Redeeming Rod: “If We Fall in Love Tonight” (1996)

Written by Music, Redeeming Rod

In 1996, Rod Stewart released a collection of his ballads over the years, entitled If We Fall In Love Tonight. Or rather, Warner Brothers released this album, probably based partly on the fact that a similar collection by another one of the label’s stars (Madonna) had gone double platinum just a few months prior. Among the “goodies” to lure in the target audience of baby boom buyers: a re-recorded version of the ’80s hit/Dylan ripoff “Forever Young,” the Sting/Bryan Adams money grab collaboration “All For Love” (Rod’s biggest chart hit of all time[!!]), and three new songs, one of which was the title track, and the subject of today’s post. And more importantly, in my opinion, it might be the best “original” Rod song of the past 25 years.

Written and produced by Prince disciples Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis III, “If We Fall in Love Tonight” is a lovely modern R&B ballad featuring great backing vocals and a nice “storyline” involving the reconvening or re-strengthening of a old or longtime love affair. Both the subject matter and the arrangement plays off the strengths of Rod’s softer side. More importantly, Jam and Lewis are able to coax a subtle, striking performance out of Rod: he is able to go through the entirety of the song without falling into the “whisper” technique of substituting volume for emotion that (as I have previously mentioned) permeates too many of his ballad performances from the 1980s onward.

Here, Rod wears his heart on his sleeve: there are few vocal trills or moments where he plays with or strays from the tune’s basic construction. Instead, his voice sinks into phrases, almost speaking some words, while elongating some syllables just a bit to give them an extra emotional punch. Consider, for instance, the fact that Rod is able to turn the phrase “I’m so ready to love you down” and not have it seem at all cringe-worthy speaks volumes about the quality of both the song and the performance. Once again, Rod’s vocal stylings can genuinely be said to emulate his greatest of heroes, Sam Cooke. In other words, this song is the exact opposite of everything that is “Love Touch.” (And to those of you who are now thinking “Hey! I like ‘Love Touch’!”, let me just say: I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.)

That Jam and Lewis are able to achieve this with their vocal arrangement and production is not surprising: their greatest success over the years has been with Janet Jackson, a woman blessed with an incredible musical pedigree, but, in all honesty, limited vocal talents. Regardless, Jam and Lewis have been able to coax many a great performance out of her given these limitations, perhaps the best example being a ballad similar to Rod’s — “Come Back to Me,” from Rhythm Nation 1814.

But back to Rod: “If We Fall in Love Tonight,” both the single and the album, was something of a turning point for Rod’s career — it represents his jump into full-fledged Adult Contemporary status. While the song only peaked at #54 on the Billboard Singles (Hot 100) Chart (his second to last appearance to date there), it was his biggest hit in three years on the Adult Contemporary Chart (#4), and by peaking at #25, it is his highest charter all time on the Adult Top 40 chart (sort of a cross between Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary).