AL STEWART: BEDSITTER IMAGES (1967)
1) Bedsitter Images; 2) Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres; 3) The Carmichaels; 4) Scandinavian Girl; 5) Pretty Gold Hair; 6) Denise At 16; 7) Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!; 8) Cleave To Me; 9) A Long Way Down From Stephanie; 10) Ivich; 11) Beleeka Doodle Day.
Alastair Ian Stewart narrowly missed the chance to become the leading voice in fantasy folk; his first single, released for Decca in 1966, was called 'The Elf' and is frequently quoted as one of the first, if not the very first, Tolkien-inspired song to get a commercial release. The song is fairly cute, but either Stewart was afraid of losing the field to Marc Bolan in the long run, or he simply perceived the silliness of it all, or perhaps he got ridiculed by either Dylan or Simon, the former of whom he revered and the latter was good friends with.
Whatever the reason, in 1967 he rebooted his career, signed up with CBS, and put up his own modest claim, one that is at once completely transparent and yet, rather hard to put an untrembling finger on. Much of Bedsitter Images sounds like it belongs on Nuggets II — pop-style Brit-folk with a slight mystical-magical tinge — but we are most certainly not in the realm of the three minute single, even though only a few tunes violate that rule technically. Dissecting Bedsitter Images into the sum of its influences is useful, and defining it as an album that could only appear in 1967 is insightful, yet it has its own voice, too, and, although Stewart was still way far from being recognized as a solitary force in pop music, this is also an album that could only have been recorded by the likes of Al Stewart.
Since Stewart came from the folk scene, echoes of Dylan were unavoidable, but they are mostly felt in the decision to push ahead with a few long songs (most notably, the grand seven minutes of 'Beleeka Doodle Day'), and in the lyrical influence, although it should be noted that Stewart never followed Dylan in his beat escapades and weirdass linguistic experiments; clearly, it is the early acoustic Dylan, not yet free from the clutches of romanticism, that serves as Al's beacon.
Paul Simon, with whom Al had even shared living space a little while back, is also a large presence, and almost directly responsible, I think, for the youthful enchanted prance of the title track, which is like a slightly more serious and responsible brother to 'The 59th Street Bridge Song' (although the steady, monotonous fall of the verse lyrics is more Dylan than Simon). On the other hand, both Simon and Stewart owe a common debt to the folkie scene in general — the age-honoured traditional melody elements, the gallantry/chivalry touch for the love songs, the general intelligence and culture stamp on the singing voice etc.
But occasionally, Stewart also goes beyond that in trying to merge those medieval influences with the relevant Brit-poppiness of the day, and so it should be no surprise that right after 'Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres', which is both lyrically and melodically reminiscent of Dylan's '4th Time Around', we segue into 'The Carmichaels', thematically much more of a Ray Davies song (and, coincidentally, with its subject matter of a bored cheating housewife, also presages 'Mrs. Robinson'). Here, he shows that he can be mean and sardonic, too, behind that innocent stare.
But not for long, of course. Overall, Bedsitter Images is hopelessly lost in romance, whether it be old-fashioned, theatrical romance ("Maid, truly I see now, it must be a long way down, and with love's bud shorn must all dalliance hither crumble and wither" — Sir Thomas Malory, eat your heart out!), or some typically Sixties' attempt at finding radically new ways of searching for the same old meaning of life ('Scandinavian Girl'). And, like a true folkie pro, he does not neglect the duty of showcasing his guitar playing skills, with two non-outstanding, but quite pretty instrumentals ('Denise At 16', 'Ivich').
Now comes the odd part. Most people, including Stewart himself, have always thought that CBS pretty much ruined the record by drowning out Al's introspective sound with Alexander Faris' orchestral arrangements. I disagree. Obviously, they were merely trying to follow the latest trend, the one stating that pop artists performing in romantic genres go down well with symphonic treatment (see the Moody Blues' Days Of Future Past for further examples), but most of the arrangements are in very good taste, and never really distract from the essence of the songs. It is not just a bunch of syrupy strings tacked on as an afterthought — strings, pianos, horns, flutes, chimes, harps, Al really got the works here, and no two arrangements really sound the same.
For instance, 'Samuel, Oh How You've Changed!' is not very original as far as such melodies go, and it is up to the cute harp plucking to push it up in the beauty department. The military fanfares add a whole new dimension to 'Swedish Cottage Manoeuvres'. And the piano arpeggios, rising higher and higher all through the duration of the chorus of 'Bedsitter Images', are just about the best aspect of that song as a whole — a magnificent melodic touch which turns the song from a competent exercise in Simon-izing into something of near-epic proportions. Plus, it is all handled quite intelligently; the album's magnum opus, 'Beleeka Doodle Day', does not get any orchestral backing, just acoustic guitars and a morose organ laying down a wintery pattern in the background, because strings would not have added anything significant to this kind of sound.
The album is truly flawless. It simply does not aspire to all that much — like most of Al's records, its ambitions are limited, and it prefers to capitalize on breakthroughs made by other people rather than try its own. It is also way «fluffier» than his subsequent efforts, but there is nothing wrong with having too many stars in your eyes if you generate them yourself instead of buying them wholesale like mass-produced contact lenses. Intelligent lyrics, beautiful voice, competent guitar playing, inventive arrangements — a classic example of «Snubbed First Effort», to be dusted off and reappraised once Father Time readjusts the necessary balance.