By: Jacobo Celnik
Photos: Universal Music
In October 2005, English singer Rod Stewart shocked the rock world by revealing to journalist Larry King of CNN that he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in mid-2000 and nearly lost his voice. Stewart spent a year fighting a quiet battle, which also meant learning to sing all over again; his vocal cords had been severely damaged. The king of mid-70s and early-80s rock and roll was forced to reinvent himself; there was no other option: win or die. And like all good champions, he won his most important battle of all.
Stewart played his last show in Houston, Texas on February 29, 2000. His cancer symptoms were apparent and his exhaustion was at its peak; something was wrong with his body. After cancelling the tour supporting When We Were the New Boys (1998) —another of his many cover albums— the British musician knew that once he had overcome the crisis, he’d have to come back with new material. Human, released in February 2001, was an excuse to get back on the road during the summer of that year. In his interview with King, the reason for keeping his illness under wraps became clear: it was serious, but he didn’t want to alarm us.
And so, with Stewart returning to claim the throne that had always been his, there is reason for joy. Time, released in May 2013, has proven to be one of the singer’s biggest comebacks and includes original material, which hasn’t happened since Vagabond Heart (1991). From 2002 to 2012, the London-based musician kept his hand in the business by interpreting songs from the 1950s and 60s in his hit saga,The Great American Songbook, but those who follow and admire Rod missed his characteristic crooner-style vocals, like those used by troubadours, who captivate with their voices.
“I stopped writing songs twenty years ago after a top record executive told me categorically that I was finished, had no good ideas, and that my songs had little to offer. So I threw in the towel and began looking for compositions by other people, drawing inspiration from the work of colleagues and reinterpreting their songs. Luckily, the inspiration I needed to write Time came at the right moment. Some heavy things were going on in my life and I think writing is one way to heal yourself. I don’t know how or why it works, I only know I’ll always want to compose and right now I have a lot to give and prove,” commented Stewart when speaking about his highly anticipated return.
The British singer’s formula for success is still working and his new ideas seem to be the perfect way to deal with ordinary adult preoccupations; Stewart’s ex-wife, Rachel Hunter, left him and it was time to give up partying with his friends if he wanted any future relationship to work out. “The first song we wrote for Time two years ago was ‘Brighton Beach,’ with my friend Jim Cregan, who showed up at my house one Sunday morning, played a couple of chords on his guitar and inspired me and gave me the motivation I needed to write the lyrics. It was the start of a process that matured quickly,” recalls Stewart.
Time, along with David Bowie’s album The Next Day, and Black Sabbath’s 13, topped the UK charts in sales, towering over the work of bands like The National, Boards of Canada, and Daft Punk, sending a clear message to the new generations, who have been under fire from many music critics lately for releasing products that take no risks at all. In Rod Stewart’s case, the new album hangs onto the secrets that made him famous thirty years ago while skillfully adapting to the times. “I wrote eleven songs, which was a miracle since my previous albums never included more than four or five of my own songs. It truly is a big step. Some people say I have nothing to prove to the music world, that I’ve got it made, but that’s not true. I still have a lot to lose and I like keeping active and looking good.”
The new album opens with “She Makes Me Happy,” an energetic song with a sound reminiscent of the great moments in Stewart’s career in the late 70s when radio stations never stopped playing “Tonight’s the Night,” “Hot Legs,” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” Then there is “Can’t Stop Me Now,” another of his many immortal melodies; the song is a tribute to Rod’s father Robert Stewart, who died in 1990, and includes several references to the time when he was a young musician making the rounds of record companies looking for a recording contract.
“My dad always supported me when I was having a hard time at the beginning of my career. In the late 70s, I remember being embarrassed by the songs I was writing; I had no confidence in what I was doing. In Jeff Beck’s band I was always fighting with Ron Wood to see who could come up with the best tune. I was so desperate that I’d order a bottle of wine and lock myself in a hotel room to see what I could come up with. And my dad was always there for me in the hardest times; that’s why this song is for him and about him.”
Time is remarkable for the way it maintains a consistent sound through the production and kinds of instruments it uses, like the mandolin, the brass section, orchestral arrangements, and acoustic guitars, but also tips its hat to the raw rock and roll that inspired Stewart while he was with the band Faces (1969-1975). This record is sure to live on forever right next to Atlantic Crossing (1975), A Night On The Town (1976), Tonight I’m Yours (1981), and Out Of Order (1988), which all sound even better than when they first came out. “I was very motivated to make this record and I think the album carries our trademark sound and the spirit of the fine music I’m always excited about making. There are songs like ‘Finest Woman’ that remind me of ‘Gasoline Alley’ (1970), but I definitely see it as a step forward in my career.”