One might suppose, with a weary sigh of resignation, that a collection of songs reflecting on risk taking, nonsense poetry, and romance conducted via plenipotentiaries and viziers of different royal courts is not likely to appear on the Top 40 charts. So if your tastes run exclusively toward radio-ready hits and odes to, well, whatever the kids are jazzed or peeved about these days, veteran singer-songwriter-guitarist Al Stewart's work may not be your cup of tea. As even Stewart himself notes on A Beach Full of Shells, his first release since 2000's Down in the Cellar, rock and roll is "the sound of being young." That doesn't mean, however, that the older set doesn't have something worthy to say or sing or that folks past 40 can't make compelling, quality new music for fans of all ages. Quite the contrary.
From his days playing London folk-rock clubs in the 1960s, to his '70s-'80s heyday as an American hitmaker ("Year of the Cat," "On the Border," "Time Passages," "Song on the Radio," "Midnight Rocks"), to his present-day incarnation as statesman-troubadour, Stewart has shown that music of distinction most often appears on the sidelines of the hit parade. What keeps this Scottish-born artist relevant are the same things that have filled his career of 40-odd years: impeccably crafted, literate story-songs that explore olden days and modern times against a backdrop of stunningly good musicianship. These qualities seem never to grow old.
In fact, the talents of the now-60-year-old Stewart only grow richer and more potent over time. The latest proof lies in his new release: A Beach Full of Shells features 13 songs that take listeners through periods of time ranging from World War I to the late '60s to the present day. On numerous occasions, Stewart has told me that telling stories and drawing connections between the decades provide the heart and soul of his work. ABFOS continues this pattern. Through his musical tales, he points out that our fears, loves, and insecurities don't differ much from those of people who walked this earth generations ago — in the land of dream, sense memory, and instinct, our past, present, and future all roll into our here and now.
These thoughts are evoked through both his words and music. Songs such as the intriguingly mideastern "Rain Barrel," the epic and dream-laden "Somewhere in England 1915," "Mr. Lear" (which pays homage to English poet Edward Lear), and the memorable "Katherine of Oregon" show Stewart's lyrical skills and fertile imagination, already renowned, are at least as strong as ever. And with producer Laurence Juber, a longtime Stewart collaborator and Grammy-winning guitarist who once played for Paul McCartney and Wings, he has created sonic portraits that reinforce and color the stories told.