Rod Stewart made his hottest pop record in decades this past spring as the heart of A$AP Rocky’s “Everyday,” which used a jumbo sample of a 1970s vocal performance by Stewart in a soulfully wine-swigging tag-team with Miguel. Then, in September, Rod rocked a sinewy “Stay With Me” in a mini-Faces reunion, the first in 22 years. (That it took place at a polo club prostate-cancer benefit in Surrey only made it more impressive.) Both were reminders of the 70-year-old singer’s rock & roll bona fides after a re-branded decade working the boards as a latter-day Sinatra, plying the Great American Songbook with fiscally successful and aesthetically decent results. His latest continues his return to original songwriting, which began on his 2013 set Time, with a new spin towards international flavors. Mostly, it reminds you why Sinatra left the writing to other folks.
Rod’s rasp remains remarkable, and he hits a hell of a high note on “Please,” a bluesy bedroom pitch. But it would mean more if the song wasn’t so lukewarm. “Walking In Sunshine” is Vegas-revue self-help optimism over pencil-neck Eighties big beat, recalling Katrina & The Waves and Eddie Grant with a baffling Gypsy Kings-style breakdown. “We Can Win” is a tedious football chant driven by Celtic fiddle and a Mumford and Sons singalong. The ballads are worse. “Batman Superman Spiderman” is a maudlin lullaby-slash-anthem branded five ways to Friday, swaddled in strings, with a kid cooing the chorus, while “Friend for Life” ladles it on thicker still – it’s the kind of sentimentality that makes you feel icky, then ickier still for being such a misanthrope. Maybe the most unfortunate track is “Love and Be Loved,” a Club Med-grade Bob Marley impression with steel pan percussion for good measure: Rod skirts full patois with a tale of an island paradise full of happy people and wise “little Jimmy” dispensing money-ain’t-everything philosophy “at the coco bar.”
Ironically, the project’s cheesiest song manages to be the most fun. “You’re my bridge over troubled waters,” Rod sings on “Every Rock’n’Roll Song To Me,” a bonus cut constructing lyrics from classic album and song titles, his own included. It’s cute, but it might’ve been better if he’d just covered the namechecked material straight-out. It would have made for a sweet mixtape with “In A Broken Dream,” which ends the deluxe version of this album on an unassailable high.