temporality: “On a morning from a Bogart movie/In a country where they turn back time/You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre/Contemplating a crime.”
At the same time, Year of the Cat (and Stewart’s other work) doesn’t quite fit in its own time. Released in 1976, it arrived at a moment when the pop music scene was in a major state of flux. His work sat shoulder to shoulder with Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, David Bowie’s Station to Station, the Eagles’ Hotel California, Genesis’ Trick of the Tail and the Ramones’ debut. With so much percolating on the music scene, maybe it was the album’s nostalgia that made it such a comforting treat.
But it was hardly nostalgia alone that made Year of the Cat so popular. Listening to it again reveals a solid musical and instrumental foundation, and Stewart’s dreamlike storytelling is mostly unparalleled. The title track as just one example is filled with so many evocative images:
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat …
Why she looks at you so coolly?
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside.
It’s no surprise to me that one of Stewart’s role models was Bob Dylan. The storytelling and wordplay feel cut from the same cloth as Dylan’s work. But musically the two are quite different. Stewart’s music is an odd combination of stripped down folk-rock — guitar, drums and pianos — often washed in strings. On his 1967 debut, The Bedsitter Images, the orchestration buried the core of his work. But in the years between it and Year of the Cat, he managed to strike a balance that sounds just right. While his work sounds nothing like that of The Beatles or Procol Harum, it is reminiscent of their best orchestrated songs. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone to compare Stewart’s sound to whose work bears more than a passing resemblance to his. There’s some Stealer’s Wheel in a few tracks, some Elliott Smith, but nothing that makes a listener say, “So that’s who he sounds like!”
If you haven’t listened to Stewart in many a year — or have never come across him — it’s time to rectify that situation. You might be delighted with what you find inside.