Album Review: Al Stewart – Songs on the Radio

By most any reasonable measure, Al Stewart is not a singles artist. Though the Glasgow-born singer-songwriter has had a long and creatively fertile musical career, his primary artistic vehicle has and continues to be the album. From his earliest days, Stewart has employed his highly literate vision in service of appealing songs, but he always goes deeper: historical contexts and sharp lyrical turns characterize his work. For his trouble, Stewart has enjoyed commercial success alongside critical plaudits: all four of his albums released in the second half of the 1970s found their way onto the Billboard album chart. And two of those – 1976’s Year of the Cat and Time Passages from 1978 – earned Platinum status.

During that same period, five of his singles made it onto the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia, with “Time Passages” soaring all the way to the #1 spot on the Adult Contemporary singles charts in the U.S. and Canada. And in that fairly compact slice of time – 1974 to 1981 – Stewart would release ten singles in the United states. All of those songs and their b-sides) have been collected on a new set from Real Gone Music, Songs on the Radio: The Complete U.S. Singles 1974-1981. So maybe he is in fact a singles artist.

When it comes to albums, whether there’s an overarching concept that ties the songs together (as on 1973’s Past, Present and Future) or when there’s just a sonic thread that connects the tunes to each other, Al Stewart always takes a lyrics-focused approach to the work of making a record. A serious student of history, Stewart often ruminates on weighty concepts and places his stories into a wider historical and sociocultural context. But he knows his way around a memorable tune, too, and his skillful combining of those virtues has resulted in some of the era’s most enduring music.

The new RGM collection presents a chronological rundown of all Stewart’s U.S. singles from the period, using the single edits of the songs in each case. That makes sense, but it presents the songs in a setting quite different from their original configurations on his proper studio albums. On his 1973 concept LP Past, Present & Future, the sprawling “Nostradamus” runs nearly ten minutes; its single edit clocks in at just over three minutes.

Stewart’s folk roots blend seamlessly with rock arrangements; on his earlier tracks, his style can be thought of as a more listener-friendly alternative to Roy Harper. And while Stewart’s commercial apex would come in part through his association with producer Alan Parsons, his pre-Parsons material displays all of the virtues of his later, better-known music.

Stewart’s solo career began much earlier, with his debut single released (in the UK only) in 1966. This collection centers on his time in the spotlight, U.S. charts-wise. So while “Nostradamus” b/w “Terminal Eyes” didn’t chart, it merits inclusion here. The propulsive, country-rocking “Carol” b/w “Sirens of Titan” was another non-charter, but with “Year of the Cat,” everything changed for Al Stewart. His lyric-heavy songs had such sharp hooks that he won over both fans of the singer-songwriter style and those who enjoyed a cracking good pop tune.

And this set’s inclusion of b-sides means that those new to Stewart’s body of work get both the hits and tracks that show a different side of his artistry. The melodramatic “Sirens of Titan” is just such an example, with clever instrumental flourishes wedded to a catch arrangement.

Listeners only have to wait until Track 5 to get to the big ones. “Year of the Cat” b/w “Broadway Hotel” kicks off the string of hit singles, taking listeners back to the days when evocative, mysterious tunes like “On the Border” floated across the airwaves, with sentimental (yet never mawkish) songs like “Time Passages” and “Song on the Radio” worked their ways into listeners’ consciousness.

Unless one is a serious Al Stewart aficionado, most of the songs that round out the second half of Songs on the Radio will be less familiar than the hits (he didn’t land a single on the charts after 1980’s Midnight Rocks” b/w “Constantinople”), but the qualities that brought him commercial success are plainly evident even on those lesser-known cuts.

Parsons’ production presented Stewart’s music in its best possible light, appealing to both prog/rock fans and those who wanted something a bit softer. Stewart’s always tasteful instrumentation shines across all the tracks, even when he was somewhat consciously creating music with an eye toward the charts. In any event, that approach didn’t last, with Stewart quickly returning to do what he does best, and doing it brilliantly. As an introduction to the man’s music, Songs on the Radio is a fine place to begin. Just remember that there’s much, much more to his work.