Al Stewart - Love Chronicles

Al Stewart
Love Chronicles

Released 1969 on CBS
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 15/08/2002ce

The second album by Al Stewart received early notoriety for including the word "fucking" in its title track, and reprinting the word on its inner gatefold sleeve for all to see. Shocking. The controversy thus gained was probably useful in garnering sales of the record, but, truth to tell, it overshadowed the real reason why 'Love Chronicles' was as vital to the student population of 1969 as Heinz beans, matches and marijuana. It was, and is, for the most part, a very fine record.

The fact is, Al was on a winner from the start here. First off, he had the sublime services of Fairport Convention (in contractual disguise) and one Jimmy Page as his backing band, and secondly, he had hit on the bright idea of fashioning virtually a whole album around a subject with which his audience could all relate: his very English experiences on the path of sexual and romantic fulfilment. And "English" is the operative word here. There are no cool Americanisms on 'Love Chronicles'. The whole thing is sung in a twee, effeminate home counties' twang (eerily reminiscent of Neil Tennant nearly a quarter century later) that makes Stewart's direct autobiographical confessions seem far more credible than those effuse songs by enigmatic singer-songwriters from across the great divide. When Al sang about his first time, you'd been there too.

Three out of six songs, over half of this album, are devoted to its creator's love life. 'Love Chronicles' itself is perhaps the most self-obsessed song ever to grace plastic: how many other artists can you think of who have taken eighteen minutes of prime vinyl to describe all of their girlfriends from starting school to the present? Truth be told it IS overlong and over-indulgent, and is clearly several songs welded into one. But it has to be heard, not only for its sheer gall, but for its fantastic searing lead work by a burgeoning superstar axeman in one of his last jobbing sessions. Pagey rocks, and how, on 'Love Chronicles'. Also worth noting is the lovely, elegiac section eleven minutes in ("I was hungry when I found you, but I'm all right now") which, taken in isolation, is the best melody - among many - on the whole album. And, if I must mention it, I will: you'll never hear THAT expletive used in such a tasteful context as here. Now you're curious, aren't you?

The other confessionals are 'In Brooklyn' (Al's first American tup, natch) and the delightfully catchy 'You Should Have Listened To Al': hopelessly egocentric stuff, but with great tunes and lyrics ripe with wit. Yeah, great Al. Now do you think we could hear you sing about something, or at least someONE, else?

Actually, it's the three remaining songs on 'Love Chronicles' that are the main reasons for buying the record. Have your fun with the naughty word and compare Al's sex life with your own fumbled experiences. Then sit back and wonder at the three most remarkable observational vignettes ever to vacate an active Bournemouth mind.

'Old Compton Street Blues' is the sad story of a pretty girl with film star aspirations who, having failed her horizontal casting couch audition, ends up on the game. Stewart intones her tale with an emotional detachment which makes her plight seem all the more harrowing. Sung from the perspective of its subject looking back at the faded photographs of her youth, the sense of tragedy is almost palpable: "That faintly coy expression has now left without a trace/There's little of it buried in the ruins of your face". Each verse ends in the song's resounding minor key ("It could've been so different and sometimes you feel bad") followed by the briefest, hopeful shimmer of what might have been ("but you really did have something that the others never had") on a short-lived major chord. Great songwriting, enhanced by more heavenly lead guitar from you-know-who.

'The Ballad Of Mary Foster' is the album's highlight. An eight minute, two part epic, it begins with Stewart's chirpy description of the very middle-class Foster family from Gloucester (not one to shirk on his rhymes, our Al) where "life drifts slowly by in the provinces". The mood is upbeat, knowing and sarcastic. Then, three minutes in, the song turns to focus on the lady of the house. And here Stewart takes us into the psyche of a woman who, for all her material comfort, is every bit as tragic and resigned as the poor whore of the previous track. Over a tune that is a direct rip of 'House Of The Rising Sun' but totally appropriate for its subject, Stewart tells us of Mary's wartime childhood, her father lost in war, her elopement, pregnancy, desertion and homelessness, and her subsequent meeting with the man who rescued her:

"Oh I lived in the park and the men passed in stead
Each wondering which one had lost her
And one came to ask could he buy me a meal
And he said he was called David Foster".

But this is to be no happy ending to a sad youth. Mary's life is confined and claustrophobic, tied to a man who, for all his virtues, she has to kid herself she loves. "The time on my hands, it hangs heavy" she sighs, before stating some of the saddest words I think I've ever heard in any song ever. You've got to see this:

"Oh I live by my mirror and I stare in my eyes
Just trying to make out who I see there
But I'm looking at a woman that I can't recognise
And I don't think that she knows me either

There are lines on her face and her hair is a mess
And the light in her eyes it grows colder
In the morning there is nothing that will change, ah but yes...
...I will be... just a little bit...older..."

Wow. Pass me a hankie will you?

'Life And Life Only' is the last of this great triumvirate of songs. This time the main subject is "Mr Willoughby", whose "only luxury" is "the sugar in his tea" and who "teaches history" (I told you about those rhymes didn't I?) "at High Worthington School". On the face of it a pillar of his respectable community, Maurice Willoughby is hiding a dark secret: an extra-marital affair, to the full knowledge of Renee, his sad and unfortunate spouse. The tune here is even more morose than those of Mary and the call girl before him, and absolutely perfect, helped once again by a top-form Jimmy Page. At the end of the song, having spent nearly a whole side without mentioning himself, Stewart falls to temptation. Having told us of the plight of Maurice and Renee, not to mention "Smithy Smithers Bell, clerk from Clerkenwell" in great detail, he states "And I was feeling small, sitting on the wall, looking at them all and wondering..who will I be". Well, I suppose it's his prerogative to put himself in his own songs if he wants to. And after three songs like that I'd forgive him anything.

Admittedly, 'Love Chronicles' sounds pretty dated now, especially the title track, but maybe that's part of its appeal. Al Stewart himself disowned the record in the mid-70's, obviously believing that the MOR vibes of 'Time Passages', 'Nostradamus' and their ilk would better ensure his place in the history of the world. Yeah, right. Look Al, I'm sorry, you're a good bloke, but you've never came close to making a record as good as 'Love Chronicles' in thirty-odd years of trying. Do us all a favour and resurrect these songs for your live shows will you? I'd far, far sooner hear 'The Ballad Of Mary Foster' than 'Year Of The Cat' or some twee ditty about wine...

(Currently available as part of EMI's 'To Whom It May Concern' 2CD set, also including Al's 'Bedsitter Images' and 'Zero She Flies' albums. Or pick up a CBS vinyl original for £20 max. The album was also briefly available in the early 80's on RCA.)

(Update @ Nov 2005: A new, mega-box set retrospective of Al's career includes only two songs from this album, and not one of the three tracks singled out by myself above were considered worthy of inclusion. Make your own mind up, discerning dudes!)

Reviews Index