Even though he once stole my girlfriend (long story), and I've never entirely forgiven him for it, I have to admit that I've missed Al Stewart.
Likewise, I have to begrudgingly admit that it's great to see him back in such fine form, doing what he really does best on his new album, Sparks Of Ancient Light. The album comes out in about two weeks on the Appleseed Recordings label.
For those new to Mr. Stewart, that something he does so well is weave these wonderful historical references into his songs. Literate as they are, Al Stewart's songs have this weird and wonderful way touching a personal nerve. Not only that, they can also be downright catchy.
As a lyricist who has a unique way of wrapping an engaging narrative around an equally compelling melody, I'd actually put Al Stewart just a notch under people like Dylan and Neil Young. He also has that rare gift of being able to turn a phrase in the sort of cinematic, universal way that his songs become personalized in a manner that, subject matter aside, nearly anyone can relate to.
Stewart really can be that good. And during his brief run at the top in the seventies and early eighties, everybody knew it.
The thing is, once Al Stewart hit the big time, he just as quickly abandoned that wonderfully literate storytelling, replete with historical references as it was, that got him there in the first place. On his big hits like "Time Passages" and "Year Of The Cat," the descriptive language remained. But the stories accompanying Stewart's best songs like "Roads To Moscow" and "Nostradamus" — songs that took you to another time and place the same way that a great novel does — were long gone.
By the mid-eighties, Al Stewart was just another cog in the soft rock treadmill of people like Christopher Cross and Gerry Rafferty, and in even quicker time he also suffered their same fate as a footnote of latter day, post-sixties folk-rock. Talented though he was, there would be no Dylan sort of accolades here. Today, Al Stewart is largely regarded as the sort of also-ran that doesn't even rate James Taylor props in the bigger picture.
Much as I loved Al Stewart back then, I have to admit that I haven't followed him much in the years (make that decades) since — something about that whole girlfriend thing. Which is why I am happy to report that his new Sparks Of Ancient Light is such a pleasant surprise.
On this album, not only does Stewart's voice — distinctive, wispy sort of willow that it is — sound like it hasn't aged a minute despite the decades which have since passed. He's also picked up that whole literary thing right where he left it on those great seventies albums like Past Present And Future and Modern Times.
In an odd sort of way, it's almost like reconnecting with an old friend.
Stewart's sound from those days also remains by and large intact. Tim Renwick, the great guitarist from those old records is apparently gone, but his rather large shoes have been filled quite well (and then some) by former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber. On songs like "Angry Bird," the guitar flourishes are so ultra clean, if you close your eyes you'd almost swear Renwick never left.
Speaking of those songs, Stewart once again instantly transports you back to such far away times and places as post World War II fifties America ["(A Child's View of) The Eisenhower Years"], 1970's pre-Ayatollah Iran ("Shah of Shahs"), and Great Britain circa the late 1890's ("Lord Salisbury").
On this album, Stewart practically recounts the history of the world in a way that would make Mel Brooks proud — from the pre Christian calendar journey to the world's edge of "Hanno The Navigator" to the King's own religious experience in "Elvis at The Wheel."
Talk about your Time Passages. On Sparks Of Ancient Light, Al Stewart is back in peak historical, literate, and most importantly, lyrical form. You'll find it in stores on September 15.
And yes Al, all is forgiven.