Friday 6 November 2009

Cat Stevens "Numbers" (1976) (News, Views and Music 46, Revised 2014)

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Cat Stevens “Numbers” (1976)

Whistlestar/Novim’s Nightmare/Majik Of Majiks/Drywood//Banapple Gas/Land O’Free Love And Goodbye/Jzero/Home/Monad’s Anthem

A Pythagorean Theory Tale - Part II; Acts of the Apostles - Peter, Paul and Polygon

Farther away from Earth than is possible to imagine - but not too far because we still want you to imagine it - there was a galaxy named Zigorous Three and in this galaxy was the planet of Polygor which distributed numbers to those who needed them (so you know who to blame the next time you have to learn your times table!) Once upon a time only nine people had lived on the planet - a happier, simpler time when everyone knew what their roles were and went about their business quite happily. But in the present day Emperor Infinity had a problem. Ever since a wandering vagabond gypsy named Jzero had entered the town on an otherwise ordinary day there had been nothing but trouble. At first he brought the inhabitants enlightenment, enabling them to reach 'higher' numbers than they had ever imagined, with the planet creating hundreds, thousands, even millions of extra numbers all with their own relevant and righteous opinions and sending the concept of ridiculously high numbers down to planets without a moment's pause (particularly when it was football transfer season). But his message to go forth and 'multiply' had caused a problem. No one longer knew who they were any more. Whilst Jzero's involvement had brought the Polygons hope and ambition, the idea that there was a 'higher' plain yet brought the simple inhabitants nothing but misery. Monad was even more bad tempered and cross than usual. Dupey's loyalty was tested by his millions of 'new masters'. Trezlar was no longer the youngest and no longer cheerful. Cubis was terribly annoyed at so many young Polygons running about his nice neat tidy village. Qizlo could no longer map outer space because he now found it was infinitely huge. Hexidor invented a time machine that tried to find the secret horror of the universe and put an end to their misery - instead he only found The Spice Girls. Septo found his beloved trees could no longer bear enough fruit to feed the starving mass of people. With so much mess on the planet Octav – who had been diagnosed with dyspraxia - found himself tripping over more and more. They felt inadequate, insignificant and small, no longer in their 'prime'. Was their number up? They weren't sure of that - or anything anymore, this stranger having brought uncertainty and doubt into their lives over what their roles in life should be. Only Novim was happy: he'd always adored reading and discovering as much wisdom as he could about the universe and he had learnt long ago that the best way of being truly wise was to understand as many points of view as there are people in the universe. He also realised that the stranger, Jzero, had meant his gift of knowledge of the outside world as a cause for good. So he sent an SOS to an Earth magician named Cat Stevens to go back to the past and show people that they need not be afraid of these new people and these big numbers. And so he came to the planet under the guise of a Moonshadow, ready to speak to the people and tell them their story. And that is how Numbers came to be.

