Al Stewart, Year of the Cat

When Al Stewart is at the top of his game, there is no finer folk musician, and that's really saying something; he is the rare folkist that can transcend what too often is jangly guitars and affected primitivism with his lyrical sparkle, lusher instrumentation and, yes, occasionally, a beat. After Modern Times, probably the best album I believe the man has ever made thanks to Alan Parsons' unerringly rich production, you would expect the followup (also produced by Parsons) to be even better, to achieve even greater heights of musical artistry, to touch your soul in a way only truly great music can, and tragically, sadly, you would be wrong. I think I might be too hard on this album because I know what Stewart is capable of, and Stewart can still achieve it, at least out of the gate: the first track "Lord Grenville" continues the same rich style, and "On The Border" is breathless, entrancing, toe-tapping and far too short. But after that his overdeveloped historical fetishism becomes too overt, the same problem he manifested in his earlier works, and while the music is competent much of the rest of the album ends up sounding too stylistically similar. Indeed, most of the tracks rely purely on their thematic content to carry them through and fail to distinguish themselves musically, for which I blame Parsons, who knows better. Fortunately, the end pulls it out with the album's luxurious and haunting title track, "Year of the Cat," its wistful woman of mystery as lyrically strong as anything Stewart has written and as musically outstanding — ironically starting as a proto-elegy to the tragic comedian Tony Hancock who was poorly known to American audiences and thus proving my point about reducing his overreliance on historical storytelling. Sadly, similar complaints figure into his next album, Time Passages, even though I adore its title track as well. The reissue adds three additional tracks which frankly are only of collectors' interest. (Content: one track with mild sensual themes.)