Yusuf/Cat Stevens | Tea for the Tillerman-50th Anniversary Super Deluxe | (A&M/UMe)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars
There is no doubt that Cat Stevens was on a roll in 1970.
Barely seven months after the release of Mona Bone Jakon, the first in his freshly minted sincere folk pop guise following a brief bit of UK stardom as a teen star, Stevens returned with Tea for the Tillerman. The collection, with most of the same personnel as the earlier one–notably including producer Paul Samwell-Smith– reinforced the rootsy folk/pop of Jakon and further solidified his arrival as one of the most introspective, creative and musical UK exports.
From the opening, ahead of its time, environmental treatise “Where Do the Children Play?,” to the closing minute long title track, with a startling entrance of gospel singers, the 38 minute record took the Mona Bone Jakon blueprint and enhanced it. The songs were better and the performance from Stevens reached a new level of confidence and maturity, all guided by Samwell-Smith’s light but potent touch. Fifty years later, the tunes still resonate with Stevens’ brushed velvet voice and sensitive but never schlocky lyrics about finding his way in the world. He was all of 22 at the time and the overwhelming commercial response to the album raised him from playing clubs to arenas, all within the space of about a year.
Selections like the global hit “Wild World,” the first of Stevens’ songs to click as a crossover hit, “Miles From Nowhere” and “On the Road to Find Out” reflect Stevens’ insecurity about his future and where it would lead. “I don’t want to work away/doing what they all say,” he sings on “But I Might Die Tonight” and those thoughts connected with the vibrant anti-establishment singer/songwriter boom exploding in Laurel Canyon at the same time.
As with the “super deluxe” version of Mona Bone Jakon, released simultaneously (not to be confused with Tea’s 2008 “deluxe” double package), this multi-disc includes both a remaster and remix of the songs on the first two CDs. Add to that about an hour of live recordings (get ready for five acoustic versions of “Wild World,” all of which sound virtually identical) and a platter of demos, alternate versions and rarities, some not even appearing on the album. Most of the latter have been previously available on various compilations, specifically 2006’s four disc Cat Stevens box (still in print and a steal at about $20). The recently issued Tea for the Tillerman 2, the 2020 updated recording that Yusuf recorded earlier this year, is also included. That boosts the price of this set and is surely a disappointment to those who sprang for it separately. A Blu-ray presents 16 videos from the period. There are different permutations at various price points but the mammoth 5 CD/2 LP/Blu-ray box with a lavish 53 page book will set you back a staggering $173.
Whether you need all of that comes down to just how much a fan of Tea for the Tillerman you are. In any configuration though, these songs are some of the finest of Stevens’ career. Hearing them in the context of the other tracks, is more enlightening than absorbing the tunes mixed in with other Stevens’ hits. The spiffy remastering and especially the sympathetic remix helps this already classic singer/songwriter music remain fresh and inspirational five decades after its initial appearance.