Review: "Orange"/ "Past Present & Future" / "Modern Times" - Al Stewart

By Andy Snipper,

There was a time in the early ‘70’s when the bedsits of Britain moved from the Hippy Psych-lite of Donovan into Cat Stevens folky but complicated songsmithery and then into the sophisticated tale telling of Al Stewart with his trans-European influences and insightful views of the behaviour of his friends, lovers and others.

OThe earliest of the three is ‘Orange’ and from the cover onwards – Stewart in polo neck and sheepskin coat – the album shrieks of the period and tracks such as ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘The News From Spain’ proclaim his troubadour credentials. This was a time when a man on his own with just a guitar slung over his back - and a small change of knickers and shirts – could hitch-hike across Europe, making friends and lovers as you went from country to country and the music evokes that period brilliantly. However it also has some stunning music played by the likes of Tim Renwick, Brinsley Schwarz, Rick Wakeman and Brian Odgers playing his music as well as they did for the bands they were famous for. There are three standout numbers in ‘Amsterdam’, ‘Songs Out Of Clay’ and the harrowing ‘Night Of The 4th Of May’ but the whole album is a joy.With a soft, whispery, voice and jangling guitar he was perfectly suited to his tales of passions and off-hand sex but he was also a very talented composer and across these three albums there is a wealth of composing and songwriting of the highest order.

Even though it was far less successful than his later albums my personal favourite of the three albums is ‘Past Present & Future’ which was his real ‘breakthrough’ album and marked a change from the stories of loves and travels to a historical bent and a view of happenstances new and old. From ‘Old Admirals’ telling the tale of passed over admirals wishing they were young enough to join battle to ‘Warren Harding’, possibly the loneliest president that America ever had (in 1921). ‘Soho (needless to say)’ is a Beatlesque tale of contemporary Soho - a rainy night and the boredom of “going nowhere with nowhere to go”. Then we come to the main draw of the album – three magnificent and massive numbers, ‘Roads To Moscow’, ‘Terminal Eyes’ and ‘Nostradamus’. ‘… Moscow’ telling of the German invasion of Russia in 1941 from the point of view of a Russian soldier – the song is chilling and you get the deep depression of a soldier a long way from his family and taking no pride in the victories. ‘Terminal Eyes’ is a cracker of a number, very much his take on ‘I Am The Walrus’ and a very popular single at the time. ‘Nostradamus’ is a wonderful song, building from a single guitar and taking the listener through the prophecies and predictions of the French Apothecary & Mage Michel De Nostredame – the production is massive and the song is a live favourite today.

The last of the three albums is ‘Modern Times’ from 1975. His most successful of the three albums, commercially, produced by Alan Parsons and recorded at Abbey Road. The standout tracks are many but ‘Sirens of Titan’ has all his trademark themes and the title track full of memories and with a wistful look back at childhood and growing up with schoolfriends and onwards. In many respects, this is the most sophisticated of the three albums and it certainly is the most confident musically. As an album to listen to in its entirety it is superb.


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