The Hang of Music: Now, Then & Whenever

Time for something grand, I think. So this week, I am reviewing something which I’ve been sort-of putting off for a few weeks now. Not because I don’t want to listen, but because I’m not sure what I’m going to make of him.

Really; I’m not sure. This is Al Stewart’s “Past, Present & Future”, starting with “Roads to Moscow”

“Roads to Moscow” is one of the only songs of his that I have heard of before this album – my mum loves Al Stewart, and indeed that’s one of the reasons why I’m listening to this now. And she always told me of this song. If you had to turn it off because the combination of sad lyrics, sad pictures and a sad guitar was all too much for you, I’ll tell you now – there is no happy ending.

In Soviet Russia, after the Second World War, Russian soldiers who had been captured at any point were deemed a risk, as they might have become indoctrinated. As such, they were not allowed to return home to their families, but were instead sent to the gulags.

Yeah. Take a moment. It is that bad. And the thing is that this isn’t just in the “story” of the song – this actually happened.

From this auspicious start, you may be getting the impression that this is a sad album. The thing is, you’re half right. You see, “Past, Present & Future” is a concept album. It was released in the 1970s (1974, to be exact), and every track represents a decade of the 20th century up ’til then, except Nostradamus which means the future. Or at least that’s what wiki says – I personally am not sure how well each track links to a decade, but they all have settings and times, or references to tarot cards and such. Seems good enough to me!

"It's a trick! That crystal ball hides the tarot cards he's actually using!"

So yeah, though “Roads” is depressing, if still great, there’s also a lot of cheer on the album. On track one, “Old Admirals”, the tune takes on an almost shanty style sound, andthe trumpets sound almost christmassy. I don’t even know how they do that. “Soho (Needless to Say)” is pretty happy too, if still played in a minor key. Jaunty is probably the word I’d use to describe the happier songs on here.

On the topic of “Soho”: sometimes, there are things that just take you aback – just for a moment. The lyric where he managed to slip “animation, bar conversation, anticipation, disinclination” all into one line elicited just that from me. The bike bell on the end came close to doing achieving the same as well.

There’s something Bowie-ish about his voice, and the feel of the way that he presents himself. You can hear when a person is smiling when they sing – it adds a warmth to their voice – and the way the songs are arranged makes them sound rounded. I reckon “Last Day of June 1934” is a prime example of just that.

And yet other songs make him sound more like Dylan’s bastard child (or not bastard – Dylan was married at some point, right?). Despite my mixed feelings about that particular spoony bard, this is a good thing, as he sounds as if he’s got his “dad”‘s mastery of lyrics. His words are just so easy and natural and unstilted, despite the obvious amount of work he puts into them. (I heard a rumour here that he read about 40 history books to get “Roads” right.)

“Post World War Two Blues”‘s description of post war life in sprawling epic style, with emphasis on the music of the time, just reminds me of American Pie. Hell, he talks about the song, and the death of Buddy Holly. He also references Dylan’s “Desolation Row”. If that isn’t proof that Al Stewart is Dylan’s quasi-legitimate (and significantly less frustrating) offspring, I don’t know what is.

I really want to know how much of  Nostradamus is nicked right from his book? ‘Cos I’d be interested to know how much attention, if any, people in the 1970s paid to phrases which moderm wingnuts claim predict the future. There was that famous hoax a few years ago about 9/11, but surely some of the supposed predictions he made must not be hoaxes and simply be honest mistakes?

More pertinent than is there any truth in any of Nostradamus’ claims, and whether or not Al Stewart nicked them directly from “Nostradamus’ Big Book of Facts” is the question WHEN WILL THIS BLOODY GUITAR SOLO END!? Gah, it’s about 5 minutes long, and consists solely of repeated guitar chords. It probably doesn’t even count as a solo, that’s just all I can think of to describe it

“I am the eyes of nostradamus/all your base are belong to me”

… Is how I choose to interpret his closing lines.

The actual lyrics.

This is an example of a concept album done well (even though I didn’t realise until listening that that was what it was), so it’s hardly surprising that I like this album. The fact that I reference both Bowie and Dylan’s less comically frustrating moments also show this. His care and attention to detail is refreshing and I look forward to listening to more of his albums – the joy of reviewing albums in retrospect is that there are almost always new albums.

I want to end on the man himself, and his considered opinion of the album. Bear in mind that this was his first to get any critical acclaim.*

“My first four albums have been, for me, an apprenticeship… [Past, Present & Future] is my thesis”

Fine words.

Finally, for those of you who are interested, here is my stab at which track equates to which decade. It was bothering me, so I figured it may be bothering you. They may not be right, but they might at least be amusing.

1900-1909: “Old Admirals” – It talks about the death of Queen Victoria, and the amassing German fleet, it must be around here.

1910-1919: “Terminal Eyes” It references jets (probably not around then) and cellophane (definitely around then) and really doesn’t seem to make much sense over all. I’ll just shove it here, then, to make the rest of my predictions fit.

1920-1929: “Warren Harding” – The man was elected US President in 1920.

1930-1939: “The Last Day of June 1934” – Well, duh.

1940-1949: “Roads To Moscow” – It’s about the long walk back from Berlin. Yeah.

1950-1959: “Post World War Two Blues” – Though it quotes Dylan (the 60s), it also references The Day The Music Died, which was in 1959. I’m gonna put it here.

1960-1969: “Soho (Needless to Say)” – And because I get to put this here; Jazz, sex and a general understanding that Soho in London was where to be in the 60s.

 

It’s possible that some of them just cross over with one another. I hope not…

* Does anyone else long for the days when you could make 4 albums without a hit, and have enough time your act together enough to then write a masterpiece, without losing your record deal? That sounds heavenly.

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Posted on November 10, 2011, in Music, The Hang of Music and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Al Stewart wrote his song about 1910 – 1920 on an earlier Album. It’s called Manuscript, and it’s /utterly haunting/. As far as I can tell his father died in the Second World War ( “Widow’s Pension and Ration Books” from Post-WW2 Blues), and he was raised with the influence of his grandfather who fought in /The/ War, the Great War. Though it is a very rough song in some ways, it is still lyrically haunting enough that I could see him not wishing to supplant it with another. Terminal Eyes is for the 70’s, I think.

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