Yusuf/Cat Stevens | Tea for the Tillerman -Reimagined | (UMe)
3 out of 5 stars
How do you improve on a classic album, one of the defining moments of an artist’s career and a pinnacle of the singer/songwriter ethos, released in 1970? Spoiler alert: you don’t.
But since Yusuf, aka Cat Stevens’, more recent pop releases for a comeback that began in 2006 haven’t exactly troubled the charts, and Tea for the Tillerman has already been expanded into a deluxe edition, there needed to be some way to celebrate the set’s 50th anniversary. Stevens rounded up producer Paul Samwell-Smith, who helmed the original, along with second guitarist Alun Davies (both were also on board for Stevens’ 2017’s The Laughing Apple, another updating of some older, less popular tunes) and “reimagined” all dozen of Tillerman’s songs from five decades ago.
Lyrically and thematically, the concepts Stevens addressed as a 22 year old—environmental, generational divides, romance, spirituality—haven’t become dated in the interim. It’s intriguing to hear the more weathered 72 year old voice of Stevens today reflect on the issues he examined from a far younger and less mature age. The way he, assisted by producer Samwell-Smith, incorporated these ideas into flowing, even catchy, folk-pop melodies played by a stripped down yet sympathetic band perfectly realized the UK artist’s version of Laurel Canyon’s early 70s singer/songwriter movement, remains timeless.
Some of its most popular tracks like “Where Do the Children Play?,” “Hard Headed Woman,” and “Father and Son” sound only minimally changed from their initial versions. The latter switches the narrator’s viewpoint from the younger son that Stevens was when he first wrote it, to the elderly father, actually grandfather, he is now. Some of the edges are smoothed out, the backing vocals on “…Children” lean towards schlocky but there isn’t a world of difference on these updated takes.
Not so for “Wild World,” Stevens’ first major US hit that put him on the popular map. He adds a somewhat clunky reggae lilt with accordion and clarinet (!) to bring a slight Klezmer approach. That doesn’t really work but he’s at least trying something different.
The youthful drive that pushed Stevens to sing “I don’t want to work away doing just what they all say,” on “But I Might Die Tonight” is now tempered by an elderly touch, enhanced by Beatle-esque strings that bring a fuller, less gutsy but unique sound, also adding about 90 seconds. But “Longer Boats” pushes the envelope by starting like the original then abruptly shifting to a spoken word, almost funky, vibe about halfway through. It’s the most radically altered version but oddly fades out as it’s starting to get interesting.
Much better is the dark, eerie swamp vibe Stevens crafts around “On the Road to Find Out,” a direction he should have followed more often here. The closing minute long title track loses the startling and rousing gospel chorus that appeared out of nowhere singing a boisterous “Happy Day” that made 1970’s version so riveting.
All of which makes this “reimagining”—which includes updated cover art — a mixed bag, although one that those who have loved Tea for the Tillerman since it came out might appreciate. Perhaps not surprisingly, the new one doesn’t exude the magic that made Stevens a worldwide star five decades ago. Those who haven’t heard it should start there.