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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Cat Stevens: Catch Bull At Four


1) Sitting; 2) Boy With A Moon & Star On His Head; 3) Angelsea; 4) Silent Sunlight; 5) Can't Keep It In; 6) 18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare); 7) Freezing Steel; 8) O Caritas; 9) Sweet Scarlet; 10) Ruins.

Okay, this one is definitely not for the little children. Almost as if to intentionally distance him­self from the lightweight attitude of the last record, here Stevens offers us a cycle of really «heavy» songs that ultimately combine in a sort of multi-part proclamation of spiritual intent. From the first to the last track, a few interludes notwithstanding, Catch Bull At Four is focused on conveying the following two truths: (a) the world around us is evil, corrupt, and degraded; (b) the artist Cat Stevens takes this state of the world as a personal challenge and is going to do every­thing in his power to at least avoid being contaminated by its evil and degradation, and at most, even lend a helping hand in partially remedying its problems.

This is a noble and admirable intent indeed, perhaps going even further than similar projects like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On; but it could easily suffer from the same problem — too much spirituality and not enough striking musical ideas. In terms of arrangements, Catch Bull At Four goes well beyond its predecessor: there is more orchestration, more emphasis on loudness and bombast, and Cat has also developed a serious interest in keyboards, playing everything from standard and electric pianos to organs and even minimoogs. But in terms of melodic basis, he seems to be seriously stuck in two modes — piano balladry and the Renaissance folk tradition; both of which are respectable, but only when you really try to experiment with these forms rather than simply letting them carry you with the current, while you yourself are way too busy questio­ning your reasons for existence in this sad, sordid world.

The record never really gets better than its opening song, ʽSittingʼ, and even that one is no masterpiece. Its most prominent element is not its ringing piano riff, which is a fairly trivial exer­cise in folk-pop, but rather Cat's ultra-serious and surprisingly gruff vocal tone: his voice may have gone through a natural lowering by that time, but it seems to me that he is very self-con­sciously moving away from the «fairness» of his vocal intonations, replacing them with a stern Biblical scruffiness to make the whole thing sound more like a sermon, or, rather, a personal religious confession: "I feel the power growing in my hair" is, after all, a line fit for a modern day Samson, and you can't really voice a Samson with the voice of young Joseph. But even so, the song — as a musical entity — seems very lazy, especially since the chorus, being just a small up-the-scale variation on the verse, never capitalizes upon the promise of the latter.

This «laziness», however, is even more pronounced on the interminable ballad ʽThe Boy With A Moon & Star On His Headʼ — six minutes of the exact same folksy acoustic riff, during which time you are treated to an odd (and, I'd say, quite morally ambiguous) story of cheating on one's fiancée for the sake of getting a bastard offspring from a gardener's daughter. Curiously, even though the "moon and star" reference would seem to be very directly pointing towards Stevens' conversion to Islam, that was definitely not in the works yet as of 1972; and yet, in a way, the story may be interpreted as a prophetic allegory of his future conversion. For all its artistic intrigue, though, it is just a generic six-minute folk ballad with no development whatsoever — there is one point midway through when the acoustic lull is suddenly interrupted by a crash of percussion and flutes, but it is just for a couple bars to simulate the "merriment" during the protagonist's wedding. Granted, I can pardon these things to Bob Dylan if he has the unique sonic atmosphere to go along with them (ʽSad-Eyed Ladyʼ, etc.), or to Fairport Convention if they raise and sustain the nervous tension (ʽMatty Grovesʼ, etc.), but this is just too... sleepy.

As the first single from the album, Cat chose ʽCan't Keep It Inʼ, one of the album's livelier tunes with a bombastic arrangement, overwhelming vocal harmonies, and danceable rhythm, not to mention the grandiose message that pops out almost immediately: "Oh I can't keep it in, I've gotta let it out, I've got to show the world, world's got to see, see all the love that's in me". It is unclear, though, why he would choose the same gruff tone to deliver the message — the song, once again, sounds more like a professional church sermon than a heartfelt personal plea, and the more I listen to it, the more I understand that the church, rather than a club or an arena, is a perfect set­ting in which to perform it, and that is not a good sign.

