If blondes have as much fun as Rod Stewart's new record insists they do, no wonder they're exhausted when they stagger into the studio. Even so, Stewart's current anemia is a hard thing to understand. Never before has he attacked such uncertain material with so little gusto or levity — for once, his trademarked "Whooo!" carries no conviction. And never has he offered an album that's actively disagreeable to listen to. If only this were a simple case of the blahs.
There are really only two kinds of songs here, the trendy and the tragic. "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" is a serviceable enough disco hit — thanks more to a clever string line than to the singer's noncommittal vocal — but its undisguised eagerness to please is alarming. Instead of shaping this material, Stewart embraces it unquestioningly, proffering yet another bloodless affirmation of disco as this week's going concern. In a way, "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" is Rod Stewart's answer to the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" — his assertion that he's not only durable but also eternally in style.
But Mick Jagger's vocal on "Miss You" was at once celebratory and subversive, suggesting a descent through the music's gloss into a middle-of-the-night seediness beneath. Jagger sang both with the song and against it; Stewart, by comparison, is drably cooperative. Aside from providing evidence that even pop's most individualistic performers can be made to sound anonymous when engulfed by a sufficiently sweeping trend, "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" doesn't make much of an impression.
Nor does "Dirty Weekend," next on Blondes Have More Fun and the number perhaps meant to be most scandalous. As the title promises, the lyrics are lewd, full of drugs and sex and the thrill of checking into a hotel under an assumed name with one's best friend's girl. Maybe this is filthy as all get-out, or maybe it's only as dirty as ring-around-the-collar: Stewart doesn't seem to have made up his mind. He sounds so enthralled by the smuttiness that he's almost embarrassed by it. Against a wall of fake-boisterous, undifferentiated noise, his vocal is muffled, and there's no particular animation to the part that's audible. The song stops short on a dime, as if everyone involved were glad to get it over with.
Can things get worse? You bet they can. The third cut, "Ain't Love a Bitch," is unexpectedly sensitive, with a soft, strum-along melody and a bunch of namby-pamby characters doo-doo-doing a background chorus while Stewart croons about old girlfriends. He's pensive but he also sings with a cheery lilt, which turns particularly murderous when he gets around to quoting from "Maggie May." Who would ever have dreamed, during Rod Stewart's days of genuine raucousness, that a track this tough could be made to sound like the 1400th cover version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"? Though he's kicked off the LP with a hyped-up boyishness, he now creaks along like an old man.
"The Best Days of My Life" is a gentle, pretty love song, cowritten by Stewart and Jim Cregan (who also coauthored the two other tolerable tunes on the record). It's sung simply and plausibly to a quiet guitar arrangement until a string section takes over and washes all the sentiment away. Here and elsewhere, Tom Dowd's production is astonishingly unhelpful: e.g., the beginning of "The Best Days of My Life" sounds too much like the beginning of the next number, "Is That the Thanks I Get?", yet one's a tender ballad and the other a kick in the shins. The juxtaposition is so sharp that both compositions seem dishonest.
Blondes Have More Fun's nastiest problem is exemplified by "Is That the Thanks I Get?", even though a lucid arrangement and Stewart's happily evil delivery make it the album's most memorable cut. Much of the song is devoted to uptempo complaining about an ex-girlfriend whose identity will be no secret to readers of the National Enquirer. "You said we made such a pretty pair/Living in harmony/I'm sorry, honey, but I disagree/It seemed more like a comedy," sings Stewart, with a spitefulness that's unbecoming but lively. Then, at the end of a string of similar insults, comes an inopportune chorus of "Is that the thanks I get/Is that the thanks I get/Is that the thanks I get for loving you?" Thanks? Love? Huh? Why all this whining? The artist's boastfulness, which accounts for what little vitality the LP has, takes a truly ugly turn when it's accompanied by self-pity.
Rod Stewart's best songs have always been full of assertiveness and insecurity, but until lately he's had a disarming way of acknowledging these traits before they could become unflattering. These days, his work lacks the critical context he himself once supplied. The songs on the new record demand that the singer be both pitied and admired, but they aren't willing to compromise one bit of glamour to make room for real sympathy. The results are deeply unpleasant, with all the vanity and ill-advised manipulativeness laid bare.
In his earlier writing, Stewart's fearlessness was his hallmark quality, the note that made him instantly authentic and understandable: inside the adventurer in "Every Picture Tells a Story" was someone who didn't altogether like what he saw in the mirror. Even in recent singles like "Tonight's the Night" and "You're in My Heart," there are enough tiny confidences to make the music intimate and believable. Blondes Have More Fun is every bit as uncertain as Stewart's premier albums, but as he trades in his doubts for bombast, he eclipses his most likable side. And the hot air is none too effective on its own. When he sings the Four Tops' "Standin' in the Shadows of Love," a tune that ought to suit him perfectly, he goes great guns until he hits the midsection, the part that requires a smidgen of acting. There, he shouts, he whispers, he waffles — he can't decide which way to play it. He loses the momentum entirely and, even in a final chorus, can't get it back.
Though most of Blondes Have More Fun is devoted to ostentatious bangs or craven whimpers, the last track, "Scarred and Scared," is both broader and a little more detached as the artist looks back upon the exploits of a lifetime. This lifetime has been checkered and grand, with crimes of passion and women who've come and gone, and it's not geared to the kind of small, surprisingly homely details with which Stewart often invests his material. But he sings the song just melodramatically enough to recall the elements of distance and theatricality that give his finest work its fierce hold on the listener's imagination. No other pop performer has Stewart's talent for becoming his own favorite romantic hero and his own sharpest critic. Who else has a similar gift for leavening flamboyant, self-serving ambition with indisputable humanity? Right now, nobody. Here's hoping Rod Stewart retrieves it somehow.