By 1980, Al Stewart had experienced his greatest sales to date with the albums Year Of The Cat and Time Passages, having moved from his folkier beginnings into a somewhat more mainstream rock direction – albeit always with something of an off-kilter edge, as his old folk wordplay and songwriting construction would regularly twist otherwise conventional sounding songs into something far more interesting, and worthy of repeated plays. Take the famous title song from Year Of The Cat, for example, or perhaps On The Border or Lord Grenville from that same album. Easy on the ear for sure, but something just a little bit mysterious winking at you from the periphery, giving the songs that much more substance and staying power. By the time of the bizarrely titled 24 Carrots in 1980 (the cover art piling on the puns about parrots and carrots, as well as the obvious 24-carat gold reference), there was some pressure on Stewart to write ever more commercial songs, to keep hold of the much bigger audiences he had begun attracting ever since the breakthrough success of Year Of The Cat. To his credit, he didn’t entirely give in to that pressure, but there is a little more of a rock sheen to some of the tracks here, which actually works to the album’s advantage in terms of contrast.
For this reissue, Esoteric have given us a bumper three-disc package, but let’s look at the original album first, which occupies Disc One (along with two pointless single edits – does anyone ever actually want shorter versions of songs they like?). Opening with the supremely catchy Running Man, with its insistent instrumental hook in the cleverly constructed chorus, the album’s stall is set out right away. The up-tempo rockers referred to above are the insanely infectious (and somehow very effective) Mondo Sinistro and the harder edged Paint By Numbers, both of which are highlights. In truth, while there is perhaps nothing here to match the highest peaks of, say, Past Present And Future or Year Of The Cat, the consistency of the material is as strong as any of his albums, with nothing which could be termed as filler. The two standouts to these ears are the quite lengthy Murmansk Run – Ellis Island (which sees Stewart flexing his politico-historical lyrical muscles again) and the reflectively beautiful closer Optical Illusion. It is generally regarded as the last of his ‘great’ studio recordings, but it certainly has quality right through it. The recording, incidentally, was done with a band called Shot In The Dark, whose own album was produced by Stewart around the same time.
The second disc is the least essential, consisting of eight earlier demo recordings from mid-1979, of which perhaps the most interesting are three songs which didn’t make the final cut. Of these, The World Goes To Riyadh became more widely known to fans when Stewart began inserting it into his epic Nostradamus in live performances. Ringing Of Bells is rather weak, while the best of the three is a nice track entitled Jackdaw, but in truth none are strong enough to displace anything from the album’s final running order. Of much greater interest, and essential for fans, is the third disc which contains an eight-song unreleased live recording from Hammersmith on the resulting tour. The sound is perfect, and clearly professionally recorded, and it doesn’t merely focus on the material from this album. Indeed, only Running Man and Mondo Sinistro are present, with Year Of The Cat being heavily represented with four tracks, while Time Passages and the very welcome Roads To Moscow make up the remainder – the latter somehow reminding me very strongly of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero in places, in a way I’d never noticed before!
With lavish five-panel foldout digipak packaging and an informative booklet, this is superbly done. If you have some Al Stewart stuff but never picked this one up, now’s your chance. If you’re a fan – well, you need to have that live album, don’t you? Now, what was the deal with those bloody parrots anyway…