Living in the Past

Al Stewart feels compelled to explain. "They seemed like good ideas at the time," the Scottish-born singer-songwriter says in his delicate and strangely familiar burr. "But I really didn't even particularly care for them then." The "they" in question here are Stewart's two big radio hits from the mid-1970s, a pair of spacy, syrupy Alan Parsons productions called "Year of the Cat" (1976) and "Time Passages" (1978). Maybe you can't quite remember them. Much as he tries, Stewart can't quite forget them.

"I mean, they weren't very good," he says. "'Year of the Cat' wasn't bad, but the others were pretty rank. 'Year of the Cat' would be about 50th on my list of [favorite songs I've written], and 'Time Passages' would be 'round about 110th. Apart from the fact they bring in cash, they're almost completely irrelevant to my life. And they're largely irrelevant to the lives of the people who come to my shows [now]."

But Al Stewart cannot completely escape "Year of the Cat." He still includes the song that made him semifamous in his present club repertoire -- albeit in a stripped-down acoustic form. The larger meaning of its hitdom, however, continues to elude him. "A lot of the other songs [on the Year of the Cat album] were a lot better written, and in a perfect world, or even in a caring world, they would have been the hits. But, as I would be the first to realize, lyric writing is a quarter of a hundredth of a thousandth of a percent of what people are interested in when they buy a record, which is sad. But it does explain why 'My Ding-a-Ling' was Chuck Berry's biggest hit. Actually I think that's a perfect parallel. 'My Ding-a-Ling' is about as relevant to Chuck Berry's oeuvre as 'Year of the Cat' is to mine. How does that encapsulate it for you?"

Today the 50-year-old Stewart lives in Southern California and, in vintage Seventies style, writes concept albums. But things are little different now. His latest, Between the Wars, is a relaxed, mostly acoustic song cycle centered on the two-decade interval between the world wars. Name-checking Zelda Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Bix Beiderbecke, and Joseph Stalin, the album packs a considerable historical punch; Stewart likens it to the aural equivalent of an A&E documentary. But Stewart is no stranger to history. Since 1973's Past, Present, and Future (which contained the moderate hit single "Nostradamus," a catchy ode to the French seer), a fondness for themes historical has been as consistent a part of his work as his distinctive whispery tenor.

Stewart began his music career riding the same wave as a host of like-minded late-Sixties British electric folkies and was most notorious in England for his 1969 album Love Chronicles. The curious eighteen-minute title track, a wordy ("Proust-like" is the term his P.R. folks prefer) journey through young Al's romantic career, climaxed with this unlikely and then-controversial couplet: "And where I'd thought that just plucking/the fruits of the bed was enough/It grew to be less like fucking/and more like making love."

"It's not a good piece of writing," Stewart admits now, laughing. "It's an incredibly tortuous rhyme. I'm sure I could have done better, but what the hell. I was about 22 or something."

For better or worse, Stewart dropped out of the crowded confessional school of songwriting after a few years and began to turn elsewhere A particularly world history A for inspiration. A partnership with producer Alan Parsons began with the 1975 album Modern Times and continued through Year of the Cat and Time Passages A and "all those saxophone ballads," as Stewart says dismissively. In the Eighties, though, the hits stopped coming. Which was fine by Al, apparently.

"Once that little period was over and the people who had liked those records had gone away -- and I'd gone back to playing clubs again, which was what I was doing before -- that whole part of my life went away," he says. "And by and large I don't have anything to do with it."

Between the Wars is Stewart's fifteenth album and his third for the independent Mesa/Blue Moon label. It is the first, however, that Stewart has crafted around a single historical era. "I do tons of historical songs, but this was a new period for me," he explains. "It was an intellectual exercise, really. I was curious to see what I really knew about the interwar period. As it turns out, I had quite a few ideas about it."

Recorded with the multi-instrumental assistance of former Wings guitarist Laurence Juber (who also produced and arranged the album), Between the Wars takes its musical cues from Stewart's old Django Reinhardt record collection, skipping adroitly through various swinging styles of acoustic pop and jazz as it traces the two decades' highlights and lowlights. Stewart manages to cover a host of major world events, in his distinctive low-impact fashion, from "Lindy Comes to Town" and its evocation of Lindbergh-era Roaring Twenties idealism to "Always the Cause," a castanet-spiked tale of the Spanish Civil War.

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