Monday, 14 January 2013

Cat Stevens "Foreigner" (1973)

“Ain’t no matter who inside this world you know, there’ll be someone who loves you just for who you are” “Dreams I had just last night, made me worried to hold my face up to the light, but now I’m over to the sunnyside road” “Man must fight for freedom, sure, that’s what most other people would say, look for a body to lead them but there’s too many to lead them away, why wait until it’s your time to die before you learn what you were born to do?, Come on now there’s freedom calling – but there’s only one freedom for you!” “The sky all glistens with gold when you’re talking to me, and the whirling wind turns to song – well it sets my soul free” “You say you want to learn to laugh because music makes you cry, but the tears you shed are only in your eye, so you turn to any phony mouth with a tale to tell, but he’s just a hoaxer selling peace and religion between his jokes and his karma chewing gum” “Turn your heart to the bright sun, love will come your way, because until you make the final show you’ll never know what love you’ve been missing” “Until I got hurt I didn’t know what love is” “They brang us up with horns and Hollywood and songs, dead snakes and poisoned wisdoms between our teeth, the evil that’s been done is still carrying on and on this night there’ll be no peace” “Go climb up on the hill, perfectly still, and silently soak up the day, don’t you rush and don’t you roam, don’t feel so alone, and in this way you will awake!” “pick up the pieces you see before you, don’t let your weaknesses destroy you, you know wherever you go the world will follow, so let your reasons be true to you” “Stay close to your friends up until the end and when they know that you feel the same way, rise up and be free and die happily, and in this way you will awake! Come on, come on and awake!”


Foreigner Suite//The Hurt/How Many Times?/Later/100 I Dream

When Cat Stevens left the music business behind to become Yusuf Islam I remember reading an interview with him about how someone could give up an art form that had been such a major part of their lives for so many decades just like that. We know now, thanks to Yusuf re-starting his career in the mid 00s that Cat found it hard and for a long time wondered whether his music was compatible with his new life (the Qu’ran doesn’t forbid music as some suppose, only making money from it or singing ‘immoral’ songs, something you could never accuse Cat Stevens of – well apart from ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ in 1967 anyway). However I found his answer at the time fascinating: Cat was giving up music because he thought that an obsession with a simple art form merely filled the gap until something more deeper and meaningful came along in someone’s life – and in his case it was his gradual conversion to becoming a Muslim (the causes of which we’ve already covered a few times in our other Cat Stevens reviews; the song ‘Music’ from next album ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ is in part about this argument). Ask him now and he’ll tell you that music is integral to life – that it can help us to teach without preaching, that it helps us understand how the lives of others differ from ourselves and can fill our hearts with hope and love (or hopefully something less pretentious than the way I’ve just put it). Back in 1972 when the bulk of this album was made, however, Cat poured all of his spiritual energy into searching for something and although every cat Stevens album finds the singer ‘on the road to find out’ to some extent, its ‘Foreigner’ where that spiritual search becomes a crusade. Of all Cat Stevens’ record ‘Foreigner’ is the one that finds Cat at his most confused and the album that is most clearly crying out for some form of deliverance, a guide to help him overcome everything in his life and one where even the music that he used to use to define him has significantly altered. Cat found other sources in which to pour his spiritual soul once he discovered Islam and arguably needed music less and less as he became more and more sure of himself and the decision he made; ‘Foreigner’ however finds him dipping a first toe into these religious waters and trying to work out the direction to take while lost in a new, bold, daring adventure of his own making. ‘Foreigner’ is in essence an album that, from its title down, is the start of Cat’s journey away from superstardom and ‘spokesperson for a generation’ acoustic feel in search for something more spiritually fulfilling, sitting on the sidelines and on the outside looking in.

