CD Review of Sparks of Ancient Light by Al Stewart
Recommended if you like
Gordon Lightfoot, Fairport Convention, Donovan
Label
Appleseed
Al Stewart:
Sparks of Ancient Light

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

A
l Stewart began his career like so many of his folk-singing contemporaries in the mid-to-late ‘60s: playing the various folk clubs that littered London and the English countryside, armed with an acoustic guitar and a passion for traditional tunes. While his initial albums attracted favorable notices, as well as the services of some stellar session players, it wasn’t until he turned his attention to lavish historical narratives in the early ‘70s – expressed best in albums like Past, Present & Future, Time Passages, and Modern Times – that he found his niche, and with it, a devoted following. Rich in detail and tied to specific time spans and circumstances, they showed Stewart to be an able storyteller and a songwriter with a flair for relaying insights and intrigue.

Stewart hit his commercial crest with the hit single “Year of the Cat” in 1976, but even though subsequent recordings stuck to the same style, they became increasingly less compelling. Eventually, Stewart’s profile slipped from the public radar, causing some to regard him as a one-hit wonder long since past his prime. Recent efforts have found him moving in different directions – including an album dedicated to his love of fine wine – but he’s had little luck in terms of regaining his public profile.

As a result, Sparks of Ancient Light offers the promise that Stewart may be managing a return to form by revisiting the literary themes that once served his music so well. As a result, it could be considered one of his better albums in recent memory, bolstered by compelling storylines, unlikely heroes and Stewart’s always-affable vocals. But while Stewart’s clearly on the right track, he doesn’t quite reach the heights of his earlier epochs. Granted, he’s competing against the high standard he set himself, but even disregarding the impression that these some of these songs seem slighter, there’s no overall concept to bind them. Each number offers its own independent storyline – profiles of great leaders (“Lord Salisbury” “The Shah of Shahs” and “Like William McKinley,” the nostalgia for an earlier era (“[A Child’s View Of] The Eisenhower Years”), romantic imbroglio (“The Ear of the Night” and “The Loneliest Place on the Map,”) and even some freaked out fantasy (“Elvis at the Wheel”). Yet, despite the admirable intentions and the vast expanse of storytelling, the themes are diffuse at best, the result of an over-arched attempt to create grand designs that never quite congeal.

Then again, maybe that’s over-analyzing. Ambition reaps its own rewards, and throughout Al Stewart’s past, present – and presumably, future – he offers songs that strive for artistry and intelligence. If Sparks of Ancient Light doesn’t find his creative flame burning quite as bright, at least there’s evidence it’s still kindled.

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