AL STEWART: LAST DAYS OF THE CENTURY (1988)
1) Last Days Of The Century; 2) Real And Unreal; 3) King Of Portugal; 4) Red Toupée; 5) Where Are They Now; 6) Bad Reputation; 7) Josephine Baker; 8) License To Steal; 9) Fields Of France; 10) Antarctica; 11) Ghostly Horses Of The Plain; 12*) Helen And Cassandra.
Way too clinical. It is not at all difficult to forgive Russians & Americans — sterile Eighties production was not only kept at bay on that record, but was also a somewhat new, exciting way to get things wrapped up. By 1988, however, it was mostly clear that, were good taste in music to prevail for the intelligent artists at least, the electronic drums and synthesizers and pop-metal guitar solos had to go. But apparently it was not clear to Stewart's new producer, Joe Chiccarelli, who, despite his near-sterling record of work with Frank Zappa and Oingo Boingo, here saddles Al with the worst kind of sound he'd ever received up to that point.
The songs are mostly okay; no great revelations, but the usual folk-pop, modest-hook formula continues to work. The bizarre post-psychedelic chorus of 'Real And Unreal' is rather ugly and poorly sewn on to the otherwise fine lounge jazz essence of the song, and 'King Of Portugal' is a lame attempt at capturing the essence of the late Eighties dance-pop hit, but otherwise, where the songwriting is concerned, we are still in business.
The sound of it all, however, is downright awful. It's all echo and robotic tick-tock synths and big booming drums — so much so that, whenever I hear a bit of Spanish guitar come in, I cannot help but cringe, because what once used to be one of Al's trademarks — he was a big fan of the flamenco style from the earliest days — is now reduced to the kind of overproduced Latino muzak that haunts us in elevators and cheap eating places. Next to this kind of coating, Alan Parsons is unquestionably the Mozart of production.
It is funny, though, that Stewart, three years later, had been chained to the exact same sound as Bob Dylan was, three years earlier, with Empire Burlesque; in fact, 'License To Steal' half-borrows its title from Bob's 'License To Kill' and half-borrows its melody and sound from Bob's 'Clean-Cut Kid', and all of these tunes could have rocked had they been recorded ten years earlier or ten years later. As it stands, they are sorely in need of reinvention.
The second half of the album does seem to be a little more polite to good melodies and a bit less intent on all the New Age stuff. Once you're past all the synthesizer excesses of the first half and the horrendously cheesy backing vocals on 'Red Toupée' (contributed by Tori Amos, no less! of Y Kant Tori Read fame, no less!), you may relax with the aid of Al's cute, sentimental, and somewhat touching ode to Josephine Baker (or, in a broader sense, to all the sensual delights of days gone by that we are unable to taste in person, at least not until the Holodeck becomes a reality), the pretty Tullian flute interludes on 'Fields Of France', and the happiest, catchiest anthem to the world's coldest, bitterest continent ever written.
Overall, though, it is very sad that the man was unable to resist the temptations of the «let's turn music to gross shit» decade, but at least he only released one single album in his entire career that sounded in such a horrendous manner. This does not save the album itself from an indignant thumbs down, but it does wipe out all grounds for comparison with Rod Stewart, much as the names would want to lead one into such a temptation.