Life at 33 1/3: Postcards of doom

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Al Stewart: Year Of The Cat (RCA)

1975, the year of the cat, the year when the Vietnam War ended.

One’s first encounter with the album is immensely enjoyable.  The music moves on silky paws through the speakers, it is hazy, melancholy and very tastefully arranged.  Each instrument works as a beautifying element around the soft, muted beat.  There is a lot of everything: Keyboards, strings, saxophones, guitars, voices. 

The music is so luscious it could be eaten – the tracks arranged as  delicious bites in a chocolate box -, and tailored to Stewart’s sympathetic voice miked up so close it caresses your eardrums.  Equally close is the acoustic guitar, fingers plucking, notes rolling as if the player was sitting right next to you in your living room.

The soft and delicious sounding rhythm section  is a perfect base for the soloists who’s contributions flicker and shine like moonbeams on still water, a fiddle, a saxophone, an acoustic guitar. Gorgous.  And at the same time – triggered by the dark undercurrents of the music – obsessive.

First time I heard the album I was hooked long before side 1 was finished, and I hadn’t even heard the majestic title track yet.

The lyrics don’t give away too much during the first couple of spins, but they touch the subconscious and create ripples of recognition in your mind.  Words and expressions sound familiar, they are enigmatic, but they apply to you.  And as you dig deeper into the lyrics their mysteries gradually start making sense.

Many of the songs are based on actual historical events.  The British naval hero Sir Richard Grenville’s dark voyage to perdition in 1591; the female pilot Amy Johnson’s journey towards her fate in 1941.  The whole album has an aura of disruption, restlessness, danger and conflict, but wrapped in a velvet blanket of starry nights.

There are songs about finding oneself in unfamiliar, hostile surroundings, an intruder, surrounded by danger.  There are also songs about heroism, sacrifice and longing.  And everything, every word, every note played is so immaculately interwoven and  bittersweet  that it tickles your soul.  You’ll want to shed tears of gratitude  when you hear the disc.

All roads lead to and culminate in the redemptive title track, one of the most beautiful and soothing recordings from the 70s.  The sweet, hypnotical instrumental intro is more than one minute long and create almost unbearable expectations as it picks up speed.  When Al Stewart finally opens his mouth he takes you right into the movie “Casablanca”:

 

On a morning from a Bogart movie

In a country where they turn back time

You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre

Contemplating a crime

 

She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running

Like a watercolor in the rain

Do not bother asking for explanations

She’ll just tell you that she came

In the year of the cat

 

Stage set and you are caught just as that song’s protagonist is.  There is no way out – neither for Bogart nor you.  Or to quote the album’s opening track, “Lord Grenville”:

“We’re on our way to nowhere now” – and if that isn’t bad enough: “We will not be back again”.

Iirrevocable sense of doom wrapped in exhilarated melancholy.  That’s “Year of the Cat” for you – both the album and the song.

Al Stewart would go on to make great albums after this, and he makes them still.  But “Year Of The Cat” is more than great, it is destilled perfection.

 

Released July 1976

Produced by Alan Parsons

Cover design: Hipgnosis

All tracks composed by Al Stewart, except where indicated.

 

Side 1

1.”Lord Grenville” – 5:00

2.”On the Border” – 3:22

3.”Midas Shadow” – 3:08

4.”Sand in Your Shoes” – 3:02

5.”If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” – 4:28

 

Side 2

1.”Flying Sorcery” – 4:20

2.”Broadway Hotel” – 3:55

3.”One Stage Before” – 4:39

4.”Year of the Cat” (Stewart, Peter Wood) – 6:40

 

Personnel

Al Stewart – vocals, guitar, keyboards

Peter White – guitar, keyboards

John Perry – background vocals

Tim Renwick – guitar

Andrew Powell – string arrangements

Bobby Bruce – violin

Marion Driscoll – percussion

Stuart Elliott – drum, percussion

George Ford – bass

Phil Kenzie – alto saxophone

Don Lobster – keyboards

David Pack – background vocals

Tony Rivers – background vocals

Graham Smith – harmonica

Peter Wood – keyboards