CD Review: Al Stewart’s A Beach Full of Shells

One might suppose, with a weary sigh of resignation, that a collection of songs reflecting on risk taking, nonsense poetry, and romance conducted via plenipotentiaries and viziers of different royal courts is not likely to appear on the Top 40 charts. So if your tastes run exclusively toward radio-ready hits and odes to, well, whatever the kids are jazzed or peeved about these days, veteran singer-songwriter-guitarist Al Stewart’s work may not be your cup of tea. As even Stewart himself notes on A Beach Full of Shells, his first release since 2000’s Down in the Cellar, rock and roll is “the sound of being young.” That doesn’t mean, however, that the older set doesn’t have something worthy to say or sing or that folks past 40 can’t make compelling, quality new music for fans of all ages. Quite the contrary.

From his days playing London folk-rock clubs in the 1960s, to his ’70s-’80s heyday as an American hitmaker (“Year of the Cat,” “On the Border,” “Time Passages,” “Song on the Radio,” “Midnight Rocks”), to his present-day incarnation as statesman-troubadour, Stewart has shown that music of distinction most often appears on the sidelines of the hit parade. What keeps this Scottish-born artist relevant are the same things that have filled his career of 40-odd years: impeccably crafted, literate story-songs that explore olden days and modern times against a backdrop of stunningly good musicianship. These qualities seem never to grow old.

In fact, the talents of the now-60-year-old Stewart only grow richer and more potent over time. The latest proof lies in his new release: A Beach Full of Shells features 13 songs that take listeners through periods of time ranging from World War I to the late ’60s to the present day. On numerous occasions, Stewart has told me that telling stories and drawing connections between the decades provide the heart and soul of his work. ABFOS continues this pattern. Through his musical tales, he points out that our fears, loves, and insecurities don’t differ much from those of people who walked this earth generations ago — in the land of dream, sense memory, and instinct, our past, present, and future all roll into our here and now.

These thoughts are evoked through both his words and music. Songs such as the intriguingly mideastern “Rain Barrel,” the epic and dream-laden “Somewhere in England 1915,” “Mr. Lear” (which pays homage to English poet Edward Lear), and the memorable “Katherine of Oregon” show Stewart’s lyrical skills and fertile imagination, already renowned, are at least as strong as ever. And with producer Laurence Juber, a longtime Stewart collaborator and Grammy-winning guitarist who once played for Paul McCartney and Wings, he has created sonic portraits that reinforce and color the stories told.

The album starts with “The Immelman Turn,” a midtempo rocker that brings old Fairport Convention to mind as it recounts the tale of an ace daredevil pilot who attempts a seemingly impossible maneuver — and pays for it with his life. Why would someone so gifted be so reckless? Stewart the observer doesn’t know, but he guesses:

From aboard a Curtiss Jenny, oh, you see things differently …

The frost was on your ailerons and the wind was in your hair
When you went into the climb, I saw you laughing…

Behind Stewart’s trademarked airy tenor, the strains of violin and acoustic guitars glide around each other, much like planes flying in formation overhead. Sonically, it’s a thrilling ride that gives the listener a suggestion as to where the daredevil was headed.

Later, there is “Class of ’58,” in which a protagonist sees the phenomenon of today’s aging rockers and vividly recalls fond memories of his red guitar, doo-wop, and payola. Even if the listener wasn’t around in the late 1950s (and Stewart himself was only 13 in ’58), the boisterous boogie-woogie piano in the background will make his rockin’ recollections tangible — trade Presley for, say, Costello and insert your own memories of your favorite high-school bar bands and you are there.

Then came the kid wth the red Colorama
And the Watkins copycat echo chamber and the toothy grin
With one arm glued to the tremolo arm
While the singer moves around like an Elvis clone
They really packed them in…

In “Mona Lisa Talking,” a memorably catchy string-and-piano piece that in a just world would find play on adult-contemporary pop stations, words of wisdom for a lost soul come “out of a patch of oil and water”:

Go home, pretty baby, go on home, pretty baby
You will go home to the one who is waiting for you…

In defiance of economic theory, A Beach Full of Shells offers increasing returns with each listen. Even songs that did not catch my fancy at first hearing — the moody “Out in the Snow” and the witty “Mr. Lear” come to mind — gain resonance and power over time. If you appreciate classic Stewart albums such as Love Chronicles, Modern Times, Year of the Cat, and Between the Wars, you’ll find A Beach Full of Shells a most worthy addition to his canon. And if you have yet to discover the talents of Al Stewart, whatever your age or genre of choice, A Beach Full of Shell presents a perfect opportunity: Put aside the Top 40 for a bit and give it a spin.

Originally published on 9-11-2005 and republished as part of Blogcritics‘ April 2000 celebration of Al Stewart as its Featured Artist of the Month.

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