Rod Stewart courtesy J-Records
ROD STEWART HAS made a mint this decade peddling substandard standards albums like “It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook” and “Still the Same: Great Rock Classics of Our Time.” These aren’t bids for respectability so much as Boomer-baiting paeans to Greatest Generation reverence and chart dominance via lazy interpretations of unassailable compositions. Stewart might be a gifted singer (his voice is equal parts sandpaper and silk), but he’s an uninspired interpreter, unable or unwilling to give these songs a unique, inhabited reading. He’s not dad rock; he’s granddad rock.

People under 40 years of age may not know this, but there was a time — long, long ago — when Rod Stewart was really cool. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, both with The Faces and as a solo artist, he was a gamboling glam man-sprite whose cocksure charms, buoyant bouffant of hair, and whiskey-addled voice compensated for a face that, well, only a mother could love. He never seemed destined for rock stardom (at least not like Marc Bolan or David Bowie); instead, he had to work at it, but he made the work look fun.

Stewart made some good music, too, including “Maggie May,” “Every Picture Tells a Story,” “Stay With Me” and “You Wear It Well.” Like the best rock and roll, his songs seem to have only two purposes: to get women out of their clothes and to challenge certain standards of decency. Check out this double (or possibly single) entendre from “Tonight’s the Night”:

C’mon angel, my hearts on fire
Don’t deny your man’s desire
You’d be a fool to stop this tide
Spread your wings and let me come inside

So how did Rod the Mod become Rod the Doddering Fool?

It all started in 1975, when he left Britain for sunny Los Angeles — a move that has precipitated many artists’ downfall. That’s about the time when his musical propositions like “Hot Legs” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” curdled into self-regard and self-parody. His trajectory slipped lower during the 1980s, when he began trafficking adult-oriented cheese rock like “Love Touch” and the appallingly mawkish “Forever Young.” But the point of no return is surely 1993’s “Unplugged … and Seated,” in which Rod reunited with Faces guitarist Ron Wood to burnish past glories.

Rod Stewart, Unplugged ... and Seated deluxe CD coverThe album was a massive hit, selling millions of copies and charting a prom theme hit in the Van Morrison cover “Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You?).” It is Stewart’s tentpole release, the album that hoisted his career and kept him from becoming a nostalgia act aging in tandem with his audience. It gave him another 15 or so years of continued sales and relevance, culminating in this new reissue by Rhino, which includes two bonus tracks and a DVD. He made some bad albums before 1993 and has made several more since, but “Unplugged” isn’t just bad. It’s not simply a failed experiment, a gloating self-indulgence, or greedy greatest hits, but a Cerberus-like combination of all three. It’s not just Stewart’s worst album; it may be rock’s worst album.

It’s always a little embarrassing to hear a once-great performer slavishly leech off his old material (see also: Van Morrison’s new “Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl“), but “Unplugged” seems especially pathetic, as Stewart can’t seem to get it up for the old come-ons “Hot Legs” and the ribald “Tonight’s the Night.” It’s like listening to your grandparents talk about their sex life: He grunts through “Stay With Me” and delivers the shout-out “Sit down, get up, get down!” with lifelessness that borders on creepy. “Unplugged” marks the moment when he officially lost his gift for innuendo; these songs sound like covers by another artist, one less confident, less cocky.

In any rock context but especially on “Unplugged,” there are few words as bone chilling as the promise of “A few slow ones for you.” Imagine hearing Hannibal Lecter describe how he’s going to cook and eat you, and you get the idea. There’s a string section involved, of course. Stewart approaches his older material as if these songs are already great rock standards of our time, but this self-aggrandizing reverence breeds such timidity that “Handbags and Gladrags” and “Mandolin Wind” altogether dissipate in the air between the speakers and your ears.

At least those are his own songs. Stewart cannot conjure the world Tom Waits describes in “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Waltzing Matilda)” nor the joy of Sam Cooke‘s “Having a Party,” which is a song that demands an excited performance. “Have I Told You Lately” is indescribably maudlin, made all the worse if you remember its ubiquity on MTV and radio throughout the 1990s. The Impressions suffer worst of all: In his cover of their genuinely moving civil rights anthem “People Get Ready,” Stewart finds the most disquieting rock-star extravagance: unearned gravitas.

Of course, “Unplugged” might not sound so disheartening if it didn’t come with such an epic backstory. Stewart’s a tragic figure here, a hero felled by his own worst tendencies. The album exists today as a cautionary tale for aging musicians struggling to stay relevant without sacrificing their charms or integrity. It’s a reminder that standards have no place in rock and roll, that nostalgia and reverence are anathema to lascivious abandon, and that you’re only as good as the performance you’re giving.

Written by Express contributor Stephen Deusner

Photo courtesy J-Records