Though it’s a truth that’s now largely forgotten, at least among the young and the terminally hip, Rod Stewart was once a pretty righteous cat — foremost among interpretive singers and endowed with gangbuster rock and roll bonafides primarily, perhaps, from his role as frontman for the Faces, as gloriously disheveled, shambolic, and spirited a rock and roll band as has ever existed. The Faces’ greatness never quite gelled into a straight-up killer LP — not unless you care to count their peerless and essential Rhino box from 2004 — but their ragged spirit, careening from bawdy bar-band rock to nakedly emotional acoustic numbers, made them epochal. That spirit was in large part carried over to Every Picture Tells a Story, the solo album that made Rod Stewart a genuine pop star, but with one key difference: With Every Picture, Stewart actually made a top-to-bottom dynamite LP, as big-hearted and gloriously rough-around-the-edges as any Faces album but more unified, more conceptual, and simply better. More consistent than the fine solo albums that preceded it, tighter and bolder than the ones that came after (including the terrific sequel, Never a Dull Moment), this is more than just the greatest Rod Stewart album; it stands as ones of the most beautifully realized and affecting albums of all time.
With Every Picture, Stewart actually made a top-to-bottom dynamite LP, as big-hearted and gloriously rough-around-the-edges as any Faces album but more unified, more conceptual, and simply better.
Surely its emotional candor — its embrace of earnestness, its absence of affectation — are key to its success. You can hear the album as a celebration of what it is to be a young man, swaggering through the prime of his physical, sexual, and creative life, and there’s plenty of evidence to support such a reading, not least the uproariously crude travelogue of an album opener, where the narrator globe-trots from one romantic and geographic misadventure to the next; of course there’s also the big single, “Maggie May,” that made Rod a star, and remains a richer and more sophisticated song than it’s ever given credit for being, a writerly showcase for Stewart’s pop instincts. Rod and his band pound through a rowdy take on the Elvis Presley gem “That’s All Right,” as well, but the track’s Saturday night revelry gives way to a Sunday morning comedown in the form of a yearning “Amazing Grace,” which is maybe the best tip-off here to the record’s emotional complexity. Indeed, it’s as reflective as often as it is jubilant, on covers as well as originals. In the case of the former, there are no less than two songs that ache over time, distance, separation, and desire: A soulful, rolling “Seems Like a Long Time” and then a definitive reading of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is Such a Long Time,” which offers proof enough that Rod is the second-best singer of the Dylan songbook, bested only by Bob himself. Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” is present, too, at once big-hearted and emotionally conflicted. It’s the album’s ringing send-off. But its high point is Rod’s own “Mandolin Wind,” an achingly earnest, aww-shucks kind of love song that soars from a tentative whisper to a bold declaration. Throughout the album, Stewart blurs the line separating hard rock and folk music, and seems almost to bend time itself: “That’s All Right” was an oldie even then but it kicks with garage rock immediacy; “Tomorrow Is Such a Long Time” is so earthy and haunted, it sounds like a folk song old as the hills. It’s a celebration of youth, this record, but more than that it’s a celebration of the very art of song — and maybe that’s what makes it ageless.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.