Year Of The Cat

Al Stewart

Janus / Arista Records, 1976

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes in the music world a producer is just a producer, coordinating and managing players and studio staff during the recording of an album to ensure everything goes smoothly. And sometimes they are visionary architects of sound without whom a particular album might have met an entirely different fate.

In 1975 Scotland-born, England-raised Al Stewart was a singer-songwriter whose folky soft-rock stylings (think “British Cat Stevens” in terms of feel, if not substance) had won him success substantial enough to keep him on contract with CBS Records for eight years, but modest enough that the label allowed his contract to expire. A year later he was riding a wave of success that would carry him through the rest of his long and still active career. The difference-maker was this singular album, on which Stewart perfected his art while working in tandem with budding producer Alan Parsons, three years gone from engineering Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and in the midst of launching his own musical career as leader of the nascent Alan Parsons Project (APP).

Recording at the same Abbey Road Studios where Dark Side and numerous other Parsons productions would take shape, and deploying multiple members of the still-developing APP entourage of players, Stewart and Parsons crafted an album that elevated Stewart’s clever, literate, not the least bit flashy songs to works of soft-rock art.

Over the course of his previous albums, Stewart’s style had evolved from introspective singer-songwriter folk toward intricate story-songs with narratives often based on or referencing real historical figures and events (an approach often mirrored by Big Big Train in recent years). For his sixth outing, 1975’s Modern Times, Stewart had joined forces with Parsons and achieved his first charting single—“Carol,” which reached #30 in the US. That wasn’t enough, however, to convince CBS Records to extend his expiring contract in the UK, though he was still signed to Janus Records in the US (later folded into Arista), and would soon be added by RCA for the rest of the world. It was a decision CBS would quickly regret.

Year Of The Cat saw the core crew from Modern Times build on that trial run to reach its full potential. Stewart’s longtime collaborators Tim Renwick (guitars), George Ford (bass) and Peter Wood (keys) are joined here by his musical foil of the next 20 years Peter White (guitars), future APP stalwart Stuart Elliott (drums), and frequent APP collaborators Andrew Powell (string arrangements) and David Pack (backing vocals). Together they crafted an album that has stood the test of time and remains Stewart’s career apex.

Opener “Lord Grenville” sets the scene in suitably understated fashion, a historical narrative whose rather sleepy cadence achieves pleasing fullness thanks to Powell’s orchestration, a densely textured arrangement, and Parsons’ crystal-clear sonics. As usual, even Stewart’s more obscure tales are elevated by a single penetrating line: “Our time is just a point along a line / That runs forever with no end.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The pace picks up with “On The Border,” driven by Wood’s restless, rippling piano and synth and the trademark spaciousness and clarity of Parsons’ production. The painterly, impressionistic lyric is brought to life by White’s Flamenco-inflected Spanish guitar (which he learned specifically for the song). The Spanish feel infiltrates “Midas Shadow” as well, as Stewart sings of a “Conquistador in search of gold” while White solos above Wood’s moody keys. The atmosphere turns sunny for the yacht rock number “Sand In Your Shoes,” a light palate cleanser leading into the rockingest tune here, rolling-and-tumbling side one closer “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It.” Anyone who thinks writing a song lyric is easy work should study this one; every word of every line fits like a puzzle piece, each syllable and instance of alliteration and assonance calibrated and rendered with die-cut precision.

Side two opens with acoustic and piano dueting through the lilting “Flying Sorcery,” a gorgeously rendered celebration of flight that manages to rhyme its searching refrain “Are you there?” in half a dozen clever and evocative ways in just 4:20. “Broadway Hotel” is another impressionistic historical narrative that feels more like a painting than a song, with guest Bobby Bruce’s slicing violin solo adding flair to the core band’s suitably dramatic renderings. “One Stage Before” ups the tempo without altering the mood, an echoey, haunting acoustic number embellished with exotic synth and percussion textures as Stewart sings of “half-familiar faces in the second row / Ghost-like with the footlights in their eyes.” In the late going, Renwick plants an exclamation point on the song with a gorgeous, soaring, rather Gilmour-esque solo.

While everything up to this point has been artfully rendered, don’t be surprised if the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention the instant Wood begins the opening piano stanzas of “Year Of The Cat,” which he co-composed with Stewart. (To this day Stewart likes to tell the tale of how he heard Wood noodling on those chords at sound check over and over and told him he wanted to write lyrics to go with them. Wood told him “No, it’s an instrumental,” to which the cheeky—and correct—Stewart replied “Not for long.”) The resulting song has a kind of timeless elegance that’s often aspired to, but miraculous to actually achieve.

It's more than just the stunning music, though—which by the end features the whole band plus a shearing sax solo from guest Phil Kenzie—it’s Stewart’s bewitching lyric, which probably belongs in a museum. Before you’re four lines in Stewart has referenced “a morning from a Bogart movie” and a character who strolls “through the crowd like Peter Lorre / Contemplating a crime,” and his descriptions only get more cinematic from there. If “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running / Like a watercolor in the rain” doesn’t do it for you, how about “Well, she looks at you so coolly / And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea”? If neither of those puts you right in that moment, I can’t help you. In the end, the song does what all truly great ones do—serves as a time capsule of such potency that hearing a single snippet transports you back to the moment when you first heard it.

“I think of songs as cinema, really,” Stewart has said. “It's aural cinema. I want to show you a movie when I'm playing a song.” This particular film has never stopped playing at my house, where 46 years and numerous moves and garage sales later, I still own my original vinyl copy of Year Of The Cat. There is a timeless quality to this set of songs, meticulously crafted and sung by Stewart, and lovingly brought to life by Parsons and their studio team, that still resonates today and likely always will.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2022 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Janus / Arista Records, and is used for informational purposes only.