Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman

You wouldn't know it from its vengeance-driven justice system and two-million-strong prison population, but America loves redemption and forgiveness, especially where its entertainers are concerned. From Behind The Music-style biography shows (which celebrate the well-traveled arc of meteoric rise, embarrassing fall, and humbled return to fortune) to countless critical and commercial second chances (big-label comeback attempts from Great White, Vanilla Ice, and many more), rebirth is as predictable as the backlash that precedes it. Few entertainers have been demonized as harshly as the former Cat Stevens, whose conversion to Islam in 1977 prompted his retirement the next year: The British singer-songwriter's apparent endorsement of the 1989 fatwa on author Salman Rushdie prompted many radio stations to pull Stevens' work from their rotations, and he's been in figurative exile ever since. But Stevens (now called Yusuf Islam) is receiving an image makeover, timed to coincide with an ambitious 2000 reissue campaign that includes his first six A&M albums, a single-disc greatest-hits package, and a box set slated for release this fall. Whether you accept his explanation of the Rushdie flap—he's long maintained that he was quoted out of context—his music is worth revisiting. While much of his best-known (and best) work doesn't veer too far from good-natured, introspective, James Taylor-style folk-pop, Stevens had an experimental streak and a tendency to diversify his albums with gruff, earthier material. A carefully selected box set will likely better sum up his career while including all his unmistakable song contributions to the film Harold & Maude—which, for some bizarre reason, haven't been featured on one disc, with the key track "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out" never included on a studio record—but the six reissues effectively chronicle Stevens' early-'70s artistic path. Mona Bone Jakon, his first album to see major release in the U.S., opens with the excessively precious "Lady D'Arbanville" and closes with the strings and pomp of "Lilywhite," but it's nicely balanced out by rougher material, including the vaguely menacing title track. Later that same year (1970), Stevens made his pop breakthrough with Tea For The Tillerman, and it's no wonder: The hit "Wild World" (popularized by Jimmy Cliff and again later by Maxi Priest) is here, alongside a bevy of winsome, pop-minded singer-songwriter fare. It's mild but consistently compelling, with some truly lovely moments. Teaser And The Firecat was another major hit the next year, thanks to excellent ballads such as "The Wind," "Morning Has Broken," and "Moonshadow." The album-closing "Peace Train," a hit in its time, hasn't aged well, but Stevens is in peak form throughout. In 1972, Stevens released Catch Bull At Four, a transitional record that marked a newfound emphasis on busier production, more ornate instrumentation, and spottier songwriting. Affecting more of a growl on "Can't Keep It In" and "Freezing Steel," incorporating scary keyboard fuzz on "Angelsea," and singing in Latin on the Spanish-guitar-flavored "O Caritas," the disc is only periodically engaging. But it's better than Foreigner (1973) and Buddha And The Chocolate Box (1974), which mostly sacrifice tunefulness for stylistic audacity and don't benefit from the more daring approach. Foreigner opens with the 18-minute "Foreigner Suite," which has its moments but also renders the four remaining songs incidental; the shrill, busy "The Hurt" hit the Top 40 but stands as one of Stevens' worst songs. Buddha And The Chocolate Box is more concise, but the only tracks that stand out are the low points, particularly the ponderous "Jesus." Listeners willing to revisit Stevens' career would do well to start with one of his many greatest-hits sets before digging too deep into these reissues. If you do, start with the classics (Tea For The Tillerman, Teaser And The Firecat), then proceed with caution.


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