Seemingly, for my entire lifetime, Cat Stevens was the bloke who was a mega successful, totally individual and unique musician, who left music behind decades ago in favour of Islam. In recent years, he’s found a way to practice his faith and go back out on the road with songs from his days as Cat Stevens, and several generations of fans seem stoked by that. While I know one or two mega hits, my attention to his music was about as active as his attention to his music between 1977 and 2007. But it’s about time I did pay Cat Stevens some attention, so I’m starting with the only album in his back catalogue with a title I recognise, Tea for the Tillerman.
Opening with Where Do the Children Play? and Hard Headed Woman, my above claims of his music being totally individual and unique are justified. Because while it’s seemingly pretty straight forward acoustic guitar, singer song writer stuff, I have no idea what genre I would put it in. It’s not really folk, it’s not really soft pop. It’s Cat Stevens. And even to my inexperienced ears, it’s immediately recognisable as Cat Stevens.
Wild World is the perfect song to prove my assumption that I would more than likely be more familiar with Stevens’ work than I consciously knew. I think I’ve heard his version of this song, I know I’ve heard several cover versions countless times. It’s the kind of song that is constantly covered, because it’s pretty much a perfect song. Nothing much more than his voice and guitar, it can be interpreted and arranged in so many ways, without ever really ruining it.
With Sad Lisa, Miles From Nowhere and But I Might Die Tonight, things get a little more complex with more instruments and oomph. I’d go so far as to say that Miles From Nowhere is almost a rock song. And of all the things I wasn’t expecting going in to Tea for the Tillerman, a rock song would be pretty close to the top of that list.
Almost tribal beats and chants would be high on that list too. But bugger me if Yusuf doesn’t give me some of that too on Longer Boats. His acoustic sensibilities and floaty melodies are still there, but it’s a fresh spin that keeps an album that’s already easy to listen to, even easier to listen to.
Father and Son, see everything said above re. Wild World.
The songs are great, the arrangements and production do them perfect justice. But the real stand out is the voice of Cat Stevens. I’m not a listener of lyrics, so I have no idea what that content is on Tea for the Tillerman, but I do know that Stevens sells each end every word with a kind of sincerity and empathy that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before from any other musician. His combination of assurety and vulnerability really is amazing.