It’s time to complete the trilogy I started almost a year ago in which I take a look back at three of the first LPs in my collection, attempting to order their tracks in some semblance of personal preference. First it was Silk Degrees, then A New World Record. Now, it’s Al Stewart’s first experience with big success, Year of the Cat.
Stewart had been kicking around for about ten years by this point, slowly gaining a following, perhaps more in the U.S. than the UK. Year of the Cat was his seventh album, and the second (of three) to be produced by Alan Parsons. Everything came together: an impeccable array of instrumentation ranging from Spanish guitar through violin, harmonica, and piano to saxophone, as well as a dazzling landscape of topics transformed into thoughtful, well-constructed poetry. The public was buying, as it climbed to #5 on the Billboard album chart. Still surprisingly fresh-sounding, coming on almost forty-five years later. Let’s take a look, why don’t we? I’ll include one of my favorite lyrics from each song.
9. “Midas Shadow”
The one song on the album that I might not miss if it weren’t there. It’s hardly bad–I’m generally a sucker for rhymes across verses–but it doesn’t stick with me afterward. Memorable line: “Conquistador in search of gold, for all the jackdaw reasons.”
8. “Sand in Your Shoes”
Perkier-sounding than the subject matter seems to dictate. I assume the title, which comes not from the lyrics, sums up how the rejected suitor feels about his former love. Memorable line: “And you lay there by the Do Not signs, and shamed them with your spark.”
7. “On the Border”
Basically impossible to separate the next four: ask another day, and I’d sort them some other way. The only of Stewart’s charting singles not to make the Top 40–it fell two spots shy in May of 1977–and also the only not to feature scorching sax work. Memorable line: “No one notices the customs slip away.”
6. “One Stage Before”
This one is much more about the music than the words for me, particularly the synthesizer rhythm underpinning it all. Simply mesmerizing, and a nice meditation on becoming one with performers of the past to boot. Memorable line: “Although we may not meet still you know me well.”
5. “Lord Grenville”
I wonder now what I thought about this album the first time I put it on the turntable of my father’s stereo. I can see being captivated by this sweeping opening number about sailors on the run, even while not understanding its references. History Lesson #1: Sir Richard Grenville was a 16th-century explorer/sailor who bravely/foolishly met his match going against the Spanish Armada. Memorable line: “I never thought that we would come to find ourselves upon these rocks again.”
4. “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It”
Stewart does an amazing job throughout, matching sounds and making it all feel so natural. Memorable line: “Well I’m up to my neck in the crumbling wreckage of all that I wanted from life.”
3. “Broadway Hotel”
The B-side to the 45 for “Year of the Cat.” I flipped over many of the early singles I bought when playing DJ on my little turntable, and “Broadway Hotel” was among the best I discovered that way (I dearly love the violin solo and the piano/guitar on the outro). It’s possible that it’s what pushed me to take a chance on the album. Memorable line: “And a door sign keeps the world away behind the shades of your silent day.”
2. “Flying Sorcery”
It took over a decade to really appreciate this one. Year of the Cat was in the first wave of albums I re-purchased on CD, in the spring of 1988; listening one time in our apartment on Elm St. I was suddenly and permanently charmed by the narrator’s affection for his female pilot friend. History Lesson #2: Amy Johnson’s story is amazing, if you don’t know it. Memorable line: “Just call me if you ever need repairs.” Gets me every time.
1. “Year of the Cat”
Hardly a surprise. It was #20 on this show, steaming toward a #8 peak. Its trip up and down the chart was relatively quick, so it wound up only at #98 on AT40‘s year-end rankings for 1977. Memorable line: So many, but we’ll go with “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain.”