AL STEWART: YEAR OF THE CAT (1976)
1) Lord Grenville; 2) On The Border; 3) Midas Shadow; 4) Sand In Your Shoes; 5) If It Doesn't Come Naturally, Leave It; 6) Flying Sorcery; 7) Broadway Hotel; 8) One Stage Before; 9) Year Of The Cat.
By popular consensus, Year Of The Cat is not just the best Al Stewart album ever; it is, inasmuch as we know, the only Al Stewart album, period. The man may have baked LPs like pancakes, both before and after, but no matter — popular conscience has logged 1976 as the Al Stewart year, and popular conscience is a bitch when it comes to dissenting opinions. The rest of the time, popular conscience tells us, was spent in the basement.
There is one nagging problem with this: frankly speaking, Year Of The Cat may be a masterpiece and all that, but it is not really an Al Stewart album. It is Al Stewart providing his services of resident singer-songwriter to Alan Parsons, the true musical wizard behind this sound. Hardly a coincidence that Year Of The Cat was released about two months later than Parsons' own debut (Tales Of Mystery And Imagination): by now, Alan had his own approach to art-rock fully fleshed out, and he was perfectly happy to impose it upon a good friend as well.
Not that there's any need to complain, mind you. Stewart's own musical palette was staying firmly the same: these here songs, even including the big fat hit single of the title track, are no better and no worse than his usual quality. So it was only natural for Parsons to try and see what he could do to make the material, based on the exact same folk rock chord progressions, sound not just up-to-date, but diverse and involving as well. The recipe is simple: cook it all up in the thick, echoey, mystically-pretentious overproduction of mid-Seventies art-rock.
As 'Lord Grenville' opens the proceedings, no holds are barred: big drums, rippling acoustic guitars, grim keyboards, and Spanish-tinged electric lead lines welcome you on the first bars, and the strings are not lagging far behind. And if you think that this sea of sound, in which Stewart himself is merely a Robinson Crusoe latching onto a piece of timber, is perfectly suitable for the opening number, be forewarned that it is going to be raging on every song on the album. («Raging», of course, is not the right word when you are dealing with a tin-can Alan Parsons production: everything is raging only inasmuch as it is permitted to range by the Man In Control).
Those who hate the likes of Alan Parsons, thinking that the man represents everything that was rotten about «serious pop music» in the Seventies, should steer clear. But I, for one, cannot deny neither his imagination and creativity nor his ear for melody, and, when all is said and done, 'Lord Grenville' is a great cohesive work of art — if anything, listen to how marvelously the strings at the end of the song imitate the crashing of waves on the shore! Without his flourishes, the tune would be just another nice Al Stewart song; together, they molded it into a progressive epic that sounds extremely dated and completely fresh at the same time.
It is not hard to understand the immense popularity of the title track, either. Stewart happened to write a set of mysterious lyrics about a mysterious woman, with Humphrey Bogart references and a whole lot of appeal to all those looking for the meaning of life in extravagant romance. Parsons got the idea, and gave the song a perfectly radio-ready arrangement that had it all: head-bobbing rhythmics, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and lounge sax solos, and a combination of melancholia and elevated inspiration that grabbed everyone wanting to be grabbed. Is it really Stewart's «masterpiece»? I would never have thought that on my own. But that it was the perfect song to capture the minds of its generation on a summer day in 1976 — no question about that.
The rest of the album, sandwiched in between these two highlights, is generally of the same quality, and occasionally suffers from monotonousness. I was quite happy to discover 'Sand In Your Shoes' and 'If It Doesn't Come Naturally' as two sunnier-than-the-rest Dylanesque inclusions, particularly the former with its wintery Blonde On Blonde overtones and one of the most memorable chorus lines on the record — "and it's goodbye to my lady on the island...". But the other songs, be they the second big hit single 'On The Border', or 'Broadway Hotel' with its gypsy violin, or 'Midas Shadow' with its somnambulant electric piano, get sort of glued together in a never-ending celebration of the wedding between the modernistically morose and the canonically beautiful.
Do not make the mistake of equating Al Stewart with Year Of The Cat, even if it may still be the only record of his within easy reach of the bargain bins. To understand the man better, one would need to experience him outside the state of symbiosis with Parsons. But it is also true that that symbiosis never worked better than on the best songs on Year Of The Cat, and that the longer the title track will be followed by its army of sympathizers, the more hopes there are humanity will last a little longer. Could you love 'Year Of The Cat' and still be able to detonate a nuclear missile? Weird question, but, for some reason, it just popped into my head out of nowhere. Yes, and a big thumbs up both for the intelligent craftsmanship and for the good songs.