The Esoteric Al Stewart reissue schedule here alights upon the album which would not only prove to be his commercial peak, but also the work which cemented him in the public consciousness – largely via the ubiquitous and irresistible title track. Originally released in 1976, Year Of The Cat proved to be one of those instances where the stars seem to align for an artist, and everything simply falls into place, artistically and commercially. Think of, say, Argus by Wishbone Ash, Machine Head by Deep Purple or Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy – that’s the sort of ballpark we’re looking at. That reputation is far from undeserved in this case, as the quality of the writing and performance on the album is exemplary. Happily, this reissue (available in two-disc and four-disc formats) does justice to its core album, as everything about it is beautifully done. The last Stewart deluxe reissue I reviewed here was 1980’s 24 Carrots, and while that was also a sterling reissue job, this set reminds you just what a peak the man was at around this time, as well as his band.
The album itself is accompanied by some remarkable live material, but let’s leave that just for the moment, and look at Year Of The Cat itself, here remastered by Alan Parsons, so you know it’s going to sound great. Now, why was it that this particular album should catch the public’s attention and imagination so much more than his previous works? Well, the answer is simply that it played to all of his strengths at once. Previously he had released a few introspective, almost autobiographical folky albums, followed by the fan favourite Past, Present And Future, which took a more epic folk-rock approach, with weighty historical themes shot throughout, and the two lengthy pieces Roads To Moscow and Nostradamus perhaps best illustrating his ‘prog rock’ leanings. Following that, Modern Times was a simpler, less lyrically verbose and more commercial folk-rock album, and also successful in its own quite different way to its predecessor. With Year Of The Cat, we get all of these elements distilled down to nine (mostly) concise and accessible songs which nevertheless are full of musical twists and lyrical intrigue.
The beautifully folky opener Lord Grenville takes up the historical mantle as it relates a story from the life of sailor Sir Richard Grenville, while Flying Sorcery weaves some fascinating aviation images into a metaphorical story about relationships, doomed and otherwise. On The Border is a politically charged song with real-world references to unrest and war throughout, and Broadway Hotel takes a more straightforward love song and makes it much more interesting than that. You want uptempo, feelgood commerciality? Then you have If It Doesn’t Come Naturally Leave It (not my favourite on the album I must confess, but doing what it says on the tin perfectly). You want something from out of really left-field lyrically? Then try One Stage Before, which mixes the theatre and the supernatural with a clever and engaging art-rock structure. Towering over it all, however, is that title track. Coming in at close to seven minutes, it mixes the intriguing obfuscation of the cryptic lyrical influences with a languid, mysterious musical structure which achieves a musical and lyrical synergy which is hard to beat. How many songs reference Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca and Peter Lorre in just the first verse. Who is the mysterious woman who entrances him? And what is the significance of ‘the year of the cat’? The way the listener can, and does, form his or her own opinion is testament to the skill of the songwriting, as even if you don’t know what all of the imagery means, it always sounds as if it means something, and that’s enough. Add in the great guitar and sax solos, and you have a timeless classic. We also get an unreleased track from the sessions called Belsize Blues, which is entertaining enough, but doesn’t really fit after the title track has faded out. Good to have, mind you.
Enough of the original recording though, what do we get as the extras? Well, that depends whether you get the two-disc release or decide to spring for the four-disc version. The latter has a DVD with a 5.1 mix of the album, so your appetite for that format will likely sway you. Apart from that, there is a live show from Seattle in October 1976, with fifteen tracks spread over two CDs in the four-disc release, while the double CD option has nine of those tracks on one disc. The recording and the show itself are absolutely stellar, and show a man and a band at the peak of their respective and combined powers. The guitar work of Mark Goldenberg – who is certainly not a household name – is superb throughout, while the versatile Peter White hops between keyboards, bass and guitar depending on the needs of the moment, with Stewart’s own peculiarly distinctive yet warm and comfortable voice in fine form. With the exception of White it’s a completely different line-up to the studio album, but you would never know, as they are so tight throughout that some of these songs could be argued to be definitive versions. The single live CD on the two-disc edition is itself superb, with brilliant renditions of Apple Cider Re-Constitution and The Dark And The Rolling Sea from Modern Times opening things up in grand style. You get Roads To Moscow together with six tracks from the Year of The Cat album itself, with On The Border and One Stage Before really coming into their own. With the extra disc from the four-disc set, you get an extra six songs from the same show, with the chief attractions being a lengthy Nostradamus and a version of the Past Present And Future cut Soho (Needless To Say) which betters the original in every way (it’s still a bit like Summer In The City in a false beard and glasses, but none the worse for that, with some glorious lyrics).
As for the packaging, the 2CD is the one I have, and I can report that it is as good as one would expect from these Esoteric reissues, with a four-panel digipak fold-out sleeve, a booklet full of Stewart’s own thoughts about the album (including a tremendous story about how the title track was briefly a parody of Princess Anne called ‘Horse Of The Year’!), and a poster of an advert of the time for the record. Which version you opt for is dependent on your own preference, but I can happily report that whichever one you go for, you won’t be disappointed.