Release Date: Oct 28, 2014
Record label: Legacy
Genre(s): Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Pop/Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Album Rock, Soft Rock, AM Pop
YusufTell ‘Em I’m Gone(Sony Legacy)Rating: 3. 5 out of 5 stars Cat Stevens … bluesman? Well, not entirely, but Stevens, still going by his Islamic name of Yusuf (although a sticker on the shrink wrap boldly proclaims his more commercially famous moniker) does dabble in that genre for a handful of songs on his first album in five years. Split evenly between rearranged covers and spiritually informed originals, Yusuf sounds comfortable and confident with material that ranges from Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” to a rugged version of Procol Harum’s “The Devil Came from Kansas.
The rehabilitation of Yusuf Islam (stickered in his pop guise as Cat Stevens on the sleeve, just in case you didn’t get it) throws up a couple of interesting angles. The reluctant cockney mod pin-up of yore, Yusuf is a true Londoner – a son of Soho, even – and so it’s instructive to hear him rewriting his life in Editing Floor Blues, and somewhat baffling to hear him sing I Was Raised In Babylon (St Giles Circus, actually). But once the old schoolyard tracks such as Cat And The Dog Trap and Gold Digger push a set of familiar nostalgic buttons, it becomes clear that he hasn’t lost the knack for facing up to difficult personal issues.
The former Cat Stevens recently released a memoir, and his first album in five years often feels like it should've been included with copies of the book: "I was born in the West End/In the summer of '48," he sings on "Editing Floor Blues," in which he describes his conversion experiences with rock & roll and, later in life, Islam. With Rick Rubin co-producing, there's a bluesy toughness to the anti-capitalist jeremiads "Big Boss Man" and "Gold Digger," while "Cat & the Dog Trap" recalls the simple folky prettiness and direct, easeful messages that made him a Seventies icon. "God made everything just right," he sings on the laid-back highlight "Doors." .
Much of the excitement around the release of the erstwhile Cat Stevens’s third album since his 2006 comeback has centred around the role of producer Rick Rubin, renowned as he is for giving a contemporary sheen to third-age actsincluding Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Black Sabbath. And yet equally prominent here is the influence of Tinariwen, another of his collaborators, their desert blues informing the sound of several songs towards the start of the album. The rest of this strong collection – half covers, half self-penned – owes more to American blues and R&B, the likes of Gold Digger and I Was Raised in Babylon suggesting that, almost half a century into his career, there’s plenty of life in Yusuf yet.
Cat Stevens quietly retired from his career as a pop star after the release of 1978's Back to Earth to pursue a spiritual path. Stevens became a devout Muslim and adopted the name Yusuf Islam, quietly making spiritually oriented recordings but avoiding the mainstream, especially after the controversy that followed his comments about the fatwa declared against author Salman Rushdie in 1989. However, Yusuf has been quietly inching back into the public eye since he released the album An Other Cup in 2006 and set out on an extensive concert tour documented on the 2009 live disc Roadsinger.
Most are familiar with the story of Cat Stevens’ conversion to Islam and seemingly abrupt, often misunderstood departure from the height of popular music in the late ‘70s. It’s been with less fanfare that he’s gradually returned to writing, recording, and performing music as Yusuf Islam (or simply Yusuf) over the last decade. In 2006, shortly after picking up a guitar again for the first time in over 25 years, he released An Other Cup, an album clearly trying to reconcile his folk star past with his present worldview.
It’s been a bit since Cat Stevens—who seems to be going by Yusuf, sans the Islam, now—released an album. And 2009’s Roadsinger sounded exactly like it should’ve, with catchy folk singles featuring his signature voice. In the same vein, Tell ’Em I’m Gone, Yusuf’s concentrated foray into blues territory, sounds much like listeners would expect.
Yusuf, formerly Cat Stevens, returns after a five-year recording absence with a ruminative effort that leans hard on the blues as he continues his career-long quest to find clarity and transcendence in life’s small moments. The mix of shrewd, humane originals and relevant covers reflects on the power of memory and searches for meaning in everyday struggles. Yusuf’s voice, burnished and bearing the weight of his 66 years, brings gravitas to the bruised blues of “Big Boss Man” and Procol Harem’s “The Devil Came From Kansas.” When he knowingly sings on the latter, “there’s a dark cloud just above us, don’t tell me ’cause I know” it aptly speaks to our troubled era.
Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, is back at age 66, and all indications are that he is not going gently into that good night of a late-career comeback. No, there's not a lot of room for gentleness on "Tell 'Em I'm Gone" (Legacy), only his third studio album since 1978, when he converted to Islam, adopted the name Yusuf Islam and effectively retired from the music business for almost three decades. His well-documented spiritual quest, prime fodder for his songs even when he was pop-star Cat Stevens, remains his primary subject, but there is a toughness here that we're not used to hearing from the reflective singer-songwriter.