Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
Over the years, Rod Stewart perfected the persona of the Cocky Raconteur/Gigolo/Sailor on Shore Leave, chasing skirts and breaking hearts. In the early ’70s, he was that guy you met in “Gasoline Alley” and hoisted a pint with in “Every Picture Tells a Story,” “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well.” Starting around the mid-’70s, Rod the Romantic stuck us with lines like “Don’t say a word, my virgin child/Just let your inhibitions run wild,” (“Tonight’s the Night” (1976)). Then he became the disco prince of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” then got all sentimental in “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim),” while observing and commentating throughout “The Killing of Georgie” and “Young Turks.” A few years later, that guy got benched in favor of Rod the Crooner, singing the songs you can buy for your parents’ Christmas gifts year after year. His one stab at rekindling Rod the Rocker, 1998’s When We Were the New Boys, didn’t catch fire, despite showcasing nice takes on Graham Parker’s “Hotel Chambermaid” and a remake of Ronnie Lane’s Faces classic “Ooh La La.”
Admittedly, it’s hard not to hold Rod to the level of his finest early works, such as the 1971 classic Every Picture Tells a Story. It was all so exceptionally infectious and spontaneous and personal. Couched in insistent twelve-string acoustic rhythm guitar and loosey-goosey drums, it drew in the ear and was the ideal foil for the storytelling. It was as undeniable then as it is now, as in the title track of that album.
Spent some time feelin’ inferior
Standing in front of my mirror
Combed my hair in a thousand ways
But I came out looking just the same.
Rod’s crusty pipes have perhaps undeservedly gotten more attention than his ease with a wry lyric, but after thirteen years and no fewer than five volumes of Great American Songbook records, he’s grabbed a notebook and pen and resumed songwriting. While the words and music of his new album, Another Country, certainly match up smoothly, considering the songs reflect less footloose themes than Rod embraced in days gone by, there isn’t any sort of edge to its sound. There’s just a lack of anything that hasn’t been polished to a cold sheen. He does come up with at least one winner here, but it took me some doing to find.
2011’s Time was his first shot at an almost-all-original album for many years, and it received a lot of attention for that fact alone. Rod has sold better with his albums of standards, so this move must have been motivated by the artist’s own burning desire to create his own work again. Granted, looking at plausible “career moves” at the age of 70, with an immensely successful history like his, seems almost inconsequential: the fan base he’s amassed will buy any product with the Stewart brand on it and should comfortably support whatever habits he has left that need supporting. So burning desire seems completely plausible, even if evidence of it here is marginal at best.
Everyone grows and changes as they get older, but we have to presume the Cocky Raconteur, the Gigolo and the Sailor on Shore Leave still inhabit Rod’s songs on Another Country; they’re just older, less inclined toward alcohol and cheap sex, and more interested in just hanging out in the living room with the family.
Despite the made-to-order banjo-driven leadoff track “Love Is” and its counterparts “Hold the Line” and “We Can Win,” Rod’s serenade to soccer, there’s a dearth of memorable memories on Another Country. Many of these songs have the requisite stomping rhythm and hey-yo chorus vocals, but that doesn’t make them anthems by birthright. The title track has its heart squarely in Mumford Commons, but it ends up feeling like little more than a Big Country cast-off.
It’s probably not fair of me to expect Rod to go for flat-out Faces-type rock & roll in 2015, even though this year he finally acquiesced to playing with that band again. The closest he gets here is “The Drinking Song,” an almost apologetic laundry list that looks back at his carousing exploits. He can still kick signed soccer balls into the audience at the end of his shows, but these days he’s more likely to head back to the hotel room when the show’s over than head out for a night on the town with the lads. “Can We Stay Home Tonight?”— a little homage to Nixon-era Philly soul mainstays the Delfonics — is a celebration of homebody life, his new favorite lyrical font. He’s earned this mid-tempo respite, and the songs of Another Country are largely of that non-threatening type.
The power lullaby “Batman Superman Spiderman” is very hard to listen to. First, it’s not really a lullaby at all. Any parent who’s tried to get their child to sleep would probably keep it as gentle and quiet as possible, but Rod kicks it into second gear around the chorus, and all possibility of an early evening is lost as his band churns along beneath lyrics that are pretty dewy-eyed for a codger dad. This would appear to be one of the more burning of his desires, and I’m glad for him that he’s enjoying fatherhood enough to want to share some of the more tender and personal moments with us, his listeners. I’ll pass, but thanks.
There is one glorious ballad: “Way Back Home” succeeds largely on its initial quiet, graceful two minutes as Rod sets up the story. The bombast that follows certainly doesn’t seem out of place, just lacking any of the attractive humility of the beginning.
This record suffers from a general lack of production touches that might have helped lift the songs from their tedium, and this is all too clearly highlighted by the inclusion, in the deluxe edition, of the 1968 track “In a Broken Dream,” long a favorite of Rod’s “deep cut” enthusiasts. This was a record by the otherwise completely obscure band Python Lee Jackson, released before Rod’s proper solo work began; he was a session singer who only cut three songs with PLJ, probably their best-known work. The screeching lead guitar and grinding Hammond organ slash out of the mix, then get corralled when Rod enters and eventually gets around to singing David Bentley’s portentous words: “Good people are in bed/Before nine o’clock….” (Is that domestic theme what made the song seem ripe for inclusion here?)
When a Rod song of yore comes on the radio, it jumps out of the speakers and demands attention. You bang the steering wheel along with Mickey Waller’s drum set. You roll down your window and shout-sing “Wake up, Maggie!” with Rod. Those first four Mercury solo albums and the entire Faces catalogue are the groundwork for much of the great rock music that’s followed (such as the Black Crowes). But there’s nothing that urgent here. Not many people are going to pound the steering wheel to this record.