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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cat Stevens: Foreigner


1) Foreigner Suite; 2) The Hurt; 3) How Many Times; 4) Later; 5) 100 I Dream.

The funny thing about this album is that Cat Stevens really had no intention of making it look like a prog rock effort — by all accounts, he was getting deeper into soul and R&B and had decided that his next record would be closer to his black influences than his white ones. In order to make a clean start (something that was further aided by the usual necessity of a British musical resident to go into tax exile), he moved to Brazil, then to Jamaica, got himself a completely new team of musicians, and produced the record himself. All of this, he believed, would pull him out of the pop star rut and open him to unlimited possibilities.

A big problem, however, stems from the simple fact that Cat Stevens ain't black, nor does he have any of those musical qualities that make the best of black music so irresistible. Foreigner, named that way with a certain degree of self-irony, tries to tame funky rhythms and generate a soulful atmosphere, but every time it does, it very quickly beomes obvious just how uncomfortable and struggling Stevens is with the material. Every time a potentially decent groove appears here, it is being treated with the same polite, fragile reverence as you can see on, say, a mid-period Chicago album: the music is simply too quiet and sterile, with Cat's passion-burning vocals always the most, if not the only, active ingredient of any given song. He might be trying all right, but I'd rather prefer he didn't — it is one thing to ascribe the disappointing effect of a record to acciden­tal laziness, and quite another thing to inavoidable impotence.

The progressive rock connotations are, of course, due to the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ that occupies the entire first side of the album — honestly, though, it seems to be that long simply because Stevens got carried away at some point, and not because he was looking up to the achievements of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, or Jethro Tull. It certainly does not start out like your typical prog rock suite: no introduction whatsoever, as Cat jumps into vocal action immediately, with a soul­ful "There are no words I can use!..." declaration that already has his heart on his sleeve, without much fuss or preparation. Of course, he then goes on to use plenty of words — but also plenty of music, since ʽForeigner Suiteʼ is his most complex musical endeavor to date. The song goes through numerous sections, none of which, unfortunately, happen to be particularly memorable: Cat plays a lot of keyboard parts, sometimes in ballad format, sometimes in funky dance mode, but the ballad parts are mushy and the funky dance parts are flimsy, and, most importantly, the entire suite is emotionally monotonous — whether he is kicking up the rhythm or laying on the piano tenderness, ʽForeigner Suiteʼ is just an 18-minute long serenade, and it runs a serious risk of getting on your nerves by the time we get around to the artist's major logical conclusion: "Heaven must've programmed you!" (had the suite penetrated radio waves just four years later, Steve Jobs might have scooped up the rights to use this in an Apple II commercial).

Honestly, at certain times during the suite I start getting an uneasy feeling of being exposed to Springsteen-lite — the impression is that Stevens is trying to unleash the fervor and the fury, but has neither the internal nor the external means to do this like a real Boss. Even when the soulful parts of the suite are upheld by strings and angelic female harmonies, everything is politely held back, and only Cat's voice is allowed to soar, Otis Redding-fashion... except he ain't no Otis Redding, and pure soulfulness and sincerity that is not backed by power and technique has no chance of standing competition. The only thing that ultimately saves ʽForeigner Suiteʼ from being a complete embarrassment is the sheer amount of work that went into the composition — with blues, pop, jazz, and gospel influences all around the place, it is quite an ambitious piece indeed, despite the unfortunate lack of memorable themes or powerful culminations.

The second side, despite being mercifully divided into four distinct parts, still continues the line of the suite — soulful love anthems, for the most part, spearheaded by ʽThe Hurtʼ, another obvious tribute to the soul masters that Stevens put out as the single. But while the public still loved him enough to put the LP on the charts, it was clear that ʽThe Hurtʼ on its own lacked com­mercial power, being utterly hookless and completely dependent on the conviction power of the singer's voice; and, honestly, there is nothing said with this song that had not already been said much better by... well, Marvin Gaye, for instance.

The only song on that second side that has something at least vaguely reminiscent of a hook is the semi-sinister funk groove ʽLaterʼ, with wah-wah guitars and ominous strings creating a sort of «blaxploitation vibe», even if the actual hook, centered around a particularly threatening "later!" coming from both Cat and his backup assistants, is a bit weird (why does he want to create such a threatening aura around the perspective of having sex with his loved one after he's had a chance to "talk it out with you"? how come, after all these years of Gallant Stevens, we are suddenly treated to an out-of-the-blue round of Macho Stevens?). And, of course, there is no resisting ending the album on a preachy note, with a more traditional Cat Stevens folk-rocker (ʽ100 I Dreamʼ) telling us to pick up the pieces, not let our weaknesses destroy us, "and in this way you will awake" because, apparently, at the present time we all happen to be dreaming. Well, no shit, man, you happened to be seriously instrumental in putting us all to sleep this time around.

I give the record a thumbs down — despite appreciating the wish to experiment and do some­thing different, this is simply not the kind of direction that it made any sense to choose, and it is good that the experiment was not repeated. Oh well, it could have been worse: what with that stay on Jamaica and all, he could have picked up the reggae vibe, which, fortunately, never took place. (Curiously, the album was recorded at the exact same studio where just a few months before The Rolling Stones laid down the basic tracks for Goats Head Soup — another experimental and partly failed musical trip that also fortunately avoided any reggae influences. Clearly, Jamaica was not the most auspicious place for British musicians in 1973).


  1. I reviewed this for the game we did last year and I came up with a lot of the same conclusions, although not quite as disappointed. He's definitely not a sidelong epic kind of guy. Unlike Supper's Ready--which is probably 10 times more disjointed and inscrutable--it lacks strong hooks and a strong personality to deliver them. Nor is a funky king shakin his thang (Mona Bone Jakon notwithstanding...thank for that visual btw. Brings disturbing subtext to the whole garbage can cover). He is indeed a preacher, and while I don't dig his sermon text or hermeneutics, he works up enough of a lather that I stay pretty interested in where it all ends up. Where this albums ends is anybody's guess. By far his weakest of the decade, although I have yet to hear Izzatso so that may change. Maybe he can wash his shoes and lady's clothes LATER....

  2. Oh no no... "Foreigner" may be a half-finished, patchy effort but thumbs down it is not. Both "Catch Bull at Four" and this certainly do not deserve such harsh treatment. And I'm not a diehard worshiper or anything. The "preachiness" which seems to be your particular bugbear in this and so many other cases doesn't really spoil it for me. At this point he was still a searching soul and not some sociopathic bubble dweller.