Dave Stewart: “Blackbird Diaries”

This is the year Dave Stewart dives headlong into roots music, apparently; in just a few weeks, he’ll be diving into reggae-fueled rock with Super Heavy, a project in which I imagine he’ll be largely outshone by the likes of Mick Jagger and Joss Stone. He’s very much the center of attention on The Blackbird Diaries, though, a full-on country/rock excursion that, despite heavy-hitting guest stars like Martina McBride, Stevie Nicks, and a Bob Dylan co-write, feels very much like Stewart’s own, deeply personal labor of love from start to finish.

It should go without saying that this feels, on paper, like a bit of a stretch, so I’ll happily state from the get-go that this record is a lot better than you might expect it to be. Which is not to say that it’s pure magic from the first note to the last; the rock numbers are excellent across the board, just about, but some of the ballads fall flat. Listening to a song like “The Gypsy Girl and Me,” though, and it’s difficult not to be swept along in the singer’s repurposing of classic blues tropes; the song is a humorous travelogue that takes the familiar ramblin’ motif and dresses it up with a bit of Stewart’s own European chic. Combined with driving country hooks, pedal steel, and a jaunty juke-joint piano and it’s pretty well convincing, not as straight blues but as proof that Stewart’s got the light touch needed to put his own spin on the music without wandering too far off into pretension.

The song spans nearly six minutes, giving Stewart and his band plenty of time to ease into a groove, show their chops, and let the song unfold gracefully and leisurely; that said, there’s no flagging of its intensity and no feeling of indulgence. The best songs here follow suit, though some of them are a little more pointed in their blues approximations; indeed, some of them are not really blues songs, but songs about the blues. “Magic in the Blues” is a heavenly tale of getting lost in the music, finding solace and revelation in it; it begins with gentle acoustic guitar and fiddle, builds into electrifying, organ-drenched mayhem, then cools down for a lovely, rustic denouement. The ebb and flow is hypnotic, and the melody is a thing of beauty. Opener “So Long Ago,” meanwhile, is a crunching rock song that playfully namedrops Stewart’s blues idols (and, it should be said, features a hilarious, gentle putdown of Jagger’s Rolling Stones).

Stewart is celebrating American roots music here, not in sound so much as in spirit and in his loving repurposing of familiar lore. It’s a humble and generous work in which the singer never sounds like he’s making his own claim for rock greatness by invoking so many iconic names; he’s simply reveling in the music that he loves. And he’s more than willing to go off on tangents or get downright silly. He makes no effort to rope in his own European proclivities on “One Way Ticket to the Moon,” a lush tune with marimba, café accordion, and harmonies from the Secret Sisters. Significantly less enchanting is “Cheaper Than Free,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that’s based on an off-the-cuff comment made by Reese Witherspoon, of all people; “Cheaper than free” is the kind of cutesy contradiction that has launched many a country song, and this one is basically just a pile-up of similar paradoxes and ironies that never build into anything compelling.

But other ballads work better: “All Messed Up,” a duet with McBride, builds into a dazzling swell of emotion. The midtempo Dylan co-write, “Worth the Waiting For,” trades in turn-of-the-century whimsy and romance better than anything on Dylan’s own Together Through Life, I dare say. Everything on the album is catchy, all of it is written and played with the utmost generosity and openness, and, while the set comes with plenty of polish, the performances are spontaneous and lived-in. Stewart’s clearly proud of this one, and he ought to be; it’s a terrifically entertaining roots music set, by just about any standard you could come up with.

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