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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cat Stevens: Buddha And The Chocolate Box


1) Music; 2) Oh Very Young; 3) Sun/C79; 4) Ghost Town; 5) Jesus; 6) Ready; 7) King Of Trees; 8) A Bad Penny; 9) Home In The Sky.

Almost as if he suddenly woke up and became terrified at what 1973 did to his ego, Stevens hur­riedly backtracks — and ends up with a far more predictable, but just as problematic sequel to Catch Bull At Four. Paul Samwell-Smith is back in the producer's seat, the trusty old band with Alun Davies at the forefront is restored, and Jamaica is abandoned in favor of good old London. We are also back to the custom of weird album titles: this one, apparently, is due to Cat finding himself traveling on an airplane with a statuette of Buddha in one hand and a box of chocolates in the other, and implies being caught in a gap between the spiritual and the material. Although, it might be argued, the real Buddha would just wince back at him and ask, hey Cat, are you sure you can truly tell one from the other?

The main problem is that he got so busy telling one from the other, he hardly even noticed that he'd come out with one of his weakest albums to date. By this time, he'd graduated to Mr. Spiri­tual Incarnate, and where his records from the early 1970s could qualify as bold anti-commercial artistic statements (ironically, they sold pretty well), this record is largely a collection of sermons where the man frankly does not give a damn about anything else — be it catchy pop hooks or challenging chord sequences. He may have gone back to shorter songs, but at least the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ was not so utterly loaded with pretense as these tunes, where he comes forward as some master guru — and, let me add, without truly deserving it. In fact, this is the first record to contain Cat Stevens songs that I openly consider detestable.

Fortunately, that opinion does not concern the album's only single and Cat's last big original hit, before his commercial fortune abandoned him completely: ʽOh Very Youngʼ, sometimes called Stevens' response to ʽAmerican Pieʼ (since it also takes Buddy Holly as its pivot character), is a short and harmless acoustic ballad that implicitly suggests God might be a big fan of ʽWords Of Loveʼ (well, not exactly, but you can read the lyrics that way if you wish to). The preachiness is present here, too, but at least it has a decently written chorus; that said, I can certainly think of some better songs written by James Taylor, and that thought alone makes me shiver.

But almost everything else is simply dreadful: raw, poorly slapped together melodies that Cat tries to fatten up with ecstatic arrangements and vocal deliveries that suggest spiritual enlighten­ment, but ring hollow. ʽMusicʼ is a gospel-rock construct where Stevens tries going black once again, and the results are pitiful when viewed in context. ʽJesusʼ sounds like he's talking to the little kids again, so let us keep this one for the kindergarten hour. (As a sidenote, I will mention that the subject matter of the song — the unity of all religions — is the same as in George Harri­son's ʽLife Itselfʼ; the difference between the two is that Harrison fully redeems himself with the brilliant melodic lines in the opening thirty seconds of the song, a short, but beautiful guitar journey that is fifty times as spiritual as any of the words these guys come up with).

Worst of the lot is ʽKing Of Treesʼ, an eco-anthem that drags on for five minutes without any­thing interesting going on — the only thing that is supposed to attract attention is the tension and worry in the singer's voice as he violently and vehemently protests against cutting down trees, laying down the roads, and, I suppose, also against putting up the cozy Sound Techniques Studios where the album was recorded. Again, it is not the naïve, but admittedly sincere nature-loving lyrics that are embarrassing (although I would say that Joni Mitchell's ʽBig Yellow Taxiʼ at least has more original imagery): it is the fact — okay, the suspicion — that the song was quickly thrown together around the lyrics, not the other way around. And ultimately, all the talents of Joanne, Judy, Sunny, Ruby, Barry, Joy, Brigette, Suzanne, Jacqui, and other family-deprived singers recruited by Cat to give him gospel choir support go to waste.

I will not even try to discuss the rest of the songs. Melody-wise, even after four listens to this short collection of songs I cannot remember any of them. Lyrics-wise, they go from ecological rants to odes of salvation to condemnations of socialites (ʽA Bad Pennyʼ) that do not mean any­thing unless they are being put to good music. Perhaps the only exception is the lightweight ʽGhost Townʼ, a bit of harmonica and slide-driven country-rock used by Cat as an excuse to name some of his deceased favorites, from Chico & Harpo all the way down to Anne Boleyn. But it is clearly a throwaway, although it certainly does not offend me the way ʽKing Of Treesʼ does with its puffed-up seriousness.

Bottomline is: this time around, the man honestly does not even try. He used to fiddle about with odd combinations of folk melodies and Latin rhythms, dabble in medieval balladry, translate his verses into Latin, send cryptic messages that were a chore to decode, but here he just says to hell with it, assembles himself a gospel choir and presumes that as long as he preaches peace, love, and humility, this should be enough for anybody who is ready to follow. Well guess what? In this context, I definitely choose the chocolate box over Buddha. Thumbs down.


  1. Ok so you obviously don't like Cat Stevens. Fair enough. I gave this album a listen out of curiosity and I don't think it's half bad in a pleasant inoffensive easy listening sort of way. It's only preachy in a vague hippy sort of way since I don't think he'd embraced any formal religion at this time. Still though it puts into perspective how good he was before and just how elusive timeless melodies can be.

