Al Stewart has always had a distinctive vocal style -- making his radio hits like "Year of the Cat" immediately recognizable -- while also possessing a knack for writing tuneful pop songs. A Beach Full of Shells qualifies as his first U.S. release since 1995, and while it's been some time since the singer conquered the pop charts, both his vocal style and craftsmanship remains intact. It would be a mistake, however, to view Stewart as no more than the maker of pop confections specially designed for a mass radio audience. The cover of A Beach Full of Shells offers the first clue of a playful mind that enjoys the weight of words: there are two types of shells on the beach, one from the sea, the other for use in a gun. The complexity of his approach is best experienced on "Somewhere in England 1915," a lengthy song (nearly seven minutes) with shifting dream imagery. Weaving fantasy with brief references to World War I, the narrator eventually wakes up 90 years later to find himself on the edge -- the song seems to suggest -- of yet another war. Stewart accomplishes all of this without ever being obvious, giving the song a subtle quality as it reveals its surprises to the listener. This, however, is only one of many moods on A Beach Full of Shells. "Katherine of Oregon" is as light as air, a pleasant, flowing ballad with nice acoustic guitar and light percussion, while "Mona Lisa Talking" shifts through a number of intriguing chord changes to offer a little common sense advice. A Beach Full of Shells probably doesn't spell Stewart's return to the Top 40, but it is a solid effort that will certainly please fans.
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AllMusic Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.