In a career that’s spanned almost 40 years, Rod Stewart has roamed all over the stylistic map, from British-invasion R&B to blues-rock to cheeky disco. But for the past decade or so, he’s been content to serve up big whiffs of adult-contemporary cheese, sounding a helluva lot more like Michael Bolton than the earnest soulster who cut “Maggie May” so many years ago.
Perhaps that’s why Stewart called on a flock of hotshot producers and a handful of guest stars (Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray and ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash among them) to help with Human, his first album for Atlantic Records. The cast of hipsters indeed seems to have enlivened Stewart’s sound, infusing the set of 11 original tunes with hip-hop light grooves and neo-soul choruses.
Gray, who, like Stewart, specializes in channeling whimsical heartache through raspy-voiced crooning, sounds great on “Smitten,” a sweet ballad that combines slick keyboards with Burt Bacharach-esque strings and a surprisingly endearing chorus. Where “If I Had You” gets lost in dopey sentiment and “Charlie Parker Loves Me” is just plain silly, the Mary J. Blige-assisted “Don’t Come Around Here” picks up the slack, with Stewart sounding downright earnest as he simultaneously begs his lover to please come back and let him be.
But, as anyone whose dad has ever donned a leather jacket and bought a chopper knows, middle-aged white guys who set out to reclaim their youth usually just end up embarrassing themselves. At times, the disparity between Stewart’s vocals — which sound soulful enough yet somehow stale and not terribly flexible — and what’s going on around him is tough to ignore. On the title track, he sounds as ridiculous as he ever has, prattling on about his foibles while jiggy beats bump up against Slash’s guitar skronk.
Even when he’s not embarrassing himself, you get the feeling Stewart hasn’t changed all that much. Despite his attempts at reinvention, too much of Human is bogged down in the forgettable soft-rock he’s used to court aging female homemakers and secretaries for too long now. Which makes me wonder: When can we expect that Stewart-Bolton duet?
E-mail Christian Hoard at [email protected].