With the odd exception here or there, there’s not much room on the airwaves dedicated to adventurous lyrics. But that wasn’t always the case. Could you imagine great songs like “Eleanor Rigby” or “Night Moves”—or even “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” or “Run, Joey, Run,” for God’s sake—becoming hits today? Give or take the occasional hip-hop track, the story song (or at least the song evoking a world outside the bedroom or ‘da club’) is practically nowhere to be found.
Case in point: Could you imagine Al Stewart songs like “Year of the Cat,” “On the Border,” or “Time Passages” becoming hits today? Hell no, and not just because the tunes sound dated, with their Alan Parsons production. Radio programmers just ain’t interested in songs lacking cross-promotion potential, nor are they interested in songs about pirates, Nostradamus and aging. Let’s face it, lyrics like “strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime” don’t lend themselves particularly well to Pepsi advertising jingles.
More’s the pity, because one listen to Stewart’s Year of the Cat, just reissued by Rhino along with Time Passages, reminds us what we’re missing. Despite his success in the mid-’70s (both albums went platinum), the Glasgow-born Stewart has never quite gotten his due, at least in the States, partially because his songs are so literate and evocative. “Lord Grenville” makes no reference to the British politician’s efforts to abolish the slave trade, but Stewart knows a lyrical name when he hears it, and Year of the Cat’s opening track beautifully captures the bittersweet feeling of leaving one way of life behind for another.
The title track and “On the Border,” both Top 20 radio hits, are sophisticated and cinematic, exhorting listeners to step outside their own place and time. “On the Border” does it with Spanish guitar and lyrics that again mark the line between Old World and new: “In the islands where I grew up / Nothing seems the same / Just the patterns that remain an empty shell / There’s a strangeness in the air you feel too well.”
Most rock fans and critics are predisposed to dismiss songs that explore myth and mystery as unbearably pretentious, and for good reason. (Have you listened to Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans or Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus lately? Didn’t think so.) But Stewart tackles prog-rock lyrical themes with a musical approach that comes off as adventurous without being pretentious, mysterious without being melodramatic. And, once upon a time, accessible enough to become radio hits.