Like most rags-to-riches stories, this one's both predictable and messy. From 1974's Smiler through 1980's Foolish Behaviour, Rod Stewart has too often played a singularly buffoonish Falstaff to his own backward Prince Hal, dragging himself down artistically while consolidating a strong commercial fortress comfortably isolated from such initial masterpieces as Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story. If Johnny Rotten and other noted rock critics grew to hate him, it wasn't because of his money (as he thought) but for his snotty self-image as a slumming Hollywood starlet-aristocrat that left him light years away from fans of real-life rock & roll. There were still some exceptional songs, to be sure ("Tonight's the Night," "You're in My Heart," "Still Love You," "The Killing of Georgie," "You Got a Nerve," "I Was Only Joking," "Scarred and Scared," "Oh God, I Wish I Was Home Tonight"), but, for the most part, the randy and likable adventurer of the early LPs had curdled into a cranky, self-pitying purveyor of sleaze, penning one silly singles-bar anthem after another.
These things don't matter, you say. Get on with it. What about the new album? Well, Tonight I'm Yours is surprisingly fine, and the main reason for its excellence is precisely than Stewart has examined his recent history and decided to apologize for it. Indeed, the very first words from the singer's mouth here are addressed directly to those who care or have cared about him: "I can tell by the look in your eyes/You've been bored for a long, long time/... Let's turn it all around." Easier said than done, but Stewart tries. Oh, how he tries.
In addition to the star's philosophical gear shifting, getting rid of the band he'd used since 1977's Foot Loose & Fancy Free was a terrific idea. What's immediately apparent on Tonight I'm Yours is that Rod Stewart's current crew (guitarist-coproducer Jim Cregan is the only holdover) can really play. Sparked by drummer Tony Brock and bassist Jay Davis, the new tunes accelerate like a fleet of expensive sports cars, their engines humming and hammering in smooth but spunky grooves. These musicians are able to floor it in the fast ones and skillfully maneuver the trickiest melodic curves. And Stewart's decision to act as his own producer again was long overdue (though he was responsible for most of the tracks on Foolish Behaviour), because every great record he's made has been self-produced.
As good as the new group is, however, it has yet to develop much of a personality. The singer still has to supply that, and, to his credit, he does. On Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment, Rod Stewart created an idiosyncratic sound that rivaled those of Bob Dylan, the Band and the Byrds in its filigreed fusion of knockabout rock & roll and rustic, ringing folk music. Jangly, incendiary, homemade and voluptuous, such a sound depended upon the heady individuality of musicians like drummer Mick Waller and guitarists Martin Quittenton (who cowrote "Maggie May" and "You Wear It Well") and Ron Wood. You won't find that kind of willful instrumental primitivism on Tonight I'm Yours, and I, for one, miss it. But then, this is the Eighties, and you're not supposed to rock the boat.
Thankfully, Stewart sings like it's 1971 again and he can't wait to show us his newfound passion for rock & roll. He rips through the rockabilly classic "Tear It Up" with speed and subtlety, reintroduces Paul Carrack's splendid and emotional "How Long" (remember Ace?) and journeys back to his roots with a truly memorable rendition of Bob Dylan's "Just like a Woman." Most important, the feeling has returned. When the singer throws in a laugh or a whoop now (as in "Only a Boy"), it's no longer the cocky superstar's nasty snigger of the last several LPs but something genuine and touching.
While he's written some superior songs for Tonight I'm Yours, Stewart seems to be struggling a bit as a lyricist (why else include three cover versions?). Though it's intelligent, "Jealous" sounds like a leftover tune about the breakup with Britt Ekland and lacks the murderous ache and mortal terror of Foot Loose & Fancy Free's "You Got a Nerve." "Sonny," an unhappy love song that spins off the lines of "Just like a Woman," gets you halfway home but stubbornly fails to deliver (as Atlantic Crossing's "Still Love You" did). The hurt may be there, yet somehow I don't believe a word of it. "Tonight I'm Yours (Don't Hurt Me)" doubles nicely as romantic fantasy and a position paper for the resurrected Rod. But do we really need another rabble-rousing, night-on-the-town rocker like "Tora, Tora, Tora (Out with the Boys)," a number that Stewart seems to retool for every album?
Aside from the artist's improved attitude and some sparkling performances, Tonight I'm Yours either sinks or swims on the basis of its cover versions and "Young Turks," "Never Give Up on a Dream" and "Only a Boy." If you're a Sex Pistols aficionado and a student of post-1977 rock history, the very idea of Rod Stewart writing a song called "Young Turks" is extremely ironic, as are these lyrics:
Young hearts, be free tonight
Time is on your side
Don't let 'em put you down
Don't let 'em push you around
Don't let 'em ever change your point of view.
Still, the tune works as a tale about runaway lovers, and Stewart fills in the details with understated and economic skill. And if you're reminded of a Dire Straits track or the singer's own "The Killing of Georgie," so what?
"Never Give Up on a Dream" sounds like a cross between Paul Simon's "Bridge over Troubled Water" and Gavin Sutherland's "Sailing" (Atlantic Crossing), and may do for distance running what "Theme from Rocky" did for boxing, Dedicated to the late Terrance Stanley Fox, a cancer victim who ran 3339 miles across Canada on an artificial leg before finally succumbing to the disease, "Never Give Up on a Dream" is grandly, compassionately, even ridiculously moving (the latter because Stewart's arrangement and vocal pull out stops that haven't been invented yet). Some people may find this number too sentimental and overwrought, but every marathoner I've played it for (myself included) has come away with a lump in his throat as big as Terry Fox' heart. Most nonrunners will probably react the same way.
A sequel to Foot Loose & Fancy Free's "I Was Only Joking," "Only a Boy" is Tonight I'm Yours' lyrical high point. Stewart's at his best—and most serious—when he's comically confessing some misadventure (youthful or otherwise), and it's lines like these that make us love him:
Rock & roll was in my brains
Eddie Cochran running through my veins ...
The blues I played were Mississippi made
And every Friday night I'd fall in love
Football fields and teenage feels
Only a boy, dressing to kill
Passion to spill, hand in the till
Only a boy, slipping it in
Thin as a pin
Chasing a dream.
There's even a fiddle for old-time's sake.
That's the comeback record, make of it what you will. As a young man in his twenties, Rod Stewart seemed to possess an age-old wisdom: some of the things he told us we might have learned from our grandfathers. In his thirties, however, he suddenly metamorphosed into Jayne Mansfield. What's a fan to think? Because of its instantaneous, combustible and life-affirming/life-threatening nature, rock & roll—not unlike first love — often changes so fast that you don't know what to make of it. Hoping you're not a total fool, you close your eyes, kiss the girl, and she shows you the door. But is it an entrance or an exit? Small wonder we're all scarred and scared.