English guitarist and singer Al Stewarts acoustic-guitar-based hits in the 1970s were something of an anomaly. Sung in a light, uninflected voice, "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages" were unusual for their relative calm in a time of insistent disco high-hats and loud guitars. "Well I'm not the kind to live in the past," Stewart sang in "Time Passages," but his songs often contained references to events and people in history (his website includes explanations for many of them), and his new disc, Sparks of Ancient Light, carries on that tradition.
Stewart opens with a song about Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister of England in the late 19th century, but he has interesting comments about more recent incidents. "Shah of Shahs" includes sharp observations about the Shah of Irans overthrow in 1979: "hell be damned if he will let them take away his perfect dream." As long as were on the topic of history (or, at any rate, the passage of time), Stewarts voice has aged very well indeed. He sounds virtually the same as he did 30 years ago. His calm voice is somehow reassuring in an age of American Idol over-emoting, as is his solid craftsmanship.
Sparks of Ancient Light is warmly recorded and beautifully crafted. Stewart and Lawrence Juber are gifted guitarists who avoid clichés, and the rest of Stewarts band is very solid. I would not have thought that Al Stewart was an artist who had much to say in 2008, but anyone who can write a compelling song about Elvis seeing Stalins face in a passing cloud has plenty of life in him.
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