Rock stars rarely improve with age. Some do, of course, but most end up offering increasingly threadbare variations on what they did in their youth. Whether it's Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis or Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, the story remains the same; read between the lines of even the most favorable reviews, and what you'll find isn't "this is the best they've ever been" but just "not bad for old guys."
By rights, Rod Stewart ought to be at the head of that class. His slide began almost two decades ago, and he moved from the pre-fab disco of "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" to the hackneyed hard rock of "Young Turks" as if he thought self-parody were a good career move. By the early '80s, Rod Stewart seemed a textbook case of great talent gone to seed.
But not now. After the renewed vitality of Stewart's last studio album, 1991's "Vagabond Heart," and the passionate intensity of the live 1993 album, "Unplugged," his recording career has definitely been on an upward trajectory. With "A Spanner in the Works" (Warner Bros. 45867, arriving in stores today), it reaches heights as great as any other in his career.
It's one thing to hear him toss off a solid, soulful remake of Sam Cooke's "Soothe Me"; he's been doing that sort of thing for so long that his prowess is almost taken for granted.
"Muddy, Sam and Otis" is another matter, though. This song is one of Stewart's own and finds him recounting his first encounters with the music of Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. He describes how the music affected him with such honesty and unabashed devotion that it's hard not to be moved. It isn't just that he became a lifelong soul fan as a result; what makes the song so stunning is the way he conveys his own passion and excitement, so that we can share his enthusiasm.
There aren't that many originals on "Spanner" -- just four out of the album's 12 songs -- but that hardly dilutes its emotional impact. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Stewart's voice seems more expressive now than it did a quarter-century ago, and the song selection finds him taking full advantage of that strength. "Leave Virginia Alone," the album's first single, is a perfect example -- a tart, deftly observed Tom Petty tune to which Stewart brings an unexpected sweetness and warmth. Rather than keep his distance, the way Petty would, Stewart's narrator can't help but get involved, and it's the sympathy he brings to Virginia's tale that makes it so moving.
Then there's his reading of Tom Waits' "Hang On St. Christopher," which careens out of the speakers like a skidding car. Or the hushed, heart-in-mouth treatment he brings to the Blue Nile's "Downtown Lights." Or the utter aplomb with which he navigates Bob Dylan's "Sweetheart Like You." Any of these would be enough to make an album worth owning; collectively, they can only be seen as signs of greatness.
At his age (50), who would have thought it?
RINGING UP ROD
To hear excerpts from Rod Stewart's "A Spanner in the Works," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6248 after you hear the greeting.