REVIEW: Dave Stewart – Blackbird Diaries

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Artist: Dave Stewart
Album: Blackbird Diaries
Genre: Rock/Pop

This much-hyped package of solo material from the revered Dave Stewart has all the hallmarks of his lengthy experience in the industry – a self-assured cool, accomplished sound, and beautifully rich, reflective music. Recorded over five days in Nashville, Tennessee, it’s heavily informed by its surroundings and imbued with the smoky, laconic warmth of the country and blues scene. Lyrically, the songs are detailed and vivid, while musically, they’re quite simple, but no less ornate.

Stewart has said that many of the lyrics are autobiographical, and this is clear from opening track “So Long Ago.” Referencing his inspiration for picking up a guitar as a youth and his reaction to a Rolling Stones show, it’s as sultry as the humidity of the environs would suggest, with a laid-back feel and swaggering sound throughout. Tepid vocals are layered coolly over some backing female singing with an easygoing guitar powering the music. This style characterises “Stevie Baby” too – a gentle, almost frayed tempo sets a mild and cheerful atmosphere enlivened by the occasional quirks of a six string. There’s an endearing universality to the vibrant nostalgia petering through these songs, lending the record a sturdy and loving heart.

The Blackbird Diaries (the title a reference to the studio in which recording took place) is rendered all the more impressive by the fact that it was recorded almost sporadically over five days – many of the songs finished in one or two takes with Stewart singing and playing guitar alongside the musicians. It’s a testament to his ability that the songs feel like labours of love that display no evidence of the brevity of the recording sessions. “Beast Called Fame” is a keenly orchestrated work, founded on a slow-burning but cheeky guitar refrain and strong bass line that gives it a subtle yet persuasive power all its own. It doesn’t feel quite as emphatic as the opener but it’s catchy, the surging guitars keeping it potent and clear. Similarly, on “Magic in the Blues,” the latter inject coursing electricity to offset the laconic tone set by a temperate piano and fiddle combination. The song flits between spirited and a kind of reluctant shyness, with detached vocals implying a turgid sense of reflection. “The Well” is a particularly memorable creation, evoking more than any other song the setting in which it was recorded. A luminous acoustic guitar conveys sparks of highway, with lots of sleepy, warm sunsets and endless soul-searching across a barren landscape. The lyrics hint at contrasting emotions and an instrumental interplay captures this well, lending the song an almost grim and very affecting fallacy.

Such vivid displays of sentiment permeate the record, to particularly absorbing effect on the duets. There are a number of guest appearances throughout and perhaps the most arresting comes courtesy of Stevie Nicks. Lending her dulcet tones to “Cheaper Than Free,” she affords the song an airy grace that lifts it into the exquisite. While the lyrics take some liberties (rhyming “fashion” and “passion” doesn’t quite endear), musically this track is minimalist and enjoyable, its slowness rendering it emphatic. Stewart has written that it “won’t fail to make you pause for thought and reflect on what life is really about,” which might be pushing it slightly, but it does have a deceptive power. “All Messed Up” features Martina McBride, and has a rather intense poignancy though it layers strings and choirs on a little too heavily and becomes a little contrived and trite by the end. “Bulletproof Vest” is far more compelling – Stewart duets with Colbie Caillat and the pair play off one another excellently to complement a tender, longing piano refrain.

Yet, the album isn’t all introspection and blues – it has a lively mixture of rather strait-laced pop, some old-fashioned rock sensibilities and a little Parisian detour. “Worth the Waiting For” is very poppy, if a little languid. It has a sturdy bass line at its heart and female harmonies to pad out the lilting rhythm, but it feels a lot more mainstream and accessible than many of the other tracks. “One Way Ticket to the Moon” is a gorgeous little number, perhaps an ode to Stewart’s time in France as the token accordion sound of the Gallic nation lingers. This creates a delicate sense of romanticism that spurs a lyrical tale of melancholy. The addition of a piano and guitar solo as it elapses almost detracts from the misty stillness of the words, but it’s a mystical and charming outtake from the swathes of cool elsewhere.

The Blackbird Diaries is certainly a very able and refined release, displaying all the maturity and dexterity one has come to expect from this renowned figure. It’s filled with soul-searching, reflection, and echoes of a life well-lived. For all that this might not fully engage a younger crowd, its loving throwbacks to the days of simple and effective tunes ought to appeal to anyone who genuinely loves music. It’s a gentler release than much of the madness about today, and one to savour and rediscover with each new listen. Fine fare for a road trip – in the words of Captain Jack, bring me that horizon…

SCORE: 9/10
Review written by: Grace Duffy

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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