How Rod Stewart Reached a Crossroads on ‘Smiler’
In October 1974, Rod Stewart’s solo career arrived at a crucial crossroads with the release of Smiler, which came in for more vociferous criticism than his widely acclaimed previous efforts, but still wound up serving as a springboard for even greater successes in the years to come.
The singer’s fifth and final solo album for Mercury Records (all of them recorded while pulling double duty with the Faces), Smiler may have rubbed some critics the wrong way because it often felt less like a seriously considered long player than it did like a friends’ night out at the local pub that had carried over into the recording studio.
But so what if Smiler’s repertoire boasted an almost reckless variety of rock, pop, folk, blues and soul sources across its superstar songwriting credits, so long as a good time was had by all?
Chuck Berry’s "Sweet Little Sixteen" rocked Smiler into action with the reliable backing of the faithful Faces, only to give way to a 30-second harpsichord interlude courtesy of Pete Sears’ "Lochinvar" before segueing into a "Maggie May"-styled folk rocker in "Farewell."
The latter being one of only three Smiler tunes bearing a Stewart co-writing credit (a sticking point for those who misguidedly accused Rod of laziness), along with two collaborations with Ron Wood in the foot-stomping "Sailor" and the honky tonk of "Dixie Toot," which featured the Memphis Horns).
Beyond that, the covers came fast and furious, including a spirited romp through Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s "Let Me Be Your Car" (naturally featuring Elton on piano and co-vocals), a genuine heavy rock bashing of Australian hit makers the Easybeats’ "Hard Road," a heavily orchestrated take on Bob Dylan’s "Girl From the North Country," and a languid Caribbean swing through Paul McCartney’s "Mine for Me."
All this and Stewart still found time to exercise his inimitable blue-eyed soul talents on a double-whammy medley of Sam Cooke’s "Bring it on Home to Me" and "You Send Me," and a ballsy reworking of Aretha Franklin’s signature Goffin/King/Wexler composition, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man."
So even if rock’s critical establishment couldn’t all agree on Smiler’s creative merits, the million-plus fans who snapped up copies of the album around the globe apparently didn’t share this uncertainty. And Rod the Mod certainly had the last smile, as he smoothly transitioned to his new recording contract with Atlantic Records and proceeded to continue conquering the world with hit album after hit album.
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