Back to Earth (Reissue)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“I never wanted to be a star,” sang Cat Stevens in 1977. With lyrics like “Just another bean in the star machine, hi ho,” this was a strong musical indication that Stevens, one of the most artistically and commercially successful singer songwriters of the ’70s, would soon change course despite, or more likely because of, his enormous worldwide popularity. One can imagine the looks on the faces of his record company’s executives when they read the words to that track. About a year later, their golden goose would stop laying golden eggs.
Released in 1978, Stevens’ auspiciously titled Back to Earth ended up as his last set of pop songs on a major label for nearly three decades. He made a somewhat tentative comeback in 2006 with An Other Cup, credited to Yusuf, the name he took after becoming a Muslim in 1977. Still, there is little doubt when listening to this final salvo of Stevens’ commercially successful and influential folk-rock era that he was totally over the life of a pop personality.
There are a handful of gems in this short (35 minute) ten track goodbye, but they are mixed with some underwhelming material and two wordless instrumentals that chip another 10 minutes off the already brief playing time. In the prescient “Bad Brakes,” Stevens sings, “I must be headed for a breakdown” as he compares his life to a car needing care atop a mid-tempo rocking beat. The words of “Last Love Song” (“If you don’t want me, maybe I don’t want you”) could be the farewell to a bad relationship or to the music business. In “Father” he revisits some of the familial relationship issues he wrote about more effectively in 1971’s similarly styled “Father and Son.” And on the almost embarrassing “New York Times,” Stevens’ devolves into simplicity with a diatribe against the Big Apple growling “New York, poor New York/ not fit for a dog in New York,” made worse by the plodding disco rock that accompanies it.
However, a few keepers such as the closing “Never,” the opening “Just Another Night” and the Elton John “Tiny Dancer”-styled “Daytime” are reminiscent of the Cat Stevens many knew and loved with touching, earnest sentiments and melodies that combine jazz, rock and folk. And Stevens’ instantly recognizable baritone is like a balm, reminding us of his unassuming yet dynamic vocal talents that powered classics like “Peace Train” and “Moonshadow.”
This new remastered reissue brings the original album back into print. But it’s just the tip of an iceberg; it will be followed in 2020 with a five disc (4CD/DVD) expansion that is arguably overkill for an album that is far from top shelf Cat Stevens.