    1. GS has given Thumbs Ups to three out of the eight albums he's reviewed so far, so he doesn't "obviously dislike" him.

  2. One important thing, coming from someone who has read a lot about Cat Stevens over the years, he is not preaching in any of these albums, he is not speaking out. He's 100% talking about himself and his own position. These albums reflect his personal search going wrong after his initial comeback, suffering from some form of depression or something. The whole Buddha period his him flying through every religion and spiritituality on the list, tying and failing to find some sort of happiness. Ultimate he finds Islam and has a convenient excuse to opt out of a life and career he clearly can't handle.

    I dont disagree on Buddha being weak though I think his arrangments are pretty interesting.

  3. Honestly, the line between "speaking out your own position" and "preaching to the crowd" is always blurred in art. From a technical point of view, it is as faint as changing from "now they've cut down the trees" to an imperative "do not cut down the trees!", and one could always argue that the second is always implied in the first anyway. A public statement of occupying a strong moral position is not formally, but substantially the equivalent of inciting others to occupy the same moral position. From that point of view, Cat Stevens has always been "preachy" - at least from 1970 on.

    But, I reiterate: lots of artists are "preachy", in fact, one could say that one of the main (though not only) functions of art is to be preachy. In music, it only becomes a problem when the attraction of "musical form" is sacrificed for the (to me, quite boring at best and quite annoying at worst) attraction of "spiritual content", something of which Stevens was quite guilty at times. I mean, you can't really get any preachier than John Lennon, but he (almost!) never sacrificed his melodic gift for propaganda. It is really not for the lyrics that people still hold 'Imagine' on a pedestal, it is for its seductive melodic structure.

    1. I agree with you on the melody over lyrics issue, is spite of the fact that I have always put I high value on the message of the lyrics. I don't mind a little preaching, even if I disagree with it. Imagine is my case in point: I do not want to live in John Lennon's unified fairy land of no religion, no heaven, no hell, no poop, etc. I'm not even sure John himself would want to live in such a place, but that's just my opinion (I am a preacher after all). But at least he has the guts to say it, and put it to great music. Indeed, I cannot help myself succumbing to his song's spell. Same with No. 9 Dream, and those lyrics make NO sense.

      Another example would be Steppenwolf's The Pusher. I don't agree with the whole "Dealer good/Pusher evil" dichotomy, but I LOVE the way John Kay sings, "God DAMN the Pusher Man!" Yes, it violates the Third Commandment, but at least it SOUNDS like he really believes it.

  4. the whole point of having "songs" is to set words to music. Otherwise you'd stick to instrumental music. The word are actually more important in songs for that reason, even if a beguiling melody makes them more listenable and remain the focus of the listeners attention.

    As for preachiness you may technically separate it from simply stating your viewpoint but they're worlds apart. A preacher is trying to persuade or even dictate to others. Not just stating his beliefs even if he believes strongly in them but determining that his truth should be everyone else's.

    Lennon Was not preaching in Imagine. Nor was Stevens even in this album. They were merely putting their personal truths in song form.

    1. The whole point of having "songs" is to have your words backed up by music. Otherwise you'd stick to poetry. This is why "songs" may be enjoyed on a cross-cultural level, unlike (untranslated) poetry, because music is a (more or less) universal language. This is also why poor lyrics, far from qualifying as solid poetry, may be easily tolerated in songs if they are conveyed with sufficient emotion that correlates with the general mood of the music - it does not so much matter what is sung as how it is sung, with the human voice functioning as an additional, and important, musical instrument (which is why vocal songs are not the same as instrumental music).

      As for preachiness, the very fact of strongly stating your beliefs not before yourself or an imaginary conversationalist like God, but publicly, before potential hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of listeners is in itself a form of preachiness, since it inevitably implies a desire to "infect" the listeners with your beliefs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it is hypocrisy to deny that it is so. In terms of illocutive force, "I hope some day you'll join us" is not the same as "I order you to join us", but in practical terms, the former is much more likely to have a persuasive effect on the listener than the latter.

  5. The word preach is sometimes used synonymously with persuade but that's not what it means. I agree that preachiness is an attempt to alter people's beliefs but it's more than that. Simply stating your beliefs as you or I are doing now does not qualify as preachiness. It is the assertion of what each of us thinks even if an element of implicit persuasion is there.

    But it lacks the vocational attempt to Convert the other person to a certain worldview. It matters to the preacher that his audience is converted. It matters to a religious person that others share their views which is why preaching is usually religious. Fair enough you Could portray much of Lennon solo work as preaching because there are humanitarian quasi religious themes he kept returning to. But it was incidental to his songwriting in my opinion. For me Stevens was just recording his personal journey in song.

    Totally disagree about songs however. If the use of the voice as an instrument was a formative influence on songwriting then most songs would simply involve chanting. Hardly any do or ever have and been called songs. The very purpose of songs is to relay words in a musical form. That the lyrics can be bad is irrelevant as is the fact that people can enjoy the music but not the words. Quality and enjoyment are descriptive not defining characteristics. So the fact that many pop lyrics are vapid shallow or silly and still have people singing to them is a reflection of the audience, it does not mean the words are meaningless or silly to Them.