Al Stewart,
Love Chronicles
(1969; Collectors Choice, 2007)

When Al Stewart's sophomore album, Love Chronicles, was named Folk Album of the Year by the British magazine Melody Maker, few would have guessed Stewart would shortly become one of the world's most popular recording artists. 1969 was still seven years shy of "The Year of the Cat" and Stewart hadn't yet teamed up with studio wizard Alan Parsons. Instead, he was working with producer Roy Guest as well as with guitarist Jimmy Page, who was just setting out on his journey with Led Zeppelin, and with members of Fairport Convention who appear on Love Chronicles under pseudonyms due to contractual obligations.

Stewart's less than radio-friendly preoccupation with cataloguing sexual conquests in his lyrics is another component of his music that would need to change before he could rocket to the top of the charts. On Love Chronicles, the lyrics are simply too sexually voyeuristic to crack the top 40. After all, the title track was the first mainstream recording to use the word "f**king" -- a mere 16-and-a-half minutes into this epic. The offending word held up the U.S. release of the album and kept the track off BBC radio. Of course, with lyrics like "She came over to me and kissed me in play / taking my hand between her legs as she lay ... and it was no sense at all and too much sense / that took me to the bridge of impotence," it's hardly surprising that the song raised a few eyebrows.

Guest's production on Love Chronicles, despite remastering, is terribly uneven. "Old Compton Street Blues," one of the more successful songs in terms of mixing sex and intelligence in the lyric, is marred by terrible bounce back on the guitar track. The song sounds as though it were recorded in a concrete bunker. The bass guitar in "The Ballad of Mary Foster" is buried so far below the acoustic guitar as to be nonexistent, while the bongos are left almost exclusively on the right side of the mix. These sorts of faults, which one must assume originate with an unimaginative, inexperienced producer, are unfortunate as much of the playing on the disc is quite inspired. Richard Thompson (credited as Mervyn Prestwick), Simon Nicol (as Simon Breckenridge) and Jimmy Page combine with Stewart to provide an exceptional guitar landscape upon which these songs play out.

The album's opening track, "In Brooklyn," with its Byrds-like arrangement, holds up quite well after nearly three decades. But for the most part the songs on Love Chronicles haven't aged terribly well. The risque lyrics have a cheap and slightly dirty feel, less '60s "free love" honesty than a surreptitious peek into a private diary.

This reissue of Love Chronicles has been bolstered by the inclusion of three outtake tracks from later in Stewart's career. "Jackdaw" is a demo from the late '70s with flute and backing vocals clearly designed for AOR airplay. "She Follows Her Own Rules" and "Fantasy" were recorded a decade later still, at the tail end of Stewart's association with Enigma Records, but the songs were never released. Here the production is much cleaner than on the album's original half-dozen tracks but the songs are uninspired, the musicianship L.A. studio bland.

While Al Stewart aficionados may appreciate having access to these lost tracks I'd have to say they were best forgotten. In particular, "She Follows Her Own Rules," complete with squeaky-toy sound effects and some of the worst programmed drums and handclaps I've ever encountered, is a dreadful song, a companion piece to Gilbert O'Sullivan's awful babysitting ditty, "Claire."

Love Chronicles is an album very much of its time. And while it has some notable elements, particularly the guitar work of some top notch players, it's a bit embarrassing to listen in as Steward strips naked and examines himself in the musical mirror. Thankfully, the besotted young man featured on this early disc matured into a better, cleverer songsmith during the early '70s before being overwhelmed by the L.A. sound that dominated and then doomed his later releases. And thankfully, these more worthy discs have also been re-mastered and re-released by Collectors' Choice.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

23 February 2008

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