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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Cat Stevens: Mona Bone Jakon


1) Lady D'Arbanville; 2) Maybe You're Right; 3) Pop Star; 4) I Think I See The Light; 5) Trouble; 6) Mona Bone Jakon; 7) I Wish, I Wish; 8) Katmandu; 9) Time; 10) Fill My Eyes; 11) Lilywhite.

The humble beginnings of Stevens' «proper» career are captured on an album that, according to the man's own confessions, is titled after a nickname he'd invented for his own penis. Fortunately, nobody will ever be able to guess this without a hint (not even lines like "yes, I've got a Mona Bone Jakon / But it won't be lonely for long" will be much help), which explains why the album in question can safely allow itself to be an exercise in gallant sentimental folk pop instead of having to attract promiscuous ladies with lustful tales of resplendent virility. But it does showcase the man's rather uniquely warped sense of humor, and, in a way, agrees nicely with his ability to raise important and even pretentious topics while staying all low-key and humble. I mean, now that you know he named his first true record after his penis, you won't be tempted to take it all too seriously, now would you?

In the place of Mike Hurst's lushly orchestrated production we now see Paul Samwell-Smith's bare bones approach, intended to get the best and juiciest of sounds out of a minimalistic combo: one or two acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and occasional keyboard support every now and then (on an interesting trivia note, young and not-yet-famous Peter Gabriel plays a flute part some­where in the back of the studio on ʽKathmanduʼ). I will not say that this is necessarily better than Hurst's style: the common view is that it eliminates much of the expendable distance that sepa­rates the artist from the listener, and that it is only with Mona Bone Jakon that Stevens finally became able to establish that lucky rapport — and it is probably right, just as it is right that these songs are more lyrically mature and personal.

However, at this point I cannot say that Stevens has significantly improved as a melody writer when compared to 1967 — I struggle hard to find a tune that would be more melodically sophis­ticated than ʽMatthew & Sonʼ or ʽLadyʼ. Cat's compositional style is a clever mix of folk balladry and Tin Pan Alley, with a bit of the blues and a bit of sunny pop in between, but he hardly does anything here that had not already been done by Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake or Randy Newman, and the indi­vidual songs, frankly speaking, are not too memorable — perhaps precisely because Cat was intentionally crafting an «anti-pop» album here, one that would formally respect the prerequisites of the genre (short songs with verse-chorus structures) but would really be just a collection of impressionistic vignettes, reflecting specific moods. Once this becomes the default way of view­ing it — as a vibe-oriented, not hook-oriented thing — the situation becomes easier.

The lead single, ʽLady D'Arbanvilleʼ, actually remains the only «classic» song here, frequently appearing in Stevens' live performances. A somewhat rare occasion of a mourning tune written in relation to a living person (the title refers to Patti D'Arbanville, Stevens' ex-lover who seems to have betrayed his feminine ideal by not treating him too seriously), it is unusual in its combina­tion of a seemingly medieval ballad motif with an almost Latin dance rhythm pattern — I cannot take on the task of decoding this symbolism, but it was intriguing enough to push the song high up the charts, despite its lyrical suggestion of necrophilia ("I'll wake you tomorrow / And you will be my fill" — now sing this in an Alice Cooper voice, and you might be getting somewhere). It is probably the catchiest song of the lot, simply because of its bounce and its la-la-la-la-las and its ugly backing harmonies that sound like grinning harpies, but its own subtle irony is what ultima­tely prevents it from becoming a tragic masterpiece: there is no real grief in the singer's voice, everything is quite openly theatrical (not in the sense that the song lacks emotion, but certainly in the sense that it should not be taken literally as a death lament).

Elsewhere, there is some more astute-but-still-mediocre material like ʽPop Starʼ, a song with a clever premise of taking the traditional "mama mama I'm going away / mama mama I'm coming back home" theme and replacing "away" with "going to be a pop star" (so, in a way, you could think of it as autobiographical, provided that we regard 1967 as the «pop star year» for Stevens), but lyrically crude and melodically underdeveloped. But Stevens is at his best not when he is trying to be hip and ironic, but when he is putting his heart on his sleeve — ʽTroubleʼ is a beauti­fully wrung-out prayer whose existence almost justifies the man's illness, and I actually like the Dylanesque ʽMaybe You're Rightʼ, with its simple rolling piano melody, more than I like ʽLady D'Arbanvilleʼ, even if it is far less unusual in the melodic aspect. It's just that Cat Stevens having a realistic one-sided dialog with his ex-girlfriend sounds more appealing than Cat Stevens eulo­gizing his living girlfriend in a snide half-Robin Hood, half-Caetano Veloso manner.

On the whole, though, Mona Bone Jakon is very light — even early James Taylor, let alone Elton John, gives the impression of being «weightier». The arrangements are so breezy, the man's voice is so fluffy (although it'd already roughened up a bit after the sickness period), the words are so idealistic, the atmosphere is so courteous that it is simply not right to say that the man had experienced some kind of complete rebirth since 1967. In reality, this is just one more step in a process of gradual evolution that would reach culmination very soon but never ever transform the man into something he'd never been a part of even in his teenage years. Heck, he's so gallant and polite, he can't even bring himself to call his dick by its rightful name, and if that's not reason enough to push the final decision in the direction of a friendly thumbs up, I don't know what is.


  1. Something missed in this review is that many of the songs on this album were chosen as the soundtrack to Harold & Maude, a film about a love affair between a death-fixated teenage boy and a very old woman. It belies the idea that the songs are light and fluffy but there is a coming of age theme in many of the lyrics which maybe the review is hinting at.

    I rate the songs higher and think a few of them could have benefitted from big productions (I think I see the Light, in particular). I think they fall somewhere between folk and pop, but either way there's a timeless quality to his songwriting which I think mostly eluded the likes of James Taylor and even Joni Mitchell (with exceptions of course), who on the other hand mastered the folk form more fully with its predilection for musicianship over catchiness.

    1. For millions of people, the song "Trouble" is inextricable from that gorgeously edited montage at the end of Harold & Maude. I'm fine with that. Many of the masterpiece parts of that movie involve cinematic participation with Stevens's songs from this era. There's an alchemy of imagery & music at work that puts the history of MTV to shame. I agree that it does deserve mentioning.

    2. Yes. And it's easy to forget that Stevens was around 21 himself at this time. To be even capable of writing Trouble at that age is pretty remarkable.

  2. I dig the album's post-traumatic vibe, it can even become my favourite Cat Stevens' album if I'm in a certain mood (I actually consider "Catch Bull At Four" to be his artistic peak which I know is freaky).

  3. As a Tropicalia fan, I hope your reference to Caetano Veloso means some reviews of his work are on the horizon!