Cat Stevens: Numbers / Izitso / Back to Earth

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By Simon Warner

Cat of three lives

There have been three quite distinct phases in the pop life of the man born Steven Georgiou of Greek antecedence in London in 1947. During the mid-1960s he emerged as a composer and singer of light, bright songs, paying a number of visits to the British and American charts with a string of witty, catchy items, including the autobiographical “Matthew and Son”, an account of the drudgery of everyday commercial life. More significantly, he penned a minor classic, “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, which became familiar in the hands of soul diva P.P. Arnold.

But it was in his second period that Cat Stevens gained his greatest acclaim, riding the singer-songwriter wave and establishing himself in that melancholy, reflective mode that so appealed to the post-hippie student audience in the UK—where the style gained the epithet bedsitter music, a reference to low budget, one-room living—and also in the US. Albums like Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat captured the moment: an appealing mixture of gentle mysticism and inner delving. Songs such as “Wild World” and “Moon Shadow” joined the growing canon of acoustic gentility.

But Stevens’ most significant career shift—a personal hejira quite evidently, but a commercial catastrophe—saw him adopt the Muslim faith, re-emerge as Yusuf Islam, and essentially draw a line under that string of popular and profitable releases. In the last two decades he has become something of a curiosity: a subject of occasional interest for the British press, usually as a somewhat eccentric example of a religious enigma, but sometimes as a consequence of his activism on behalf of humane causes.

His remarkably productive 1970s—ten collections of self-derived work—now seem a lifetime ago, but his label’s ongoing re-mastering project has drawn new attention to a substantial back catalogue. These three items are the final trio of recordings released at the end of that fertile decade.

Yet I can’t help feeling that by the time of Numbers (1975), Izitso (1977) and Back to Earth (1978), the Stevens muse had begun to tire. The clearest indication of that perhaps is the fact that only one hit single forced its way through during the period—“(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard”, a cut from the middle CD in this sequence.

Numbers is a concept album of sorts, subtitled “A Pythagorean Theory Tale” and accompanied by an illustrated saga of science fantasy—as spaceships and sorcerors rub shoulders—and is very much of its time. Now, the Tolkien-esque notion appears embarrassingly dated and the songs, a mixture of wistful melody and rather overblown arrangement. A period piece is the kindest compliment.

“Old Schoolyard” kick-starts Izitso with a certain vigour, as early synthesiser trills add a likeable texture to Stevens’ slice of nostalgia, and it sets the tone for a fairly invigorating collection, with upbeat rockers like “Killin’ Time” and the Caribbean tinges of “Sweet Jamaica” creating quite a tasty melange. There’s nothing thrilling here but the players assembled—the Muscle Shoals masters Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Barry Beckett, for instance—lend their unquestionable skills, while Chick Corea’s nimble fingers bring colour with an electric piano work-out on “Bonfire”. Furthermore, the song “(I Never Wanted) to Be a Star” lends a prescient poignancy to the album, with its retro references to earlier Top 20 smashes.

Back to Earth switches focus once again, largely jettisoning star sidemen, and swinging from the light funk of the Brazil-inspired “Nascimento” to the anthemic “New York Time”, which could still be a Broadway rags-to-riches show closer, and revealing again Stevens’ composing range. Yet the variety cannot truly conceal the lack of gilt-edged material.

The bombshell decision, soon after, to leave all this behind was symptomatic of a spiritual disillusion but also reflected, perhaps, a creative drought. Nonetheless, even if Back to Earth represented the start of an extended and continuing artistic hiatus, it is also worth mentioning that Cat Stevens issued as many records in that concentrated era as many contemporary acts do in double the time. During a period when the US produced a surplus of introspective and lyrical tunesmiths, this artist was a rare British voice who managed to keep pace with his transatlantic cousins.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/stevenscat-numbers/