Rod Stewart – [Album]

Thursday, 23 May 2013

If there's one performer destined to go the route of showtune slingin' cheesedick mediocrity in his golden years, it's Rod Stewart. Even at his commercial zenith, around the time of Blondes Have More Fun and "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," The Mod had already cashed in any vestiges of credibility and masculinity along with, more importantly, the will to muster half a concern over the loss. Having held out on the Faces with his A-list oeuvre at the dawning of his earliest solo outings, Stewart was likely gunning for stardom from the first time he ever dug a grave. His latest, Time –  roughly his twentieth album of new studio material – isn't really an attempt to placate that fame so much as it is a message to remind the world that the guy is still breathing and still has an amazing back catalog to defend. The difference this time around is that Stewart has actually sat down to attempt to add his own contributions to that canon for the first consistent time since Vagabond Heart, the last album I imagine even his most fervent admirers would consider close to indispensable.

The hook to Stewart's delivery has always been the carnality of it, the very object of ridicule from his most widely pierced detractors that made him a stuffed junk idol heading into the Eighties, where he dove into soundtracking unrepentant commercial smut as a marketing tool for the likes of director Marty Callner, who'd end up working the shaft for Aerosmith and Cher by that decade's end. Rod is akin in his sexuality to very few fellow entertainers, the rarest likes of Tom Jones, Prince, Liberace and Samantha Fox. His sauntering lust is of the sleazy, unapologetic Nick Cave variety. He thrived as a middle aged creep, landing stunning women less than half his age and basking in the copious fruits of a legacy which was already secured before he even wrote "Mandolin Wind.”

Stewart's newest album suffers from the autopilot saccharine of his latter-day run of endless adult contempo standards (a whitewashed version of Johnny Cash's career capping series of American albums), but the effort in the songs only amounts to about half the amount required. None of the choruses really take off or stick like any of his classic material (by classic, I obviously mean Body Wishes), but many of the verses are solid and the album has no shortage of strong melodies even if there's a distinct lack of great hooks. Stewart's voice is definitely showing strain, but this guy had an inherent grit in his throat from day one. If the album title refers to the inevitable ravaging of his vocal chords, Stewart has a voice readymade for the wear and tear.

The thing about Stewart's latter day standards work that plays so egregiously is that it blatantly violates one of the cardinal rules of aging rockers: don't turn into the mellowed out performer who would have hated the music you used to make. This is a move twice as bad as simply ditching your amps for weathered acoustic ruminations unto that pending posthumous release. The exception to this rule would be someone like Elvis Costello, who had figured out how to make Broadway schmaltz cool way back on Imperial Bedroom, or Jeff Tweedy who, unlikely as it probably is, could easily end his career in a glorious Stardust-esque phase, unless he simply lives forever like Willie himself. Rod's got songwriting chops and legendary history, but he's just not that guy.

The move itself is a perfectly logical avoidance of the one sin more cardinal than you could find in St. Louis: don't embarrass yourself. The inverse of the "fake it 'til you make it" law, this one dictates that a performer must get the fuck off the stage before he descends into self-parody. Mortality, career or otherwise, does not always play a factor in these circumstances (Rivers Cuomo, I'm looking your way). Aging gracefully in the rock star profession is a feat akin to reciting the alphabet backward while walking a straight line over hot coals. The standard bearer profession, however, is constructed on age and grace, the dual tenets of a lifetime of warbling songs that no one has had to defend or preserve in half a century.

So when Rod Stewart decides that he's going to try his hand at coming up with his own material again, after not only abandoning the craft but living under the shadow of work that transcended songwriting and went straight on to institution-building, he clearly has a better understanding of where he's at in the musical icon spectrum, of what matters about his output and what doesn't. He calls in the usual favor, on the beautiful and suitably maudlin "Picture in a Frame,” from his old pal Tom Waits who has for decades now provided a perverse respectability wherein Tom gained a wider audience and Rod gets to look like a tastemaker rather than someone shamelessly aping a better man's catalog. For the most part though, Rod the Dad, lays it down like a grandfather telling stories at a family reunion, looking back on love and victory from a few blocks over.

The album's most blatant stab at friskiness, "Sexual Religion,” is a pretty good swing and only misses by a little. The song is reminiscent of Richard Ashcroft's United Nations of Sound project, which was nearly universally reviled, but had moments of greatness, even if it was sometimes less than intentional. It taps into a sub-genre of club banger reserved for singles mixers and Jazzercise, but anything else would be inappropriate. For Stewart to still be asking listeners if they're pussy-whipped (as he did on 1977's Hot Legs) would be plain undignified. That's the true Rod Stewart, a gentleman scallywag to the end.



Time is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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