Yusuf/Cat Stevens | Mona Bone Jakon-50th Anniversary Super Deluxe | (A&M/UMe)
4 out of 5 stars
The odd and inexplicably titled Mona Bone Jakon, supposedly a sexual reference inspired by Muddy Waters’ “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” wasn’t Cat Stevens’ first album, but it might as well have been.
Stevens was already a teen pop idol in the UK, due to a few fizzy hit singles like “I Love My Dog,” “Here Comes My Baby,” and “The First Cut is the Deepest.” But a year long bout with tuberculosis and recovery sent him down a far more introspective path. He emerged from that illness in 1970 with a different outlook on life. His songwriting now reflected that far less pop and more cerebral approach with Mona Bone Jakon being the first of a remarkably consistent run of albums on A&M in America and Island in the UK. The back cover showed a pensive Stevens staring out into space in a wooded area which reflects the pared down music inside.
Mona Bone Jakon has already been reissued in 2000 with improved audio, but gets a full on box for this lavish four CD package. The first two discs present the original eleven songs (remastered on one, remixed on the other), adding nine acoustic demos on the short (26 minute) third platter and live versions, some almost unlistenably raw, on the fourth.
There is no doubt the studio album’s songs are gorgeously crafted, lovingly performed (by a stripped down band Stevens hadn’t met before they joined him in the studio) and immaculately produced (by ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith). From the subtle European lope of the opening “Lady D’arbanville,” a smash in the UK, to the string enhanced closer “Lilywhite,” the album floats along on an cozy mood with its predominantly acoustic approach, intricate lead guitar from Alun Davies and deep, emotional vocals from Stevens. On “Pop Star” he takes a shot at his old, pre-TB transformative self, and even rocks out on piano for the comparatively upbeat, riff driven “I Think I See the Light” as he sings “I think I see the light coming through me/giving me a second sight.” The year of his sickness is referenced in “Trouble,” a belated minor hit when used in the cult classic film Harold & Maude. And the lovely acoustic, finger-picked “Katmandu,” with guest flute from a 19 year old Peter Gabriel, is one of Stevens’ most tender compositions.
The remixed version does what a good overhaul should;brings out subtleties in the performance that had been hidden before, boosts the vocals, and generally adds more presence without desecrating or commercializing the overall initial recording.
Perhaps we don’t need six versions of “Lady D’Arbanville” spread out through the four discs, and some of the live tracks are clearly taken from a cheap cassette recording on the table of a noisy club, complete with chatter, coughing and general hubbub that often distracts from Stevens’ intimate presentation. Those are for the deepest fans only.
Regardless, even if you’re already an admirer of Mona Bone Jakon, it’s an album ripe for rediscovery with every track a gem. This reissue only reinforces everything timeless about it.