Stalwart producer/songwriter and former Eurythmic Dave Stewart offers up the most atypical record of his career to date with this Nashville-recorded effort. It’s arguably one of the most successfully executed sidesteps in pop music. Featuring guest turns from new NPR darlings the Secret Sisters, plus Stevie Nicks, Martina McBride (John McBride is an associate producer and engineer on the album) and Colbie Caillat, The Blackbird Diaries further cements Stewart’s reputation as an ace writer and performer.
There’s a temptation here to refer to the 13-song album as Stewart’s country album and no doubt future rock historians will give in to said temptation but it’s an inaccurate description. Beaucoups of Blues was Ringo Starr’s country album and it was country end to end; The Blackbird Diaries has elements of country and yet fully retains plenty of rock and pop pleasures throughout.
Recorded in a furious five days in Music City and written, more or less, in a little more than that time, the album opens with the blues-y “So Long Ago” in which Stewart reminisces about R.L. Burnside, Mississippi John Hurt, the Rolling Stones, and his own travels from being a young man to a man with some years and experience behind him. It’s touching without being overly sentimental and sentimental without being filled with a choking sense of nostalgia.
“Magic in the Blues”, a country-tinged affair featuring the crack drumming of Chad Cromwell, is a fantastic ballad (in the strictest sense of the word) that may or may not tell the story of Stewart as he finds his way to Annie Lennox and, subsequently, the life he’s enjoyed since then. There’s also a nod to friendship via “Stevie Baby” undeniably about Stevie Nicks who offers a guest turn on “Cheaper Than Free” (which she co-wrote) and “Country Wine”, a beautifully written and executed number that calls to mind the aforementioned Ringo outing, Beaucoups of Blues. (If ever an Englishman proved that the British knew their way around a country tune, it was Ringo, after all; Stewart ain’t half bad himself.)
Elsewhere Stewart gets his inner Zevon out (“Beast Called Fame”, which also recalls Time Fades Away-era Neil Young) and lends a co-writing to credit to Bob Dylan on “Worth Waiting For”, which, appropriately enough, sounds very little like Dylan. In fact, the only moment that’s at all reminiscent of Dylan is the closing “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”—it’s a curiosity in that it might sound at home on a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers record; and that’s at the hands of a man who helped create one of the least Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-sounding songs with “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, from Southern Accents.
The great success of The Blackbird Diaries is that it serves as yet another reinforcement of Stewart being one of the most necessary—and perhaps overlooked—songwriters and performers to emerge in the last 30 years. It’s fairly easy to assert that this is probably not indicative of a permanent direction from the artist but it’s a wonderful stopover and perhaps one of the most effortless-sounding pop records in recent memory.