Sunday, January 21, 2007

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) An Other Cup- Music Review

An Other Cup is Cat Stevens', now Yusuf Islam, first commercial album in close to thirty years. Cat Stevens was one of the more romantic figures in the music of the early seventies. First, large numbers of girls routinely had crushes on the guy as sensitive fok singer with guitar. Second, he had one of the most distinctive and best singing voices of the era. Cat Stevens voice was notably resonant and very precisely articulated. Finally, he had a mystique as a spiritual explorer which allowed him to simultaneously appear to be both pop star and introvert.

The short version is that one day Cat Stevens, who started life as Steven Georgiou, almost drowned off of Malibu and the near death experience caused him to examine his spirtual beliefs. Cat Stevens, who once sang about never having wanted to be a Pop Star, converted to Islam and became Yusuf Islam. He gave up singing in public and focused on raising his five children, working with an Islamic school in London, and perfecting his inner self. According to one interview, he also gave up playing the guitar during that period.

About the Album

In a time when most people seem to be stressing the differences between the "West" and Islam, Yusuf Islam has taken on the admirable task of trying to bridge the two. In An Other Cup, the artist who was once known as "Cat Stevens" is clearly very much the same guy. The voice is instantly recognizable though naturally somewhat older and a little more brittle. The guitar sounds the same, in fact a lot fo the licks seem to come straight off Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. The biggest difference is that there are now more explicit references to his thirty years of faith in songs like "They Call Him Beloved" and "In the End." Essentially, Yusuf Islam is still very much on the "Peace Train", it's just that now he pointedly sings about an "open world borderless and wide" and "seeing the light" in a much more explicit spiritual context.

In interviews, Islam has downplayed the political significance of the new album. He tells the story of his son bringing a guitar into the house (a la Father and Son in reverse) and recognizing his own yearning to begin writing songs and singing in public once again. Nonetheless, one can't listen to this without also seeing that An Other Cup has a clear message. Yusuf Islam both announces his pride in his faith and makes it clear that that faith is built on a message of peace and unity.

This, however, is the bad news. As much as I admire what Yusuf Islam is trying to do here, I'm not a big fan of the album. There has long been a school of thought that happy souls can make for bad art. It is somehow more appealing to sing about one's tortured road to innner peace than to write a song like say "Everything is Beautiful In Its Own Way" or "Happy Together." Art seems to thrive on the tension that inner turmoil and complexity bring to the creative mind.

Many of the lyrics in Another Cup have a kind of blunt certainty that borders on platitude. "One day at a time we can learn to leave the past behind. We can look the future in the eye."

"Until I found the one I needed at my side, I would have been a blind man at my side...I think I see the light."

Despite the introduction of Middle Eastern flourishes on tracks like "Whispers from a Spirit Garden" with its trancelike ground figures and floating modal woodwind melodies, much of the music is heavily rooted in the early 70's. There's a Moody Blues like poetry recitation from Rumi I think in Spirit Garden and a short interlude about butterflies. A track has Beatles-like harpsichord interlude dropped into the mix. Around that Islam depends heavily on too familiar harmonies and folk-poppish hooks from his Cat Stevens incaranation.

Yes, point out that the same could be said of Cat Stevens's records pre-Islam. In many ways, the music and the message are the same, it's just that he now more firmly identifies himself as a Moslem with a bit of a nod to the Sufi with its emphasis on the other worldly and the inner nature of that other place whose praises he now sings.

For me, that's the problem. After 30 years of spiritual exploration by an artist, I guess I'd expect commensurate musical growth. I think the simple answer is that this is what happens when you don't play for 30 years. You do wind up musically where you left off regardless of what's been going on inside you. It is as if Yusuf Islam dusted himself off and fit it to his current life and view of the world. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing from his perspective. He comes across as a deeply happy man. An Other Cup is the work of a contented soul. It's just not as interesting, maybe because of that.

For the sake of comparison, I spent a fair amount of time between listens to Another Cup also listening to Janis Ian's 1994 album "Breaking Silence". Ian in some ways led a parallel life to Stevens. She too was a successful singer songwriter at an impossibly young age in the mid-1960's. IIRC she wrote "Society's Child" and got it on the charts before she was sixteen. As a young adult she came back with Between the Lines and her hymn to adolescent angst At Seventeen.

After that she suffered a series of bad breaks including dishonest management and she didn't record for more than a decade. In the meantime, Ian went through a spiritual personal shift of her own which included her coming out as a lesbian. One difference though, is that during that hiatus Ian kep playing and writing music.