'Numbers' is the only true Cat Stevens concept LP. After years of wondering, fans finally learnt what a full-length concept Cat album with its creator's imagination given full reign to flow would sound like. Stark-raving bonkers is the answer: 'Numbers' is right up there with the maddest of AAA LPs, along with The Small Faces singing about a man and a fly wondering where the other half of the moon has gone to Roger Waters having a nightmare about Yoko Ono chasing Arabs with knives at the foot of his bed. But 'Numbers' is a monkeynuts album in a different way to what you might be expecting: no it’s not religious (except in a faintly parable sort of a way), nor is it truly mystical, nor does it feature Tillermen, Teasers, Firecats or employees of Matthew and Son. It is not even particularly arty. After all, when you think of musicians what’s the first thing that comes into your head? Temperamental artistes? Special people whose souls are filled with a desire to explore philosophy and the questions of humanity? Literary giants with their fingers on the pulse of the human psyche? Or vacuous idiots who look pretty while dancing? (answer the last option only if you’re a Spice Girls fanatic). Chances are very few of you answered ‘mathematicians’ or ‘scientists’, which makes sense given the way that music has changed form in the past couple of hundred years (with music another 'art' form made by 'artists' who could easily have been painters or illustrators, as Cat himself nearly was). However had you asked that question even a couple of hundred years ago then mathematics would have been an obvious point of reference for music: Bach, Mozart and Handel, especially, treated music as God's greatest gift of mathematics, where each tone existed in its own separate world and all sorts of fun tricks could be made by moving things up or down a semi-tone in complex numerical sequences (for the record, all three were clearly mad: hearing music written purely for its mathematical context is like studying a painting purely for the colours, not the emotional response they convey. Shockingly music is still taught in our schools like a science, not an art, even though that's how 99% of people now enjoy it - this - and the endless practicing of scales you won't need for another 20 years - are the reasons that more pupils don't take up instruments in schools. After all, as every good AAA reader knows, good music is about rule-breaking, going where no one else has ever been before and showing how new things can be done, not adhering religiously to outdated principals that went out of fashion when the lute did. Rant over, we now return you to your regularly scheduled album review...)
Despite the above rant, I've always found the basics of mathematics comforting. I spent so long at school learning that history doesn't really 'exist' because there is no one interpretation of the truth, that science is only ever a 'working theory' rather than a fact and that nobody's opinion about literature can be wrong (well except for the people who like Ted Hughes poems, who are clearly insane) the idea that certain numbers will always equal the same amount when added, subtracted, multiplied or divided was somehow rather comforting. You know where you are with numbers: they do the same job every time regardless of the mathematician and can be relied upon to always tell you the ‘truth’. Admittedly I got very lost when maths started adding a 'but...' to every rule that shouldn't technically have been rules anymore, but until the subject started to get complex for no good reason I rather enjoyed it – it gave my brain a chance to rest and heal in between pondering the secrets of the universe. Strangely I was about the only person I ever knew who loved both English and Maths (and Music too of a sort, taught as a science, loved as an art form, remember - don't be too impressed, I was utterly hopeless at most everything else). But for me they've always been natural bedfellows: both are searching for the 'truth' of life the way it is made up, except that one does so by studying different opinions and one can only have insurmountable facts. The two go together surprisingly well: I still know most of my measurements, units of time and times tables after various Beatle songs I re-wrote when I was seven ('One Yard = Three Feet, as I tell you very confidentially...' to the tune of 'Ain't She Sweet' was one I was particularly proud of. Hey it worked and I still remember it 20 years on, even though I'm still waiting to ever need to actually know that information. And no I couldn't 'get out more' before you ask - for the simple fact that my headphones wouldn't reach outside the door). I always longed for the day when I met another soul who 'got' the comforting 'rightness' and solidity of numbers and how they danced to their own merry little tune in a quite separate performance to the more doubting and worried letters (doomed to forever reflect 'opinion', not 'fact'). And then I heard 'Numbers', the wittily titled 'Pythagorean Theory Tale' and even more than 'Mona Bone', 'Tillerman' and 'Buddha's Chocolate Box' knew that I'd found the right writer for me in Cat Stevens.
However, what Cat does very cleverly, is show that there is no gap between the two. When the album starts Polygor is a simple, happy place. Everyone has a set role in life and there are no arguments over what to do, no reason for differences of opinion and no disputes because everyone has their own circle of expertise. The nine inhabitants of the planet all know what they are doing and get along fine, until an upstart named Jzero comes along from outside the planet. At first they dismiss him: he is a wandering vagabond, a romantic depiction of a [10] ‘Tramp’ who lives by his own rules and with his own freedom that Cat has been admiring from afar since his first album. This outsider to what is really a depiction of a small English village is surely trouble with his wild new ways and beliefs and he doesn’t even believe in money, income and status symbols the way all the others do. However, Jzero is not like them. He has seen the world not bought it, he has understood that there is greater life than exists in this enclosed space and he understands the value of rule-breaking. While he may not have all the answers about what life is about, he does know all the right questions to ask, things about life and death that are more important than soothing Monad’s temper or watching Octav trip up all over again (hey, that’s my job, I’ve found my role in life, I’m a number eight!) What happens when this very ordered universe of mathematics meets the chaos of philosophy and the arts? Chaos, complete and utter, with most of the planet wishing this stranger had never come to visit them. However by joining forces with them Jzero shows that there is a whole new world out there which stretches out into infinity and which they had never even considered. Literally given that Jzero can add no ends of noughts to each of the Polygor inhabitant’s efforts, showing them the bigger picture behind their different qualities and roles. Is Jzero a zero with no job or family? Or this wondering minstrel dabbling with greater numbers and theories beyond his friends’ abilities? Was Jzero right to come here? That depends on your viewpoint, how desperate you are for answers and how attached you are to exploring the mysteries of life. In another great twist, of course, ‘Numbers’ is itself the title of a passage of The Bible, just one of many in-jokes between the spiritual and concrete worlds going on in this album.
