On Vagabond Heart, rodeo drive intersects Gasoline Alley. Though the album’s production shows typical signs of conspicuous consumption, the strength of the songs and the depth of Stewart’s conviction make this his most compelling work since the early Seventies. Rather than attempting to bring his career full circle — inevitably an exercise in return-to-form nostalgia — Stewart has wisely chosen to explore the connections between what he was and what he is.
While Out of Order, from 1988, offered hints of renewal, the inspiration for Vagabond Heart likely came from last year’s Storyteller anthology, on which Stewart returned to his soul roots with an Isley Brothers revival, stretched his interpretive capabilities on a Tom Waits tune and took the opportunity to reassess his career. Apparently, he realized he had been trivializing his talents, because Vagabond Heart finds him rising to new challenges as both a songwriter and a singer.
Half of the twelve songs are co-written by Stewart himself. The older-but-wiser balladry of “No Holding Back” and “If Only” lifts those songs to the level of Stewart’s best work, while the full-throttle rock of “Rebel Heart” and “Moment of Glory” shows a self-deprecating maturity beyond the sexual adventurism of his days as a disco dandy. As for the covers, he matches rasps with Tina Turner on a version of “It Takes Two” that is more Mick and Keith than Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston and delivers a soulfully understated reading of “You Are Everything” that rivals the Stylistics’ original.
The album explores a stylistic terrain that ranges from Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow” to Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately.” While Stewart doesn’t quite connect with the former, and the latter is the schmaltziest Van in the catalog, such selections at least find Stewart pushing beyond formula. Only “The Motown Song” sounds as generic as so much of his Eighties music. Overall, however, Vagabond Heart comes across as a personal testament — deeply felt, honestly affecting.