By 1983 and ’84, several of the changes that Al Stewart began on the 24 Carrots album (1980) had settled in for better or worse. There seemed to be a calculated attempt to reach a wider audience without alienating older fans. Efforts that tried being danceable came off as mechanized and strained, but were nonetheless a bid for relevance to the times. And even when the fit wasn’t always perfect, Stewart’s elegant, cinematic musicality and scrupulous wordplay remained largely intact. “Murmansk Run/Ellis Island” and “Rocks In The Ocean” were a callback to his historical folk prior to the hit-making years with Alan Parsons as producer.
But 24 Carrots underperformed, just as its leadoff single “Midnight Rocks” did, even though it was closest tonally to the approach of the Parsons albums (Modern Times, Year of the Cat, and Time Passages respectively). Stewart was off the Arista label, provoking a considerable gap in time as he found a new (very brief) home on Passport Records. That sole album was Russians & Americans.
The effort, as one might imagine from the title, was highly political and often critical of both of the titular superpowers, and was something of a departure for Stewart. Rarely had he tackled a subject so current and so completely as he had here, but this was true of most artists of the time. Think Sting’s “Russians,” Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” and Prince’s “Ronnie Talk To Russia.” The fear of being set to the atomic boil in mutually-assured destruction was a difficult cultural touchstone to avoid. Unlike his counterparts, who at that moment had more chart-success capital and less room to be controversial, Stewart had little to lose. Thus, the commentary on the record is often more cutting and searing than the careful “shaming from the stars” that seemed to be the trend.
Russians & Americans is not a strict concept record, so not every track is a screed against one flag or the other. In many cases, the topics are tangential, not targeted, to these countries. That’s especially true of the Bob Dylan homage “Accident on 3rd St.” Stewart spools out cascades of words in Dylan-fashion, detailing a tragic scene rendered with cold detachment, codified with the frequently repeated line, “It’s just one of those things.” By assuming the costume of this political, controversial, and anarchically American figure, Stewart kind of gets to have his cake and eat it too, showing how it is easy to use awful events as your grist, but not caring much more beyond having something to ramble on about for several minutes. It is just one of those things.
The title cut is a disregarded gem, maybe one of Stewart’s finest moments, even when reckoning “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” (the songs). It is a slow, intensifying waltz toward…what? Perhaps toward recognition of how similar the U.S. and Russia were (are?) and how two beings so similar have the hardest time communicating with each other. Perhaps it is an exegesis of what is really at conflict here. Stewart quotes “A country is more an idea than a place,” and that gets at the heart of what it is like dealing with intractable philosophies. The landmarks can all be rebuilt and broken down again, but a mindset is harder to dismantle.
If you get the impression that Stewart is slightly harder on America than Russia, then go to the head of the class. In the 1980’s even our allies were complaining about U.S. corporate expansion. It was not uncommon to hear people in England and Australia being extremely negative about how we were shoving Coca Cola and Big Macs down their throats, while at the same time our corporations gloated over these thuggish moves as a measure of success. “You can’t run from our products, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride,” seemed to be the response to outcry that America was willfully trampling on cultural identity.
Perhaps the most trenchant example of this callous attitude is illustrated by the song “1-2-3.” You might recognize it if you’re up on your ’60s pop music. The original version was done by Len Barry, and the subject was how easily a woman was going to fall in love with him. If you were listening to the track with ’60s ears, you might not be too offended. There were a lot of very harsh, sexist, even violent pop songs about relationships at that time (“I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves…” Ring a bell?) Barry’s song at least came off as thoughtless when he sang that winning her love would be “…just like taking candy from a baby.” By 1984, however, people stopped being charmed by that initial edition.
The clever twist with Stewart’s not-very-faithful cover is that he has appropriated all the arrogance of an overconfident Lothario and applied it to the overconfidence of a country built on conquest: financially, if not always confrontationally. Using the context of political overreach and how such victimizes other nations and indigenous peoples, Stewart goes to the start of how we got here, bought with “…a handful of beads.” There is a smugness to how it is portrayed, that we can just walk in and assume our dominance. “1-2-3, that’s how elementary it’s going to be…like taking candy from a baby.”
The best way I can describe the sound of some of the more dated tracks is “ticky.” As I said earlier, there was a push toward danceability during this period, and some artists simply weren’t inclined to produce dance-oriented music. They had the tempo right, but the whole regularly felt nervous and mechanized. Like a metronome, it ticked when it needed to groove. Russians & Americans, like 24 Carrots, wasn’t quite meant to groove.
What it does, it does quite well. When using that nervous energy in a less rigorous way, standout songs like “Night Meeting,” which suggests all manner of clandestine cloak-and-dagger, bristles with art rock energy. The same could be said for “Cafe Society” which bears a striking kinship with David Gilmour-led ’80s Pink Floyd except without, you know, David Gilmour. The track still has a nicely nasty guitar solo in it, something that people tend to forget about Stewart’s higher-profiled output. So did “Year of the Cat.”
All the topicality and vigor couldn’t raise the album to the limelight. Its release in 1984 was, when looking back, doomed. Three music stars took an outsized place in pop culture — Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. From the vantage point of comebacks, Tina Turner had that position covered thoroughly. For an artist known to skirt the softer side, such as Stewart did, there wasn’t a lot of breakout room to be had.
Add to that the niche qualities of Stewart’s label then, Passport. A subsidiary of Jem Records in the U.S. and distributed by GRT in Canada, it had a solid history. Jem was an interim home for Sire Records in-between distributors ABC Records and Warners, the company that eventually bought it. The label was the home for prog band Camel and Phil Collins’ other group Brand X. You’ve identified the big problem if only now you know Collins had another group concurrent to Genesis. Jem was a major indie, and had a deep back bench, but a heavy amount of “shifting units” came from fanbases and word-of-mouth. In that sense, the label was ahead of its time, as that is the standard operating procedure for so much of what we call the indie label model now.
That was not going to help Stewart, and after this one release he was off to another indie (which had slightly more pull). Enigma Records would release Al’s Last Days of the Century and their connections with Capitol Records/EMI meant that it was going to be easier to get seen, provided labelmates didn’t eat up all the energy at the home office. Some of those were The Dead Milkmen, Devo, Stryper, The Smithereens, and Poison. You probably don’t need more than this to figure out how things shook down.
Stewart kept on writing and recording, including fruitful collaborations with Wings guitarist Laurence Juber, culminating in a resurgence of Stewart’s more traditional folk tendencies. Although his last studio album came out in 2008, the 70 year old Stewart is still active with music. He performed the albums Past, Present and Future and Year of the Cat in their entirety just this year at the Royal Albert Hall.