Many fans are probably gaping by now. How did we end up here, so soon after ‘Buddha and The Chocolate Box’ saw Cat going back to making ‘proper’ music again? Where did this album even come from? Well to these ears this is surely Cat’s cleverest way of getting round the problem that he is desperate to talk about his spiritual awakening and religious fervour and speak from the heart without putting fans off. Like many a science-fiction writer before him Cat is using a fictional world as a metaphor for this one which can be enjoyed as story or moral depending how invested you are to the idea. In this context Cat is about to finally get the religious answers he has been seeking and which he has sensed for the past few years after hearing God’s voice calling to him. That won’t come until the following year when, after the low sales for this album, Island tell Cat in no uncertain terms that they don’t actually want a new album from him in 1976 and could he make the next one more commercial please? He feels though a whole new universe of understanding so much deeper than the one he lives on and can no longer bring himself to write the ‘simple’ songs he was coming up with before, not now he realises there is so much more depth to the world and so many bigger questions to ask. So what he does is he creates an alter ego in Jzero who moves about between the ‘real world’ to people’s aggravation and confusion, himself lost about what his thoughts all mean but at least confident that he has understood life better than their rigid characters could ever allow them to see. Does this stranger have the key to every door? Cat hopes so, but he can’t give us any answers yet when he hasn’t found them himself yet.
‘Numbers’ is also, perhaps, Cat realising that as a writer his ‘Number’ is up. ‘Buddha’ was a better seller than ‘Foreigner’ had been but still hadn’t sold as well as the old days and his contract was up for renewal soon – Cat wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to carry on merely making music for a living. Stuck with three records to see out on his contract, though, he began to think about what he had always wanted to do before he ran out of chances and remembered what got him into music in the first place: musicals. The Stevens family Greek restaurant (with the French name Moulin Rouge) was conveniently located in London’s West End. The vast majority of the customers Cat served as a teenage waiter were either going to or from the theatre and many of them were still full of the sights and spectacle of the shows they had seen. When Cat had time off he would sit on the family rooftop and watch the people below, dazzled by the bright colours of the theatre and listening to the songs passing overhead. At times, when he could afford it, he would even go himself. Long before Lennon-McCartney came along to nudge him into pop and rock music Leonard Bernstein was what turned Cat onto the power of music, with the drama and people of ‘West Side Story’ a key influence. ‘Numbers’ sounds to me as if it is Cat’s response to having a whole playbox of toys to play around with, alongside a desperate attempt not to be ‘himself’ anymore, coming up with a self-contained story and productions that sound much more like the sort of bright, dramatic, singalong show tunes he had seen in his youth. It also features more voices than normal but with cat sensibly taking all the leads (unlike, say, Paul Simon’s musical ‘Capeman’) a sensible compromise – ‘Cast/Stevens’ if you will. In 1976, when the ‘elders’ still ruled the West End ‘establishment’ Cat didn’t have the power or money to put on a stage show. Even in 2009 when he attempts to put on a musical of his life ‘Moonshadow’ he’ll only get it off the ground in the less critical land of Australia before it was quietly shelved. So instead he turns his story into an album, one made with his last set of illustrations for a Cat Stevens project, with the few words oddly a collaboration between two unknown writers Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (the three had loose plans to make it a whole book, an idea dropped when re-action to this album was so poor). What’s interesting is that the story in the booklet should be read before the album, the record effectively the continuation when Jzero arrives with no song really about the world before he arrives, almost as if we’ve skipped a first act. 
No, come back, honestly – as off-putting as this project sounds and as uneven as it is compared to cat’s best work, it is a very under-rated record that no one else would have thought of, never mind pulled off. Who’d have thought, back in 1976, that Cat Stevens – one of the biggest soul-searchers and musical philosophers of the lot – would cobble together an album about learning and yearning for answers stapled together with songs about numbers? Who would have then thought that 'Numbers' would be an album about not logic and cold professorial facts or even a sequence of spiritual awakenings (a la 'Catch-Bull At Four'?) but a series of colourful characters whose world is turned upside by the arrival of a tramp, a hobo, a no one who slowly but surely expands the minds of those who live on a planet of numbers? What you maybe could expect is the very Cat Stevens-like pull between the ‘safe’ and ‘predictable’ and the dangerous but fulfilling spiritually enlightened path with ‘Numbers’ the culmination of ideas that have been running through his music ever since [6] ‘Portobello Road’. 
The downside is that a single album is not enough time to flesh out this entire world. Heck we don’t even get a full album of it given that ‘Numbers’ is bookended by two songs that are really about stage effects and atmosphere rather than character development or plot. Only three of the ten characters get songs to sing. Monad’s ‘anthem’, which comes right at the end, is a stereotypical ‘character’ song that doesn’t tell us much, the sound of a bossy boss taking back control of his planet (who put him in charge anyway?) he probably voted UKIP (Unconditional Kicking Out of Interlopers from Polygor) at the last election. Novim is in a sense the Cat Stevens of old. He’s the number nine, the highest number that Polygor has yet reached, aware that life is a bit rubbish the way it is and that rules are made for breaking, but too content to step outside his box. ‘Novim’s Nightmare’ is, notably, the sort of song the ‘old’ Cat would have sung, worried, paranoid even, a ‘Mona’ era Cat Stevens worried that no one would miss him when he dies and that life has been futile. It is Jzero, though, who is the album’s greatest character and the one who represents where Cat’s head is now at. Jzero seemingly possess 'nothing' by himself but adding a whole new range of numbers when coming into contact with other people (or Polygons) gives everyone new depth to their understanding of the world. He isn’t ‘tied’ to anything, he works for nothing more than bed and board and he is free of all the restrictions everyone else enjoys. He is just [10] ‘The Tramp’ with a group chorus. He feels though like a special character, one who can see through the lies of this world, the over-reliance on the peculiar substance of ‘Banapple Gas’ (a peculiar banana-apple hybrid that’s a metaphor for drugs, capitalism or both) and represents everyone’s re-actions to cat Stevens in 1975. He’s a bit weird isn’t he? We don’t understand what he says at all. But hang on, what if he is right? Going back to ‘Catch-Bull’ this album is ‘the bull’ of enlightenment writ large – the costs are higher, the discoveries greater and the ultimate costs far more scary than Cat’s past self had thought and will lead to more alienation than he thought. However, Cat lays out here early just why he will take the path he will and why he is not content to live amongst us mere mortals anymore with our 1-9 existence working 9-5.   
