Well, kick me in the head and call me Sally. What we have on offer here is Rod Stewart’s first LP of material “written entirely” by the laziest star in all of rockdom since Out of Order, his lukewarm Power Station collaboration of 1988. That’s a full 25 years ago, if there are any fans left still counting.
Of course, these days every new record by an aging once-was needs its marketing hook and the outsized claim of authorship here is…um…just that – outsized. Ol’ Rod the Mod has leaned on a variety of crutches for quite some time now, be it the Clive Davis Songbook or some other stab at contemporaneousness concocted by of-the-moment writers and producers serving at the star’s behest. The overarching feeling on each and every one of ‘em was that these records were all made while Rod was off living his life, only gracing the studio when his vocal tracks were absolutely and necessarily required.
To take the measure of the man in full is to tag him “Rock’s Greatest Talent Wholly Squandered.” Full stop. There was a time when Rod and the Faces, in all their ragged glory, were untouchable. With whatever respect due to the Rolling Stones and whomever else, the Faces were the living embodiment of everything glorious about the rock ethos, and to witness it (always live, almost never on record) was to practically stare into the face of God. Unsurprisingly, the last word and testament to this fact, the four-disc box set Five Guys Walk Into a Bar, leans repeatedly on live recordings from all kinds of sources to make its case.
And then there were the hugely successful solo albums, the first four of which constitute an awesome display of raw talent and ambition coupled with massive tunesmithery and unparalleled bravado. The guy seemingly had it all because, in fact, he did. The tragic flaw, though, was that perhaps it all resided in a very imperfect vessel.
Because it was plain to see that all that money and all that soccer on the side long ago took the spring out of Rod’s step, turning him into an old man sitting down most prematurely. The object of his pursuits clearly became more blondes and more money in whatever order they appeared. He quit writing because the effort seemed so beside the point. He quit caring because others could be incentivized to care for him with equal result. So to now have him deliver a full-length opus of such alleged gargantuan effort forces any former fan (are there really any others?) to sit bolt upright and take notice.
And what is noticed first and foremost is that the press-release version of the facts is very much at odds with the album’s songwriting credits. Of the twelve tunes on the LP proper, eleven are co-writes. To be fair, though, Rod was almost never anything other than a collaborator. But on Time, there are two songs with as many as six co-writers and four other songs with at least three. Call it a group effort. The one common thread running through most of the writing credits is the presence of Kevin Savigar, a Stewart stalwart for many years who also serves as one of the album’s four producers along with other perennial Stewart helpmates Jim Cregan and Chuck Kentis.
When it all gets boiled down, there isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between this Stewart album and countless others he’s made from a distance since he took his hand from his heart so many years ago and slapped it squarely on the back of his accountant. This is to say that there are massively good grooves cut by seasoned pros who certainly know the difference, which are often times marred by overtly quantized and triggered drums and all manner of Pro-Toolery as well as a surfeit of strings and smarm and other nasty trademarks of Adult Contemporary pandering. However, there is also the occasional turn of phrase or quickness of wit, and the occasional dollop of joy or heartbreak or humor that does indeed mark the man’s presence on the project. There could be more and it could be more often – sometimes it’s just a whiff before it’s overwhelmed by the smell of session men doing their duty – but it is detectable and that’s a little something. And even when Rod’s thumbprint turns cringe-worthy, as it does on the reasonably enthusiastic opener “She Makes Me Happy” (“Now I’m working out daily and watching my waistline/No more burgers and fries!”), at least he’s in there pitching.
Other easy ploys by Rod include the autobiographical “Can’t Stop Me Now,” about his ambitious early days, “Beautiful Morning,” a clear lift of at least the spirit behind (and chorus of) Bob Dylan’s “New Morning” (a writer with whom Rod is keenly familiar) and “Brighton Beach,” which name checks “Janis and Jimi, Kennedy and King” for some ready-made pathos.
Interestingly, the best cuts on the record are still the well-chosen covers – particularly “Picture in a Frame” by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, which appears on the album proper, and the traditional “Corrina, Corrina,” which is a bonus track. This is true because, let’s face it, the man knows how to deliver a vocal and when the material is genuine so is the result. I would very much like to have also heard Rod’s new renditions of Bert Berns’ “Here Comes The Night,” Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker,” and another Waits/Brennan tune, “Cold Water,” but those appear only on the extra extra special Target Exclusive Bonus Tracks edition of the album and, really, who can be bothered?
Another asterisk applies as well. The voice that Rod currently commands is not the instrument that brought him to fame and fortune, and not just because of the vagaries of age that affect us all. The surgery that he had not all that long ago had a marked effect on the character of his voice. It’s thinner now and shallower too. I fight the natural inclination to acclimate to this “new” voice. I don’t want to get used to it. The old instrument was just too glorious. I want to cling to that one and accept no substitute. But there is no choice in the matter other than to exclusively play his much older records, which, as evidenced by Time, seems to be a reasonably sound option.