It’s an album so different in style and substance to the albums that came before it that it’s split fans right down the middle ever since its release in 1973, arguably throwing out triplets along with the bath water in its desire to be always going somewhere new and unknown. To some ‘Foreigner’ is a hard album to take, a very mid 70s self-indulgent record full of prog-rock suites, r and b posing and hardly anything in common with the Cat Stevens sound of the past (until the last gorgeous song ‘100 I Dream’ at least). To others its one of the bravest records ever made, with the chance to hear a seemingly never-ending song where Cat really bears his soul and for the most part shies away from trying to educate his audience about how to live their lives and to talk more about himself. Certainly ‘Foreigner’ is not an album built for easy listening, despite having even more of a crystal clear sheen than normal, but an inner conversation that it feels like we fans have accidentally overheard and certainly wouldn’t be my recommendation for a first purchase if you’re new to the man’s work. My view, as ever, is straight down the middle: I applaud this album greatly for taking Cat out of his comfort zone and for the occasional development that really sounds as if Cat is going somewhere exciting and new; but for the most part this is a ‘teasing’ album, a stepping stone towards new directions because Cat knows he has to change – but one where he doesn’t yet know what he’s changed to. In these pre-religion days music is still the closest thing Cat had found to a spiritual balm, even if he’s already begun to doubt the worth of his own muse and is desperate to find something if not better than at least new.

‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ were albums that perfectly encapsulated the hopes and fears of their time and generation, with this album’s predecessor ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ making the first small moves away from this lucrative formula, but ‘Foreigner’ is arguably the first Cat album that feels out of time with the period and sadly cat will never again regain the audience he loses here. The sad fact is that Cat has written himself out on the subjects of peace and kindness and is quickly realising that if he doesn’t forcibly end repeating himself straight away he’ll simply end up in a musical straight-jacket for the rest of this life. Even Cat himself looks different, with a more subdued forked beard on the album cover instead of the full-beard look he’d sported since 1970 (it doesn’t last long as his ‘new look’ but it’s significant that it made the front cover). The other key feature of the packaging which I love is the contrast between the back cover (an exotic tropical beach, marked by a hammock and drinks table, everything you would imagine) and the insert (a polar bear, sketched by Cat himself, and clearly the opposite of everything else the record is trying to tell us). Cat isn’t in exile so much as he’s lost, searching for a direction and the polar bear’s difficulty in adjusting to tropical heat is surely a metaphor for his Western, London-via-Greece upbringing and musical superstardom that couldn’t have been more of a contrast with the life he wanted to swap it for: a dedicated scholarly Muslim.

That change has clearly done funny things to Cat’s writing gene and what we have here are some very unusual songs, all of which appear to be searching for a ‘new’ sound without ever quite finding a lasting one. The biggest change, however, is the overall sound of the album, which swaps the traditional acoustic guitar duets of Cat and Alun Davies for a more R and B soul sound, all rattling power drums, female choirs and synthesisers instead of pianos. Cat admitted in interviews of the time that his first ‘love’ had been this sort of soul sound but that somehow he’d found his writing going down a different path; looking for a new direction he raided his record collection and thought he’d have a go at recording at this. Had Cat continued with the genre he might well have become a soul singer of some note (he even looks like one on the front cover of the record, where his face is in black and white and taken in the shadows), but you can’t learn a new skill overnight and for the most part Cat is trying to sound like, say, Stevie Wonder rather than becoming a Stevie Wonder-influenced Cat Stevens. Sometimes it works: parts of ‘Foreigner’ are genuinely exciting even if you come to it with no prior knowledge of what a ‘Cat Stevens’ album should sound like it, but like the ‘foreigner’ of the album title Cat hasn’t been in this ‘world’ long enough to let the genre infiltrate his writing and so he ends up sounding like a skilled copycat rather than an inventive pioneer. Perhaps most curiously (given how similar much of the sound is) Cat also dispenses with the services of producer Paul Samwell Smith to record the album himself,after four hit albums (Samwell Smith clearly didn’t take this personally as he rejoins Cat until the end in 1978 from the next LP). Perhaps its simply that Cat feels so much on his mind that he doesn’t want a middle man to interpret for him – or perhaps he’s afraid that a middle man would simply point out what we’ve just expressed in the paragraph above? Either way, the Cat Stevens of 1972/3 was a driven man with much on his mind – and here’s our take on what that something was.

