Search This Blog

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Cat Stevens (Yusuf): An Other Cup


1) Midday (Avoid City After Dark); 2) Heaven / Where True Love Goes; 3) Maybe There's A World; 4) One Day At A Time; 5) When Butterflies Leave; 6) In The End; 7) Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood; 8) I Think I See The Light; 9) Whispers From A Spiritual Garden; 10) The Beloved; 11) Green Fields, Golden Sands.

Yusuf Islam first went back to record-making in 1995; however, for a long time his records were purely religious affairs, mostly oriented at children and using spoken-word or poetry tracks with minimal musical accompaniment (percussion) that taught the little ones about the main principles of the Islamic faith, about the various accomplishments of the Prophet, and about the basics of suicide bombing (okay, not really, bad bad joke). We will not be discussing these records here; this is something you can do with your local imam or mullah.

However, by the time century 21 began rolling along, Yusuf apparently felt the urge to return to real music — and not just to begin writing songs again (something that he had still been doing on occasion during his years of retirement from the public eye), but to actually reboot his musical career. Whatever was the true reason behind that, we might never know, and «The Artist For­merly Known As Cat Stevens» might not understand it perfectly well himself, but considering that one major factor behind his quitting was a deep hatred of the music business, exacerbated by his religious conversion, it is possible that he — like many other people — eventually saw the situation in the 21st century, with its numerous indie labels and possibilities of making professio­nal recordings without the mediation of greedy music business bastards, as liberating. Besides, it seems that his son was constantly nagging him about getting back to music, and there's nothing like a whiny 21-year old kid with musical interests of his own to make your Dad real jealous.

Yusuf Islam went about it the smart way, though — thirty years of direct conversations with Allah are no laughing matter, after all. He set up his own record label, «Ya Records» (regular distribution was still handled by Polydor and Atlantic); credited the album to «Yusuf» rather than «Yusuf Islam» so as not to repulse or provoke Muslim haters (particularly those Muslim haters who are too ignorant to understand where the name Yusuf comes from); largely avoided direct references to his faith in most of the songs (although mid-Eastern motives may be found in some of the music, and Islamic symbolism is frequently detected in some of the lyrics); and actively promoted the album with a string of TV and concert appearances, pleasantly surprising audiences by the apparent lack of a kuffiyeh on his head.

The most pleasant surprise, however, was that he'd made some nice music. It would be unwise to expect that An Other Cup would consist of ardent religious preaching: other than a few uncom­fortable and somewhat ill-interpreted comments on Salman Rushdie, Cat-Yusuf had done nothing in those past decades that would permit to describe him as a militaristic zealot, nor was there any indication that, like Dylan in 1979, he'd embraced his new religion more with an idea to confuse and bewilder his followers than anything else. On the other hand, considering how inconsistent his music-making was in the Seventies and for how long he was not involved in music-making at all after that, how could our expectations be high for this comeback? My guess was: a few acous­tic-based sermons, parables, and allegories, delivered gently, peacefully, and in an instantly for­gettable fashion from a kind, friendly, and washed-out grandfather.

And it is a very pleasant surprise when, after such expectations, the very first song proves you wrong: ʽMidday (Avoid City After Dark)ʼ is, indeed, a gently and peacefully delivered acoustic-and-piano-based allegory, but it is anything but forgettable — a simple, but catchy pop song with very well-placed brass interludes (where the brass part actually fulfills the function of the chorus) and a brilliant mix of friendliness and sadness, every bit as affecting as anything the man had done earlier. To add to the surprise, Cat-Yusuf's voice has not aged one bit — in fact, it has only become more smooth and silky, closer in tone to the early Cat Stevens of 1967 than to the mid-Seventies rough-'n'-edgy Cat Stevens. And, in a way, I am more fond of this calm and serene Cat Stevens than the perturbed and hystrionic Cat Stevens of the mid-Seventies: now that he has alle­gedly found peace and is simply enjoying his ride on that train, he seems to have found a better balance between his inner spirituality and his musical arrangements (which, let's face it, had been quite timid and inadequate to reflect his inner turmoil, and frequently made me suspect that the turmoil itself was nowhere near as grand as he tried to picture it with his words and voice).

Somewhat disappointingly, ʽMiddayʼ turns out to be the highest point of the new album, as none of the other songs are as instantaneously memorable. But it sets the right vibe that is preserved for the entire record, ensuring that at worst, it sounds pleasant, inoffensive, and wise; and at best, the songs slowly grow on you, because Stevens has not lost his taste for cautious experimentation. Unfortunately, the most experimental of these numbers is ʽThe Belovedʼ, the only song on the album that is directly related to his faith — a hymn of adulation for The Prophet ("his mercy stretched from East to West / to every man, woman and child" — not quite what even the tradi­tional ahadith tell us, but at least for Cat-Yusuf, it's always about a peaceful message), inter­woven with mid-Eastern musical themes and vocalizing in a somewhat predictable manner. But on the other songs, he still continues to look for pleasant sonic combos, utilizing a large array of acoustic instruments — in fact, I think I prefer this remake of ʽI Think I See The Lightʼ from Mona Bone Jakon over the original, which was almost all piano; here, there is more tension created by the acoustic bass, and the organ doubling the piano adds more depth, while the newly added jazzy brass-heavy coda completes the song with a «glorious-epic» flourish.

It is less clear why he decided to revive the "heaven must've programmed you" bit from the ʽForeigner Suiteʼ, merging it with a new song (ʽWhere True Love Goesʼ), but I guess that anyone in Cat-Yusuf's place would have been tempted to insert a few self-referential pointers after thirty years of retirement. Another gesture that must have had a special meaning for him was covering ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ — Cat-Yusuf, as you can easily see by perusing his website, is extremely sensitive to people forming various misconceptions about him (like, his daughters do wear the hijab — TRUE; he does not converse with women who do not — FALSE), and this dramatic, heavily baroque-orchestrated reading of the song is quite touching.

I would not go as far as to say that Cat-Yusuf has truly attained the state of one of those Sufi sages who, with their presence and devotion, may command respect even on the part of the staun­chest atheists. But on the whole, An Other Cup paints a very satisfactory portrait of somebody who has found internal happiness and peace with himself (not without occasional quirks), yet is not striving to jump out of his skin so as to show the world just how precisely happy he is (in con­trast to the old Cat, who was always jumping out of his skin so as to show the world just how precisely disturbed and unhappy he was). I expected to hear something either very boring or very irritating here — and got such a big surprise that I am even willing to forget some of the weaker ballads, and go along with a thumbs up. I'm sure even Mr. Salman Rushdie himself couldn't have anything personal against a friendly record like this — provided he did not know who the artist was, of course.


  1. I think there was a wisdom in many of his older songs even if he didn't fully appreciate it having not really experienced it. That's the plight of almost all young songwriters, the attempt to appear mature beyond their years, the grasping at truth that hasn't been fully internalised yet.

    Dark Side of the Moon is a classic example of an album written by "Middle Aged" twenty somethings. And Cat Stevens folky albums are another example. You can't just keep writing about girls and late nights if you're desperate to be taken seriously as an artist.

  2. Never listened to his post 70s stuff, might be worth to check this one out then...