The result is an album filled with finely-detailed imagery (lives winding down like clocks) and well-turned phrases. Listen to Tatoo say or Some People. Her music and especially her guitar playing continued to mature. The level of her lyrics turned even subtler in ways that generally don't happen at too young an age even with prodigies. fwiw. Janis Ian also is a very fine guitarist (women musicians often don't get much credit as instrumentalists if they also happen to sing.) Breaking Silence is also an album documenting spiritual change but it also documents musical and artistic growth.

Listening to "Breaking Silence" brought home to me the frustrating part of "An Other Cup" which is what Yusuf Islam gained at an intensely personal and rewarding level also reminds me of what the world lost which was thirty years of his continued growth as a musician.

As a quick asside, I'd also mention that Janis Ian has taken an interesting stance on file sharing. She's one of the few musicians who's actually come out for it and argues that it actually enhances her sales (similar to what happened when ASCAP first fought over radio play in public places some 70 years ago)

To be fair, I think that much of that will come back as he reunites the musician with the renewed man of the spirit. There are moments on "Where True Love Goes" and "One Day at a Time" where his uniqueness and optimistic musical vision are clearly all there. Still, he does a cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and the older music stayed with me in ways that the newer material on the album didn't manage.

It'll also be interesting to see what happens to An Other Cup commercially. Even though he didn't sing many dreamy love songs, a core part of Cat Stevens's audience was built around the fantasy that he was singing to or with you. Looking back it may seem odd that he had a hit with an old British hymn, "Morning Has Broken". Much of Cat Stevens male audience was also guys pretending to be sensitive too. An Other Cup definitely is not the sort of album one could or should listen to or use that way.

At this point, An Other Cup, isn't my cup, but I admire the man and what he's trying to do. I also suspect that if Yusuf Islam continues to re-explore his music, he very well may find the bridge both between Islam and the West and between his past self as girl crush material and his self as a man determined to follow the dictates of his spirit.



At 1/23/2007 07:33:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

So, the song remains the same. That was a great review and I loved that you brought Janis Ian into the mix for a little compare and contrast. I know bits of both their repertoires and am also interested in her file sharing stance. If you want to enhance her stance, there's a decent program called mydatabus which can allow you to embed mp3s into your posts. Just saying!

I often feel your point about happy souls and bad art. If I'm too happy or content, I can't write a sentence, I need fuel of a different sort generally.

At 1/24/2007 10:01:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Dale. I'll check out mydatabus. It's odd. I don't consider Janis Ian that obscure, but the pop albums I have that I think of as a little more off the beaten path, you always seem to be listening to in your Friday selections.

I do think that Janis Ian has had a really interesting career and is strangely neglected. There are a lot of others from her generation who were much less talented who have been granted "icon" status, like say Carole King. Ian keeps writing new music, etc., remains a vital artist and yet she's wandering the internet in semi-obscurity and doing relatively small venue concerts live.

At 1/25/2007 03:50:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I'm a big taste tester of music CL and I'm not afraid to try stuff out, how else do you ever find a new favourite obsession? (Lately it's Neko Case.)

I only have 3 or 4 of Janis' songs but I should no doubt have more. You can clearly hear the artistry so I don't understand the neglect either. If I figure it all out, I'm starting a band. You in?

At 1/26/2007 11:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This misery makes great art nostrum is dashed on the delights and triumphs of Sandy Calder who was passably cheerful.

I remember being secretly terrifed that if I quit smoking, I wouldn't be able to 'really write' any more. As it is, I can both write & breathe.

At 1/28/2007 09:30:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

Undoubtedly, this is the best review I've read so far. I bought An other Cup after seeing that same CBS Sunday morning program, thinking that perhaps there would be something different, or perhaps I wanted the Cat with a hat back. I liked the first song, albeit the lyrics very simple, but I had thought the rest of the CD would be like that: a celebration of life and his view of simplicity, but with a more musical dynamic, similar to Loreena McKennitt. Instead, the first tune foreshadowed that the rest: An Other Cup would be stripped down. And that is another cup, but not tea for the Tillerman.

At 1/28/2007 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I don't think misery is necessary to make great art. There are many perfectly happy people who manage to be very creative. That's why I said "can". I do think that misery can sharpen the edge sometimes and that's why the two do pair up a lot.

thanks for the kind comment. My experience with this album was very similar to yours. The first part of my first listen was very favorable at least partly because I had sort of missed Cat Stevens, but then it seemed like nothing had changed musidally sort of like those artists from the fifties who do oldies concerts.


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