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Al Stewart: Sparks of Ancient Light

By Shweta Sharan | March 5, 2010

Split Magazine: Al StewartIn September 2008, on a shelf in a popular music store in a city more than 7,000 nautical miles away from California, shoppers would have probably missed an unfamiliar album sitting puckishly in between ABBA and Ashanti. In a time when album covers are jumping out of their sleeves, ‘Sparks of Ancient Light’, the new album by the Glasgow-born California-based historical folk rock artist Al Stewart, has a cover illustration depicting what could possibly be the ship of Hanno the Navigator, who sailed from Carthage to the other end of the world in search of adventures and who also enjoys a song in his name in this album, Al Stewart’s nineteenth studio album, which came out very unexpectedly in a year full of ups and downs.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Paul McCartney said that while most songwriters build their songs from memories and experiences, only truly gifted songwriters can compose songs out of nothing, vivifying moments as they happen and gleaning ideas from words, scenes, passions and pastimes — an almost Shakespearean negative capability in song writing, as it were. Al Stewart seems capable of doing both, with a rare ability to write about an expansive range of events, emotions, people, and places, with complexity, a hard-edged love of memory, and a sparkling wit that would put most modern songwriters to shame. The Paul McCartney connection is apparent in the accomplishment witnessed in Stewart’s latest album — like ‘Between the Wars’, ‘Down in the Cellar’ and ‘A Beach Full of Shells’, ‘Sparks of Ancient Light’ is produced by Laurence Juber, multiple Grammy-award winning guitarist from McCartney’s band Wings. Juber has the extraordinary gift of wringing the best out of shoestring musical production budgets, and all these albums have a crystalline, state-of-the-art quality and sound, with varied and sumptuous instrumental arrangements.

All the albums after ‘Between the Wars’ are drastically untypical of someone associated with a song like the “Year of the Cat”, one of Stewart’s most popular songs, which established his name amidst heated piano and saxophone solos. The album covers historical events like the Great Depression and the Versailles Treaty, while ‘Down in the Cellar’ is another concept album on wines, with Stewart himself being a reputed wine connoisseur. It is with these albums that Al Stewart’s real genius evolves.

In the liner notes of his eighteenth album ‘A Beach Full of Shells’ (2005), Stewart mentions that the album began with him wanting to explore British music of the 1960s, as evidenced by “Class of ‘58″, a fierily nostalgic homage to the early days of English rock, spun around a groundbreaking Cliff Richard guitar riff intro that bridged jazz with rock ‘n’ roll in England in the ’60s. This is followed by like “Beacon Street”, “Gina of the Kings Road” and “Mona Lisa Talking” in the same vein. But with the producers wishing to see more of his acoustic guitar-based songs, Stewart finished the lineup with songs like “The Immelmann Turn”, “My Egyptian Couch” and the charming “Katherine of Oregon” — a witty reference to Catherine of Aragon, one of Henry VIII’s wives. Al Stewart jokingly said in a concert that he will next compose “Anne of Cleveland” as a reference to Anne of Cleves, another one of the infamous Henry VIII wives. In the song, Stewart sings that when he is old, he will spend his evenings with Katherine of Oregon. Apart from being a clever pun, it is also an endearing idea — to resurrect Henry VIII’s wife, Americanise her and talk to her, for we all know that she will find Stewart to be a more enthusiastic and less ecclesiastical conversationalist than her husband. This album, with its folk rock roots also has a touching sense of absence that dominates the lyrics, complemented by the layered musical arrangements.

With ‘Sparks of Ancient Light’ (2008), Stewart’s songwriting assumes an almost mystical quality, constantly navigating between certainty and uncertainty. Musically, too, these songs mirror the quality of the lyrics, with their risky chord progressions and changes, as seen in songs like “The Ear of the Night” and “Silver Kettle”, with their splendid guitar intros and fascinating melodic dips. In “Silver Kettle”, Stewart sings “There is a crack along the plaster in the kitchen / It forms the shape of her face / Just for a moment he will trace it with his finger / One day he’ll paint her away.” Stewart’s cerebral lyrics weave an intense and enigmatic mythology with history, literature, art, maritime adventures, aerobatics and many other ‘story’ songs. Most of the songs blend folk rock with swing and are accompanied by acoustic guitars, horn arrangements, violins and other instruments that add up to fantastic and varied musical experiences. The songs also have a peripatetic, carefree charm and strongly hark back to intriguing oral traditions, along with the narrative quality that has long been part of such traditions but with open-ended hooks of post-war mystery and charm.

Stewart’s songwriting assumes an almost mystical quality, constantly navigating between certainty and uncertainty.

In “Angry Bird”, Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” meets his little twenty-first century successor, who cannot fit into the sky or on the ground, and who thinks that “wings are so passé”. Albums like these come out very rarely, and when they do, they are musical apotheoses. “Elvis at the Wheel” narrates an apparently true incident involving Elvis Presley undergoing a religious transformation when he witnesses Josef Stalin’s face morphing into Jesus Christ in a cloud formation. This is both a profound as well as funny song, depicting how religious moments can be inextricably political and personal, with the artist singing about the “moon that doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at it all”, mirroring our own political uncertainties and complexities.

Everyone knows all the popular Al Stewart trivia — that he bought his first guitar from Andy Summers of the Police, that he learned his first guitar licks from King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and that he was popular in the famous Les Cousins folk club where he met Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. But not many know that even though he takes his songwriting processes seriously, he mostly regards them as unusual, fun word games. For instance, a song like “The Immelmann Turn”, which describes a pilot flying a very daring aerobatic move, unravelled itself not because Stewart had any interest in flying (“Fields of France” and “Flying Sorcery” are other flying-related songs) but because he confessed he spent most of his time in airports.

The history in these songs is esoteric, subversive and funny. In his interview with Natalie Davis in Blog Critics, Stewart said, “It’s like you’re walking into a football stadium that’s full of words instead of people. Some of them are popular — they’re Madonna or whatever. ‘Love’, that’s a really popular word; it appears in about, say, 50,000 songs. And then there’s ‘plenipotentiary’. My take on it is that Love is sitting in the first row on the 50-yard line, surrounded by admirers. All the team players and the press are gathered around Love: ‘Oh, you’re the greatest thing!’ ‘Can you be in my song?’ ‘No, can you be in my song?’ ‘I want you in my song!’ And Plenipotentiary is sitting in the very back row of the stands, totally ignored by everybody. Poor Plenipotentiary has never been in a song; it never even gets used in casual speech. Plenipotentiary is sitting there wondering, ‘Why can’t I be like Love? Why can’t I be in a song? Help, help, I’m growing old without ever having been used!’ And, of course, I march right past Love.”

And so, like “Gina in Kings Street”, who is “so hard to reach, although she’s so close at hand”, Stewart crystallises our musical experiences in the mysterious charms of ageless time. We cannot wait to see where he will march us to next.

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