In my first article we see Al as the precocious first grader, in the second installment we meet the sometimes slightly pretentious and maybe over the top adolescent. The release of Russians And Americans in 1984 signaled the end of the saga’s, and indeed it did look like Al had run his course. Although he was still touring there was little sign of any studio activity.

Fans had to wait until 1988 for the next studio installment Last Days Of The Century. Many of the songs on this album are written with long time collaborator Peter White. What I found when listening to this was an interesting change in musical direction. Last Days is not as thematic as the saga albums were. It is just a collection of great music. And here is a little bit of trivia for Al Stewart fans, Tori Amos does the backing vocals on this album, and in this new version two of the bonus tracks ‘Ten Cents’ and ‘Dreaming’ were jointly written by Tori.

Once again we hit a period of great studio inactivity and the fans faced another four year wait. Rhymes In Rooms appeared in the stores in 1992 as a ‘Live’ album, and certainly is a lot more ‘live’ than Indian Summer! I have always considered Al Stewart to be one of the best live acts around. His live show is always every bit as good as the studio stuff, and there are very few musicians that can pull that off. Unfortunately for the fan there was very little in the way of new and exciting material, much of the album is taken up reworking old tunes, and sometimes not successfully, there is a very acoustic version of Time Passages that has been substantially rearranged and for me it does not work. What does work though is the ‘live’ aspect. Al has always been an acoustic kind of guy, and when you strip away the ’87 piece orchestra’, there is a fabulous artist at the center.

The acoustic version of On The Border is a showcase of Al Stewart’s ability playing the guitar. It has a very ‘Spanish’ feel to it, and is a real treat to listen to. Nostradamus makes an appearance (Past Present and Future), as does Clifton In The Rain (Bed Sitter Images), and what would a live performance be without Year Of The Cat. Among the bonus tracks is ‘Warm California Night’, this is the seed that produced ‘Timeless Skies’.

Innovative Rhymes in Rooms is not, but as a showcase of his career it most certainly is. The long wait for Rhymes In Rooms was not entirely Al’s fault, the record label Enigma that he was now recording under was having some real cash-flow problems which eventually ended in bankruptcy and really were not that keen on supporting their artists.

Famous Last Words came out in 1993, and contains lots of great new songs. Although a studio production it very much signals a return to the acoustic side of Al Stewart. Gone are the huge backing bands. Sophisticated in one sense, it is also has that raw Al, stool, and the guitar sound. My favorite tracks would have to be Angel Of Mercy, the delightfully lyrical Trains, and the slightly dark Necromancer.  Famous Last Words also contains a complete oddity in Al’s catalog, and try as I might I still cannot figure out where Hipposong fits!

Between The Wars (1995) may not signal a huge change in musical direction, but it does signify that a fork in the road was taken. Long time friend and co-conspirator Peter White had prior commitments and was not available to assist Al. Other big changes in Al’s life were his marriage and birth of their first child (Maybe he needs to add a couple more stanzas to Love Chronicles). Laurence Juber of Wings fame, becomes his right-hand man. Because of family commitments Al wanted to keep this album easy to tour with. As a result Between The Wars has a very light and acoustic feel to it. While the words in the songs are rooted in Al’s love of history and his great storytelling ability, the tunes are light and upbeat. It is almost HippoSong meets Nostradamus!

I really like the bonus tracks on this album The Bear Farmers Of Birnam is a delightful foray into honky tonk.

To introduce the New Millennium Al Released Down In The Cellar (2001). Once again we have a very acoustic work, but this time there is much more piano used. The theme is wine, apparently Al is very much a wine connoisseur, so this is a fitting subject. Al has two great abilities, how to write intriguing lyrics, and how to play the acoustic guitar, Soho, is a perfect example. In many ways it is a return to his roots.

This has been a wonderful exploration for me. As I remarked earlier, it is not often that you get to hear so many albums in such a short period. I was a fan when I first saw Al in the very early 70’s, and I am a fan now, almost 40 years later.

Al Stewart is a complex musician, and in my mind, one of the true greats. Re-listening to his huge catalog of songs makes me wonder why he is not more well known? But, when you start to play with the numbers you find a very interesting situation, Modern Times was a contentious and maybe ill thought out album, and Arista were ticked off because it only sold 250,000 copies! If that was a ‘bad’ album, I wonder how many copies of Year Of The Cat were sold?

On the sleeve notes of the newly re-minted Bed Sitter Images Al reflects on his lost chances, too old to be Al Beatle, and too young to be Al Dylan, well I have this to say, and I am sure that Al will be reading this review! The world did not need either of those people, but the world certainly needed Al Stewart, I cannot even guess the number of people that you have entertained over the years. It is in the many millions, I do know that!

So from a long time fan, I say, thanks Al.

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com

 

 
 
  

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