There's just one problem with 'Numbers'; the (musical) numbers aren't actually all that good. No, actually let me qualify that - only the very best of them match Cat's recent heights, starting a down-turn in his work that will last until his retirement from the music world in 1978. Too many of these songs are integral to the plot, but not actually that interesting as songs. The opening ‘Whistlestar’ is a nice and chirpy but a rather inconsequential instrumental, the sort of thing cat has been putting on B-sides before now. The closing ‘Monad’s Anthem’ is just plain weird with a children’s choir competing against electronically-treated voices. The middle ‘Banapple Gas’ is a melodically great song turned into a throwaway novelty about nothing. Well, Cat was definitely smoking something while making this album and probably something stronger than even this made-up toxic substance (it's easily Cat's weirdest song, being the weirdest track on Cat's weirdest album - and remember this is a man who spent an entire song singing about [26] shifting a log). All three tracks are unworthy of Cat's talent (and not since the first album we have had this many duff songs; what with this being a short-running nine-track album that's a third of it alternatively weird, unlistenable or unlistenably weird). The presence of 'Novim's Nightmare' ''Majik Of Majiks' and 'Drywood' - three very similar ballads - all in a line together at the end of the first side, like an abacus - is a big mistake that slows the first side down to a crawl and is at least one too many (as far as I can tell every song is sorta kinda about Jzero’s entrance so they really could have gone in any order bar the first two and last two on the album. Well except for 'Land O'Free Love and Goodbye' which surely belongs at the start, when the world is happy and untroubled, but is track six). ‘Numbers’ is also pretty hard to follow as concept albums go, a point every other reviewer has ever made about this album. In fact, take away the title of the album and the confusing booklet (half of which contradicts the events we hear on record) you’d be hard pressed to notice any theme going on at all. (perhaps Monad's Anthem' also belongs at the beginning not the end). Jzero, the most crucial character in the whole album, isn't mentioned in the booklet at all - only in the lyrics to his 'song'. The 'moral' of the album gets confused too: we're clearly meant to side with Jzero and his exciting open door to a brave new world. But why then does the opposition - fearing change - get two songs that contradict this to Jzero’s one? (‘Home’ is a song about displacement and wishing you hadn’t opened the ‘door’ into another dimension/experience because you can never close it up again and last track ‘Monad’s Anthem’ – if it means anything at all – is about ejecting all outside elements and claiming your territory as your own). The real trouble is that 'Numbers' should be more than the sum of its parts and thanks to the filler material, the curious contradictory plot and a lack of any 24 carat grade material this is a record that only works in parts. Polygon knows what’s going on at all, sometimes.
the good news is that, for the most part, you don't need to know the story to enjoy 'Numbers' - although your enjoyment will be increased to a factor of about ten if you do 'get' what's going on. The great news is that the emotional core of this album is exceptional and more than makes up for the flawed results. Cat's got bored of presenting himself as someone looking for answers and presenting a whole imaginary world of people he can give answers to is the perfect solution. This gives Cat the canvas he needs to explore his ideas of being ‘the chosen one’ without it coming back to bite him the way it did on the worst of ‘catch-Bull’ and ‘Foreigner’ (say what you will about this work, at least it is rarely boring). Though wittily subtitled a ‘Theory Tale’, this is really more of a myth or legend, with the feel of some old tome that has been passed down the ages, with Jzero perhaps the apple in the garden of Eden that causes mankind to strike out on their own. The concept, of adding zeros to numbers to make them more fulfilled, is utterly brilliant and one of the best ideas for a concept album out there, even if it is a tough one to relate to sometimes. Some of the songs are exquisite: ‘Novim’s Nightmare’ might be a parody of the Cat of old but it still packs an emotional punch: the dreamer wants to know all the answers but he’s as unprepared as the others when change comes crashing through the door, unable to imagine change coming in this way not on his terms. ‘Majik Of Majik’s is a stunning ballad, intense as the old world meets the new one head on. ‘Drywood’ is sinister as Jzero kicks out everything the world ever knew for their own good, but no one can see that yet. ‘Land O’Free Love And Goodbye’ is gorgeous, a utopia that somehow manages to stay just the right side of schmaltzy. ‘Jzero’ himself get s a pretty little theme song, all rural banjos and simple keys, but beneath it all is the feeling that so much more lies beneath. ‘Home’ too is the album’s ‘proper’ ending, a brilliantly nostalgic song as cat takes one last look back on who he used to be and waves goodbye to a world that is safe and cosy before turning his back on it forever. No wonder the religious conversion takes place after this album – Cat needed to get to this point spirituality, or so it feels, to be able to make that final move with his eyes wide open to what exactly he was doing. ‘Numbers’ is the album where everything changes and is a candidate for Cat’s most autobiographical work despite the characters who sing on his behalf.
