Rod Stewart is one of the most soulful vocalists on Earth, as well as one of rock’s finest interpreters.
He also sucks.
This Rod dichotomy has been a part of the Stewart listening experience since 1976’s Atlantic Crossing, which, while very much a solid album, hinted at the dark depths to which the erstwhile Face would soon sink. 1977’s Foot Loose & Fancy Free kicked off Stewart’s plunge to the bottom of lowest-common-denominator MOR rock in earnest, slipping the loathsome “Hot Legs” out of its asscheeks, followed the next year by Blondes Have More Fun and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” From then on, every Rod record has contained a few gems scattered between fragrant mounds of dookie; he’s turned himself from the heartbreaking singer of his early sides into the musical equivalent of a classroom fuckup who has to follow any honest effort with a fresh round of cheerful stupidity. Even worse, as the ’80s became the ’90s, his periodic bursts of actual talent grew dimmer (like, say, “Rhythm of My Heart”), and were followed by ever more spectacular feats of lameness (like, say, “The Motown Song”).
As a kid, my first real experience with Rod came courtesy of “Infatuation,” a song which, while fairly catchy, was powerfully icky even to a nine-year-old, and the unsettling feelings it provoked were deeply underlined by the slobbering terror of 1986’s “Love Touch,” a song that scarred me so deeply I’ve never been able to look at Stewart, Robert Redford, or Debra Winger the same way. In time, of course, I came to experience the joy of pre-suck Rod, such as his early solo records or the unimpeachable classics he recorded with the Faces, and learned to bury the hope that one day, he’d find his way back to honest, raw, emotionally pure recordings. By the time he started swanning around in a dinner jacket for his interminable series of Songbook albums, I’d long since resigned myself to the fact that Good Rod was dead.
Except here’s the thing: He totally wasn’t. The fucker was just pretending to be artistically bankrupt; in fact, as he embarked on a decades-long quest to determine just how little effort it required to maintain a fanbase and score Top 40 singles, Stewart continued to record material that, if it didn’t quite stack up with his best work, at least approximated it — and to add insult to injury, he also cut superior versions of the flaming garbage he was floating down the fetid river of Top 40 radio.
How do I know this, you ask? Simple: I’ve just spent the weekend listening to The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998, a beautifully assembled box that will leave Stewart fans wondering whether they should rejoice, weep, or pelt him with soccer balls. I really hesitate to use the word, but in the context of Stewart’s solo career, Sessions is a revelation: It consists entirely of alternate takes, studio goofs, and unreleased sides, which sounds utterly ridiculous — and yet it doesn’t contain a single bad song. To say this is astonishing to me would be a grievous understatement; I was expecting — sort of looking forward to, really — a towering feat of inessentiality, and was instead rewarded with amazing odds and ends from Stewart’s early years, as well as, I swear to God, heartrending versions of “Forever Young” and “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.”
Unsurprisingly, the early discs are heavy with alternate takes rather than truly unreleased material. But what’s incredible is just how well the stuff Stewart left on the studio floor holds up to the recordings you know and love; everything on the first disc, from an early version of “You Wear It Well” to a stunning, melancholy take on “This Old Heart of Mine,” is recommended listening for any Stewart fan. The last two discs tip the balance in favor of B-sides, and they don’t pack quite as powerful a punch, but you’ll have a hard time believing that stuff like “Thunderbird” and “Heaven” was culled from the post-Foot Loose & Fancy Free era. In fact, while the fourth disc is quite a bit smoother than the first, it all carries a warmth and lack of artifice that we haven’t heard from Stewart in far too long. Listening to these tracks makes it clear that he’s either been intentionally fucking with his audience or he’s the George Costanza of rock’s elder statesmen — a guy whose every instinct is wrong, and who continues to fall ass-backwards into success in spite of himself.
Sessions 1971-1998 is easily one of the most interesting, and worthwhile, boxes I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in the last 20 years; it does an anthology’s job, presenting the long view of its subject’s career, while serving the needs of the fans who’ll buy it by presenting a previously unheard side of the artist. (The only false note I heard was in Thane Tierney’s liner notes, which assume an excessively defensive posture and needlessly insult some of the original recordings Stewart has covered.) The MSRP is a steep $65, but if you’ve followed Stewart’s career, you’ve probably spent twice that much on recordings that were half as good. Purchase it directly from Rhino today.