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Why do Great American Songbook albums by pop artists so often disappoint?

Rod Stewart’s ever-metastasizing catalog of standards is now hurtling inexorably toward its sixth CD

Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

The latest album by Paul McCartney, a collection of pop standards by the likes of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser, was released three weeks ago today to generally positive reviews. In the New York Times, critic Stephen Holden went through two purple ink cartridges as he described how the album “floats over you like a light mist on a cool spring morning in an English garden as the sun glints through the haze. You want to inhale the fresh air, taste the fragrance of buds blooming, as the sky clears to a serene deep blue.” In Rolling Stone, a somewhat more measured Will Hermes said of Kisses on the Bottom (the title is lifted from the lyrics to the Fats Waller song that opens the record) that it is “the sound of a musician joyfully tapping his roots … it’s fun, and touching, to hear [McCartney] crooning his way through the great American songbook.” 

Kisses on the Bottom is McCartney’s 16th solo album, and the first to be composed almost entirely of songs written by others. By choosing material from the great American songbook, McCartney joins a group of 1960s and ‘70s pop singers who have discovered just how rewarding—musically, critically and commercially—this particular sentimental journey can be. Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, Natalie Cole, and Linda Ronstadt have recorded, between them, no fewer than a dozen such albums. For each of the singers, these releases have served as well-timed career-resuscitators, allowing the aging artists—whose hit-making days have, for the most part, long since passed—to earn platinum sales and sell out giant arenas.

In interviews and press releases, these artists invariably describe having “grown up” with this music; often they hint at an innocent youth spent in some prelapsarian Tin Pan Eden, where they learned these songs at their daddy’s knee before getting older and guiltily partaking of the rock-and-roll apple. But there’s another, more self-serving reason that a particular type of superannuated rocker likes to put out an album of standards. These songs—penned by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart (or Hammerstein) to name just a few of their most famous composers—represent the sturdy foundation on which all popular music is based. If you’re a pop singer or songwriter concerned about your legacy, linking yourself to the great American songbook confers a kind of late-stage artisanal legitimacy onto your entire career. It shows that you, too, have always possessed a deep and sophisticated understanding of authentic songcraft. If you’re worried that the world may remember you primarily for wearing Spandex pants and snarling “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” what better penance than to croon “Isn’t It Romantic?” in a rakish coat and tie, carried along by a lush string section?

With few exceptions, however, these albums of standards by pop superstars d’un certain âge fall flat. I confess that even the McCartney album, pace Holden, leaves me shrugging my shoulders and wondering if it was really worth all the trouble. Why is this? The source material is unquestionably superb. (McCartney, to his great credit, has chosen to cover several lesser-known songs that would fly right under the radar of a Stewart or a Simon, who tend to go straight for the crowd-pleasers.) No one would deny that the artists themselves have real talent. So: good songs, good singers—where do things go wrong?

The answer, I think, is in the over-reverent and/or unimaginative way in which the songs themselves are typically approached. The queen of songbook revivalism, Linda Ronstadt, deserves enormous credit for convincing her manager and record label to let her record What’s New (1983), the first of three standards albums she released consecutively during the 1980s. At the time, Ronstadt was still arguably a hit-maker in the pop/soft-rock vein, and by aligning herself with pre-rock-era music she was taking something of a risk. That risk paid off commercially and critically: The albums did extraordinarily well by any measure, and went a long way toward sparking a new interest in jazz and swing among listeners who’d previously thought of these songs as someone else’s (i.e, their parents’, or grandparents’).

But listen to the albums today, even with their wonderful Nelson Riddle arrangements, and one is struck by the anodyne safeness of these numbers, their meticulous fealty to an abstracted, supper-club definition of “good taste.” These are fetishistic period pieces, not interpretations. And as such they call into question the whole purpose of covering a “standard” in the first place. Jazz greats, including vocalists, have always understood that a standard is simply a vessel into which an artist pours her unique essence. Think John Coltrane’s hypnotic, inimitable version of “My Favorite Things,” or Bill Evans’ glistening “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” or Sarah Vaughan’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous “Embraceable You“—a marriage of singer and song so divinely blessed that it was recorded in one single, miraculous take. These artists weren’t paying homage to any person or era. They were being themselves—utterly and magnificently.       

Compare these recordings to practically any song taken at random from Rod Stewart’s ever-metastasizing catalog of standards, now hurtling inexorably toward its sixth CD. Over artless cruise-ship arrangements, Stewart attempts to capture some of Sinatra’s loose-tied, fedora-hatted magic from the mid-1950s, but doesn’t even come close. Like his musical accompaniment, his vocals are phoned in, which means that the songs—many of which were written using a double-entendre-heavy “code,” of which Cole Porter was the undisputed master—are all but stripped of their wit and subtext, their musical and lyrical richness streamlined into bland, repetitive sonic wallpaper. Which is almost certainly the point of this decade-long exercise: Ultimately, Stewart’s songbook is a five-album soundtrack for a night of sixtysomething romance, music meant to be played at a low volume while cologned and Viagara-ed husbands pour Champagne and prepare dinner for their beloveds.

But when a rock-era pop star is willing to take some chances, magical things can happen. One of the earliest examples of the songbook revival genre, Harry Nilsson’s A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, still has the power to astound nearly 40 years after its release. Arranged by the legendary Gordon Jenkins—who had worked, in his prime, with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Judy Garland, among many others—the album is constructed as a moody song cycle that capitalizes on the weird disconnect between Jenkins’ soaring orchestration and Nilsson’s broken, halting vocals. Another idiosyncratic vocalist, Rickie Lee Jones, managed to infuse old standards with new mystery and melancholy in her inexcusably overlooked gem, Pop Pop, from 1991.

Eight years later, with his album As Time Goes By, Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry rather effortlessly did what Rod Stewart only thinks he’s been doing for the last 10 years, which is to say he translated his louche persona into a performance that the swinging, lady-killing Sinatra of the 1950s would have recognized and admired. The next year saw the release of Joni Mitchell’s haunting Both Sides Now, which marked a kind of turning point for the artist, formalizing the completion of her metamorphosis from guitar-strumming coffeehouse chanteuse to dark jazz prophetess. She hovers over the whole affair like some mystical cross between Cassandra and Nina Simone.                   

Kisses On The Bottom, like just about everything else Paul McCartney has ever done, is marked by a game, high-spirited optimism that’s pretty hard to hate. A few of the songs on it—like his lilting and graceful “More I Cannot Wish You,” from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls—are truly beautiful, offering ample proof that Macca’s own remarkable body of work is as firmly rooted in classic, pre-rock pop as it is in Little Richard and everything that came afterward. But even he can’t escape the curse that befalls so many of these respectful, well-intentioned projects. It’s the curse of pleasantness, of innocuousness, of valedictory tribute. It threatens to turn the best songs ever written into easily forgettable ditties. Thankfully, these songs are also the most durable—they’re “standards,” after all—and will always be a good deal stronger than their weakest renditions. They can’t take that away from us.

Click here for a Spotify playlist with eight reinterpretations of American Songbook standards worth listening to.