Yusuf / Cat Stevens
Tea For The Tillerman2
My dad once told me his theory that if you started off with not quite the greatest voice you could retain it. It was too hard, he reckoned, to forever hit high notes and if you were nasally, in particular, you could make that a gift with age. He thought Cat Stevens was a prime example. How prescient, eh, that I should receive such wisdom – passed down from father to son. And that I should at first slightly rage against it and prefer my own path of thinking before coming around to exactly that theory. Apt-af.
Tea For The Tillerman really is Stevens’ classic album. Sure there were four in a row throughout the early 70s and some pop-jingle singles ahead of those – but the lion’s share of any Cat Stevens hits comp has been loaded up on Tillerman trinkets. Folk songs with catchy pop choruses (Father & Son), dramatic ballads (Hard Headed Woman) and runaway smash hits (Wild World). And that’s just the cake’s icing mate. This album is a forever bedsit classic.
Much like the early records by James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and say particularly Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water – which holds a similar place (as the anchor-weight of so many S&G hits collections) despite ending a career rather than arriving near the start of it –Tillerman is passed down through generations. The kids always find it. The boomers hang on to it.
So, Cat, now Yusuf – but that wasn’t so good for sales when he returned to secular and mainstream music making, particularly as he intended dragging his newfound surname of Islam along for the ride – is tasked with celebrating Tillerman at 50. Hard to remember in this wild world that he wrote and delivered those songs when he was 22. We’ll never remember them as the songs of a child. And now in his 70s Yusuf / Cat Stevens (the old name is back to co-bill and help bring in a few more bills no doubt) could have done the lazy boxed-set thing of repackaging and throwing in some demo scraps. Another cup of tea for the tillermen and women that already own the album across several formats.
No. Cat can still sing in much the same way as he always has. So he has re-recorded the entire album and rearranged the songs (in most cases) to present Tea For The Tillerman2.
And regardless of your feelings for him or this project – it is a more than decent effort to re-record in its entirety. There’s no lazy cash-grab there, the cash-grab is what every other heritage act does come album-birthday time.
Also the themes of Tillerman’s songs hold strong. There’s a world-weary sadness to so many of them when heard now. Yusuf isn’t the raging young narrator in his version of Father & Son – he’s so fairly and squarely (pun intended) the father only. He sings both parts still but you hear only one. Or he hears only one. Same with album opener, Where Do The Children Play? It’s more weary resignation than any hopeful plea.
That’s reflected too in the album’s artwork update. The sun has set.
There were other great Cat Stevens songs on other great Cat Stevens albums but if you owned only one it was Tea For The Tillerman. And some of the new versions are actually improvements not just safe trace-arounds. I should figure I’m nearly alone here in Cat-fandom but I never cared much for Wild World. I actually grew up adoring Maxi Priest’s cover over the original. So to hear this weird and wonderful super-club prank-jazz arrangement is really something. The voice carries it. And the European feel to the melody carries it.
I also prefer the new version of Hard Headed Woman. Less dramatic. More real. Quite whether you’d get a song called Hard Headed Woman over the line in 2020 if it was brand new is another story – and whether you should want to or not. But also fuck up. People still sing along to Run For Your Life by The Beatles. At that’s one of the most evil, depressing song-torments of all time. But people laugh and either don’t know or dismiss by waving a bejewelled hand and muttering something about the spirit of those times, and different times, and move on sweetie…
Yusuf / Cat Stevens has moved on. But his songs haven’t. They were planted in fertile soil and as he tends to them now they continue to grow. It’s really quite amazing.
But I Might Die Tonight sounds sadder – and truer – than ever. On The Road To Find Out feels like the explorations Peter Green went in search of post-Fleetwood Mac and the charming wee title track as album-coda still plays so perfectly. Here Stevens milks something new out of the piano intro but impressively sings it in almost exactly the same phrasing and cadence. It just manages, again, to tease a bit more mourning from lines about children hoping for a happy day. Never as preachy as people thought, probably not as preachy as what it was, Tea For The Tillerman – Mark II – is really pretty magnificent.
My only sadness and worry is that it will further enable a pack of bored boomers to argue that music was never ever better. But it’s never been Cat Stevens’ fault that they stopped buying music mags or reading reviews or finding new records. And that’s mostly just my agitated (and utterly correct) projection – a bit of prospective forecasting; negative hypothetical foreshadowing. It’s a causation vs. correlation thing ultimately. And both versions of the songs and both albums still shine through for me.
It feels like a blanket, a shield, a comfort. Warm reminder. Safely held.
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