To call Dave Stewart’s extra-Eurythmics work “enigmatic” would be appropriate. The British songwriter has produced efforts from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, organized the supergroup Super Heavy (which included Mick Jagger and Damian Marley), and scored soundtracks for countless films and television shows. Few would argue the man hasn’t stayed consistently busy since his collaborations with Annie Lennox ended in the ’90s — even if he hasn’t enjoyed a lot of time in the limelight. On his latest release, The Ringmaster General, Stewart demonstrates that he’s at his best when collaborating with others.
The Ringmaster General opens with a “I Got Love”, with a little help from Joss Stone, a frequent collaborator of Stewart’s. Even with its searing sax solo, it’s without much doubt the closest thing to rock music here. Although the rest of the record is long (many of the songs are over the five-minute mark), the other songs don’t quite include solos as bold as this one.
Stewart’s collaboration with Allison Krauss, “Drowning in the Blues”, strips away all of the camp on the rest of the record. A beautiful string arrangement and pedal steel (both included without any iota of irony) show just how much of a master Stewart can be when it comes to making production decisions on a particular song. Although the song does compliment the corpus of Krauss, it fails to serve as a centerpiece for the rest of the album, given the disparate genres included throughout The Ringmaster General. Nevertheless, it is somewhat of a saving grace, and much praise ought to be directed to Stewart for having the good sense to include Krauss on the track.
If the collaboration with Krauss pays dividends, the next track is hardly suited to be the favorite of listeners. “Girl in a Cat Suit” (another collaboration with Orianthi) is a rather confusing attempt to mimic the guitar tones of ’90s-era U2. Although the song does finally feature some Stewart shredding, it is painfully gratuitous and so far out from left field that it almost certainly would have been best left on the cutting room floor.
Side B of the record shows a penchant for pop-rock tunes in the vein of Neil Diamond. On “Slow Motion Addict No. 2”, Stewart mixes country and soul with little emotional gravitas. Sure, there’s capable enough guitar playing on the song, but the line “You’re the best looking girl I’ve seen in this town” is soulless. The piano-based ballads of “You Took My Love” and “Different Man Now” follow suit and are both a bit too long for their own good. The title track, meanwhile, also echoes Diamond’s production. In this self-effacing song, Stewart never quite makes it to a guitar solo that we all know he’s capable of playing. The build up is great, but unfortunately, there’s no release. Instead, circus sound effects supplant fancy instrumentation.
The album’s closer, “A New Song for Nashville”, is a decent autobiographical song about the vicissitudes of partying too much (and Stewart should know – he once had a short fling with the party-friendly Steve Nicks, a relationship that culminated in Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Stewart famously wrote). Behind the pluckings on banjos and pedal steel guitars, Stewart dives into a self-referential meditation on songs that are “kind of country and blues”. The song ends with a very sweet (but definitely corny) thank you to “all of [his] musician friends”. Although Stewart is a legend in his own right, The Ringmaster General is proof that he’s at his best when his friends are in tow.