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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cat Stevens: New Masters

CAT STEVENS: NEW MASTERS (1967)

1) Kitty; 2) I'm So Sleepy; 3) Northern Wind; 4) The Laughing Apple; 5) Smash Your Heart; 6) Moonstone; 7) The First Cut Is The Deepest; 8) I'm Gonna Be King; 9) Ceylon City; 10) Blackness Of The Night; 11) Come On Baby Shift That Log; 12) I Love Them All; 13*) Image Of Hell; 14*) Lovely City When Do You Laugh; 15*) The View From The Top; 16*) Here Comes My Wife; 17*) It's A Super Dupa Life; 18*) Where Are You; 19*) A Bad Night.

Overall consensus seems to favor the idea that while Matthew & Son might be redeemable as a record, New Masters is not, and I can see where it comes from: the record is simply not as punchy, and tends to drift into boring sentimentalism much more often than its predecessor. Per­haps it was rushed, and Stevens simply did not have enough time to flesh out the songs; perhaps there is too much input from Mike Hurst, who keeps drowning Stevens' personality in brass, wood­winds, strings, and an overall baroque atmosphere every bit as tailor-made as the outfit that the man is wearing on the front cover (but he's still fairly gorgeous, right? I actually favor this freshly shaven Byronesque look more than the bearded straggler of the years to come...). The songs are not hopeless and not devoid of Cat's personality, but they take far more time to assimi­late, and the endless cuddliness is a strong impediment.

That he might have been scraping that barrel is evident, for instance, in the decision to record and release ʽThe First Cut Is The Deepestʼ, a song that he had written as early as 1965, and one that went on to become a major sappy hit for several performers, including P. P. Arnold, Keith Hamp­shire, and Rod Stewart. It is one of those lush ballads that is completely dependent on the specific performance, and Stevens' own performance is mediocre — he is no Brother Gibb, and the com­bination of a pompous, give-it-all-you-got instrumental melody with Stevens' technically weak (as in, not-too-powerful) voice could only work if he'd sought out some unique twist, but he does not: he just sings it because he wrote it. It isn't awful, but it's telling: there's just no reason to hear this kind of material done by its own author.

It did not necessarily have to be that way: ʽKittyʼ, the first number, opens the album in the same playful-ironic mode that made most of Matthew & Son so enjoyable. It is hard to decipher what the song is really about — it all depends on what the line "when my little kitty gets out" really means — but in any case, it is a delightful slice of happy Brit-pop where the little man allows himself some laughs at the expense of those who are "wiping their silver spoons", and the accom­panying tricksterish woodwinds really come in handy. Had all the album been like this, it would be a gas to sit through. But with the second song, ʽI'm So Sleepyʼ, it intrudes upon the turf of elfish minstrels like Donovan, and I am not fully convinced; and with the third song, ʽNorthern Windʼ, it enters the territory of Peter, Paul & Mary, and this is... odd.

Without forcing myself to get too deep in sordid details, I will simply voice the general complaint: all these songs sound way too forcibly «rose-colored», with Stevens trying to create for himself a far more suave and seductive image than he was born for — in fact, a far more suave image than the one on Matthew & Son. His melodic talents and charismatic personality help ensure that he almost never embarrasses himself in a direct manner, but even so, a couple of the songs are still cringeworthy, like the amorous log cabin owner anthem ʽCome On Babyʼ, with arguably the dumbest chorus that Cat ever wrote — "Come on baby shift that log / Come on baby wash that dog" is a fantastic choice of words for what is, essentially, a romantic serenade. And ʽI'm Gonna Be Kingʼ sounds like potential filler ready-made for a Monkees record.

Apparently, the British public shared the same opinion, too, refusing to buy large quantities of New Masters (and even that album cover did not help!), and ultimately leading to the rift be­tween Decca, Hurst, and Stevens. The CD edition is helpful in that it also adds several songs that were released by Cat as singles from 1967 to 1969 — some of which are far better than anything on the album, including the hilarious ʽHere Comes My Wifeʼ (presaging John Entwistle's similar­ly thematicized ʽMy Wifeʼ by a good three years) and the pensive acoustic ballad ʽWhere Are Youʼ that already presages the man's «classic» style (though it is still spoiled by excessive orche­stration). Then, in 1969, the man contracted tuberculosis, spent some time on the threshold be­tween life and death, and lost all contact with his previous life as a result — and I must say that, while I am a little sad about the loss of connection to Matthew & Son, I sure as hell am happy that he never made another set of New Masters.

4 comments:

  1. Horses for courses I guess but I love this album. I discovered it after getting into Tea for the Tillerman and found to my ears at least an almost endless feast of beautifully crafted pop/rock showcasing the shallow splendour of the art form, many of the songs comprised of timeless melodies flowing seamlessly into one another. Or am I getting carried away here? Even the lyrics are imaginatively inventive, if child-like, as though lifted from a Harry Potter dreamscape.

    From my own reading of the history there was hardly any promotion of the album due to Stevens' rebellion against his record label. Perhaps the relative shallowness and hit obsesselion got to him and accounts for his illness. Still he was to come back with his melodic powers fully in tact and a spiritual persona which was itself another staging post to his final destination. Pop's loss was Folk's gain.

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  2. Well, can't help but disagree about this one. Maybe I just like baroque pop more than I should but I just can't see any major difference (or drop) in quality between this and the first album and always considered you'd either have to enjoy or despise them altogether. Contrary to what you've said about "rose-coloured glasses" I treat this as a "Matthew & Son"'s murkier twin brother. He's already on a verge of insanity in the first track with "Blackness of the night" and "Image of hell" ensuing.
    The interesting thing is, whether he would change his style if not for tuberculosis? This gives me the impression that he was already heading towards that way and the disease was only a catalyst.

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    1. Yes there was a social conscience there already. It would have been interesting if he stuck to the pop formula musically and been able to add depth and spirituality to more sugarcoated tones tho I doubt it would have worked. Dylan pulled it off on Blonde on Blonde.

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  3. First Cut is indeed the first great Cat Stevens song. I mean, it's about cutting, so it's important, right? But I agree, this is a classic example of the songwriter not being the right singer for his song.

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