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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Cat Stevens: Tell 'Em I'm Gone


1) I Was Raised In Babylon; 2) Big Boss Man; 3) Dying To Live; 4) You Are My Sunshine; 5) Editing Floor Blues; 6) Cat & The Dog Trap; 7) Gold Digger; 8) The Devil Came From Kansas; 9) Tell 'Em I'm Gone; 10) Doors.

There's not a lot of original material on Yusuf's third Allah-circumventing musical offering — just five new songs — but this time, instead of reworking his own back catalog, he falls back upon a selection of oldies, both from the early rock and the pre-rock era. The idea, as can easily be seen, is to make an old-timey, rootsy, dark and foreboding record that would establish a direct link to Cat-Yusuf from people like Blind Willie Johnson and Leadbelly, with a mix of gloomy «this world is forever trapped in sin» pessimism and cheery «there must be a better place out there somewhere» optimism.

It must be said, though, that the album leans very heavily to the gloomy side of things, its optimism largely coming in a few patches of sunlight, most important­ly on the anthemic conclusion of ʽDoorsʼ. This is distinctly different from the attitude of the last two records, which had their shares of sorrow and melancholy, but, as I already indicated, largely relied on a new-found serenity and tranquillity that comes with old age and (in Yusuf's case at least) with alleged religi­ous enlightenment. All of a sudden, things have changed, though, and the old man resumes a series of laments and complaints that are far more turbulent and even vicious than anything he'd done on An Other Cup and Roadsinger. The only thing I can ascribe this change to is Stevens' getting out into the limelight once again — as he resumed touring, public speaking, and inter­acting with the musical industry and the media sharks, his temper must have been provoked far more frequently than it used to ever since 1978, and Tell 'Em I'm Gone finds the man... well, not exactly snapping, but clearly in a pissed-off mood.

Which, at least, makes the record more fun than Roadsinger. Once again, there is hardly any musical experimentation here, and even the subtle lyrical and atmospheric references to Islamic themes are all but gone — formally, because it is hard to invoke the spirits of Leadbelly and the Prophet at the same time, but substantially, because you do not really have to refer to the tenets of Muslim faith in order to rant and rave about a world gone bad. ʽI Was Raised In Babylonʼ is quite a telling title for the first song on the album: even though the lyrics refer to the actual historical Babylon, taking it as an approximate start for human civilization (and finishing the last verse with, appropriately, a reference to "the Empire on which the sun sat never"), the title by itself gives you Baby­lon as a symbol, and implies that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. This whole record is about Babylon and the harshness of life in it.

To further draw you in with the intrigue, Stevens invites no less than Richard Thompson himself to guest on that first track — you will clearly discern that it is not just Stevens handling the acoustic guitars, but that there's a hand of one real master of the instrument in there somewhere, and all of Richard's fans need this track in their collection: he adds some gorgeous color to the main melody, both with some naughty, flashy arpeggios and tortured «dying dog» string bends that convey a strange mix of sadness and coziness. Beyond that, producer Rick Rubin adds odd sound effects and ghostly harmonies (provided by Tinariwen, a Tuareg band from Mali) that give the track a bit of an otherworldly feel — while at the same time leaving the vocals and guitars safe and sound. It's a quirky arrangement, and it sets a good tone for everything that follows, even if nothing that follows probably lives up what pre­cedes it, and not just because Richard Thompson has left the building.

Some of these covers just do not work that well. The surprising choice of Jimmy Reed's ʽBig Boss Manʼ is not even as surprising as the decision to arrange it in a swamp-country-rock fashion, with quietly gritty guitars, shrill harmonicas, and frisky tempos — at least Elvis made it punkish, but this combination simply does not click, because, heck, it's a good soundtrack for whacking alligators down on the bayou, and where the hell do you find big boss men in the bayou? In the same way, the decision to turn ʽYou Are My Sunshineʼ into a gloomy blues-rocker, with grumbly faraway keyboard comets passing over murky guitar jungles, is weird and misguided: the song does nothing good in this tonality, as much as we'd appreciate a healthy musical oxymoron.

Others are more successful: Procol Harum's ʽThe Devil Came From Kansasʼ (a song that Stevens probably remembered well back from his youth — Salty Dog came out in 1969, right as he was convalescing from tuberculosis) is an energetic performance on which Yusuf is backed by Bonnie ʽPrinceʼ Billy and his band, including even a thick, distorted, psychedelic guitar solo from Matt Sweeney; and Edgar Winter's ʽDying To Liveʼ, a potentially gorgeous ballad in its original incar­nation, finally gets a soft, subtle, touching interpretation instead of the overwrought oh-so-blue-eyed-soul of the original. But the real reason why they work is that Stevens is capitalizing on the songs' initial strength, rather than trying to deconstruct them into something they cannot possibly be — suggesting that, at this point, his powers as humble interpreter might be superior to the ones he tries to show as unpredictable creator.

Because the original songs are hit-and-miss, too, the low point being ʽEditing Floor Bluesʼ, a long rant that he begins to the melody of Marvin Gaye's ʽBaby Don't You Do Itʼ and finishes with that of Muddy's ʽRolling Stoneʼ — all the while complaining about the goddamn media and their distortion of the truth (fake news, fake news)! Honestly, it's a tedious experience — repetitive, not very powerful, not too hard rocking (despite all the low-pitched distorted riffage), and coming across as way too whiny for somebody who's allegedly found inner peace more than thirty years ago. I much prefer something like ʽCat & The Dog Trapʼ, a serene, stable ballad that warns pre­cisely against things like that — getting too excited, and making a fool of yourself in the process. The downside is that such a song is also much less memorable.

For all the ups and downs, I am glad that he decided to put out something this «turbulent»: at the very least, it shows that even at this advancing age, Cat-Yusuf is not interested in putting out carbon copies of the same record all over again, but neither is he interested in following trends and fashions just for the sake of it (otherwise, we'd probably be knee-deep in Islamic dubstep by now). This particular stab at the oldies and their injection with the Cat Stevens spirit (most bla­tantly illustrated with the title track, which simply adds new lyrics to the old folk standard ʽTake This Hammerʼ) is uneven and hardly likely to make much of an impression — but hey, if Bob Dylan can do it, why not old Yusuf?..

1 comment:

  1. Methinks Richard T is a brother in the old man's faith actually--if Sufism counts anyway.