Throughout his career, Rod Stewart has been remarkably skillful at adopting current musical trends, whether it was disco, new wave, adult contemporary, or even Brit-pop. Still, his records started to slip off the radar screen toward the end of the '90s, so he parted ways with Warner Bros. and signed to Atlantic, where he released Human in early 2001. Again, he tried to change with the times, which, theoretically, may have been a wise move, since his thoroughly credible trad rock When We Were the New Boys was largely ignored. Since he tried contemporary rock, it made sense that the pendulum would swing back and he would take a stab at contemporary soul. Seems logical, but as the neo-TLC title track starts, it's hard not to think "what the hell happened?" Cher's neo-electro move on "Believe" made some sense, since she had always indulged in trashy modern dance, but Stewart never played that game -- even when at the height of superstardom, he never pretended to be hip, which is what he's trying to do here. Surrounded by skittering drum machines and En Vogue-styled harmonies, crooning Babyface-styled ballads, it sounds like he's auditioning for the La Face roster. Rarely does Human try to be outright modern dance music, instead blatantly stealing these production techniques for a set of mid-tempo tunes and ballads that are firmly adult contemporary territory in content -- they're just delivered as if they had a chance of sitting at the top of the charts, alongside Pink. In general, the slow ballads wind up being a bit better, since Stewart has gravitated toward that style during the '90s, while the livelier numbers, such as "Don't Come Around Here" (the Mary J. Blige duet) also work at times. Still, it's bizarre to hear Stewart in this setting, since he not only doesn't mesh with the sound, but he also has a really awkward batch of songs, typified by the clumsy "Smitten," the bewildering love song "Charlie Parker Loves Me," or the cut-time "love's merry-go-round" refrain of "It Was Love That We Needed." Consider this: the most effective songs are "To Be With You," "Run Back Into Your Arms," and "I Can't Deny It," three fairly conventional Rod Stewart numbers tucked away toward the end of the album. Apart from that, Human is the sound of an artist painfully trying to sound modern but -- by trying to sound fresh -- sounding older than he ever has.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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