AL STEWART: SPARKS OF ANCIENT LIGHT (2008)
1) Lord Salisbury; 2) (A Child's View Of) The Eisenhower Years; 3) The Ear Of The Night; 4) Hanno The Navigator; 5) Shah Of Shahs; 6) Angry Bird; 7) The Loneliest Place On The Map; 8) Sleepwalking; 9) Football Hero; 10) Elvis At The Wheel; 11) Silver Kettle; 12) Like William McKinley.
And another modestly perfect album; they just keep comin'. At such a pace, with such a steady mindset, Stewart could probably go on like that for another twenty years or so. A major asset is his unyielding vocal power: realize that on Sparks, a 63-year old Al sounds exactly like the 22-year old Al sounded on Bedsitter Images, and I mean it — not a single note betrays the aging (come to think of it, he looks pretty great for his age, too, except for the hair).
Of course, he did not exactly start out with the most powerful or wide-ranged voice of them all, but that is the common benefit — break out your superhuman voice in your twenties and you will be eating dust by the time you hit fifty; stay cool, calm, and collected when you're young and your singing life will be lengthy and healthy. The miracle of Al Stewart, then, is that the story of his voice is basically the same as the story of his songwriting. Here we sit listening to early period albums like Love Chronicles, classic years' albums like Year Of The Cat, and recent offerings like this record — and, for the life of me, I cannot figure out which ones are the «highlights» and which ones the «lowlights».
Focus on Sparks Of Ancient Light. Topics covered include: the Islamic revolution in Iran ('Shah Of Shahs'), the golden days of British imperialism ('Lord Salisbury'), America in the Fifties ('The Eisenhower Years'), ancient Phoenician naval expeditions to Africa ('Hanno The Navigator'), glories and pitfalls of professional sports ('Football Hero'), and a bizarre story about Elvis seeing the face of Stalin in the clouds on an Arizona trip in 1964 ('Elvis At The Wheel'). Plus a healthy dose of not-so-lyrically-specific tunes, of course, to ensure that the album will be likable by more than just history buffs.
Musically, Al's stern conservatism keeps up its rule: all the arrangements, by Al and long-term colleague Laurence Juber, follow the standard formulae. But, as usual, it is impossible to accuse the man of direct self-copying: as much as the melodies sound familiar, there are no obvious rewrites to be found. The expected hooks expectedly keep coming: catchy singalong choruses to 'Lord Salisbury' ("look away, look away, look away for our survival..."), 'Hanno' (with the charming line "when my sailing days are done, I'll see Poseidon's daughter"), 'Sleepwalking', and more. The expected acoustic instrumental is confined to the first half of 'Ear Of The Night', with Al giving us another of his simple, unassuming, but lovable folk interludes. The rock'n'roll, which Stewart never abandons, is represented by 'Angry Bird' and, to a lesser extent, by 'Eisenhower Years' — neither of the two «kicks ass», but Stewart is still one of the few veterans who can make a song «rock» while exercising restraint and cutting out dirty distorted guitar tones.
In short, it is exactly what is to be expected these days in the guise of the next Al Stewart album, and solid proof that the powers of melodic folk-rock, although drained, are still far from being completely spent. As I write this, Sparks is Stewart's last original studio album to-date, but there is truly not a shadow of doubt in my mind that he still has something like a dozen more records of the same quality in him, and that the longer he lasts, the more of an awesome example he can set for generations to come — doing for British folk-rock more or less the same that, say, a J. J. Cale does for American blues-rock. And he knows it well himself, the cunning old fox, or else he wouldn't end the album with the following refrain: "I'll sit on my porch like William McKinley / And I'll let the world come to me / And if it's too busy I really won't mind / And there's no place I want to be". Well, we can only hope that the world will continue to leave Al alone — not too difficult — since it would benefit no one see him end like William McKinley. Thumbs up, even despite the ill-omened nature of that one simile.
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