An occasional series on rediscovered treasures

Somehow the old favourites fell short; too familiar for unfamiliar times. Crown of horn (Martin Carthy); Penguin eggs (Nic Jones); Handful of earth (Dick Gaughan); Led Zeppelin’s Four symbols. Not even Sergeant Pepper or Born to run.

But there have been marvellous rediscoveries. Here’s one: Al Stewart’s Past Present & Future. It was released in 1973, when I was 14 and impressionable (though my copy’s on CD, which tells me I didn’t properly get to know it until later). Stewart had a decent reputation as a singer / song-writer on the London coffee house circuit, but this was a huge break-out for him. It falls on the ear as fresh as a spring breeze; doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard recently.

It’s a concept album: 8 songs, one for each decade of the 20th century. It starts in the run-up to World War 1 with Old Admirals (‘who feel the wind but never put to sea’), based on the real-life Admiral Lord Fisher, an anthem to passing years and to growing old and irrelevant. It ends with Nostradamus, featuring the uncanny prophecies of the 16th century visionary: ‘Man, man, your time is sand, your ways are leaves upon the sea.’

Between, it takes in louche inter-war days in Soho, the collapse of the British Empire (‘How could you have gone and given India away?’), the start of the Cold War and Iron Curtain.

It’s ambitious: big, sprawling, literate songs; but it looks outward, at real people and events, so never feels pretentious. It’s tuneful and accessible: listen for the catchy hooks of Last day of June 1934 and Warren Harding. Production and arrangements are varied and inventive: haunting brass band on Old Admirals, phased vocals on Terminal Eyes, yearning Spanish guitar on Roads to Moscow. Each track sounds and feels completely individual. The backing musicians are stellar: Isaac Guillory, Rick Wakeman, Dave Swarbrick, BJ Cole, Alistair Anderson.

It’s also British; Stewart was born in Scotland (hear it in his voice) but grew up in Bournemouth, and it’s full of pictures of the country the way it used to be — only, this portrait of Albion doesn’t whitewash out the ugly, inconvenient parts. Still, uplifting, even when he sings:

Oh, every time I look at you
I feel so low, I don’t know what to do.
Every day just seems to bring bad news.