Now here’s a box set with balls. With the release of this extensive career anthology, Rod Stewart opens himself up to a barrage of unflattering comparisons between his fondly recalled past and his critically pooh-poohed present. For years nay-sayers have written the Tartaned One off as one of rock’s more blatant cases of arrested creative development. Despite an ongoing love affair with the record-buying masses — including a notable return to chart-topping form with 1988’s Out of Order — Stewart has long been the rock & roll equivalent of another Rodney Dangerfield.
Storyteller takes one giant step toward changing that state of affairs. It’s far from perfect — for starters, the credits don’t list the recording dates, the albums of origin, the musicians on each track or whether the songs were solo efforts or done with one of Stewart’s various bands. But that’s somehow only appropriate, considering the imperfect nature of Stewart’s career. Over the course of four CDs or four cassettes, Storyteller performs a valuable service by separating the wheat from the chaff in Stewart’s wildly erratic oeuvre, including just enough of the chaff to give an accurate sense of his frustrating career.
The early material on the chronologically organized Storyteller paints a vivid portrait of the artist as a cocky, prodigiously gifted young man. Listen to the rare recording of the young Rod the Mod going at Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” or Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” which, as Stewart admits in his charmingly self-deprecating liner notes, shows him desperately trying to sound like Otis Redding. You hear a tyro with vocal chops nearly as undeniable as the soul forefathers of whom he’s so enamored. And by the time of his work with the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart was more than a talented mimic; he was breaking ground of his own.
Stewart’s strongest period came when he was able to alternate the folkish grace of his early solo albums with the loose but lovable slop rock he was making with his mates in the Faces. “Handbags and Gladrags,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Maggie May,” “Mandolin Wind” and “You Wear It Well” are noteworthy examples of the former: timeless, haunting music similar in its importance to the work being done by North American storytellers like Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson. And while the Faces records may have been less significant, there was often inspirational lift within their drunken madness, as one listen to “Stay With Me” proves.
Now comes the hard part. In his liner notes, Robert Palmer (the critic, not the singer) rises to Rod’s defense: “The nature of Stewart’s work — the kind of artist he is — keeps getting overshadowed by that larger-than-life public persona. Lurking just behind the fun-loving, boys-night-out façade is an artist who is both gifted and complex.” True enough, but too often that playboy persona overshadowed the music simply because the music was so easily pushed into the shadows. At times, Stewart kept the artist in him pretty well hidden — only his royalties accountant could tell the difference between radio fodder like “Passion” and “Infatuation.”
That said, there has never been a Rod Stewart album without at least one or two stunners to suggest what he’s capable of, and Storyteller collects most of those for posterity. The heartbreaking rendition of Cat Stevens’s “First Cut Is the Deepest,” from 1976’s Night on the Town, reminds one of Stewart’s enduring artistry as an interpretive singer, as does the magnificent 1985 version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” that he recorded with Jeff Beck. The new material included on Storyteller is also encouraging: In particular, “This Old Heart of Mine,” a duet with Ronald Isley, who sang the original, shows Stewart slipping into elder soul statesmanship gracefully.
So forget for a moment all the great expectations he’s failed to live up to, forgive “Love Touch,” and give the guy credit where credit is overdue. After all, Rod Stewart is rock & roll royalty, and even if he hasn’t always deserved the crown, at his best, he has worn it dashingly well.