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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Al Stewart: Past, Present & Future


AL STEWART: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE (1973)

1) Old Admirals; 2) Warren Harding; 3) Soho (Needless To Say); 4) The Last Day Of June 1934; 5) Post World War Two Blues; 6) Roads To Moscow; 7) Terminal Eyes; 8) Nostradamus.

He certainly had it coming, even if no particular Nostradamus could precisely predict when it would actually happen: a massive concept album about History. The canvas had some flaws, in the form of several acutely ahistorical songs hanging around ('Soho' and 'Terminal Eyes'), which is why the copout is to pretend it's all about weaving the different ages of humanity together with its state of today and its distant prospects, but this is where it does not work. Clearly, Al just wan­ted to intelligently justify the co-existence of his old habit of writing introspective songs for lo­ners with the new habit of setting history textbooks to music, and the album title is a transparent deception that might formally clear him in court, but fail to make him invulnerable. Fortunately for him, no one really gives a damn.

Now when Al writes about history, he never hides behind allusions or allegories — you may be sure that if he sings about an old admiral lamenting his uselessness in the years of the Great War, or about a Russian soldier interned in a Siberian camp upon being freed from German captivity, or about President Harding's last and fatal journey to Alaska, that is exactly what he is singing about. For many admirers of Stewart's talent, this may seem boring, because Stewart is too esote­ric and obscure a performer to function as proper edutainment, and most people will usually be quite familiar with at least the protagonists and general settings of his little historical landscapes, if not necessarily with all the details. (Although if there is at least one person in the world who, upon hearing this record, will want to learn more about General Guderian, Lord Mountbatten, Ernst Röhm, or about how to pinpoint Smolensk or the Suez Canal on the map, Al may well con­sider his mission to humanity accomplished).

Nevertheless, as simple and unflinching as these lyrics are, they are decent; not much use as poe­try, but working well in conjunction with the music, not to mention quite well informed (well, there is nothing, really, in 'Roads To Moscow' that cannot be found in a standard beginner-level textbook on World War II in Russia, but just how many so-called «artists» bother to check their facts with even beginner-le­vel textbooks anyway?).

Surprisingly, it is the lengthy epic numbers that take the cake. 'Old Admirals' gets the properly stately, solemn backing you'd expect from a song about an old war hero — great use of the synthesizer on the closing bars of each chorus, and masterful slow buildup of keyboard, guitar, and orchestration layers. 'Roads To Moscow' has no Russian influences whatever in its music, and this is good: the man would have certainly failed had he tried to go for balalaikas and accor­deons and folk choruses — instead, when he sings "I'll never know, I'll never know why I was taken from the line and all the others / To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia", I cannot help but picture a starry-eyed Al Stewart in person, for some reason fin­ding himself in the position of defending the outskirts of Moscow first and then later conveyed into the realm of the GULAG. Not the effect he hoped for himself, I suppose, but Fortune works in mysterious ways.

Most of the seriousness and solemnity was, however, saved for the last track, as 'Nostradamus' takes you on a ten-minute journey through Stewart's interpretations of the prophecies (this is the one time when he clearly fiddles with the sources, but then it is hard to resist fiddling with a guy like Michel if you are into him in the first place) set mostly to acoustic strumming heavily laden with echo and other effects (the instrumental section does not even bother to add much of any­thing else except for a phasing gimmick). Obviously, ten minutes is overkill, but the melody is catchy, and the general idea rather effective — at the very least, it is nowhere near as tedious as Al's sexual autobiography on 'Love Chronicles'.

Among the shorter songs, only 'Soho (Needless To Say)' has emerged as a minor classic (enough, at least, to go on to be played live for quite a long time), but I am a bigger fan of the hilarious folk-rocker 'Post World War Two Blues', which not only manages to set an infamous dialogue between Churchill and Mountbatten to a catchy, toe-tappy traditional melody, but is also — ar­guably? — the first song in history to properly ask the question "Which way did the Sixties go?", guaranteeing Al the title of The Honorable Mother Of All Retro-Mopers (including yours truly). And let us not forget 'Terminal Eyes', one of Al's most convincing and elegant creations in the «psychedelic Brit-pop» style of Nuggets II.

For the record, the LP, like its predecessor Orange, was produced by notable art-rock producer John Anthony (of Van der Graaf Generator, Genesis, and Queen fame); some fans and critics hold the opinion that Stewart never truly hit his stride until he finally teamed up with Alan Par­sons, but I beg to differ — Anthony's grand, imposing style of production may be less calculated than that of the mathematical genius behind Dark Side Of The Moon, but all the arrangements are done in great taste, and not for a single second does the record reveal the piss-stained side of the Seventies to the listener. A mildly intelligent, moderately heartfelt thumbs up (i. e. not the kind of album that begs you to jump for joy, but then Al is hardly the jumping kind, more like the squatting one).

2 comments:

  1. Hi, George,

    Nice to see you back in business!

    I'm pretty sure that this was the first Stewart album to be released in the U.S., and it was definitely the first to get substantial FM/college play. The most popular cuts were, back in those prog days, the longest, "Roads to Moscow" and "Eyes of Nostradaus". Although you argue that the songs are too long, I think that the long guitar passages in the former evoke a long train ride across a desolate landscape. In the latter, the phasing effects convey sucessfully Nostradamus having visions of the future.

    I don't think there's a loser track in the bunch. "Warren Harding" is the one place where Al shows a bit of a sense of humor. I always thought of "Post World War II Blues" and "Soho" to be two parts of the same story -- the British baby boomer grows up to be an idealistic hippie, only to end up in the "desolation row" of "Soho." The one song I can't figure out is "Terminal Eyes". What is it? An acid trip? A near death experience? More visions of the future? Cool tune, anyway.

    I'm not familiar with most of Stewart's material, but I don't think he really topped this one.

    Is this the original British cover? How bland. The American LP cover has a cool trick photo of a woman passing through a breach in the space-time continuum (or something). How proggy!
    Bob

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  2. "Terminal Eyes" is a prophetic song, musically, and tends to imply much of what is to come to musical fruition in the near future. Other than that, the whole album is great, love it from beginning to end, but then again I heard it the first time riding down a mountain with a stranger driving stoned out of my gourd in Oregon and I thought that it was Roy Harper for a moment, but realized quickly it wasn't. But it was after a week long party that I won't talk about here. But, yes, "Past, Present and Future" by far my personal favorite Al Stewart record and a great accomplishment by anyone, really. What's there to complain about? History, prophecy, and current downtroddenes, love, war and the pain and sublimity of living. All of that, more of that, and Al Stewart's really lovely nasal pet shop boys voice, reminding us that yes, he was the first person to say "fuck" on a commercial record (maybe)and Nostradamus is much better than the Love Chronicles which makes me feel kinda icky when I hear it. But we just gotta love it anyway. So cheers to Al Stewart and his career. So what if he went all soft later. He's still Al Stewart and Roy Harper is alot better, but still, we must love him. Thumbs up from all versions of me, even the cyborg that interferes with my wicket.

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