AL STEWART-YEAR OF THE CAT.
AL STEWART-YEAR OF THE CAT.
In July 1975, Al Stewart released what was his seventh studio album Year of the Cat, which was recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios in London. Like his previous album, Modern Times released in 1975, it was produced by Alan Parsons. However, unlike Modern Times. Year of the Cat was an album that would raise his profile, transforming his career, and in the process, giving him a number five album in the US Billboard 100. This was the album that helped to break Al in the US, and since its release, is considered the finest album he has released. What makes the success of the album so remarkable, is that before Al thought of titles for each of the songs on Year of the Cat, he had written and recorded all the music and orchestrations for the album. It was only then, that he thought about titles for the songs. Remarkably, he even confessed in a radio interview that sometimes, he has up to four sets of lyrics for each song. Thankfully, he chose the lyrics wisely on this album, and in doing so, produced what’s easily the best album he ever recorded. I can remember the album being released, and the next year, the title track, Year of the Cat being a hit single. It was one of these songs that was constantly on the radio, hugely catchy and totally memorable. Back in 1976 and 1977, music was changing, and changing fast. Punk was on its way, and artists like Al were perceived as yesterday’s men, by the angry young men of punk. However, thirty-five years after Al released Year of the Cat, it’s still a hugely popular album. Of all the albums Al has released, Year of the Cat remains my favorite. Although there are just nine songs on the album, they’re nine great songs, which I’ll now tell you about.
Year of the Cat opens with Lord Grenville, a track Al wrote about Sir Richard Grenville, an Elizabethan sailor and explorer. History is a subject that Al has often written about in his songs, during his long career. Acoustic guitars accompany Al’s soft voice before drums, electric guitars and bass enter. A piano and strings enter and by now, Al’s delivery of some atmospheric lyrics, which have such a strong narrative that you can almost imagine the scenes unfolding before your eyes. His lyrics paint pictures, pictures that come alive. Meanwhile, the arrangement has grown as strings, guitars, piano and the rhythm section combine masterfully to produce a beautiful slow and atmospheric arrangement. Later in the track, the arrangement builds, getting fuller and tinged with drama. It’s almost reminiscent of sea voyage across waters still and troubled. Together with Al’s lyrics which he delivers beautifully, it’s an outstanding track to open the album.
On the Border is a track that conjurs up images of smuggling, secret assignations and doubling crossing. Al admits that the song is about the rise and fall of the British Empire, with references to the Spanish Civil War. A piano plays quickly and dramatically as the track opens, before a bass quick and prominent plays and percussion enters. As Al sings, he’s accompanied by an acoustic guitar and drums, which join an arrangement that quickly builds, becoming much fuller and laden in drama and intrigue. Here, the tempo is quicker, Al’s voice is louder and stronger, the lyrics again, painting a picture and telling a story, really vividly. My only criticism of the track is that it seems to end rather quickly and suddenly. I’ve always thought that the song should be longer, as the “story” remains almost unfinished. Apart from that, this is a track that demonstrates both Al’s talent as a songwriter and vocalist.
On Midas Shadow, Al deals with the subject of money, and how business people seem to make money intuitively, and naturally. Someone who can do this, has what he calls the Midas Shadow. The track opens brightly and melodically with keyboards playing, before guitars and the rhythm section enter accompanied by subtle percussion. When Al sings, his voice is soft and gentle, as he sings about business people with the Midas Shadow traveling the world, living in hotels as they consider their next monetary conquest. Behind him, one of the most melodic arrangements on the album unfolds. Keyboards are at the heart of the arrangement, with guitars, rhythm section and percussion helping drive the track along, the arrangement rising and falling, waves of beautiful lush music emerging from your speakers. What makes this such a great track are the lyrics and Al’s delivery of them. They’re full of social comment which more than ever, are still relevant today. Al’s delivery of them bring them to life, so much so, you can visualise the scenes of greed and avarice taking place.
Sand In Your Shoes was Al’s attempt to write a radio friendly hit. The song was meant to sound like something Dylan would’ve written circa 1966, however, this isn’t quite the case. An organ, rhythm section and guitars combine, while Al’s voice is loud and full of charisma as he sings the lyrics to a catchy and melodic song. The arrangement although not quite Dylan circa 1966, has a retro sound and feel. It’s a full arrangement complete with soaring and chiming guitars, an organ that sounds like it belongs on a track from 1966, as it atmospherically plays and a driving rhythm section. Here Al attempted to replicate Bob Dylan circa 1966, but in the end, managed to create Al Stewart 1976. The arrangement although it has a retro sound, it’s both melodic and catchy, is much softer than Dylan’s sound, and Al’s voice is the total opposite of Bob’s gruff and raspy voice. In the end, he created a song that was radio friendly, and although it wasn’t released as a single, it’s one that’s melodic and really catchy.
When Al was writing the lyrics to Year of the Cat, he was struggling to come up with anything, when out of nowhere, came up with “nothing that’s forced can ever be right. If it doesn’t come naturally, leave it.” Suddenly, he felt, this was the genesis for a song. Once the song was finished, it would become one of his most popular songs. It’s a quick track, that opens with piano, guitars, rhythm section and organ combining before Al’s soft and gentle voice enters. Here, the lyrics are literate and descriptive, delivered quickly with emotion and passion. Behind him, one of the best arrangements on the album is unfolding. The tempo is quick, the sound fulsome, with guitars soloing, soaring and chiming, with a piano and organ combining brilliantly, while drums pounding, helping to drive the track along at breakneck pace. Throughout the track, there’s so much going on, all of it good. This is thanks to some hugely talented musicians. Together with Al, they all contribute towards making this easily, one of the album’s highlights.
