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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat Stevens: Numbers


1) Whistlestar; 2) Novim's Nightmare; 3) Majik Of Majiks; 4) Drywood; 5) Banapple Gas; 6) Land O' Free Love & Goodbye; 7) Jzero; 8) Home; 9) Monad's Anthem.

Around this time, Stevens got particularly fascinated with numerology — just another one of his turns — and decided to try his hand at conceptuality once again, writing a mini-rock opera that would somehow revolve around numbers. The story that he invented was never fully explicated, but partially made it to the album's liner notes and partially to the lyrics. You can read about it in more details in a variety of sources, starting with Wikipedia, but honestly, I wouldn't pay it too much attention, unless you have pledged to accept Cat Stevens as an intellectual beacon rather than a musician. In fact, this was probably how it went in 1975: Numbers was routinely ridiculed as an embarrassingly pretentious conceptual disaster — the critics hated it because it once again made a strange jerk in the direction of prog-rock, and the fans were left befuddled because it offered neither pop hooks nor easily accessible spiritual enlightenment.

Once again, though, I have to play a controversial role here: throwing overboard all the sci-fi fluff about planets populated by Pythagorean concepts, I see a record that returns Cat Stevens to the world of music-making, easily his most focused effort since Tea For The Tillerman, well worth revisiting by those who expected another set of soulful folk ditties, but got something far more experimental instead. True, the jazzy and funky elements that are all over the record remain a bit alien to Stevens' nature, but, as he did on Foreigner, he is capable of enhancing the melodic aspect of groove-based music to compensate for the lack of energy. And he is really all over the place, trying to find a different face for each of the nine tracks — sometimes successfully, some­times controversially, but who cares? After the preachy disaster of Buddha, the man suddenly remembered that he used to be a composer, and that's enough for me.

Now, meet the harbinger of disaster: ʽBanapple Gasʼ, the only single from the album and one of the most commonly hated Stevens songs, according to my observations. Putting it out as a single was probably a mistake — it is intentionally slight, yet fully adequate to its sarcastic purpose, mock­ing the self-delusional state of society with a happy country-meets-Caribbean pop song that would not have sounded out of place on an Osmonds record, or in a soda commercial. In the overall context of the album, it is clearly parodic, though it also fulfills the important function of offering a light breather in between the heavier stuff. Funny, catchy, but obviously fluffy and about as suitable for the role of a lead single as, say, ʽHoney Pieʼ would be for The Beatles. On the other hand, it is one of the few tracks whose lyrics are more or less autonomous and allow it to be sampled outside of the concept, so perhaps that was the driving motivation. Or maybe, in the era of Main Course and KC & The Sunshine Band, Stevens — or his record company — thought it was dance time, even for spiritual singer-songwriters. Who knows?

In a perfect universe, the lead single should have been ʽMajik Of Majiksʼ, one of the man's most complex and interesting musical creations since the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ. The composition effort­lessly flows from slow piano ballad to a proto-disco dance groove, sharp strings and all, and is also embellished by David Sanborn's sax parts (apparently, Stevens did not turn a deaf ear to Bowie's Young Americans, either). Unlike ʽBanapple Gasʼ, this one has no vocal hooks, but it's not as if Stevens had never released a hookless single before — and it does know how to build up and release tension, with lead and background vocals and strings and saxes working as a perfect team. Besides, it can also be viewed outside of context: essentially, the lyrics are talking about a meeting with a supernatural being that leads the singer to an epiphany — hopefully, Cat was really stoned when he wrote that. Not all that convoluted.

Elsewhere, the record fluctuates between soft jazz (the opening instrumental ʽWhistlestarʼ, a very nice theme with real whistling and somewhat soundtrackish, but memorable piano phrases from Jean Roussel, Cat's trusty sidekick); orchestrated medieval dark folk (ʽNovim's Nightmareʼ); and the usual folk-pop formula (ʽHomeʼ). It is not a tremendous amount of variety, but then the album, like all Cat Stevens albums, is also quite short — although still not free of some tedious filler tracks (ʽDrywoodʼ tries too hard and too long to put out a harsh blues-rock vibe, but lacks that special something — like a Sanborn sax solo — to properly ignite); and the pompous choral conclusion, ʽMonad's Anthemʼ, where, I assume, it is explained that all the naughty numbers are really one, lays on the chorus effects too thickly, abusing the talents of the «Magic Children Of Ottawa» (whoever they are) without getting anywhere. At least the Stones knew that a full-scale symphonic choir on one of their songs (ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ) could only work as an introduction; Stevens decided that it would make a fine two-minute conclusion to the album, and in the process, turned it into some young adult vaudeville show.

Still, the best thing about Numbers is that the conceptuality of the project, instead of harming the music, seems to have positively influenced it — you can toss the concept for all you want, the best songs on this album work perfectly fine without it, and the worst ones would never have worked with it anyway. I will not go as far in my controversy as to openly recommend it, what with all its flaws and inconsistencies, but it was a major step in the right direction, and who knows? had the public and the critics truly embraced it, maybe today's Yusuf Islam could have ended up being Pythagorid McBoole instead, and spent the rest of his days collaborating with Count Von Count on educational activities for children. Then again, it is unlikely that Stevens' spiritual path could ever depend that much on mass opinion.

1 comment:

  1. Time to give this a listen maybe. I'd given up on him following its appalling prececessor