The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens surely must win a prize for the longest gap between albums…ever! A mere 30 years have nearly elapsed since he last troubled the music business. In three decades since he emerged in the simplistic ’70s acoustic world of the sensitive singer-songwriter you would have thought things would have moved on in his chosen field of acoustic balladry, but no so it seems. With the emergence of rootsy, acoustic balladeers from the pretty (Paolo Nutini) the sincere (Ray Lamontagne) and the soulful (James Morrison) to name but three chasing ‘the post-Blunt effect’ the time has never been riper for a half-wit with an acoustic guitar to bend your ear with his tales of woe. Ker-ching!
The old Cat Stevens was responsible for a heap of acoustic folk, protest and music and themes that questioned spiritual existence in simplistic hippy-ish terms couched in memorable and easy-on-the-ear acoustic Moonshadow, Wild World and the Ronan Keating-covered Father And Son. Fate was not kind to him in the respect that amongst his peers, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, and James Taylor he didn’t have the ‘early death’ cult or the emotional entanglements to spice up interest in him. Instead he sought a more spiritual existence than the music business could offer and left the music world to devote his life to Islam and change his name to Yusuf in 1977 at the height of his powers. His consequent re-engagement is allegedly down to the fact he felt right making music in this fragile world again. Or perhaps he saw what a shoddy job his successors were making of things?
So how does the 21st century see Yusuf fare with his re-engagement of the beast? Shot through with a forced joie de vivre makes this seem darker and more world-weary than it need be. Lyrically the themes are of spiritual completeness, and finding inner peace, but rendered with absolutely no sense of joy. Only on The Beloved does he directly address the religion issue which does seem self-conscious and suffers for it. There’s faith and being faithful but is it entertaining to hear one man’s navel/religion gazing? The old Cat would mix melancholy and whimsy into a wholesome tune that was distinctly human. The older Yusuf still seems to have his voice intact but seems opaque and scrambling for any memorable tunes in this fog of meaning becomes meaningless.
Overall the voice is still a warm, weathered treasure but it’s propped up by some pretty moments on a distinctly ‘beige’ sounding album, tastefully, produced with a breath of fresh air. Some moments do however do sound very dated from the middle-of-the-road horns that bludgeon gentle acoustic opener Midday into some unnecessary illustration of ‘the city after dark’ to the wince-inducing lines that “Heaven must’ve programmed you” and the (mercifully brief) spoken word When Butterflies Leave.
There are moments of musical clarity that work such as on One Day At A Time the penultimate track Greenfields, Golden Sands (originally from 1968) where he seems to have found the key to a simple existence and is beautifully realized with .Predominantly acoustic the pulse is barely raised beyond a murmur but Maybe There’s A World with it’s angular chord changes and I Think I See The Light bristles with a welcome bluesy roll that recalls the Cat’s former brio of old.
The author of Wild World has obviously taken heed that ‘a lot of nice things turn bad out there’ but should also heed that now more than ever ‘it’s hard to get by upon just a smile’. The only acknowledgement of any of the old humanity at work is on the wry cover of Nina Simone‘s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. The Cat is back, albeit more of a moonshadow of his former self and lacking some purr and bite. Meow!