The intriguing saga of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has taken another twist with the release of this impeccable re-recording of Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ breakthrough album, long considered his peak achievement and a classic of the singer-songwriter genre. Though only marginally superior to Mona Bone Jakon, which preceded it, and Teaser & The Firecat, which followed, Tillerman includes such memorable titles as ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, more relevant than ever in the light of Extinction Rebellion; ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the first hint of Stevens’ discomfort with his calling; ‘Wild World’, which alerts the unwary to unseen perils; ‘On The Road To Find Out’, the first in a series of introspective songs that communicated Stevens’ endless search for something deeper in his life; and the peerless ‘Father And Son’, among the greatest musical reflections on the familial generation gap, and his most enduring song.
So what’s different? Well, he’s found his hard headed woman and Mary’s dalliance with the parson is no longer a topic for discussion but these are minor modifications in the reimagined, 50th Anniversary edition of Tillerman, released last week and now credited on its spine jointly to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Of far greater import is the improved 21st Century production, the deeper timbre of Stevens’ voice and some nifty rearrangements of its 11 songs, some more radical than others.
The songs are sequenced in the same order as before and were re-recorded earlier this year at a studio near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Paul Samwell-Smith reprised his production duties and it is pleasing to note that Yusuf was joined by acoustic guitarist Alun Davies, his long serving accompanist and musical partner. Alun’s friend Jim Cregan was brought in to add some electric guitar, various other musicians beef up the instrumentals to levels unheard on the original recording and many of those present add their voices to a choral landscape that occasionally reinforces the delicate ambience of songs hitherto sung by Stevens alone.
Much of the charm of the original Tillerman – and Stevens’ albums from this period of his career generally – was Samwell Smith’s light touch, but to a certain extent this has been set aside in favour of a fuller production, which is no bad thing in the light of Stevens’ age – he turned 72 in July – and its natural impact on his vocal cords. That said, the enhancements come intermittently, as if those involved decided, perhaps wisely, not to overdo the innovation for fear of alienating traditionalists. Happily, the compromise at which they arrived meets all expectations.
Above all, though, the album retains its sadness. No matter how briskly Stevens and Davies strummed their guitars, nothing could mask the melancholy in Stevens’ voice nor the despondency in lyrics that laid bare a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. This would not be resolved until Stevens, once Steven Demetri Georgiou now simply Yusuf, discovered the Islamic faith in late 1977. Thereafter he connected only intermittently with the secular world, though in recent years he seems to have mellowed in this regard, finding a middle ground amidst the demands of his religion and the material world in which the commercial music industry subsists.
Back in the present, on the new version of Tillerman the lengthy intro to ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, the opening song, is retained, updated with an attractive, breathy electronic boost to the backing vocal, and Yusuf’s richer voice adds gravity to a song that was prescient 50 years ago. (Who was to know that this re-recording of Stevens’ lament for the natural world would be released a few days after Sir David Attenborough’s most recent televised wildlife documentary Extinction: The Facts, a chilling reminder of how certain species and, indeed, our very planet are threatened by overdevelopment?) At the 2.50 mark – ‘You’ve cracked the sky’ – the song breaks out from its familiar mellow setting and Yusuf’s anger resonates above drums that pound, at least by his standards, and a choral backdrop that adds dramatic counterpoint before the arrangement slips back into the same gentle fade from which it began.
Aside from the subtle change in the lyric, ‘Hard Headed Woman’ lacks the edgy abruptness of the original and the orchestral interlude is replaced by a smoother texture and a soft electric guitar, but the modification here pales into insignificance compared to ‘Wild World’ which follows. Once a slightly reggae-tuned hit for Jimmy Cliff, ‘Wild World’ is given a Latin American makeover with a Gallic touch, an accordion deep in the mix over which Yusuf croons deeply. A lovely clarinet solo rides above the swing tempo, taking the song home in a lengthy, dreamy closing outro.
Lisa is still as sad as ever, and even a Spanish guitar, beautifully played by Eric Appapoulay, cannot ease her misery. As in the original, the song’s foundation is the tinkly piano figure, and although plucked nylon strings dominate a solo hitherto reliant on bowed strings, the arrangement is not that much different from the 1970 ‘Sad Lisa’. Even more so than ‘Wild World’, ‘Miles From Nowhere’ explodes after its quiet start, rocking out with electric guitars leading the charge as Yusuf celebrates his freedom, thereafter undulating between merriment and reflection.
Aside from an orchestral opening reminiscent of the Beatles Mystery Tour period, ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ is not that far removed from the original recording, but ‘Longer Boats’ is more full-throated, the second verse – ‘I don’t want no God on my lawn’ – replaced with lines about asteroid dwellers looking down on us, while the contentious verse about Mary and the parson is traded for a prayer for unity and peace delivered by a rapper identified in the accompanying booklet as Brother Eli.
‘Into White’ always sounded to me like something Edward Lear might have written to entertain children. Its gentility is retained in the least transformed song on the album. In another sharp contrast, however, ‘On The Road To Find Out’ has morphed into a dirty blues, not something I ever imagined writing in relation to Yusuf. Blue notes, courtesy of Appapoulay on electric guitar, abound in Stevens’ most overt quest song, the plodding beat on slackened drums and insistent riff hinting at the sub-Sahara and nothing like the original.
Which brings us to ‘Father And Son’ in which Yusuf duets with himself, by which I mean that while the voice of the father is newly recorded, the voice of the son is taken from a historical live recording at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, thus neatly realising the song’s original script. Based around the familiar theme of leaving home to discover life for oneself; sympathy balancing equally between parental caution and youthful impatience. Thankfully, the arrangement is unchanged, the instrumental interlude serene though towards the end the old and young voices no longer blend into lyrical counterpoint. Nevertheless, the son’s lines retain the desperate frustration of the original, a song of unusual passion and originality.
Finally, the slight hesitancy evident in ‘Tea For Tillerman’ itself, the minute-long coda, has vanished in favour of a more confident piano part, played and sung by Yusuf in his more sonorous intonation.
In closing I should mention that charming stop-frame animated videos have been produced to illustrate ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and ‘Father And Son’, and a third film accompanies the bluesy ‘On The Road To Find Out’. All can be found on catstevens.com.