Al Stewart actually described Past Present and Future
as his “thesis,” and in a way, it’s true- the whole album is an excuse for “Nostradamus,” one of his most ambitious tracks and definitely his proudest. On original vinyl pressings, he dedicates the song a blurb of its own, scrawling excerpts from the life of its subject matter, a rather successful seer who gains foresight of Hitler’s rise, amongst other things. In another way, he’s lying: where’s the academia" Nostradamus left behind a tantalising history of the occult open to study and debate, yes, but trust Al Stewart to collect his prophesies like love letters. On this nine-minute closer, Al pours his heart out the same way Nick Drake would have when he sung about women, with the same feeling Dylan would purge divorce with. And Al’s written about love, of course, but Past, Present and Future
is his most romantic moment.
The calm that comes before “Nostradamus” shares in this nostalgic love for nothing but history. “Old Admirals” is a long-gone tale, but its string arrangements and brass sections give it healthy eyes. “Post World War Two Blues,” too, oozes with life, taking the most serious of historical conquests and turning it into a romp; “Churchill just flapped his wings / and said I do not wish to discuss these things.” Citation needed for this thesis.
Al’s first four albums may have made good for inevitable collections, but Past Present and Future
is a cohesive album with eight serious, realised songs; “Roads of Moscow” almost usurps “Nostradamus” in its epic balladry, performed as a darker twin, depicting the Russian wilderness rather than one of Al’s historical heroes. These two songs are perhaps the highlights of Al’s career as a folk musician, scribed and strummed in equal measure with an intimacy not found in the rest of his work (especially not in Down in the Cellar
, wherein too much wine is consumed). Most importantly, though, these songs excite
Al. He’s singing them for the nights spent debating the past. He’s giddy with the thought that someone out there has read the books he’s read. He’s head over heels for history. This is Al Stewart, the guy who takes over-head-projectors to shows and recommends textbooks on Russian history. This is his thesis, with love from Britain.