Flying Sorcery sees Al return to his folk roots, with a track that’s what I’d associate with English folk-rock. This song sees Al sing about flying and the pioneers of aviation. The track opens with Al gently playing his acoustic guitar, ably assisted by Peter White who has long been at Al’s side playing both acoustic guitar and keyboards. After that, the arrangement opens up with organ and rhythm section joining as Al pays homage to the early aviators, conjurring up romantic images, images so strong they play like a film before your eyes. Later in the track, a harmonica adds atmosphere, as Al’s voice soars. Throughout this track, there are some beautiful guitar solos, and the band play thoughtfully, and at times, with subtlety. Other times, the arrangement is fuller, rockier, making this a track of contrasts. However, it’s Al’s lyrics and delivery of them, that make this such a great track, demonstrating Al’s talents as a songwriter supreme.
If like me, you’ve spent any time living in a hotel, during your life, Broadway Hotel is a track that you’ll be able to relate to. Al wrote the song about people who are wealthy enough to spend their lives living in hotels. Correctly, Al says that in some ways, this is like living without a past, with nothing real or tangible to show for life. The track opens slowly with Al singing accompanied by guitars, piano and rhythm section, as he sings about what must be a transient, almost surreal way to live. Quickly, the arrangement fills out, with keyboards and strings joining the arrangement, giving the track a grand sound and feel. Strings soar, while the piano plays and guitars and the rhythm section accompany them, providing a contrast. At that point, folk, rock and elements of classical music combine. The arrangement rises and falls, the tempo changing and the arrangement takes a dramatic turn as Al sings. He too, delivers the lyrics in a dramatic fashion, during what is a very different sounding track. Here, the way the strings and keyboards combine, give the track an almost grandiose sound, and together with subtle changes in tempo, it’s a track laden in drama and suspense.
Part of Al’s inspiration for One Stage Before, a song about reincarnation, was Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle. When the track opens, an acoustic guitar and percussion combine, before Al sings. Immediately, it’s apparent his vocal isn’t as clear as on previous tracks, it sounds distant. Maybe this is to bring home the lyrics, especially given the subject matter. It just seems that the vocal would be just as effective without being as blurred. The arrangement meanwhile, is fast and full, even slightly dark, with guitars, rhythm section, keyboards and percussion combining with sweeping strings. Al’s vocal is thoughtful, his lyrics thought provoking and literate, and together with this slightly dark arrangement, the track moves along quickly and dramatically, with Guitars soaring, chiming and screaming, while drums pound and an organ adds atmosphere, However, by the end, I remain unconvinced about the way the vocal sounds, it’s distant and blurred. To me, it slightly spoils what would’ve been a perfectly good track. Apart from that, it’s a good track, with a dark and dramatic arrangement and intelligent, thoughtful lyrics.
The final track on the album is the best known one, Year of the Cat, a track about a man who buys a one-way bus ticket to North Africa. During his trip, he meets a girl in Casablanca, who constantly talks about years of cats. He falls asleep at her flat, misses the bus, and now stranded, decides to stay in town. Although it wasn’t his original plan, he decides to make the most of the situation. That’s the story behind what’s probably Al’s best known song. When the piano plays that familiar introduction, it’s like meeting an old friend. Guitars and rhythm section join the piano, before Al sings some of the best lyrics on the album. They’re hugely evocative, painting a picture of mysterious, almost, exotic woman, in the town Humphrey Bogart made famous. Meanwhile, the arrangement meanders magically, a mixture of piano, strings guitars and rhythm section, adding atmosphere and drama to Al’s lyrics. After four minutes an outstanding guitar solo is joined by a sultry saxophone and sweeping strings, as the track just gets better and better. As the track ends, you can see why this track was so hugely popular, and in a way, helped make Al Stewart a huge star. It’s a brilliant track, melodic, catchy and hook laden.
When Al Stewart released Year of the Cat, this was his seventh album, and although he was popular in both the UK and US, this album really transformed his career. It was a far cry from his early albums when he was a folk singer, struggling to make his way in the music industry. Although he wasn’t an overnight star, hardly anyone ever is, his career received a huge boost. The album reached number five in the US, and the single Year of the Cat, number eight. This was a huge improvement on his previous album Modern Times, which only reached number 133 in the US. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was aware of his music, with Year of the Cat one of the most memorable songs of 1977. Al’s next album, Time Passages, released in 1978, built in the success of Year of the Cat, reaching number eight in the US Billboard 100. Since then, Al has released sixteen successful albums and continues to tour the world.However, Year of the Cat is considered his best album, and when lists of the most important albums in the history of popular music are compiled, Year of the Cat is on them. Now aged sixty-six, the dreamer with a corduroy jacket has come a long way. Standout Tracks: Lord Grenville, On the Border, Midas Shadow and Year of the Cat.
AL STEWART-YEAR OF THE CAT.