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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cat Stevens: Izitso


1) (Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard; 2) Life; 3) Killin' Time; 4) Kypros; 5) Bonfire; 6) (I Never Wanted) To Be A Star; 7) Crazy; 8) Sweet Jamaica; 9) Was Dog A Doughnut?; 10) Child For A Day.

After Numbers had failed to chart (apparently, the magic of numerology cannot influence the number of sold copies), A&M Records allegedly freaked out and demanded that their resident hit writer produce something commercially viable. By early 1977, Cat seems to have already em­barked on the path that would soon bring him to Allah, but there was as of yet no thought of abandoning the music business — so he not only complied to the label's demands, but also put some thought and effort in the creation of the record, balancing his truth-seeking singer-songwri­ter persona with an almost surprisingly prescient quest for musical innovation.

Recorded with a small army of session musicians, Izitso goes heavier on synthesizers than ever before, but not because of their trendiness — Stevens tries to peek into the future here, and he might even be significantly influenced by some of the decade's pioneers of the electronic sound. Two of the tracks are completely instrumental and completely different from each other: ʽKyprosʼ is like a Greek folk song redone with drum machines and electronics (in a most attractive way, since Cat uses a whole array of devices and timbres to imitate pianos, strings, and woodwinds), whereas ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ is an interesting early example of an electropop number: funky, jerky, robotic — you could probably break-dance to this tune and never know it was Cat Stevens in the first place. Some people were totally not prepared to hear this kind of material from Cat, and even today still accuse him of messing around with stuff he does not truly understand, but I think he does the robotic vibe fairly well — though, admittedly, I have a hard time picturing him b-boying to this soundtrack. Hello Cat Stevens, IDM pioneer!

The majority of this record is still about the soul, though, not the body. The long-awaited hit single, ʽThe Old Schoolyardʼ, was also dominated by synthesizers, but its main theme, delivered by Cat in a duet with Elkie Brooks, is nostalgic: I think he was going for a sort of ʽDon't Go Breaking My Heartʼ success story here, but with the song's stuttering rhythms, lack of an imme­diately memorable chorus, and somewhat fussy production, it could never hope for the same acclaim and it did not get one, only charting at #33, a slight improvement over ʽBanapple Gasʼ but nowhere near the level of his major past successes. The second single, ʽSweet Jamaicaʼ, did not chart at all — with its overwhelming string arrangements, it seemed poised at the soft-dance-pop market that certainly needed no Cat Stevens to liven it up in 1977. Frankly speaking, it is a pretty bad song, and the fact that all of its lyrics are on the level of "You're my world as far as I'm concerned", it can be easily deduced that this was an intentional throwaway, offered by Stevens to the label as a false appeasement while he was busy working on something more interesting. (Even ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ, when released as a single, ended up charting higher).

What was probably not intended as a throwaway is the album's second worst song, ʽ(I Never Wanted) To Be A Starʼ, whose title is self-explanatory and whose lyrics are filled with self-quo­tations and acute disdain for "parties avec les bourgeois", at a fairly flat level of imagery and wordplay, not supported by a well-fleshed out melody, either. You'd think that a man as wise as Mr. Georgiou could have calmed down on this issue, particularly at a time when his religious quest was nearing its final moment of triumph, but perhaps he had a bad lunch with an A&M representative or something, so now you have to sit through this three-minute rant as the man explains that "I only wanted to run my own race / So I could win a small place in your heart". At least we can assume he's not lying about it — but the song is still quite poor.

In case you suspect an anti-Stevens bias here, let me quickly turn the conversation towards a song that is not at all poor: ʽChild For A Dayʼ is probably his finest conclusion for a song cycle since at least ʽPeace Trainʼ. It is a fairly formulaic country-soul number, but it just has everything going for it: good lyrics, good combination of piano and organ, clever build-up towards the chorus, supportive backing vocals, restrained, but powerful guitar solo, pretty mix of soft wah-wah and slide guitars for the coda. And it also offers a healthy conservative contrast with the wild futurism of ʽWas Dog A Doughnut?ʼ — so that the album only seems to get stronger and stronger as it approaches the grand finale.

The rest of the songs I am not too certain about (still trying to understand, for instance, if the unusually heavy funk of ʽKillin' Timeʼ is a cool or an awful idea), but even with what there is, Izitso deserves a thumbs up — its experimental bits are more self-assured and make more sense than the ones on Numbers, and its soulful bits, with the exception of ʽTo Be A Starʼ, are once again set to creative musical ideas. Most importantly, you can see how he is willing to modernize his soft-rock sound, but only under the condition of staying in complete control. He did employ a hip young producer, David Kershenbaum, to help him with all the funky bits and the synthesizers, but other than ʽDoughnutʼ, not a single track here could be suspected of being an authentic and full-fledged Kershenbaum creation — and I have no qualms about ʽDoughnutʼ.


  1. Worth noting Child For A Day was not written by Cat but by his brother and some other guy...

  2. I honestly don't know how is it possible to despise "Foreigner" and "Buddha" and praise his worst record up to date but I understand that music is subjective, blah, blah and so on...
    "Izitso" is totally inoffensive but it's also rather inessential and well... corny ("Was dog a doughnout" might have been cute and pioneering in 1977 but it also preceeds the worst trends of the upcoming decade and I certainly don't need THAT on a Cat Stevens' record). I always thought of "Child for a day" as a banal song with clichéd lyrics but also they don't belong to Cat anyway (a sign that his creativity was running low maybe ?)
    All in all, "Izitso" is a bit like Dylan's "Self Portrait" only much worse cause he's trying to superimpose some sort of a fakey, joyous atmosphere, presenting childhood as this brainwashed, ultrapositive state of being that grumpy adults often falsely assume it must be (and probably forgetting how he himself used to got kicked in the nuts by the local bullies of "the old schoolyard" back then). If that's what Allah does to your brain and taste then I wish he'd never stopped searching.

  3. It's evident by this album that Cat Stevens had simply run out of steam. The songs are decent but almost totally run of the mill. I actually think Schoolyard works best because you can sense some passion at least. I believe he embraced religion shortly after this album and before his swan song and it shows. He was no longer interested in reaching other people and even god if you will, through his music.