You Gotta Hear This Album 1: Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story
There is mystery and there is tragedy, and when the two mix, there is a sorrow you never quite shake. That combination flows through much of Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, but it more obviously soaks Stewart’s career. I grew up with Rod the sad loser, the washed-up joke howling such disco-tinged atrocities as Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?, a moment aptly parodied on Saturday Night Live with two senior citizens giving performances about as good as the horrid song merits. He was the man who managed to turn Tom Waits’ moving Downtown Train into sappy easy listening fodder, and then, just to prove he had a knack for this sort of feat, he did the same to Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately? Even now, he hasn’t improved much; his last release was the currently trendy last gasp of has-beens, the standards collection. Volume two arrives in October.
So surely, one can forgive me if I have used old Rod as the butt of many of my best high school and college jokes. After all, the geezer scored huge hits with all three of the songs I mentioned in the last paragraphs, so nobody could escape him. Additionally, this mulleted goofball ran through blonde-haired women like whiskey, so frankly, he was ripe for abuse and begging for it.
The early and mid-nineties saw the release of an unplugged effort, and with it, Rod returned to airplay with weakened versions of many songs usually claimed as classics, so any music listener younger than myself can be immediately excused for laughing at pathetic Rod and staying clear of his albums. The vast majority of the man’s output deserves that response. I have had quite a bit of fun at the bum’s expense.
One listen to Every Picture Tells a Story, however, and I chocked on those chuckles. Rod’s pivotal work is frankly one of the best damn albums ever released, and the contrast of the brilliant artist who gave birth to this incredible work of raw yet intricate beauty and the used-up relic of the last twenty years belting out tired lounge tunes is startling and unspeakably sad. I know of no sharper decline in the history of rock music.
Rod has some great work before this record, but as the title above hints, this is not a history of Rod, but an attempt to twist your arm to give Every Picture Tells a Story a listen, even if you think of him in the terms I already described. If so, you are not prepared for this album. Stewart may well be quite calculated and synthetic now, a plastic mold cast of an aging star, but this album is alive and throbbing, steeped in earthy strains of folk traditions while shot through with the wild electricity of rock and roll. This album breathes with the fire of youth while conjuring the same rich, rooted traditions The Band mined on their early work, and while that baffling combination reads like a confused contradiction, it sounds natural and organic, and that is the key to Rod’s genius.
You can hear this the moment the disc spins. Slow, languid chords lazily stretch out of the speakers, beautifully sounding of a lost America of dreams, before falling asleep for a few seconds only to be awakened by a powerful, mushy gut-bucket drum beat racing with a wild, rollicking rhythm. The song, which gives the album its title, is a jubilant celebration of a young man’s lusty journey to see the world, a modern Fielding jaunt with comic episodes of danger and desire. With its insistent beat, tickling roadhouse piano rolls, and classic rhythm and blues backing vocals, it is a joyous, addictive celebration of a former boy out to conquer to world as a wild young man, and although the band is pretty much all acoustic strings and turn of the century instruments, it rocks in a way folk never did.
What you won’t hear, at least not at first, is just how world-weary and tired this lively lad can sound at times, even while roaming with the bloom of youth. In the future, you’ll spin this song again and again, and yet, you’ll never quite figure out how Rod manages this. Sure, there is something to that voice, but that still doesn’t quite explain it, not entirely. It is a mystery, and it is only the beginning.
You’ll notice this odd element throughout the first side, as Rod fills it refashioning three songs by other writers into his very own. Seems Like a Long Time starts with that same ancient piano from the previous song playing in the back of the room, followed by a drum roll that dies unexpectedly into a hushed, quiet song. Rod begins wishing for the light of day; perhaps he is that same youth from Picture now heart-broken and craving the end of a lonely night. Those background singers return, however, lending some of the weight of years to the chorus. A stinging guitar and rousing singing follows, but by the end of the song, Rod is singing, “War time is only the other side of peace time / But if you’ve ever seen how wars are won / You know what it’s like to wish peace time would come,” and somehow, that fresh red-cheeked lad sounds like he is a thousand years old.
It takes nerve to cover the tune that brought Elvis to fame; it takes something much more rare to make you forget that fact. Rod’s That’s All Right takes the bluster of the famous shrug-off and, with hints of a oompah-band, a few twangy guitar lines, and that ragged voice of his, manages to hint at an old blues master finally worn out and accepting his woman’s straying ways as he leaves town while retaining the invigorating rush Presley gave the tune. Next, he tackles Dylan’s Tomorrow is Such a Long Time, opening it with a country-gospel guitar, no doubt brought on to the porch of the church fresh off the fields, and runs through a few lines of Amazing Grace before shifting to the newer tune. Banjos and slide guitars plant the song into the dust of the rural West as Rod and his sad backing singer yearn for lost love. The language is old, the music is traditional, but the singer’s age remains elusive throughout the longing lyrics.
The remake of Dylan’s tune ends up the first side, and if you’re lucky and listening to this album on vinyl, you’ll flip the platter at this point. Sit down after setting the needle. Even after absorbing those four terrific songs, you are not ready for what you are about to hear, for while Every Picture Tells a Story, taken as a whole, may not be the greatest rock album in history, as a side, the second half has no equal. None. Bluntly, it is probably the best side of music any album by any rock artist has to offer, and you are in for a revelation.
