You think you know Rod Stewart, but you have no idea. There was a time when he didn’t sing torch songs to middle aged housewives. There was also a time when he didn’t strut around in pink spandex asking if he was sexy. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Rod Stewart was….dare I say…cool. For a generation that has only heard his milquetoast ballads or his innocuous pop songs, this may be hard to believe.
Rod Stewart has been making mediocre records for so long that it is easy to forget how good he really is. Released in 1971, Every Picture Tells a Story is what Rod Stewart is capable of when he is motivated. The album is the perfect blend of impeccable song selection, musicianship, and interpretation. Musically, Every Picture Tells a Story is hard to define. The acoustic instrumentation is from the folk tradition, but Stewart and his band are purely rock n’ roll. After a few listens, Stewart’s approach becomes obvious: Rock n’ roll and folk music are the same.
This delicate balance is kept in check by Stewart’s backing band, led by Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood. Most singer/songwriter albums from this period use quiet, reflective arrangements. Wood tosses this unwritten rule aside, playing his acoustic guitar as if it was electric. Drummer Mick Waller also ignores the conventions of the genre, pounding the drums with reckless passion.
The band is the perfect compliment to Stewart’s emotive singing. His whiskey soaked vocal cords are an acquired taste, but they have a surprising amount of range. He goes from being a nervous teenager on the title track (“I combed my hair in a thousand ways/but I came out looking just the same”), to heartbroken in “Seems Like a Long Time,” (“Hard times are only the other side of good times”) and is able to make both convincing.
When most people think of this album, they immediately think of “Maggie May,” which has been played into oblivion thanks to classic rock radio. Overexposure aside, the song still packs a punch thanks to the Stewart’s “lovable rogue” persona. He would exploit this aspect of his personality for the next three decades and gradually use it as a crutch. The Rod Stewart sleeping with Maggie Mae is not the slimy cad of later songs like “Tonight’s the Night.” Rod sounds completely innocent as he comments that the morning sun really shows her age. Unfortunately, “Maggie Mae” was such an iconic song, Stewart unwittingly typecast himself.
“Maggie May” gets all the press, but the unsung highlight of the album is Stewart’s show stopping cover of The Temptations’ “I’m Losing You.” Backed up by his mates in The Faces, Stewart manages to out-tempt The Temptations. Stewart sounds as if his heart is being ripped out of his chest, as the band chugs along. The album’s best moment comes at the end of the song. Just as the band begins to fade out, they come roaring back for one final tear-stained chorus.
Every Picture Tells a Story is proof that you can’t judge an artist for their latter day sins. This record is timeless, and yet people tend to remember his most dated work (“Infatuation” anyone?). Listening to this album, you realize why Rod Stewart is so revered. Does Rod Stewart have a good record left in him? Let’s hope so, because he is too talented to be a lounge singer.