Magical history tours have been Al Stewart’s trademark since the early 1970s, when he switched from writing about his own romantic turmoil to a wider view of the world and its rich cast of characters and events. While his 1976 international hit single, “Year of the Cat,” was tied to no specific time (other than “a moment from a Bogart movie”), his albums immediately surrounding it (Past, Present & Future, Modern Times, The Year of the Cat, Time Passages) yielded other accessible but more historically anchored hits that combined finely drawn character studies and detailed settings that ranged across continents and centuries, forming the template for Al’s subsequent recordings.
Everything changes with time – except basic human motivations. Sparks of Ancient Light, Al’s latest collection of songs (following 2005’s A Beach Full Of Shells), spans at least 2500 years of history in its tales of exotic locations and situations, all tied to an underlying theme of “certainly and uncertainty” as his characters face the future. Something’s happening in each of these songs, a sense of change and movement beneath the sometimes sedate, sometimes dramatic facades. The larger context isn’t always obvious, but the emotions behind the actions are always recognizable – love, greed, wanderlust, jealousy, complacency, curiosity, regret, hope.
With appropriately varied arrangements mixing folk, rock, classical and jazz, and immaculate production from longtime Stewart associate and multiple-Grammy-winning guitarist Laurence Juber (formerly of Paul McCartney’s Wings), the CD both starts and ends with songs set in 1896. The opening “Lord Salisbury” examines Great Britain’s prime minister at that time flinching from the oncoming events threatening his policy of “splendid isolationism,” while the protagonist of the “Like William McKinley” finale awaits the rush of progress with calm resignation. In between those bookends, we are shown “(A Child’s View of) The Eisenhower Years,” a bouncy evocation of post-World War II optimism; a freaked-out Elvis Presley undergoing a religious revelation as he witnesses Josef Stalin’s face morphing into Jesus Christ in a desert cloud formation (true story!) in “Elvis at the Wheel”; a “Football Hero” living out his days watching endless replays of his missed, game-losing soccer kick; an international con man hoodwinking the well-to-do who embrace him as their latest diversion (“Sleepwalking”); and Hanno the Navigator (in the same-named song), sailing from Carthage off the end of the world to indescribable adventures 500 years before the Christian calendar, among others. The flare of young love lights up “The Ear of the Night”; a broken relationship becomes an allegory of bleak, marooned desolation on “The Loneliest Place on the Map” (Kerguelen Island, way below the southern tip of Africa). The catchy, teasing “Angry Bird” is based on a pseudo-revolutionary early-’70s movement in the UK, while the song set closest to the present, “Shah of Shahs,” finds the Shah of Iran caught in a decline of power in 1979 that eerily resembles today’s scenario in the White House (“…The prisoner in the palace does not understand/The ingratitude around him/After all he’s done and planned…he’ll be damned if he will let them take away his perfect dream”).
With Juber and Stewart on guitars, accompanied by Jim Cox’s gliding, jazzy keyboards, a rhythm section and occasional horns and strings, the mood of each song is well-matched to its accompaniment. Al’s erudite lyrics, instantly recognizable Scottish/British drawl, and seductive tunes present him at the top of his art, braiding historical fact and speculative imagination into yet another memorable collection of musical short stories that whisks us up, down and sideways in time and place as he displays still more of the emotions that transcend any fixed moment – imagination, creative talent, and a historian’s calm eye for the great and small incidents that shape personal and global events.