The magnificent catarrh has a new album, Smiler, and it contains what by now you would expect: several energetic new examples of the Stewart/Wood world view, a couple of boozy renditions of classic R&B standards, a sentimental soundalike of Rod’s smasheroo “Maggie May,” at least two ho-hum instrumental interludes lasting an average of less than a minute, plus at least one good old Dylan song and maybe a stray ballad or two. This must be Rod’s conception of what a well-rounded pop album should be.
Stewart began his career as a dramatic blues shouter (with Jeff Beck) but has completely abandoned the blues for a more easygoing format. Still, the material that stands out from this largely unmemor-able new album is the abandoned, old-fashioned, pounding and tinny English rock & roll that Stewart and his mates cut their teeth on.
The rockers include Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” (the English have always been Chuck’s most faithful interpreters), “Sailor,” an awesome blast with Stones-style horns and a great, throaty chorus, “Let Me Be Your Car,” another high-energy piece of automotion by Elton John and Bernie Taupin with an unfortunately overwrought Eltonian finale and “Dixie Toot,” a decent tribute to the unsung British “trad” pub band. “Hard Road” is the last of the rockers, a soaring number that Stewart handles with his customary ease and high spirits.
Smiler‘s “Maggie May” reincarnation, cowritten with Martin Quittanton, is called “Farewell” and is not as distinguished as the song’s last life, in which it was known as “You Wear It Well.” Rod’s nods to R&B classicism are a Sam Cooke medley and “A Natural Woman” transsexed into “A Natural Man.” On the former Rod cackles woozily above a swamp of syrupy violins; on the latter he provides a sincere but pallid attempt, in light of Aretha’s monumental version. “Girl from the North Country” is the mandatory Dylan song and Stewart performs it admirably. But his best vocal is saved for Paul McCartney’s pretty but lyrically weak “Mine for Me.”
Smiler is Stewart’s first solo album in more than two years and his weakest to date. It sticks to the same format as Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment but lacks the lyrical cohesion that unified those two and made them work. Personally I sorely miss the simple virtuoso acoustic musicianiship and sensitive vision that made The Rod Stewart Album and Gasoline Alley such important records. It’s time for Rod to kick the format and look to his roots again.