“Heartless World,” to me, is an album defined by its sense of places. Physical places, in particular in and around Detroit. Seasonal places. Places in time. Places in our past and present lives. Places within ourselves, and places for ourselves. If, not so long ago, we could talk of surviving the good times while dreaming of better days, now we can talk about simply surviving… while dreaming of better days.
There are plenty of musical references here, from Motown to Stax to P-Funk to Jackson Browne to Van Morrison — at least, those are some that I think I’ve heard — and I’m sure, many more. The trick, of course, is to make them work as something new. “Sam Cooke’s On the Radio,” the third track on the album, seems to come right out of the Steely Dan songbook… the best part of the Steely Dan songbook. With a groove. With the backup singers kicking off the song, and then adding one of my favorite lines of the album, “singin’ fa fa fa fa fa fa,” a line so good it just made me smile all over. Times might be bad, but this is no sad song.
Stew has every reason to be down. He lives in metro Detroit, which has been especially hard hit by the recent economic downturn — not that times were good here for many years before that. Since his last record, Stew’s gone through the loss of both of his parents. Those scars mark several of the songs on the album, from the declaration in “Heart of a Heartless World” that “I’ve said farewell to my mama, and said goodbye to my dad,” until the imperfect but necessary resolution of “Boo Yah / Take My Mother Home”: “Ain’t gonna grieve my mother no more, ain’t gonna grieve my father no more.” But from that sadness, comes a sense of joy and celebration. That last song features a searing vocal by Mitch Ryder, declaring, “feeling mighty joyful, feeling mighty high.” It fits.
And that’s just scratching the surface. I suppose I could go on about the use of the various instruments. Or the song “Givin’ It Up,” which features a melody that could make it in the Paul McCartney songbook, but with lyrical confessionals (“I was a fool, so smart and so smug”) that seem to me beyond anything I can imagine from Sir Paul… Or of the horns. Are they out of tune at the end of “Snowin’ in Detroit”? Well, yeah, maybe. But, goodness, I wouldn’t change ’em if they are.
Last night Lori and I went to the release concert for “Heartless World” at Callahan’s, a local music cafe. When we got there, Stew was hanging out near the front door, ready to greet. Of course, though Stew had his beautiful wife and daughter in the room — and, I’m sure, plenty of other friends and relatives there as well — the first thing he asked me was how my children were doing. Somehow, that didn’t surprise me. He also let on that “Heartless World” is about as good as he can do… to which I had no idea how to respond. Except to say that it’s better than the best of many artists that I admire. I didn’t think to say that last night, of course. but I get to fix that a bit now.
The concert was a blast, of course, featuring about half of the new album. During “You Want What You Don’t Got,” the dance floor filled… and it was all women. Stew did not look disappointed. Later, during “My Old School” (a Steely Dan song that’s been a staple of Stew’s live shows for some time), Lori got an extended private solo on the dance floor. She did not look disappointed.