Yusuf: Tell ‘Em I’m Gone

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

yusuf-islam-tell-em-im-coming

Yusuf
Tell ‘Em I’m Gone
(Sony Legacy)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Cat Stevens … bluesman? Well, not entirely, but Stevens, still going by his Islamic name of Yusuf (although a sticker on the shrink wrap boldly proclaims his more commercially famous moniker) does dabble in that genre for a handful of songs on his first album in five years.

Split evenly between rearranged covers and spiritually informed originals, Yusuf sounds comfortable and confident with material that ranges from Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” to a rugged version of Procol Harum’s “The Devil Came from Kansas.” Producer Rick Rubin deftly balances Yusuf’s folk, rock and now blues influences with a diverse supporting cast of musicians that includes Tuareg band Tinariwen, harmonica veteran Charlie Musselwhite and folk legend Richard Thompson.

Yusuf’s own liner notes recount his blues roots and how these songs reflect the struggle for freedom that has proven so powerful both politically and personally throughout the ages. Thankfully that message is delivered without a lot of preachy proselytizing, letting the singer’s unique deep, weathered, burnished bronze voice wrap itself around originals like the rootsy “Gold Digger,” the folksy fairy tale/parable “Cat & Dog Trap” (that doesn’t try to cloak its children’s story as anything less than an allegory of his life), and a comparatively rugged reading of the standard “You Are My Sunshine,” a tune whose meanings have always been unclear. The African rearrangement of the traditional title track is another highlight, as Yusuf sings “I don’t want no cornbread and molasses” with a wonderfully nuanced sense of anger and pride. The closing “Doors” ladles its concept on too heavily with the chorus of “God made everything just right” and the cliché of one door closing as another one opens.

Still, Rubin does a commendable job combining Yusuf’s spiritual and earthy yin/yang with music that is an extension of his storied past, yet not a replication of it. The album also prepares us for the singer-songwriter’s first North American tour in some 35 years. These new songs should mesh gracefully with the classic music that rightfully made Cat Stevens a household name in the ’70s.

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