Listen to those outdated plucked strings, sounding at least a century out of place here. The music is classical, but the instrument is from the country. It is festive, perhaps, but also, maybe, harboring hints of regret. It only lasts about thirty seconds or so, and it is just introducing the glory to come, but it is already feeding you clues as to how to hear the next four songs. See? They are already over.
The next sound you hear is, I swear, straight from heaven. Glorious chords of strummed mandolins ring out, measured and at ease, just like those guitar notes that started the first side. Also just like those notes, the glorious chords are brought to a halt as that soggy drum bangs in again, kicking off the mysteriously moving tale of a college-aged boy and the older woman named Maggie May.
That lad, you see, has yet to return from summer vacation to the groves of Academe because of Maggie. He is madly in love. He can even see the age in her face, no, past that age, and he cannot leave the woman he sees behind it. He knows it is a crazy affair; she, with her experience, simply does not have quite the obsessive hunger he has, and the relationship is doomed. Still, he fantasizes that he could leave school and, somehow, carve out a living in order to stay with the woman. It is a simple story, but the calling and answering lines of low and high guitar, the cushioning chords of organ, the returning mandolin chimes, and the aching longing in Rod’s young, ragged voice transports the listening back to the time when love was as new as each breath and already as old as generations of laughing lovers long buried in the ground. It is a hell of a song, and it is probably still Rod’s most popular one, but be patient. It is not his best song. That one comes next.
Mandolin Wind slides over, immersing the listener intangibly as the breeze itself. It is a frontier declaration of love from a farmer for his wife who stayed with him despite nearly freezing to death once. He is simple, and he is not writing a poem. He has seen her, frail and starving, and he expresses his shame, grief, and tender love as best as he can, while the gorgeous, mournful mandolins and slide guitars cry for every tear he cannot let go. A rising drum shifts this quiet tone into an incredibly powerful conclusion. “No mandolin wind couldn’t change a thing, couldn’t change a thing…. The coldest winter in almost fourteen years / Could never, never change your mind / And I love you.”
(I Know) I’m Losing You is a fiery, raging remake of the Temptations’ classic tale of lost love (a very close cousin to I Heard It Through the Grapevine). Again, Rod, here joined a rocking Faces, tears through the tune and erases any memory of the original. It is a killer song, with a pulverizing drum solo, cutting buzz cuts of guitars, and smoking blues piano fills, and it is guaranteed to shake the house down.
The album closes with Reason to Believe, Tim Hardin’s tribute to a lying, cheating lover he still desires. Even that sorry Unplugged version cannot mar the gentle, melancholy charm of the version here.
Side 2 is a study of sadness, yet no song is simply sad. Every song mixes shades of sadness, of regret and loss, with the devouring obsession of love, and no tint entirely wins out. The entire set of songs works uncertainty, setting up tensions that refuse to wrestle to resolutions. That all these opposing, combating emotions, sounds, and desires can struggle endlessly while achieving such a unity and cohesion is the core of Every Picture’s magic.
Maggie May and Mandolin Wind sound perfect together, and yet one is the tale of youth while the other is a declaration from the wisdom of age. The two songs’ narrators mirror the sound of the record. Rod has found a way to inject the august music of the past with the juice of rock’s electric present, and the miraculous victory is here is no balance claims equilibrium. Each song manages to sound both entirely old and entirely young at the same time. It is not a mix. It is an alloy.
Stewart’s voice, here an incredible, peerless instrument, encompasses this delicious paradox. Raw and pulsating with the bursting vigor of bawdy youth, it is also ragged and worn down by the abrasive sandpaper of years. He does not sound simply young at one moment and then ancient at another. He sounds young and ancient with every note he wrings. This bizarre cohabitation, this impossible, breathing contradiction is the mystery of Every Picture Tells a Story, and the melancholy generated from the proximity of the poles of age and youth is the beautiful tragedy of the album. It is the sorrow you never quite shake, and it is the unique triumph of Rod Stewart’s masterpiece.
Rod Stewart made two great albums before Every Picture, and he would make a carbon-copy sequel that still managed to approach the greatness here, especially in the classic You Wear It Well, but afterwards, the only comparable mystery and tragedy he would ever create is that of his own decline. I still have difficulty grasping that the cynical, dried-up, pathetic loser I have grown up howling at is the man who created this glorious album. But if over the last few decades Rod has pissed away his talent, nobody, not the Stones, not Costello, not the freakin’ Beatles, not even the mighty, untouchable Bob Dylan, nobody has ever recorded a one-two punch as awe-inspiring as Maggie May followed by Mandolin Wind, and I’m not even convinced anybody has created a side as marvelously moving as the second half those two songs kick off. And if that sounds like the craziest statement you’ve ever heard me make, then please, I dare you, I BEG you to buy this album and defy me. Search the used bins and buy the older, Denis Drake mastered disc (it doesn’t say Remaster on the spine), or better yet, grab the vinyl. You can yell at me or, more likely, thank me later. Cause you gotta hear Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story.