In the almost 30 years since his retirement from the pop music world, Cat Stevens has come to exist in the culture as little more than an excuse for lazy journalists to trot out his name (which is now Yusuf Islam) for “a where are they now” piece whenever there’s a lull in the American/Islamic cultural conversation. But there was a time when this man was more than just good copy on a slow day; he was once of the biggest, most beloved musical stars in the world. Gold, a new two-disc compilation of his work is a useful reminder of why that was.
Stevens found his greatest popular and artistic success in the guise of a searching, gentle folk-rock singer, not far removed from the aesthetic of contemporaries like James Taylor and Jackson Browne. But unlike those two, Stevens had tasted earlier success as a pure pop star. The first three tracks on the album, “Mathew & Son”, “Here Comes My Baby”, and “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, all written and recorded between 1966 and 1968, are a far cry from the work that would make Stevens a superstar. Light and jaunty, with brashly exuberant arrangements and unencumbered by the angst of his later work, these are the songs of a young man eager to top the charts and with the talent to do it. “Here Comes My Baby”, with its bubbling brass parts and playful bells (later memorably used in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore) in particular captures the youthful vitality of this first phase of Stevens’ career.
But his initial burst of success didn’t last, and after spending a year recuperating from a bout with tuberculosis, Stevens, soured on the music business, came back with a radically different, and ultimately even more successful sound. Gone were the bright bursts of guitar and rich, carnivalesque arrangements, in favor of warm beds of acoustic guitar, Stevens’ own more restrained singing, and lyrics of vague spirituality and psychic confusion. Stevens’ music was a perfect fit for the mood of a public recovering from the hangover of the ’60s. A lifetime away from psychedelia and infinitely more concerned with the inner world than the outer one, songs like “Trouble” and “Where Do the Children Play?” transcend their trite lyrics (‘Trouble, I have drunk your wine, you have made your world mine, now won’t you be fair?’) as a result of Steven’s ability to exploit a vibe of hushed introspection and the ever-lasting appeal of simple folk chord changes. Perfect for rainy Sunday mornings, Steven’s best songs from the early ’70s have aged better than most of the soporific and sappy spirituality that came about during that decade. (Jonathan Livingston Seagull anyone?). And yes, “Wild World” is here.
After a sparkling run of hit albums and singles (all captured on the album’s first disc), the public moved on and Stevens — while still successful on a level most musicians would beg, borrow, and steal to attain — began to flounder. Failed experiments like the 18-minute (!) “Foreigner Suite” and the cringe-worthy synthesizer and playground noise overdubs of “Old Schoolyard” show a musician looking for gimmicks to maintain his relevance. They didn’t work. The preponderance of boring (and bored) tracks on the second disc are testament to Stevens’ own personal dissatisfaction, for which Islam would soon prove to be a remedy. Retiring from pop music in 1978 to become a devout Muslim, Stevens has for the most part distanced himself from his public past. But with “Indian Ocean”, his first secular song in years and the last song on the album, Stevens has returned to the sound of his greatest success. It’s a pretty song with delicate Middle Eastern overtones, but its lyrical evocation of terrorism comes off as simplistic and, frankly, predictable. If the spirituality that Stevens found comfort in has not done any favors for his songwriting, it does nothing to diminish the soothing grace of the best music found on this compilation.