Atlantic Crossing felt like the beginning of Stewart’s long decline from exciting rock and roll singer to raspy poor man’s Tony Bennett. But A Night on the Town finds him in a bit of a holding pattern. The problems of Atlantic Crossing are still here, as are some of the redeeming qualities of that album’s better material. Once again, the MGs are here, albeit briefly (and without Booker). And there are also some members of the Mellow Mafia. Only in the ’70s…
As with most Stewart records from this era, it’s a mix of originals and covers. Stewart’s originals are pretty good if only they were arranged better. I don’t love “Tonight’s the Night” but I recognize it’s a pretty good song – I’m sure I’d like it more if it didn’t have a string section. His other originals aren’t quite up to that standard but, as usual, the problem is not with Stewart’s songwriting. (Though some of his lyrics have dated rather horribly, which is no surprise.) People make a big deal about “The Killing of Georgie,” and maybe it’s a big deal given its lyrical content, but it’s hard for me to separate the song from the arrangement (which I don’t like.)
The problem isn’t with the covers either. Stewart’s version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” may be the definitive one – at least among those I’ve heard. (Also, I had no idea Cat Stevens wrote it.) The selection of covers is rather diverse and, with better aesthetic choices, might be great.
The problem, as with Atlantic Crossing, are the arrangements. Stewart wants to have it both ways: aiming for some grit by working with the MGs, by having some instrumental performances (such as some of the guitar fills), feel gritty and, of course by singing the way he does; but then he puts strings on so many songs and adds too many other instruments. Like, why is there a harp on the intro to “The First Cut Is the Deepest”? What’s the point? “Trade Winds” is probably the nadir for me, in terms of the arrangements. (Though “Fool for You” is pretty ’70s cliche too.) And it’s sad because I’d actually like to hear what Stewart sounds like singing that song (“Trade Winds”) with the instrumentation of his early ’70s records. (The exception of that insane backing vocal by that woman, who I cannot identify as she doesn’t appear to be credited.)
Much like Atlantic Crossing, this feels like the beginning of the very long end – alarming polish continues to creep into his sound and it’s really easy to imagine this particular version of Rod Stewart singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and it’s not that far to The Great American Songbook. Still, he’s not quite there yet, and there are some redeeming moments.