Rod Stewart’s latest is frustrating and annoying. It is because it should be so much better, but isn’t.
The opening two tracks demonstrate the potential [and I dislike using that word which seems patronising with respect to his musical history and talent, but…]. Opener Love Is is a Celtic folk pop number that works in the way Stewart’s pop music does: anthemic and here supported with fine violin. The vocal is, as ever, distinctly the same distinctive Rod rock rasp. Second Please is excellent: beginning rock guitar with sass that moves into a funky rhythm and beat, the vocal at its very best – a mellowing out of that rasp – joined by a soul chorus and then the magnificent falsetto of please which sets the aural hairs on end.
Two markers placed on the board saying 'Listen mate, I’ve still got it'. And there’s the rub. He has but for some reason replaces this with some of the worst schmaltz ever. Third Walking in the Sunshine isn’t a complete disaster, but it is a pop-lite lift-listenable littleness. The alliteration was only to give me something to say. Love and Be Loved is the requisite reggae tune, and it won’t be nudging Bob Marley down the list of anyone’s Reggae Favourites List for the next century or so. But it is OK to pass the time of writing that last sentence. We Can Win is a piece of football patriotism, again with a Celtic flavour, and considering Scotland’s recent goodish European run, and Rod’s clear love of the game, this is also OK as a slice of Stewart sincerity.
Then we have the title song. This is a little twee. Plenty have commented on this already, with Rod himself offering his genuine rumination on the feelings of those who are actually in this situation – a loved one away and off to war – and its anthemic drive is bathed in more Celtic tones, perhaps losing some sense of purpose in the echo of sounding too much like the others. But next Way Back Home is painfully twee, its patriotism expressed in the most naïve and simplistic soundbites – not for me to question sincerity here – but I do questions someone of Rod’s lived experience and intelligence being prepared to peddle this commercial good old-fashioned British way of tarting-up drivel, the worst example with the end-sample of Churchill’s never surrender speech. And I don’t believe this is for the British market. I think it is to appeal to the American market where this kind of vacuous but compulsive declaration of patriotic fervour is fashionable.
Can We Stay Home Tonight returns to safer ground - though not hard after the seismic shattering of the immediate previous musical footholds - the sixties soulful chorus as a welcome and pleasant echo of the past, and Rod’s vocal genuinely beautiful. Is this sustained? No. Following this is another descent into tweedom with Batman Superman Spiderman, a song for his son that would be an outstanding tribute sung regularly at his bedside as a night-time lullaby of unconditional love, but not on a record – unless of course the commercial targeting of a similarly schmaltz-inclined market is entirely intentional. The vocal chorus that echoes the title line in a whispered musical hug is woeful.
I do like The Drinking Song that has a rawer sound, a chugging rhythm that reminds of The Faces in as much as one will be listening out for such, and the honest account of his drinking exploits is refreshingly direct and assertive: there’s no sentimental-older-guy-looking-for-redemption bollocks here.
The deluxe edition does have a great offering with the 'Python Lee Jackson with Rod Steward' extended version of In a Broken Dream, and it just proves my nostalgia is a great barrier to accepting the silly new on this album, though I will also stand by my better judgements. I do mention because I acknowledge many have loved and will love the material I have criticised – just read Amazon reviews where one, for example, thinks the Batman Superman Spiderman song is worth the price of the album. A worrying idea to my mind, but I sense there are those other than Rod Stewart who have encouraged a marketing to a certain audience over what should have been a sense of maintaining the integrity of what Stewart can and should do as a musician. As I have said, he is in fine voice. A shame he feels the need to dress it in comic-book presentations so often on this over-long album.