He has it in him, has Rod Stewart, to save a lot of souls, to rescue those of us who are too old for Grand Funk but not old enough for those adorable McCartneys from being nearly consummately bored with the current rock and roll scene.
It's not inconceivable that he could do it without even opening his mouth: He's physically sensational, the idol of perhaps three continents' heavy trendies, the most profound influence on rock and roll fashion since the Stones' Tour. He's the single most glamorous rock figure rolling.
When he does open his mouth to sing, out comes the most unique male voice in rock, a voice anyone could recognize instantly at five hundred paces through a Dixie cup. He's suggested to interviewers that he sounds too much like Arthur Conley or occasional other R&B luminaries, but 'tain't so — he sounds only like a white kid with strep throat fighting valiantly but in vain to reproduce Arthur Conley's or some other occasional R&B luminary's vocal tone. Consequently, he's got soul to spare.
His are just about the finest lyrics currently being written, lyrics constructed solidly of strong, straightforward images that convey intense emotions, images that far more often reflect the musics that their creator has loved than anyone's notion of rock-lyrics-as-poetry: "I think I'll go back home and start all over again/ Where the gulf-stream waters tend to ease my pain." He's eloquent, literate, and moving — a superb writer.
Moreover, his taste in co-writers and accompanists is impeccable.
All of which combines to imply that only deficiencies of taste in the areas of material and occasionally production may be held responsible for Every Picture Tells A Story being the third Rod Stewart album in succession that only occasionally sounds like the work of a man who's got it in him to save a lot of souls, a bashful step in the right direction though it may be in that it's equal parts magnificent splendor and pleasant inconsequence rather than, as were The Rod Stewart Album and Gasoline Alley, equal parts magnificent splendor and scarcely listenable heavy-handedness.
There is no better backing band in the biz at the moment than the one Stewart assembles for his solo sessions — Ron Wood seems to save all his most exquisite chops for these occasions, Martin Quittenton's acoustic guitar, both when sharing the lead with Wood's bottleneck or working as a rhythmic embellishment to Mick Waller's ride cymbal and high-hat, is always stunning, Pete Sears plays a quite pretty piano, Dick Powell's fiddle is unremittingly delightful, and together these gentlemen interact ingeniously, producing accompaniments as rich in texture as those of the Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde bands.
Sad to say, though, no amount of excellent, even occasionally breathtaking playing by his band behind quite satisfactory singing by Stewart himself can transform such massively inconsequential, nay, downright trivial, fare as "Seems Like A Long Time" or "Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time," an understandably obscure bit of early Dylan schlock, into anything very memorable. What on earth is Rod Stewart doing listening to old Brewer & Shipley and Hamilton Camp albums (where from these two tidbits were procured) when he could be writing his own stuff, his own stuff always being his best stuff? And why also, as with "That's All Right, Mama" and "Reason To Believe," should he or we settle for his paying pleasant but hardly captivating homage to early inspirations when he's capable of saving souls?
Simply, on about half the album he started with nothing much and, to no one's surprise, came up with something that can be respected or even slightly enjoyed but scarcely gotten passionate about.
Moreover, on at least one occasion he starts with something quite splendid of his own and produces it in such a way that, for one's first week or so with the album, he can listen to only a portion of the song at a time. So prominent in the mix of the title track, in which Stewart attempts to reproduce the tightly sloppy, all-hell-has-broken-loose sound of "It's All Over Now" and "Cut Across Shortly" from his previous album, are Waller's drums, that the track originally comes off as obnoxious and heavy-handed. Which is not to mention that one really has to struggle to pick out all the words.
And will he never tire of endless endings?
But enough of sad matters, and on to the joyous task of examining the man's work at its incomparable best ...
Even while it originally almost drives you from the room trying to convince you of the fact, "Every Picture" does rock with ferocity via a simple but effective seven-note ascension/five-note descension riff that Waller cleverly punctuates with a halved-time bass-drum-against-snare lick. In the grand manner of "Gasoline Alley" and "Bad 'N' Ruin," It kicks things off powerfully with the usual Stewartian picaresque autobiographical tale with the familiar theme of the down-and-out wanderer confronting some basic moral truths during his wanderings and returning home a wiser man. Where he's momentarily intent on rhyme things get a trifle forced here and there (as when he mates Rome and None,) but such objections evaporate instantly in the face of such delightful lines as: "Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She said, 'It just ain't natural!'"
A careful listening or two will reveal that Stewart is subtly brilliant on "I'm Losing You," which enjoys splendid hard-'n'-heavy backing from the Faces, as when he swoops almost imperceptibly into and out of falsetto during the title line. Note with pleasure how, towards the end of his colossal (and excellently produced) drum solo, Kenny Jones, surely among the very best rock and roll drummers drumming, refers back to the song's basic bass rhythm as a lead instrumentalist will refer back to the melody.
"Maggie May," purportedly about a schoolboy's ill-fated romance with a floozy, is debatably the album's most wonderful selection, with an irresistible tune and an overall sound that somehow evokes a warm late-summer afternoon. It's got charming words and is beautifully played by all present, with a celeste chiming in ever so charmingly here and there. Exhilarating is the only way to describe the mandolin break at the end.
"Mandolin Wind" (what a beautiful title!) is nearly as good, with a beautiful Western instrumental texture and Rod delivering some gorgeous cowboy images. At the end, when, after a moment's silence, everyone's come back rocking like mad, he even gets off one of his soul-stirring falsetto whoops. A knock-out.
Boring as half of it may be, there's enough that is unqualifiedly magnificent on the other half of Every Picture Tells A Story to make it clearer than ever before that if Rod Stewart ever allows himself the time to write himself a whole album, it will be among the best albums any of us has ever heard. Until such time, a lot of souls will have no choice but to truck about half-saved.