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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Cat Stevens: Back To Earth


1) Just Another Night; 2) Daytime; 3) Bad Brakes; 4) Randy; 5) The Artist; 6) Last Love Song; 7) Nascimento; 8) Father; 9) New York Times; 10) Never.

On July 4, 1978, precisely at the moment that this humble (and thoroughly Godless) reviewer was turning two, Steven Georgiou officially changed his name to Cat St... that is, I mean, Yusuf Islam — because Yusuf happened to be his favorite Quranic character (I presume that young Steven had never read the Book of Genesis), and Islam happened to be his favorite religion, way more cool than Numerology even. After his newly discovered brothers in the faith convinced him that the career of a pop musician was spiritually incompatible with Allah, he took the decision to quit, but not before releasing one final album, because he still owed one to A&M records, and Allah is pretty strict and straightforward on the issue of paying debts, even ones owed in pop music cur­rency. Hence Back To Earth, a somewhat oddly titled, but perfectly valid record that puts a full stop to Stevens' musical career in the 20th century.

Given the circumstances, it would be unreasonable to expect a masterpiece, yet the album does not exactly sound like a throwaway, either. There is still some mild experimentation, a couple of instrumentals that exploit some new ideas, and, most importantly, there is no explicit feeling that the artist no longer gives a damn about whatever it is he is doing, which is curious considering that the album is totally not pro-Islamic: the closest thing to a religious anthem here is ʽFatherʼ, and even that one seems to be alternately addressed to God and to his real father, who ended up dying on the exact same day that the album was released. As it is, the album is neither too happy nor too sad, and if you were simply to judge by the quality and atmosphere of the songs alone, you'd probably never guess about the revolutionary changes that took place in Stevens' religious, moral, and everyday life in 1978.

On a relative scale, I would place the album below most of the classics, but, like, Izitso, above the meanderings of his 1972-1975 period. The country-tinged opener, ʽJust Another Nightʼ, is graced with a simple, but warmly touching piano riff and a classy, though unfortunately subdued, steel guitar part from Brian Cole; its lyrical theme, a thinly veiled letter of recognition and con­tempt to Mrs. Music Industry, is hardly new, but it is nice to observe how neither the words nor the intonations, let alone the gentle melody, harbor any demonstrative hatred. ʽLast Love Songʼ, according to Stevens himself, dealt with the critical backlash against his conversion — with another love metaphor, but a less interesting piano melody that is more suitable for a power ballad than a humble confession; nevertheless, the woodwind-imitating synth solo is a curious find, and the song never really crosses into power ballad territory from the threshold.

For the singles, Stevens chose the most hard-rocking track on the album (ʽBad Brakesʼ — more like Bad Company, to be honest, than Cat Stevens!) and a sentimental ballad, ʽRandyʼ, that sounds like a Phil Collins / Bernie Taupin collaboration and was probably released to confuse the audience: a gay love anthem from somebody who had just embraced one of the strictest anti-gay religions in the world? There'd be much more to discuss if the song were good, but, unfortunately, it isn't: too many sappy strings and a lazy coda that regurgitates clichéd ballad chord sequences. Once again, while the album as a whole still holds up as an artistic statement, the singles seem to be relatively shallow and boring creations, given an «objectively» commercial coating so that the label could get off Stevens' back.

At the same time, a track like ʽDaytimeʼ, with its careful mix of electric and acoustic pianos, acoustic guitars, and saxes, despite formally lacking the "Randy, oh my Randy" type of hook, produces a much better atmospheric impression; and ʽFatherʼ is acutely funky, with attractively grim interplay between bass and electric guitar that conveys a better sense of tension than just about anything Cat had done in the previous several years. Of the instrumentals, ʽThe Artistʼ is just a pretty way to spend two minutes in an elevator, but ʽNascimentoʼ, a collaboration with the horn section of Tower Of Power, is another experiment in jazz-rock, although this time with a strong disco flavor — the tune would probably never work on its own, and it is certainly nowhere near as futuristic as ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ, but it is still exciting, in a way, to hear the man engage in this strange passion at a time when body-oriented dance music should have officially been the smallest possible of all his concerns.

For the last paragraph of his musical testament, Stevens chose an ambiguous strategy again, writing another mixed-feeling letter to the world he was leaving behind: ʽNeverʼ may not be one of his best songs (not least because it lifts a key chord sequence from George Harrison's ʽBeware Of Darknessʼ to serve as the song's main melodic hook), but it is a suitably clever testament that still leaves him a way out ("I know there'll be another time... there's going to be another story") even as the door is closing shut. At least the man said his goodbyes in a quiet, humble, and polite manner, instead of giving us some overblown anthem or a goodbye-cruel-world style bitter curse. Then again, what else could you really expect?

Critical reaction to Back On Earth was predictably poor, because pop music industry usually does not take lightly to its idols choosing a religious path (and usually for good reason, might I add sacrilegiously); however, if the songs are to be judged on their own merit, without the accom­panying knowledge, I do not see what it is that would make this a particularly worse record than just about anything post-Tillerman — other than, perhaps, the subpar singles, but it's not like this was completely unprecedented for Cat, either. It is no Abbey Road, for sure: Stevens never went out on a limb to produce a sweeping musical testament for the ages, but then, he'd always been humble by nature, and his conversion should only have multiplied that humility. Yet when you put it under a microscope, it is very clearly a career-closing statement, and thus, an indispensable listen for all those interested in the spiritual and musical evolution of Britain's deepest soft-rocker... or was that Britain's softest deep-rocker? Whatever. After 1978 it all became irrelevant anyway — goodbye, Cat Stevens, hello, Yusuf Islam and his 50,000 edutainment records for little Muslim children.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty unpretentious for a swan song yet some parts are quite enjoyable. "Nascimento" is, as you said, surprisingly sexy and funky for an album about a spiritual enlightment. The funniest song though must be "New York times" - a hilarious, angry diatribe against yet another american city (though "Kansas city nightmare" was addmitedly more about his LSD experiences than anything else).
    Just want to add I'm glad you've managed to review C.S. after all these years. I may have disagreed with you on the subject (more often than not to be honest) but I really appreciate the effort.