‘Numbers’ sits in a peculiar position in Cat’s back catalogue – the last real attempt at making something ‘new’ and different’ in his ‘first’ career, the last album started from scratch before his conversion to Islam and, most interestingly of all, the only real half-concept/story album in his back catalogue. Even when concept albums were all the range at Cat’s peak (1970-73) Cat never made an album like this one, based on one rounded theme (his songs almost always share the same theme but are separate discussions of each topic and sub-topic – he never again takes us on a half-hour journey somewhere like this again). ‘Numbers’ was dismissed at the time by bored critics for being ‘more of the same’ and ‘out of tune with the times’, but the critics were wrong on both counts. 'Numbers' is a lot of things, not all of them good, but it certainly isn't more of the same. I would rather hear an artist stretch themselves, even if it means they fall flat on their faces, than deliver an album that’s safe and competent. Though ‘Numbers’ isn’t an album I play a lot for pleasure it’s the sort of thing I’m glad Cat risked all to make. As for being out of tune with the times, actually it’s spot-on with the age of the 1975-76 pre-punk concept albums of the day, which were less elaborate and clear than their predecessors but nevertheless told a story throughout (Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’, Jethro Tull’s ‘Warchild’ and The Who’s ‘Who By Numbers’ albums from 1975 are this album’s close cousins – the latter even has a similar name!) The sad fact though is that 'Numbers' just sailed past the heads of most Cat Stevens listeners. After all, why bother with an album that makes you have to work so hard when you can just listen to 'Teaser and the Firecat' on repeat? The fact that only about half the album lives up to the standards of old is another reason this record is usually treated with the cold icy glare handed out to people who do maths puzzles for fun. No wonder this album’s so unloved, then – it’s far too heavy going in a way that Cat Stevens records usually aren’t, for all of their deep and spiritual themes of enlightenment and going on a spiritual journey. However, I'll be bold and say that it's exactly the sort of thing Cat Stevens should have been doing in 1975. 'Foreigner' was a 'goodbye' record about leaving the listeners to make up their own minds and to stop bothering Cat for answers he didn't have all the time. Even 'Buddha', deliberately made to capture the feel of an 'old' style Cat Stevens record, hadn't done that well. So Cat had to raise his game - and if that meant factoring in a bonkers concept about looking for 'answers' to the power of ten then so be it. Unlike most fans I rather like 'Numbers', a record that has Cat so tired of telling his audience how to figure things out that he literally turns them into 'figures', with a plot that's actually very fitting for a songwriter convinced he's found out the answer to life's problems but wants to test us to see if we come up with the same equation first. Is it his best? Is it his worst? It’s neither, but somewhere comfortably in the middle – I’ll let you do the maths!
The Songs:
The album’s first port of call is the scene-setting instrumental [104] ‘Whistlestar’. The very first instrumental to grace a Cat Stevens record after a few near-misses on B-sides, it’s far far better than the two instrumentals apiece that grace Cat’s final albums (‘Izitso?’ and ‘Earth’) and yet it’s even more irritating and out of place here. The concept of ‘Numbers’ demands a whole book and a triple album, not just a 35-minute record and a half-finished short story, so once you get to know the album its incredibly frustrating that almost four minutes of the record are given over to a song that doesn’t mover the song along one iota. Out of context, though, this song is a lot of fun and one that’s guaranteed to stay in your psyche for eons afterwards (I’ve been listening to this album a lot for the last three weeks, preparing to write this review before laptop problems got in my way, and I swear I hear this song’s main riff going through my head every morning when I wake up). It sounds like a television theme, with the same bright and breezy persona played on a myriad of synthesisers and keyboards (and what sounds like electronic whistling but is probably Jean Roussel finding some interesting new sounds on a moog), at least until the weight of the middle eight and its crushing piano parts come in to take the spring out of its step. A fine basis for a song, then, it’s frustrating that Cat never got around to writing lyrics for this piece – 35 minute albums really don’t need overtures; not when this track has nothing to do with what comes after it anyway beyond a feeling of joyful abandon that’s ever so slightly smug.
[105] ‘Novim’s Nightmare’ is a fascinating song, following on from the end of the booklet but in a much darker and frightening fashion. Novim is, surely, the old Cat, taking his worries about the world and where ver there’s something more with him to bed at night. He is aware enough to sense that there are deeper truths in the universe, but not capable of reaching or understanding them yet (he is, if you will, catching bulls at four which Jzero tamed long ago). Novim worries that no one will care if he dies with nothing achieved in his life of any note, curses the fact that he was born with awareness and sentenced to being just ‘one of the nine’ and he is no longer sure who he is anymore, that everything he  has been told is a lie. Aware that change is coming Novim feels scared, in a scary metaphor feeling it hanging over him ‘like a drunken guillotine lingering just above my head’. Jzero is a threat even to Novim, who representing the number nine is the closest in size and scale to sensing other worlds. Cat delays his vocal until a full forty-five seconds into this song (making it a full 4:30 of the album until we hear any voice at all). This song is one of this album’s many eerie, almost horror-movie-ish atmospheric tracks, with the doom-laden thoughts of the narrator a million miles away from the children’s tale in the booklet. This is also perhaps the closest in feel to a ‘musical’ number, with its slow burning feel that arrives, sometimes quite cheesily, into some big hammy production number. For all that, though, this sounds like a ‘real’ song describing who Cat used to be. The song ends ominously with the lines ‘can’t see no room for Nine no more, now it’s too late to open the door’ – this is Cat symbolically saying goodbye to his career (his first one, at least) and to his ‘old’ non-religious ways, when the original ‘dimension’ of nine has faded away. However, Novim is more afraid than pleased about this.   
[106] Majik Of Majiks’ is the album’s true classic, a very dramatic piano-based song that sounds completely unlike most other Cat Stevens songs, brooding and sinister and as hopelessly lost as on the last song. We don’t know which character is singing here but it sounds to me as if Novim is sticking up on the behalf of newcomer Jzero, telling us to ‘let him in, he’s only asking for a simple job to do and nothing more – but looking back I see this stranger has the key to any door!’ You can read oodles of imagery into those two lines alone, with the arrival of Jzero in a town that’s all planned and stabilised and arguably doesn’t need him there disrupting the whole concept of the town against their will – and yet they are all missing what life is really about without him there. The song keeps referring to ‘looking back’ to Jzero arriving (which he only does on song seven) just to confuse us though. To everyone in Polygor what Jzero has to offer, the ability to ‘make me turn and see the way I really am’ feels alien, dismissed as magic. How can someone understand them so well? The answer, of course, is that Jzero can see patterns they can’t, sequences of numbers they cannot comprehend being such tiny cogs in such a big wheel. Throughout the song is balanced on a knife-edge, full of great tension that ebbs and flows this way and that as the inhabitants of Polygor discuss their strange new visitor. Should they welcome him or expel him? I’ve noticed that many of cat’s most revealing songs tend to be written on a piano not a guitar and even though jean Roussel plays the bulk of this song this does indeed feel like an emotional outpouring. The arrangement of this song is stunning – from the tiny, lost sounding opening piano lick to the epic gospel feel of the finale, this track grows with every verse to reflect the momentous changes going on in the narrator, although it still ends on quite a down-note (literally with the unresolved chord at the end) with a wonderfully inventive and eerie string passage. Cat sings quite brilliantly on this song, alternating between mysticism and the sort of baying mob mentality that hate something they don’t understand. He even sings in his lower register throughout most of the song, one associated with his more ‘autobiographical' songs rarely heard since his ‘Mona Bone’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ albums and the song is delivered as a series of rhetorical questions, which is also very Cat. The title of this song, by the way, was appropriated for the legendary ‘Majikat’ tour of 1976, the only full tour Cat ever gave the first time round in his career, in which this song was one of only two performed – a sterling version of this song (without as many sudden gear changes as this album cut)  is the highlight of the ‘Majikat’ DVD (2005) for me.  
We don’t know who sings [107] ‘Drywood’ but my guess is that it is Jzero’s first appearance. This is one of cat’s preachiest songs, the sort of thing he can only get away with in character, but he makes some valid points. Turning on non-believers including his old self, he tells us that we are not ready. We may talk about giving up money but we don’t really mean it, we don’t present our real selves but hide behind ‘masks’ and live behind ‘walls’ unable to tap into the extra dimension Jzero sees ‘that you don’t see at all!’ To this new visitor the inhabitants of Polygor are all cosy and settled, molly-coddled with so much they don’t know they feel like children to him. They are all capable of seeing what he sees though and to Jzero their illumination is inevitable and nothing to be feared. In a return to [41] ‘I Think I See The Light!’ Jzero compares the town to kindling, ready to catch alight with knowledge if only they would see. In a series of extended metaphors Jzero shows us how natural this is and that it is nothing to be afraid of – do flowers not reach throughout the darkness of the soil to the sun? Do streams not find their way through the muddy earth to the oceans? Jzero is here to show them how to get to that point, but after that ‘it is up to you’. However he’s not the thoroughly kind benevolent leader either. He dismisses the ‘love’ he feels from the town (so things have moved on from the last track then?) because they don’t really know what love is and he’s fed up of people following him when his first rule is that there are no rules and everyone should be true to themselves. More even than his other songs, this Cat track sounds like mid 1970s George Harrison, condemning us for not being smart enough to join us. However presenting this idea through characters softens the blow somewhat and enables Stevens to get away with things he couldn’t possibly say out loud as ‘himself’. However this song also feels like it started as a parody, however seriously it is sung on album, Cat mocking his former earlier self for being unapproachable and too full of himself, dishing out answers like sweets and then wondering why people keep pestering him for more. If you can forgive the ‘barking’ elements of this song the lyrics are first class, giving us such memorable images as ‘there’s much to know and no doors in space, they were only mirrors you imagined in your mind’ as Jzero sets out just how big and wide the universe is to these timid people who have never had reason to leave their own planet (maybe even their town). This recording is also an epic in every sense of the word – it features a gospel choir, lots of criss-crossing pianos and sound effects (naturally this song about catching alight spiritually ends with the sound of a crackling fire – unless of course it is Novim’s front room after a conversation between him and Jzero). The melody too is stunning, brutal austere and cold but in a much more developed and successful way than ‘Foreigner’, as if Cat has bled every drop of past emotion and character to show us just how very different his thinking is to us these days. There’s something slightly uncomfortable about ‘Drywood’, though, for all it’s worth. This is Cat getting rid of everything that’s holding him back in his quest for true spiritual enlightenment and sadly, in 1976, we were part of the problem not part of the solution.
[108] Banapple Gas’ acts as welcome relief in an album that’s been getting increasingly heavy on tit’s first side but, heard out of context, this song is a mess. Banapple Gas is the Polygor’s metaphor for the darker side of life that Cat has been addicted to since his teenage years, representing drink, drugs, capitalism riches or all three. It is a colourless, odourless liquid that everybody in this world seems to be addicted to, an artificial substitute for the much more real and nourishing apples and bananas from which it is made. However it’s a poor substitute for spiritual awareness, filling the hole of need without any real nourishment. That is, I stress, something I’ve only picked up after years of playing this song though – not to mention watching the live performances and one of the weirdest music videos I have ever seen (think The Bible as broadcast on a shopping channel!) The lyrics to the song as they are in the original booklet don’t say much about anything – only the one word ‘alas’ gives away that Banapple Gas is not a good thing in Cat’s universe. This is, then, just a novelty song and not a very funny one at that – and yet there’s another element at work here too. Past songs like [80] ‘Sitting’ and [99] ‘Ready’ are all about Cat’s character trait of impatience. This track features the exact same sort of chord sequence and rapidly strummed acoustic guitars with cat’s opening flurry of ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ sounding as if he is about to deliver the same sort of deeply life-changing song. The fact that he ends up delivering what is effectively a bonkers commercial for a product that doesn’t exist is either hilarious or an infuriating waste of what could have been a much more substantial song depending on your take of it. The fact that this song gets an even bigger production budget, with Cat’s biggest female chorus yet, pedal steel, steel drums and a deep voice Ho-ho-ho-ing at the bottom of the mix only adds to the feeling that this is all a deliberately frivolous waste of money. On paper this song is exactly what this album needs: its catchy, hook-laden and jolly while taking neat pot-shots at a worthy foe of capitalism and addiction in empty lives that can’t see beyond the next fix. In practice it means three minutes of Cat getting increasingly desperate to find rhymes for his deliberately un-named product and a last verse where he yells ‘it must be healthy because…certified!’ like a salesman on acid. What is meant to be poking fun at a pointless waste of time itself seems more than a little pointless and is not one of Cat’s better ideas.   
