Dave Stewart is a gifted musical collaborator, but he has the ego of a major star, which means he insists on taking the spotlight whether it's a good idea or not. He's also ambitious and full of ideas, which is good when he's working with someone who can use a push in the right direction, but if Stewart has no one around to give him bearings, he has a tendency to bite off more than he can chew stylistically, which is how he can go from the sublime pop perfection of his work in the Eurythmics to the ridiculousness of his ill-fated supergroup SuperHeavy. The Ringmaster General is a sequel of sorts to Stewart's 2011 solo album The Blackbird Diaries; like the earlier album, this one was written and recorded during a five-day blowout at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, with Stewart leading a crack band of studio cats and bringing in some talented acquaintances to do guest vocals (among them Alison Krauss, Jessie Baylin, and his SuperHeavy partner Joss Stone). The results reveal Stewart's strengths and weaknesses in equal measure; he has a knack for writing a good pop tune, he knows how to get musicians to deliver the goods in the studio, and he's a strong guitar player. However, as a lead vocalist he's average at best, his idea of a good arrangement usually leans to the bombastic, and while this album is supposed to celebrate his love of roots music, his country and R&B leanings here invariably sound forced. On several tunes, Stewart seems to think the best way to make a song sound soulful is to let the backing vocalists get as happy as they want, which makes the opener, "I Got Love," and the closer, "A New Song for Nashville," sound as if they were recorded at a suburban blues bar with several drunk women in the audience intrusively yelling into the mike. Stewart also isn't much of a lyricist, and most of these songs are pockmarked with clichés and clumsy wordplay that find Stewart trying to celebrate his cool factor and status as a world-class Lothario. For an album that came together in less than a week, The Ringmaster General sounds assured, professional, and polished, all without squeezing the life out of the performances, and the picking from Stewart and his band is splendid throughout. But while Stewart the producer and bandleader earned his paycheck on The Ringmaster General, they should have told Stewart the songwriter and lead singer that he needed to finish his homework before trundling this material into the studio, since the latter guy's work is the anchor that sinks this particular session.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming