Nobody stays forever young, so it's heartening to hear signs of life on When We Were the New Boys, Rod Stewart's strongest studio recording in years. Once reduced to cooing trifles like "Love Touch (Love Theme From Legal Eagles)," he sounds here like a man who ordered the credibility combo platter.
Stewart heads back to the future and forward into his past on When We Were the New Boys, covering suitable Nineties songs such as Oasis' "Cigarettes and Alcohol," Primal Scream's ultra-Stonesy "Rocks" and Skunk Anansie's "Weak," all of which he somehow turns into Rod rock. Less surprising, Stewart also tears into Graham Parker's simpatico "Hotel Chambermaid" and does poetic justice to Ron Sexsmith's exquisite "Secret Heart" — arguably the best song Stewart has interpreted since Tom Waits' "Downtown Train." In a lovely, rocking tip of the cap, Stewart movingly salutes his fallen Face mate Ronnie Lane by covering "Oh La La," which Lane wrote with Ronnie Wood.
These are savvy choices, particularly from a guy who saw fit to cover Leo Sayer's "When I Need You" last time around. Stewart's only songwriting contribution here is the wistful and uncharacteristically thoughtful title track — an affecting reverie about past glories on an album that boasts a few new ones. The goal on the short but sweet When We Were the New Boys was clearly to get back to the amazing grace and relatively stripped-down sound of Every Picture Tells a Story, and while it never quite rises to that extraordinary height, this time it's still a genuine pleasure to meet the new Rod. He's nearly the same as the old Rod.