 [63b] ‘The Land Of Free Love And Goodbye’ is the best known track on the album, courtesy of appearing on one of the many Cat Stevens best-ofs out there (it’s the only one of this album’s songs that do appear), and its intriguing to note how different this song sounds in the album context and without. You see, on the face of it, ‘Goodbye’ is a typically delightful spiritual song with weird words, something Cat had been writing a lot of on his most successful early-1970s period. Most fans hearing it on best-ofs don’t even know its meant to be part of a bigger concept suite. It makes sense somehow too that it is this of all songs that started life (with different words) in Cat’s golden period, first demo-ed in 1970 as ‘Love Lies In The Sky’. And yet in the context of the album this is the ‘fake’ song that we shouldn’t be believing in it at all. It is, you see, a painting of how blissful life was in Polygor before Jzero came along. Everyone lives in blissful ignorance here, enjoying the beauty of their world and the simpleness of their lives which all seem nicely full already without any reason to ever search for anything more. The key line of this track is ‘everything is as it must be’ – or so the Polygors think. The clue is in the title, of free love without responsibility, a hippie paradise where everyone feels blessed by God and nobody ever fights, because what is there to fight about? Cat and by extension Jzero know that this is all a fallacy though, that this life isn’t ‘as it must be’ at all but full of people who don’t understand the way of seeing the world that comes through pain suffering and enlightenment. No one here is preparing for their own death. Nobody here is asking questions about why they are on this planet. Nobody is interested in seeing what lies outside Polygor’s gates. On this song Jzero is an disruptive influence and while Cat’s sympathies clearly lie with his questioning character it speaks volumes that the most popular song on this album by some margin is actually the one about how life is better without people like Cat in it. In any other context the idea that a song is ‘too beautiful’ would be stupid, but that seems the only comment to make here: this utopian fantasy is so perfect and full of such unconditional love why would anyone want to break the spell with Jzero’s scarier songs?  Yet thanks to the song’s delightful bouncy melody – one of Cat’s loveliest and most rounded of his whole career – it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and stare in the beauty of everything afresh. A lovely, magical, neglected song even if it doesn’t at all fulfil the plot function on the album it should be filling.
[109] ‘Jzero’ is a great song that feels out of step with the rest of the album, not least because in terms of plot its set back in the first side’s doubts and doubters. It’s also the first time we get a note of who is singing in the booklet (even ‘Novim’s Nightmare’ isn’t specifically said to be sung by Novim), with Jzero delivering his bouncy Ray Davies-like song about having nothing and being all the better for it. Jzero, you see, wanders into Polygor promising not to be a burden and to work on any jobs that need doing – he’s depicted as being exactly the sort of inconsequential inhabitant of a town you’d welcome, ‘don’t think about me too long’, and yet this surprising person will end up changing the life of everyone he meets. He walks in to the sound of an accordion and a lovely tune that free-wheels its way around chords most prettily, sounding as if he hasn’t got any troubles in the world. His philosophy ‘you won’t think me right, but you won’t think me wrong’ sums up his life as someone who is wise enough to know he will never have all the answers but is still curious to look for them. The town, though, are shocked and scared. In one of the best couplets on the album Jzero says he comes with ‘nothing’ but in their eyes ‘seems to possess less’. I mean, he’s not even a proper number, he’s a total nobody!  Of course everyone underestimates him, with no car, no family, no job. They call him a fool , but Jzero knows more than they will ever know and there’s just enough hint of that in this clever song with its secret smiles and a melody that sounds really simple but is really mega-complicated. There are some clever ideas and some cute lines here, my favourite being the subtle line of Jzero’s promise that ‘I can fill the______________gap’, the long pause being written out that way in the lyric booklet. I’m less sure about his description of himself as a ‘free-walking tree’ though, that’s just silly! This is another of the album’s production powerhouses with an array of special guests playing the townsfolk – one of them is Art Garfunkel, taking time off from making his ‘Breakaway’ album.   
 [110] ‘Home’ is a magnificent song and the obvious finale for the album whatever scraps come next. This is another tale of how peaceful Polygor was before the world was changed by Jzero and ties up several loose ends from other Cat Stevens albums all in one go. Cat is, for all his tale of setting out on paths to find out, a homebody. Home was what he yearned for during his months in hospital and he even gave up quite a lucrative tax-avoiding scheme in Brazil because he couldn’t bear being away from home and hearth any longer. However the crunch time for change has come and Cat knows that he has to reach out and fully embrace the dangerous but fascinating new world of religion that is at his fingertips. If he does this, if he is brave enough to take up a new life devoted to religion, it means changing everything: career, girlfriend, musician friends, boozing, wild parties, motivation for getting up in the morning. ‘Home’ sounds like Cat, as Novim, taking one last look back at his ‘old’ life –which suddenly doesn’t seem so bad now – and wondering is he is brave enough to leave everything behind before ultimately taking the plunge. He can’t go back after what Jzero has told him. Everyone seems so one-dimensional, rushing rounds doing things that are no longer important and hiding their true selves behind different masks. He knows that he ‘came with nothing and with nothing you’ll return’, the life he’s built up for himself on Polygor now worthless. He still envies this world of children playing and – in a risqué line – that everybody seems to walk around on this world naked, but Novim has gone too far now, he knows the burden of responsibility and what living is really about (dying and what comes next), he can’t go back. He is, in a line I like to think is sung by an encouraging Jzero, not alone so much as ‘not at home’, that’s why he feels so lost and out of place, at the point in his life that Cat was on ‘Foreigner’. ‘Home’ is an album highlight, with these bordering-on-twee lyrics combined to a melody that sighs with real yearning