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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Al Stewart: Modern Times


1) Carol; 2) Sirens Of Titan; 3) What's Going On?; 4) Not The One; 5) Next Time; 6) Apple Cider Re-Constitution; 7) The Dark And The Rolling Sea; 8) Modern Times.

Al Stewart could never take the place of Roger Waters. He lacks the prerequisite acid of evil, and he is too courteous to want to wash the listener with gallons of musically-processed bile. But eve­ry now and then, the need arises to consume some «Pink Floyd Lite» — music that would carry similar messages of fear, sadness, melancholia, betrayal, madness, etc., but without the overdri­ven intensity and spookiness of the classic Floyd sound. And since, deep down inside, Stewart's artistic and intellectual essence is not at all different from Waters', what a better way to get that «Pink Floyd Lite» sound than combining Al's usual schtick with Pink Floyd's lead engineer?

The coming of Alan Parsons on board means that things are going to get a bit denser and darker, and somewhat alarmingly in touch with what may loosely be termed as «the second wave of Se­venties' prog» — such bands as the Alan Parsons Project itself, for which the formal trappings and complexities frequently overshadowed the inadequate shallowness (or pompous absurdity) of content. But since at the heart of it all we still find Stewart's relatively simple, honest, clever, and essen­tially friendly folk rock, there is no need to worry. Modern Times may have survived with­out Parsons' production — in fact, I wouldn't say that Modern Times desperately need Parsons' production — but the man definitely adds an extra dimension to Al's sound that doesn't spoil any­thing; on the contrary, it sort of justifies the release of yet another album, even if the songs never tell us anything about Stewart that we didn't already know.

In fact, I do not have a good explanation for the fact that the album shot up to No. 30 on the Bill­board charts — up more than a hundred positions from the previous LP. We can hardly blame it on the Alan Parsons association: as solid as he made a name for himself with the engineering of Dark Side, people don't usually scoop up new albums because of their producers. Obviously, all the songs are good, and there are no pushing-it experiments like 'Roads To Moscow' or 'Nostra­damus' that can kill off a good idea midway through, but, the way I see it, this is just another col­lection of Stewart's usual caliber: repetitive folk-rockers and «folk-poppers» each of which con­tains a touching hook or two but each of which is also overlong and only saved by the fact that, like Dylan, he can come up with plenty of interesting lyrics to keep it up.

Nicest of the bunch are the fast ones — 'Carol' and 'Apple Cider Re-Constitution' — not just be­cause they have the toe-tappin' factor in their favor, but also because they are the best suited ones to Tim Renwick's fast, fluent and emotional playing style, even though the atmospheres are com­pletely different: moody and bitter on 'Carol', with Al sharpening his teeth on yet another female victim, sunny and romantic on 'Apple Cider', where the odd psychedelic lyrics do not suggest much in terms of finding a way out of this place ("You know London can make your brain stall") but the music is definitely escapist to the n-th degree.

The magnum opus, however, is the lumbering title track, on which Parsons unleashes all of his potential to create a kind of musical crescendo that echoes the best successes of Yes in the prog-rock genre, adding layer upon layer of guitars, keyboards, brass, and orchestration to elevate this initially humble tune about sharing a glass with an old friend to epic heights. Al himself hardly exists on the song's last two minutes at all, but he is definitely out there for the first six, and so the song reads like a dialog between Stewart, lazily melancholizing about the world that we have lost, and Parsons, who translates his melancholy into grand musical vision much the same way he would «translate» Edgar Allan Poe on his own album one year later.

Curiously, Modern Times lives up to its name in that none of the songs deal with historical sub­jects: perhaps Stewart thought that, for the time being, he'd exorcised his inner history demon and that it was time to deal with more actual matters. But he still deals with them in the same old fa­shioned ways, appealing primarily to old fashioned audiences, which is why the com­mercial suc­cess of the album is so puzzling in such a totally mid-Seventies manner. Is Modern Times really a giant step forward, as we sometimes read in musical guides? I don't believe so; the musical gui­des have simply been misled by too much chart statistics analysis. Is it yet another first-rate Al Stewart album? Unequivocally so; thumbs up.


  1. I think Al himself ascribes the record's commercial success to momentum, the previous record had sold half as many copies in America. And isn't Apple Cider very Absoultely Sweet Marie?

  2. Yes, we do get a much clearer sound than on the last album, even if I don't find the songs quite as interesting. Still a really good album, though. Al seems more willing to focus on personal relationships ("Carol", title track, "Not the One") than on PP&F. He also shows more of a sense of humor ("What's Going On?", "Apple Cider..") than the deadly seriousness of the last album, although "The Dark and Rolling Sea" could have also fit in as well there. My favorite is the title track, with its tale of a rather peculiar encounter between Al and an old friend. The ambiguous ending works perfectly. I sort of lost interested in Al after this, as he went more pop and less folky -- I don't see how he could have improved on these two mid-period albums.