To a lot of people, Rod Stewart onstage in midstrut — hair flying, handy with brandy and partial to the broad smile and easy wink — offers as good a definition of the full flash of rock & roll as one is likely to get. He’s a wizard at the spotlight game, his long legs quickly laying claim to the private turf of a public master. Behind him, the Faces careen like well-oiled parts of a perpetual-motion machine gone somewhat daft of purpose, while their leader lines out antics and anthems, holding everything together with the strength and accessibility of his talent and personality. Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and even Elton John — the latter a mere Doctor T. J. Eckleburg on Broadway to Stewart’s alley-scuffling, eyeballing Gatsby — may be as exciting, but the Rolling Stones and the Who are formal institutions — visceral, more precise, a little threatening and definitely less friendly. Stewart, even in front of thousands, projects an ex-athlete’s warmth, sets up towel-snapping camaraderie among the players and somehow manages to embody both the extroverted, one-of-the-boys hijinks of the macho carouser and the introverted, aw-she’d-probably-never-notice-me-anyway vulnerability of the shyest kid on the block. Even as we envy his outgoing, big-winner’s style, we revel in the knowledge he provides via self-mockery that he can lose as often and as badly as we do. That, I think, is a large part of his magic: He touches all of the places in the rock & roll heart.
Now Rod is back and Warners has got him! As befits his recent change of label (from Mercury to Warner Bros.) and of scene (from London to Los Angeles), Atlantic Crossing boasts both a new producer and supporting musical cast. With the venerable Tom Dowd behind the board, Stewart has freed himself of technical worries to concentrate solely on his singing. (My own theory is that Smiler was so disappointing because the singer for once overextended himself in the complexities of self-production.) The new backup musicians, mainly from Muscle Shoals and Memphis, provide the kind of crisp, authoritative, very spare basics that manage to suggest much of the pre-1975 Stewart as well as something completely different. Dowd has very good luck with the rock & roll numbers, maintaining control without sacrificing energy, at times utilizing horns and a soul chorus so seamlessly that one is almost unaware of their intrusion; unfortunately, he relies far too heavily on saccharine, overbearing string arrangements for many of the slower songs.
Atlantic Crossing is rather arbitrarily divided into Fast Side/Slow Side; thus too much of the album’s best work comes first, only to be followed by a qualitative drop-off (an altogether disastrous misreading of the late Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk about It,” rather listless performances of Goldberg/Goffin’s “It’s Not the Spotlight” and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s Isley Brothers hit, “This Old Heart of Mine”) happily saved by a late-inning rally. Stewart starts things off with what is arguably his finest rocker to date, “Three Time Loser,” a randy, rowdy, genial, and genital rouser about — of all things! — venereal disease. While the song’s wonderfully bawdy, ofttimes nearly undecipherable lyrics — does he really say, “While I’m jacking off reading Playboy on a hot afternoon”? — may give censors the hot flashes, everything else about “Loser” is so infectious it’s hard not to imagine terrific radio emission. It’s catchy.
“Alright for an Hour,” coauthored by Stewart and Jesse Ed Davis, is an effective reggae number, its title the comic summary of an affair that “did not last through the weekend.” “I’ll take my dog and my car/The best things I’ve found so far,” adds Rod before he exits, sailing into the slam-bang action of “All in the Name of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the picaresque saga of a carefree rock & roll band on the loose in America. The mood darkens a bit on Mentor Williams’s “Drift Away,” a song which fits Stewart’s persona perfectly, chronicling the mood of a romantic young man who feels he may have missed something essential in his knockabout adventures and now needs a place to escape from it all. For me, Dobie Gray’s hit version of a few years ago sounds routine and unemotional when compared with Stewart’s striving desperation; when Rod sings, “Oh, give me the beat, boys, to soothe my soul/I want to get lost in your rock and roll/And drift away,” he seems to mean it. Whoever decided to transform the song into lyrical reggae knew what he was doing. The first side closes with the jaunty “Stone Cold Sober,” a number which nearly matches “Three Time Loser” in outrageous ebullience as the singer, “down in the alley again” and very content to be there, pours forth hilariously the pros and cons of the spree.
Nothing much happens on the Slow Side until Stewart’s own “Still Love You,” a song which evokes all of Rod’s aforementioned vulnerability and shy-guy tenderness as well as “Dirty Old Town,” “Country Comforts,” “Maggie May,” “Mandolin Wind,” “You Wear It Well” and other cherished experiences from a shared past. The lyrics, melody and singing are beautiful here; the loss and longing, as palpable as “two hearts gently pounding” and the bittersweet memory of the initial electricity between two lovers who had it all once, may even have it again. The album closes with Gavin Sutherland’s lovely and mythic “Sailing,” an appropriately symbolic anthem about a meaningful journey across sea and sky “to be near you, to be free.”
If Atlantic Crossing isn’t Rod Stewart’s best record — and it isn’t — it at least comes within hailing distance of earlier masterpieces.