In the age of the playlist, a stirring defense of the album’s artistic merit by way of Al Stewart
From my vantage point, posted up against a wall toward the back of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, which I’d side-stepped into for a respite from a typically blustery city day in May, I peered past a sea of tables filled with couples happily nodding along to one of the great musicians of our time.
This sort of setting fills you with an indefinable longing, just a stone’s throw from loss. That in no way implies it is solely sorrowful. As is always the case, joy is there to be had. Like the One Ring, but decidedly less sinister :), it wants to be found, and as I watched the proceedings, I entertained the pleasant thought that, with the band arrayed on the stage, just so, and a certain filter applied to a picture I might take, this could be the spitting image of the cover of The National’s indelible album, Boxer.
After the concert, I mused over this imagery on the way home. Boxer was one of the first albums that made me aware of a unique power of music: that it possesses that rare affect in life, whereupon if it hits you at the right time, it rings one of the most serendipitous notes. One that can sustain you. It might go on to become one of your all-time favorites, taking on a different meaning as you progress through different stages in life, or it might fade from view, meant only to affect you at that particular moment.
In either case, your particular planet aligned with it, and in that moment, a power was produced. In this moment, it might eclipse anything else in life in terms of importance. A lot like first love. And this is is part of the beauty.
One of the great tragedies of growing older, I think, is perspective. You remember the potency of what was good, and you despair that it no longer seems to reach you in the same manner. Will music still mean as much as it did when you were young? Can it, should it?
Obligations and commitments dilute the ability to lose yourself completely to something. When you attend a concert, or listen to music, your mind is always side-glancing toward something you forgot, or will have, to do. A commitment you must honor, one that has grown ten-fold in terms of responsibility.
Which brings me back to Boxer. I can still remember laying on my bed in my freshman dorm in college on a Friday night in mid-October, listening to it the first time through. I had nowhere to go. No party to attend, so I retreated into that eternal respite: my mind. Boxer helped me cope with college, and I will always be indebted to it for that. If memory can be triggered by sense, I can think of few natural phenomenons greater than the opening notes of Fake Empire.
A year on down the line, I was introduced to Al Stewart. Here, I have to give technology its due, because I stumbled upon him by way of an iTunes recommendation. Damned clever computers! I found, quite quickly, that it’s quite difficult to listen to Year of the Cat, the album or the song, without falling completely under its spell.
Stewart would reference the song, along with numerous other numbers from the album, during his concert in San Francisco, part of a prolific string in which he tours with the Empty Pockets. It was a celebration of the Year of the Cat album, released in 1975, which proved to be Stewart’s commercial breakthrough in the United States, catapulting him into a worldwide renown that had previously escaped him. As Stewart joked between numbers, he’d only ever had a hit single in South Africa.
This was a theme of the concert, during which the septuagenarian made several jokes about art in the age of the playlist.
That this concert was in itself—more so than others—a direct rebuke to that breaking up of the flow of a work of art. There were subtle jabs at songs created for the expressed intent of currying popular favor (erm, dance music). Facile rhyming love songs and the like. He spoke of his entry into the music business; how his label hadn’t known who he was until he made a hit. Stewart had, he joked, been able to continue using the recording studios before Year of the Cat because the studio didn’t know who he was!
But what I will remember most from this night, more than the music, or the mood, which were both sublime, was this latest appeal to an audience to fight back against market forces. It was no coincidence that earlier the same day, hundreds of people had up just a few blocks away in front of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, where Nine Inch Nails concert tickets were going on sale.
You could only buy a physical ticket. That meant waiting in line for hours, whereupon you might, as NIN jokingly put it in their press release ahead of the ticket sale, talk to people, interact with actual human beings. It was an experiment, and from all accounts, it worked well.
The same impression stuck with me about Stewart’s concert. That he served not just as the maestro, but as what a reviewer of any work of art should be: a guide offering the right amount of knowledge, to increase understanding. Not giving away key plot points! When it came time for the song Year of the Cat, the audience was ready, and Stewart sensed it.
He left us with just a brief story about the song’s origin. Before a show, Stewart had stumbled upon a keyboardist playing a melody. Stewart found it captivating; then, he added a note, and the song entered into that rare air of legend, with one of the most stirring openings in music.
One that takes on added resonance when you listen to it in concert with the album.