Fads come and go in the world of business: a recurrent buzzword right now is ‘simplicity’ – boil that report down to a sheet of A4, find the “nugget” in that presentation, apply the ‘elevator test’: if you can’t summarise an idea in 30 seconds, it’s worthless. The tone is a weird combination of zen and macho.
I’m all in favour of cutting out waffle but not when nuance gets thrown out too. The simple truth about simplicity is that most of the ideas that pass the elevator test are banal and useless: it’s the implications of an idea that are often the interesting bit, and they’re what gets lost. And I’d say the same of this record: Stewart seems to be trying to create something that’s expressing yearning in as straightforward and widescreen a way as possible, but all subtlety’s been boiled away and we’re left with a great voice being put to dreary use.
You might disagree, of course – “Sailing” is slow and doesn’t develop much but at least it’s not bombastic, and there’s no sense that Stewart’s a phoney or the sentiment untrue – it’s just too blankly expressed to matter to me. But whether you like “Sailing” or not it’s worth considering how rock got to this point. Other styles of music, after all, didn’t develop anthems: music hall had singalongs but nothing this slow and hymnal, gospel and soul demanded participation from audiences sometimes but not (it seems to me) this kind of mass assent. “Sailing” is a record by a credible, respected artist which has less energy and spark than the grimly cynical Rollers.
Of course it’s a simple function of audience size – if you can get that many people into one place to hear you, then it becomes a lot more tempting to produce music which will create the kind of mass communal experience “Sailing” does – no coincidence that Rod was a big football fan, or that “Sailing” had a second life on the terraces. (This is why I’m wary of complaints about artists ruining their sound to find mass appeal – what if it’s not the numbers of people listening in total which damages the music, just the number doing it in one place?)
It’s also worth asking why a song striking this particular note was so successful: what, if anything, was there in the cultural atmosphere that made Rod’s simple longing for home so effective? I do actually remember this song – and I was 2, so that’s how ubiquitous and user-friendly it was! – but I didn’t know the chords it was striking, so I leave that question up to you.