The big news here is that Time is not only Rod Stewart’s return to recording rock music but also marks his first collection of self-penned songs in decades. Such an enterprise — at least on paper — stands to re-institute some long-lost rock credibility for Stewart and to fulfill the hopes of long-suffering fans who have pined for a return to the style of Rod’s ’70s glory days. Those fans have had little reason for faith over the last dozen years as they watched Rod reinvent himself as an interpreter of pop standards with his five-part Great American Songbook series.
On one hand, it’s hard to knock Stewart for finding a way to sell boatloads of records as an aging rocker, and one could argue that if many of Stewart’s rock-legend peers could sell several million albums by singing standards, they would. Moreover, the success of these albums points to Rod’s versatility and skills as a vocalist, and he has relaxed into his new role, providing enough winking playfulness as a modern-day Rat Packer to shrug off his critics. On the other hand, those critics have repeatedly pointed out that Rod’s gifts as a singer are far better suited to rock music, that the Songbook albums are schlocky and substandard, and that Rod has grown lazy and complacent as a once-great artist.
So Time is being billed as Rod’s comeback although, unlike most rock comebacks, this one isn’t a return from semi-retirement nor from waning popularity; instead, apparently inspired by the writing process as he penned his memoir last year, Rod wants to write and perform rock music again, and at age 68, he figures he’d better get on it. Rock heroes who are still in the game as septuagenarians are something we’re just now getting a good look at: Dylan is 72, McCartney is 70, Jagger and Richards both turn 70 this year, and they are all on tour this summer, performing and recording better than anyone had a right to expect them to at this point. Stewart may be noticing that what helps keep these legends fresh and relevant is that they continue to write and record new material, as do Springsteen and Tom Petty and other slightly younger artists who are also aging gracefully. Rod, now knocking 70, has been singing nothing but your grandfather’s music for the last decade, so it makes sense that he would try to be Rod the Mod again while he’s still in relatively good voice and while he can still kick a few soccer balls into the crowd.
It’s telling, therefore, that Stewart would title the new album Time and feature himself on the cover walking on the beach as the tide washes away his footprints. Moreover, the work Rod put into his memoir certainly finds him in a nostalgic mood, as a few of the songs here are autobiographical accounts of the singer’s rise to fame and his subsequent loves and losses. Such a conscientious move at reflection and finding his songwriting voice should work fine for old fans who are eager to rediscover Rod and more than willing to brush aside those easy-listening records and accept him as cool again. The other advantage here is that Rod’s famous rasp is still holding up, only slightly thinner than before, and his recent concerts demonstrate that he’s still in fighting shape as a performer.
On the other hand, it’s important to note that Rod’s attempts to recapture his songwriting glory means revisiting a skill he hasn’t much nurtured in decades. That is, if Dylan, McCartney, Springsteen, etc., have stayed vital through songwriting, Rod Stewart can’t be counted as one of their peers in that regard. It’s true that Stewart did write (or co-write) many of his best songs — “Maggie May”, “Mandolin Wind”, “Tonight’s the Night” — but that was 40 years ago. Since then, Stewart has been much more successful as an interpreter and a negotiator of the latest trends, from disco to adult contemporary, and he’s made no serous attempts at writing his own material since penning about half the songs on 1991’s Vagabond Heart, and even then all the singles from that album were covers. So the success of Time comes down to Stewart’s current ability to write songs after such a lengthy period of abstinence.
Unsurprisingly, it’s an inconsistent batch of new tunes without an instant classic among them. Stewart produced the record himself with a decidedly heavy hand for syrupy embroidery, and his lyrics tend to suffer from too-literal, pedestrian phrases. Take the divorce ballad “It’s Over”, on which Rod pleads, “All this time I thought I knew ya / Don’t forget our children’s future / I would do whatever suits ya”, a typically clunky rhyme scheme on an album stuffed with them. Moreover, the album is at times wincingly self-referential, as on “Can’t Stop Me Now”, in which Rod remembers, “I was singing to you in the pubs / Singin’ to you in the clubs / Then along came ‘Maggie May’” and refers to his own singing as a “God-given gift”. Overall, “Can’t Stop Me Now” sounds like a selection from Rod! The Musical with backing music straight from the Top Gun soundtrack.
“Can’t Stop Me Now” might sport one of the more satisfying melodies on the record, but like most of the rest of Time, it suffers from a saccharine AOR arrangement drowning in gloppy strings and EZ-Rock guitars. “It’s Over” is a reasonably pleasant ballad, but the strings take over midway through and will quickly make you disregard the album as Rod’s attempt to revisit his original pub-rock image. There are virtually no Faces-style ragged edges on Time or anything that hits as hard as Rod’s last legitimate attempt at rocking when he was covering Britpop on 1998’s When We Were the New Boys.
A few of the tracks try to capture that old “Maggie May” magic, such as lead single “She Makes Me Happy”, complete with ringing mandolin embellishments, and the acoustic-driven “Live the Life”, a deliberate recreation of Gasoline Alley-era folk-rock. Even better is “Make Love to Me Tonight”, another rootsified highlight. And the sole cover here, Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame” (a Mule Variations nugget), is a beauty. Rod had a hit years earlier with Waits’ “Downtown Train” and is well-suited to interpret Waits’ melodies, but placing the work of a far superior writer amid Stewart’s own new originals is only asking for unfavorable comparisons.
Such comparisons are unflattering alongside songs like “Sexual Religion”, the new album’s nadir, a dance track that calls to mind Stewart’s dreadful Human album, his 2001 attempt at contemporary R&B. Elsewhere “Beautiful Morning” is #yolo lite-rock schlock, “Brighton Beach” is sentimental string-laden corn, and the album-closing “Pure Love” brings the Disney-Princess strings to insufferable levels. Such frothy material will give detractors plenty of ammo for the argument that Rod’s exclusive immersion into lounge albums has stunted Rod’s writing/producing/arranging sensibilities somewhere in the early nineties, a no-man’s-land for classic rockers. Moreover, if Rod is still trying to appeal to the grandmothers who gobbled up the Songbook albums, as all these string sections suggest, why not just stick to the pop standards format?
The defense to such a question comes with the album’s superior moments, including “Finest Woman”, a relatively scrappy rocker that attempts some middle-period Stones punch complete with wailing back-up singers and a Stax-worthy horn chart. (The Mick Taylor-era Stones remain a conspicuous influence throughout — “Finest Woman” sounds like a Sticky Fingers outtake, “Time” seems to borrow liberally from the chorus of “Time Waits for No One” from It’s Only Rock and Roll, and “Make Love to Me Tonight” is a ringer for “Factory Girl” from Beggars Banquet).
Overall, Time is badly balanced and overproduced, but it does offer signs of life while falling short of a genuinely exciting resurgence. Adding to the what-coulda-been aftertaste of the record is that two of the most promising offerings are included as bonus tracks on the expanded edition. One is “Legless” (British slang for “very drunk”), the slinkiest of the new rockers, with Rod announcing, “I’m in the mood to get shitfaced tonight.” The other is a stripped version of blues-folk standard “Corrina Corrina”, one that does away with the production overkill that plagues the rest of the album. It’s a direction that Rod should consider exploring further for his next project. After all, he’s been satisfied for most of his career as a vocal interpreter and adaptor of the latest styles. Folk-rock is ripe for the picking, and it’s a sound Rod does exceedingly well. But Time demonstrates that Rod might need to set down the pen and turn the production duties over to someone else if he wants a comeback album that will truly be timeless.