Pop consumers are willing but wise, with a large and agile appetite for manufactured fame. We gobble the umpteenth People story of X, deftly sweeping over the indigestible morsels ("X is a very private person!") the way an elephant manages to snort up all the peanuts, leaving pebbles aswirl amid the dust and the hot breath.
Few have tested our ability to distinguish the salty tidbit from the scrap of shoe leather more consistently than Rod Stewart. A survivor of booze, Britt and tight britches, he heads the list of rock's most enduring, endearing and indulgent. Old and wise enough to have outlived Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, et al. , he represents the 1960s nouveau rock star ideal as no one else ever has. (Jagger may swagger, but only for a fee; nobody can convince me Stewart doesn't wear leopardskin to breakfast.)
Stewart never stopped cranking out albums, even during disco's heyday (particularly during disco's heyday). That fact notwithstanding, his most recent record, "Tonight I'm Yours," is being touted as some sort of comeback. Stewart's cheeks are said to burn redder than the deepest rouge at the very mention of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," his blow-dried plumage to shiver from shame at the paucity of his post-"Smiler" product. To hear the hypesters tell it, it's "Take a hike, 'Hot Legs'." Well, okay. For my money, however, Stewart hasn't changed anything but his tank top, and "Tonight I'm Yours" is no more a departure than any of his other albums.
There's plenty of disco here, for example, starting with the title track. It's just that the spring has been wound a bit tighter, the tempo heightened. Thin guitars and tinkly keyboards provide a glossy backdrop for sizzling lyrics about a hot-and-tired singles-bar fantasy, in which Rod's bod is up for grabs. "Do anything that you want with me," he rasps, while a female chorus whimpers (rather ludicrously) "Don't hurt me! Don't hurt me!" It's all harmless huff-and-puff, hosed down with a hissing snare-and-synthesizer wash.
Similarly, "Young Turks" employs metronomic monotone as backdrop for a song about runaway love. This may be the first teen tear-jerker in rock history in which you can almost hear the clinking of cocktail glasses -- a sort of "Patches" in Danskins.
But Stewart employs other styles on "Tonight," too, namely his notorious hard-rock growling on "Tora Tora Tora (Out With the Boys)." This is the latest in a long series of cruising-for-foxes-as-kamikaze-mission tunes, and no matter how tired you may be of its male-bonding message, nobody does it quite like this.
Then there's the rockabilly-flavored "Tear It Up," which Stewart manhandles quite nicely, and which is bound to be even ruffer 'n' tuffer on stage than on vinyl. Add to that "Jealous," undoubtedly true-life inspired, and "Never Give Up on a Dream," a rather overacted bit of drama dedicated to late marathoner Terry Fox, and you have your typically uneven but entertaining Rod Stewart fare.
But the surprise of "Tonight," since they tell us there has to be one, is the cover of Ace's "How Long." Oh, yes, Stewart also covers Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," but so has everyone else and their uncle. Stewart's voice is a perfect vehicle for Carrack's classic, and when the chorus drifts into its a cappella finale, he sounds soaked to the skin in pain and self-pity. Naturally, this is the cut least likely to make the airwaves.
So much for the New Rod. "Tonight I'm Yours" is just as crude and crafty as "Every Picture Tells a Story," and just as solidly Old Rod.
If Stewart deserves a hit out of "Tonight," it's not because he's changed but because he's remained the same. He owes his longevity to his great rock voice and a rock and roll heart that knows, no matter how unpressworthy it may sound, that truth is booty
THE ALBUM -- Rod Stewart, "Tonight I'm Your," Warner BSK 3602.
THE SHOW -- Monday at 8 at the Capital Centre.