The three most interesting songs on the album would probably have to be ʽAngelseaʼ, a love­struck folk dance whose acoustic verses are oddly woven together with dark Moog oscillations (the «folktronica» style here is strangely prescient of Jethro Tull's work from the early Eighties); ʽ18th Avenueʼ — another apocalyptic narrative with loud piano and string interludes, probably influenced by Elton John but also strangely prescient of... Meatloaf?; and ʽO' Caritasʼ, another «world gone wrong» type song with multi-tracked vocals that were specially translated for Cat into Latin, so that the final result would have a Carmina Burana-like flair (though the acoustic melody is more Spanish / Greek folk than medieval stylization). However, these musical ideas are not enough, per se, to completely redeem the album; and it ends on an even more anti-climactic note than it began — ʽRuinsʼ is 100% pumped-up preachy feeling, with clichéd lyrics to boot ("don't stop that sun to shine, it's not yours or mine" is simply no way to end a good record).

Surprisingly, the record sold fairly well, and it even became Stevens' only No. 1 in the US — probably following in the footsteps of Teaser; critics, however, have rarely liked it for its rela­tive dearth of musical ideas and its unveiled populism, and this time I must concur — Catch Bull At Four is a classic example of a songwriter overrating his own importance, even if doing this in good faith and out of a sincere desire to help get things right. Still worth a listen or two, but I would be surprised if more than one or two songs off it got stuck around in your head for too long; and I would be downright embarrassed if you told me that, in its time, it helped you to become a better person and begin campaigning for waste sorting or world peace or something.


  1. Though it might spur an infidelity in the woods and even provide the accompanying soundtrack. Come to think of it, maybe "The Boy..." is intentionally long and dull as to be background lovemaking music. 6 minutes (with a percussion climax halfway through) is all the Cat needs.

  2. Here's my two cents.

    This album sounds like the real sequel to Tillerman, the wide-eyed protagonist setting off on his journey for meaning or redemption and returning world-weary and cynical. It lacks the prettiness of the intervening album, but that was on one level a regression from Tillerman into well-intentioned but fairly banal truisms, for all the fancy packaging. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Sweet Scarlet, which sounds like the follow-up to Sad Lisa, only now, the offer of help is replaced by an almost funereal tone chronicling the tragedy that has by now seemingly occurred.

    Stevens isn't really a poet so there's little point in looking for clever metaphorical wordplay in his lyrics. His main strength is his melodic gift, which he seems to be deliberately restraining himself from applying here (I reckon that's why Sitting, like several other songs, doesn't have much beyond the simple introductory riff - listen to his first two albums for proof of how he could incorporate several catchy hooks into a 3 minute song), and in the inventiveness and diversity of the themes he chooses to sing about.

    There are a couple of duds here - agree with the assessment of Moon and Star - but you have to give him credit for investing, or trying to, his songs with real meaning. He's been on the journey and discovered that life is mostly about reflection (Sitting) honest toil (the lovely Silent Sunlight), that it's often meaningless (18th Avenue) and even that we're all doomed (the stunning and unique O Caritas, and the downbeat Ruins).

    The hit-making Stevens is now a thing of the past, which is a double-edged sword given that his real strength was always his sense of melody rather than his gift for lyrical expression, as opposed to insight. On Tillerman, he combined both, which is why it's his essential album.

  3. 18th Avenue is specifically about a bad LSD trip in Kansas City.

  4. An amazingly dumb and prejudiced review of a poignant and musically clever work of art. Congratulations mr. Starostin on reaching new lows...

    1. Thank you for an amazingly informative and exceptionally polite comment. Keep 'em coming.