Review: A Year to Remember Courtesy of One Cool Cat, Al Stewart

Al Stewart/Year of the Cat: 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition/ Esoteric
4 1/2 out of Five Stars

Although lacking in commercial success, Al Stewart set himself a high bar early on. His albums Past, Present and Future and Modern Times established him as an artist to be reckoned with, and while his music hewed to a folk format and a decidedly British bent at that, he managed to attract a devoted cult following drawn to his irrepressible melodies and remarkable aural imagery. As concept albums gleaned from a historical perspective, they were articulate and wholly intriguing, rich with detail and exacting arrangements that made them epoch-like in both expanse and sprawl. 

Nevertheless, it was his somewhat unlikely hit “Year of the Cat” and the album of the same name that made him a star, albeit momentarily. The song still endures via endless replays on classic rock radio, and while some tired of the constant replays, its namesake album still stands as yet another classic in a string of efforts that continued with its successor Modern Times. Nevertheless, Year… ranks as Stewart’s most commercially successful album having sold one million copies. The single of course had a lot to do with that, but Alan Parson’s precise production and accompanying songs such as the riveting “On the Border,” the reflective “Broadway Hotel” and the emphatic rocker “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” bolstered the effort while holding to Stewart’s staunch narrative approach.

The 45th Anniversary Edition provides an expanded and digitally remastered version of this classic, courtesy of its inclusion of a previously unreleased concert recorded at the Paramount Theater, Seattle in October 1976 spread over two CDs and a DVD surround & stereo mix edition, an illustrated book that includes an interview with Stewart, a facsimile promotional poster and a set of four postcards. The live material will likely be especially valued by Stewart collectors, given that the set list not only includes highlights from the album he was touting at the time, but also the more memorable tracks from its immediate predecessors, among them, “Soho (Needless To Say),” “Roads to Moscow,” “Sirens of Titan,” and the unabashed epic “Nostradamus.” Together, taken in the context of Year of the Cat, the live material offers an excellent overview of the broader expanse of Stewart’s recent career. Tied together both conceptually and in execution, the songs take on a fresh and vivid perspective that ensures both the drama and dynamic are delivered with a vivid, emphatic imprint. 

Granted, some may consider “Year of the Cat” to be in the same category as “Stairway to Heaven” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” songs that are so ingrained and entrenched, any further encounter is unnecessary in this lifetime or any other. Still, given a revisit to that crucial point in Al Stewart’s career, it’s clear that “Cat” well deserves not only its nine lives, but further reincarnations as well. 

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