When Dave Stewart’s new album, The Blackbird Diaries, opens, the initial shock of finding a smoking, swinging roots-based rock jam is quickly assuaged by digging into the caliber of the musicians present. Stewart’s band, put together by John McBride, features many of Nashville’s best sessions players, such as Tom Bukovac, Chad Cromwell and Mike Rojas. When they’re given the chance to run free with a song, as they do on opener “So Long Ago,” the result is both compelling and visceral. When Stewart enters on vocals, his lyrics about music legends of days past seem fairly innocuous, because it’s the backdrop that anchors the listener’s attention. It’s a strong opening to an album that appears to be a major departure for Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame), and if it’s going to be such a rollicking time, then it appears well worth a listen.
In fact, the first four songs on The Blackbird Diaries follow suit and are quite enjoyable. “Beast Called Fame” possesses a Dylan/Grateful Dead sound, thankfully never straying too far from its countryfied electric guitar and piano interplay. The next two songs, “Magic in the Blues” and “All Messed Up” are the highlights of the record, though. The former’s lyrics ostensibly follow the story of Stewart’s adolescence, leading up to meeting Annie Lennox, and are definitely the strongest on Diaries. The latter is a duet with the formidable and talented Martina McBride, who not only deserves but completely takes the spotlight for the rock ballad. McBride’s voice has the subtlety, strength and individuality that is utterly lacking in Stewart’s. While the song comes close to folding under the trite lyrics, McBride keeps the verve and intensity alive and ultimately redeems the song.
Unfortunately, the following nine tracks never succeed in rescuing Stewart’s newfound love for country roots music from veering (or at times crashing) into cliché. Admittedly, this record was written and recorded in five days back in 2010, as Stewart confesses in his lengthy liner notes. Parameters such as these sometimes yield fantastic results, but typically they require sharp editing and objective feedback. While it is commendable that Stewart and his band made something that is as polished as Diaries, his insistence that his best work is done on the spot further reinforces why Stewart has never risen above the role of trusty sidekick. All five songs that prominently feature other female vocalists (Stevie Nicks, Colbie Caillat, the Secret Sisters and McBride) end up servicing and elevating the prowess of those women and reveal Stewart’s shortfalls.
Also, the lyrics are so cringeworthy at so many places across this record that its completely frustrating. “Stevie Baby,” written to commemorate the magical collaboration of writing and producing Nicks’ latest album In Your Dreams is laughable, as Stewart uses titles of Nicks’ songs to string together a barely coherent homage to the Lady in Lace. “Worth the Waiting For,” which bears a co-writing credit from Bob Dylan, is hackneyed and riddled with problem areas. Additionally, the sequencing of the album is wholly exasperating. The French/Euro faux romantic accordion-driven “One Way Ticket to the Moon” breaks what flow there was on Diaries, and then comes “Bulletproof Vest,” which is so AAA radio-ready with its inoffensive, easy-going pop that it feels totally out of context on a purportedly Americana record.
For a man and musician who has been so successful in bettering the career of those he’s worked with as a producer or creative counterpart, Stewart needs to learn to take the time to focus on the root of what he’s trying to say. With stringent editing, external perspectives and perhaps a new writing partner, Dave Stewart could have made The Blackbird Diaries manifest his vision, but instead the album falls very much short and chooses to enjoy instead its countless platitudes.