In Every Picture Tells a Story, song after song, Rod Stewart and band stretch for and find surprising depths of emotion. The wearing of hearts on sleeves for sustained lengths isn't common in rock ‘n roll, especially ‘70s rock. Even its rival for the other great English rock album of the ‘70s – Mott the Hoople’s Mott – relies on ironic posturing to get its horrors across. This album also seems to starts out that way, with the “Ballad of John and Yoko”-like title track and its cheerful numbering of legal scrapes and sexual conquests. But “Seems Like a Long Time” is poetry without the punchline. Soon, it becomes clear that this is an album about memory, and the consequences of holding onto it too tight.
There’s the brief distraction of “That’s All Right Mama”, a lot bluesier that Elvis’ version, followed by a slide guitar-led “Amazing Grace” and “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, a Dylan outtake that never made it onto the Freewheeling album. There’s a stately flashback, the medieval-sounding mandolin piece, “Henry’s Time”. “Maggie May” follows; this was Stewart’s big hit off this album. This story of a boy in love with a more experienced woman is wry and emotional and funny and sad, and even more interesting if you consider that there was also a popular Liverpudlian ditty about a prostitute called “Maggie May”.
The band consists of Mick Waller on drums, Pete Sears on piano, Ian McLagen on organ, Dick Powell on violin, Martell Brandy and Martin Quittenton on acoustic guitars, and Andy Pyle and Danny Thompson on bass. The only really famous musician here is Faces (and pre Rolling Stones) guitarist Ron Wood. Yet this bunch (with an uncredited Lindsay Jackson on mandolin) contribute some of the most heart-rending ensemble playing I’ve heard outside of The Chieftains or some of Van Morrison’s backing bands. It comes to a head in “Mandolin Wind”: Stewart’s voice sounds like it’s lit by a fire of regret, and the band plays around it like winter. On to the last two. Stewart's rowdy version of the Motown hit “(I Know) I’m Losing You” sounds like it’s off another album. Fortunately, the closing track, a Tim Hardin-penned number called "Reason to Believe", is the kind of finish this album deserves. “Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”, sings Stewart, sounding like he’s lived that line. The violin sympathises, as does the mandolin. The band musters up one last sigh, the singer, one last breath. They know they’ll never make music like this again.