for days gone by and a rip-roaring production that’s as eerie and frightening as anything as any track on this website. This clever songs also gets at the contradiction that has been building in cat’s work for a few albums now, that he sings about free but at the same time sounds like a prisoner awaiting the verdict of his sentence, too scared to fully commit. The key line for this song is ‘nobody has to hide – because everyone already knows’; Cat was genuinely worried about how his friends and peers and for that matter his family and friends would accept his conversion and absence from their lives and these lines about wanting everybody to experience what you’ve experienced so that you don’t have to explain about them or defend them is truly moving whatever your faith or belief. This is Cat looking back at his past once more, half-wishing he’d never opened up the door to the next chapter in his life and a very worthy goodbye on the last ‘proper’ song on the last Cat Stevens album designed to help us with our spiritual growth rather than just filling in a record contract for the next thirty years. Hauntingly beautiful, both in context of the album and out.
Alas we get an unwanted encore with [111] Monad’s Anthem’. Monad hasn’t appeared yet in this story, but basically he’s the egocentric ruler of the Polygon kingdom, the one who most resent’s Jzero’s claims of peace and equality. The song tries hard to be uplifting and patriotic, with its many references to ‘this is our star’, but look behind what the music’s telling you and it’s clear from the words that this egocentric ruler has learnt nothing from the journey that Jzero has left for him. I can’t decide whether the leader of Polygor is oblivious to the change all around him or whether he sees the chaos and is bringing people together to undo what Jzero has done. Cat even sings this song with an electronically-treated voice (which sits in stark contrast to the heavenly children’s choir going on around him – where did they all come from by the way? This planet is only inhabited by nine people plus Jzero!) just to make sure we get the point that this isn’t him or his Jzero/Novim alter ego talking. Monad sounds like every jingoistic numpties who ever lived. He’s proud of where he lives, hates all outsiders, considers his land ‘the highest light’ and believes that their land and land alone has been touched by heaven. Jzero, along with cat, knows this isn’t true: he has travelled too far and met too many Monad’s from other lands who all say much the same thing. He knows that no one dictatorial view is the right one – that life is all about sharing, of being open to outsiders and ideas and celebrating similarities and differences and learning from them. From Monad’s point of view, though, he is merely stamping his authority on a troubled world that is now shaken to the core, making the inhabitants feel better about their roles in life again. A more interesting song might have been the debate between these two visions, the idea that Monad and Jzero are polar opposites who don’t mean to get in each other’s way but do, despite both sharing the same motive of wanting to make life for the Polygons better. Alas the words are far too clichéd (perhaps that’s the point – Monad is meant to be narrow-minded after all) and the ending too downbeat to work successfully as the rousing finale this work needs. It is also the one song here that suffers from being part of a musical-that-was-never-staged rather than just an album track, being far too stagey by half and sounding like a bad amateur dramatic play. A confusing and disappointing end to a confusing but generally impressive album.
Numbers carries a credit on the back sleeve that many reviewers seized on, that this concept work is ‘not to be taken 2 seriously’. However I think that’s a misnomer from Cat: despite being presented to us as a children’s book this is a very adult work touching on several deep concepts and sounds to all intents and purposes as if it is telling the story of Cat Stevens as an outsider everyone fears, plucking up the courage to make an even more definitive move away from what society would consider ‘normal’. It is, if you will, an important poetic lyrical album that just happens to use the idea of numbers. It is, admittedly, only a half-baked concept record that needs to be much more fleshed out and re-sequenced to truly work.  
Despite the sums this is an LP that ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The album’s strengths are undeniable and amongst the best things Cat ever wrote – but it sounds rushed and tired in places, with a ginormous concept reduced to repetitive points on the same themes and lots of larking around on synthesisers. But forget what we have here for a moment and concentrate on what this album is trying to do, tearing the cold hard logic away from the choices offered in this album and backing up the singer in what was possibly the hardest decision he ever had to make. ‘Numbers’ is an album that isn’t about the logical at all but one that comes with one of the biggest hearts of all Cat Stevens albums, as important as any in his canon if not as accomplished as some. It’s ironic, then, that this most human and artistic album has been, for so long, dismissed for being about ‘boring numbers’ – as everybody except those stuck-up few who still teach music as mathematics will tell you, music is so much more than just numbers. A flawed but fascinating album with enough (algo)rhythms to keep you going through even the hardest-going tracks ‘Numbers’ is the Cat album that got away, the one few people bought and even less people understood and yet in its context of what is about to come next actually makes perfect sense with Cat cast as Jzero promising to leave us in peace any minute now. ‘Numbers’ should really have come at the end of Cat’s first career, the moment when he waltzed out the door ‘like a tap-dance with death’. Instead it’s the last cat Stevens album until 2009 that you truly need to own, much deeper much greater and much more important than most people ever realised at the time. And to think, before hearing this album, you’d assumed that a polygon was just a sick parrot!


'Matthew and Son' (1967)

'New Masters' (1968)

'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970)

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)

‘Teaser and the Firecat’ (1971)

'Back To Earth' (1978)

'An Other Cup' (2006)


'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' (2014)

‘The Laughing Apple’ (2017)

Surviving TV Appearances 1967-2015

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1969-2009

Non-Album Recordings 1966-2014

Compilations, Box sets and Alun Davies LPs Part One 1963-1990

Compilations, Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012 

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I can't help but notice there is a treasure trove of information regarding this album I've not seen elsewhere. Are these speculations, or do you have an official source? I'm searching for any way I can find any new information on the unreleased children's book meant to coincide with this album. if you see this, please reply. it would mean the universe to me if this book became accessible by the public.