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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cat Stevens: Teaser And The Firecat


1) The Wind; 2) Rubylove; 3) If I Laugh; 4) Changes IV; 5) How Can I Tell You; 6) Tuesday's Dead; 7) Morning Has Broken; 8) Bitterblue; 9) Moonshadow; 10) Peace Train.

Together with Tillerman, this album generally forms the backbone of the Cat Stevens legend: both were his most commercially successful and critically applauded projects, both yielded many of his best-known songs and both continue to be top-rank recommendations for neophytes. Less heavily publicized is the fact that the two records, actually, are strikingly different in certain ways, and, in my opinion, the differences do not necessarily come out in favor of Teaser; in fact, de­spite its generous brevity, accessibility, and inevitably alluring friendliness, I find it surprisingly hard to warm up to its material on the same heat level with Tillerman.

The whole package was superficially marketed as a «children's album» — starting from the carto­onish album cover and ending with an actual children's book that Cat wrote about the adventures of the album's two characters and published soon after the release of the record. In essential terms this is not really true: although the main lyrical and emotional themes of Teaser are quite easily accessible for kids and adults alike, they are serious and realistic — songs about, well, uhm, peace, love, and understanding, for the lack of a worse cliché. The «kiddie setting» here is more to underline the innocence and idealism of the singer-songwriter than to specifically appeal to a young audience: like most folk-based troubadours of the early Seventies, Stevens quite expressly catered to all ages and all social backgrounds. And yet, in the process, I think he crossed a certain line that usually separates «serious» from «cutesy» — nor does it help that «cutesy» can occasio­nally be irritating when it is too strongly mixed with «preachy».

Musically, the record is markedly more minimalistic than its predecessor: many of the songs feature nothing but one or two acoustic guitars that may or may not receive the gentle, non-intru­sive support of pianos and a rhythm section. It is with this minimalism, one that places nothing between the tender heart of the artist and his enthralled listeners, that Stevens makes his point: melody-wise, as usual, there is very little here that goes beyond the ABCs of folk-based singer-songwriters, although it is still nice to see him cleverly weave together Anglo-Saxon folk music and Latin motives on stuff like ʽRubyloveʼ. But friendly minimalism can sometimes backfire: unless you support it with a touch of McCartney-style musical genius, its insistent «let me be your friend in need!» message may provoke a shoulder-shrugging reaction.

Case in point — the man's biggest hit and the song with which he is most commonly associated by those people who have never even seen Harold And Maude: ʽPeacetrainʼ. It has an interesting melodic trick up its sleeve, with the rising chord progression over the verses giving the illusion of an ever-rising stairwell or, perhaps, of an endless row of people mounting the proverbial train. But it is stylistically cut out as a rousing, gospel-tinged R&B number, and yet it has nothing like the true potential of one. It is Cat's personal ʽImagineʼ, but where the minimalism of ʽImagineʼ felt perfectly natural, it being more of a personal fantasy / prayer than a public sermon (even if the lyrics could technically allow you to construe it as one), ʽPeacetrainʼ desperately needs to be louder and prouder (à la ʽPower To The Peopleʼ rather than ʽImagineʼ, actually) for its potential to be fully realised. It is not at all bad — it just feels demo-ish, if you know what I mean.

As, well, does most of this record. It is just so quiet, so inoffensive, so sentimental, that even songs that could be formally stated to have pop hooks (ʽChanges IVʼ, ʽTuesday's Deadʼ) take a long, long time to win my attention; and yet, it is also not the kind of J. J. Cale-like, arrogantly defying minimalism that tacitly shouts in your face «I'm gonna do the bare minimum and you are fuckin' goin' to like it!», nor is it the grim Taoistic minimalism of a Nick Drake that haunts you with its world-gone-wrong spirit. Nor is it even a grotesque elfish-prince minimalism of a Donovan, whose antics might scare away some people, but eventually win over others with their outstanding goofiness. Instead, it is a warm-evening-on-the-front-porch kind of minimalism, starting with the gently self-probing introduction of ʽThe Windʼ (which does, appropriately, have a reference to the "setting sun") and ending with the (misguidedly) humble admonition of ʽPeace­trainʼ. In between these, the only song that ended up genuinely moving me on a certain level of spiritual depth was ʽIf I Laughʼ — its melody has a subtle twist of George Harrison-like tragism that elevates it to the level of high art. But everything else is just... nice.

Were I John Lennon (heck, I have already made references to two out of four, so why not make it three? now if only «Peace and Love» Ringo happened to make a cover of ʽPeacetrainʼ, we could close the circle and go home), anyway, were I John Lennon, I would not have missed a chance to scoff at the record and dismiss it as, say, «pleasantries for peasantries». What makes it different from so many other «pleasantries» of (technically) the same kind is that it has style, charisma, and heart — no matter how lightweight the songs may sound while they are on or how quickly forgotten they may be when they are gone, it is clear that they are all a part of the man's humble, respectful search for the Big Truth — a search that, if you don't mind me blasphemizing in the face of The Almighty, ultimate­ly ended up somewhat caricaturesquely, but commanded respect and acceptance on the level of Teaser And The Firecat. Nevertheless, despite the catchy cho­ruses of ʽChanges VIʼ and ʽTuesday's Deadʼ and even despite the heart-tugging pang of misery on ʽIf I Laughʼ, I do not foresee myself returning to this album as frequently as I might be revisi­ting Tea For The Tillerman — or, heck, even Matthew & Son, for that matter.


  1. I also like this quite a bit less than its predecessor, though, again, I think I like it a bit more than you. I find myself coming back to Moonshadow and I do find the Wind just insanely lovely. Really good point about Peace Train, though. It is one of his most famous songs but it's far from his best because, as you say, the arrangement is all wrong. Not a great album for sure, but a very nice one.

    1. I dunno, I kinda like some of the Latin/Mediterranean moves on the guitars.

  2. I respect your views here, I think the album suffers from being packed between an already consolidated style of "Tea for the tillerman" and a bit more diverse "Catch bull at four". If I had to pick one song as a favourite, I think I'd pick "Changes IV": it uplifts the mood of the whole record perfectly and its positive vibes are hard to resist.

  3. Agree 100% with the review. A shame, but that's the way it is.

  4. Hmm. And I though I was the majority on this:

  5. The songs here are definitely more universal than personal as in his previous effort. As a result they don't hang together so well as there's little real continuity and the lyrical themes and styles, for all the minimalism, vary wildly.

    You can argue about the quality of the material all day but for me his gift for melody is one which very few, McCartney aside, have ever matched.