We know now that it was at the end of 1972 that Cat experienced one of the watershed moments of his career – the combined double shock of nearly drowning in the sea and promising to work for ‘God’ is he is saved and his brother handing him a Qu’ran with the words ‘you might be interested in this. Cat doesn’t yet know for certain that his life has changed or what it’s changed to, but he does know that his life is not the same – and so this album is not the same, without quite managing to have one new direction to travel in. Another major change was that after earning a ridiculous amount of money between 1970 and 72 – most of which went to various charities around the world – Cat was persuaded to become a tax exile in Brazil (hence perhaps the album name), a big life change that made it that much harder practically for him to carry on as before. Now, we don’t often mention taxes on this site because frankly it’s none of our business, but it’s hard to avoid with this album. Cat is suddenly a citizen without the world around him that he’s enjoyed since his teens: he’s an outcast, an outsider, a foreigner if you will and he’s to some extent ‘homeless’ (see the wistful song ‘Home’ from next album ‘Buddha And The Chocolate Box’ to see what we’re driving at here – was there ever a sadder song written about being adrift from home?) Cat won’t stay in Brazil for long – in fact he’ll only be a millions-earning ‘rock star’ for five years at the most – but at the time it must have seemed like the real end of a chapter for Cat.

You’d expect that Cat would have recorded his album in Brazil, absorbing the climate and capturing it on tape the same way that Paul Simon did with ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ in 1991, but this was in the days before there was a studio in every country and instead Cat chose the nearest one in Jamaica. Actually, in an interesting twist, Cat took over the studios directly after the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ there and like that album the move seems odd to us now: there’s almost no link between the records and the usual sounds being recorded there. Reggae wasn’t that well known to the Western world in 1973 but you’d still expect to see some sign of it somewhere in these grooves after travelling all that way: instead this album sounds like it was recorded in Motown-era America, with a very English brass section overdubbed later for good measure. (Equally the Stones record an even more archetypally swamp rock Anglicised American record there than normal – perhaps absence from a country makes the heart grow fonder for it?) It could be that ‘Foreigner’ was recorded there simply because Jamaica represented a climate almost completely different from the damp, cold, drizzly London Cat had always recorded his albums in before – or that, practically, it was the nearest to Cat’s new home. Interestingly, he never recorded there again and will return to working for 99% of the time in London for the rest of his career.
Whatever the cause or effect, ‘Foreigner’ is a complete one-off in Cat’s canon, taking up all of the album’s first side. The longest Cat Stevens song from his first career up to this point is the five minute ‘Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’ from ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ and even that seemed like a colossal change after so many albums of three minute songs (notably Cat never writes a ‘long’ song again in his first career).

The title track of ‘Foreigner’ breaks that record in two, being an 18 minute opus, an epic that’s closer in style to Jethro Tull than Cat’s normal work and one that throws everything into the works in one elongated outpouring of fear, joy and longing at entering a ‘new’ section of life. Sadly there aren’t quite enough twists and turns in the song to keep our attention for 18 full minutes and some of the segues between parts sound a little forced, but there’s no doubting that ‘Foreigner’ is a key song in Cat Stevens’ canon. In these lyrics Cat tells us ‘there are no words’ to get across the feelings taking place in his life – and then tries to have a go anyway, with a mixture on reflections of ‘dreams’, messages from friends, devotions of love, fear of what fans might think and hope for the future all rolled into one. The music goes through as many changes as the lyrics and must have driven his backing band mad too if the breakdown of personnel on the album insert is accurate, breaking the song up into no less than eight distinct parts each recoded in separate takes, some of them mere seconds long. For the most part the song sounds bitty too, swapping one thought or feeling for another before truly getting to grips with it before it disappears, although there is an amazing moment when Cat suddenly goes into first gear and roars through the chorus ‘Come on now its freedom calling!’ which is one of the most satisfying moments of his canon (sadly it’s not long before the doubts roll in again, but you can tell how intoxicated with the hope of his new lifestyle Cat suddenly is).

Ultimately, however, ‘Foreigner’ is as confused as the person making it was and expects a lot from the listener to try and keep up with its rollercoaster journey.
Not that side two is a lot easier. ‘The Hurt’ is an angry, bitter song quite unlike the usual Cat Stevens variety of love song and one where far from turning the other cheek the narrator seems to weeding out all his loved one’s weakest points (to be fair, Cat might well be singing about himself here and merely switching back to the idea of ‘love’ in the chorus; even so its unsettling to say the least). ‘How Many Times?’ sounds equally fed up and grumpy, ostensibly about having to try over and over to get someone to fall in love with the narrator but more likely about the repetitiveness and restrictions of Cat’s life at the time (Cat never did take to fame all that easily in either of his first two careers and by this album he’s still only a youthful 26, a young age to go through so much pressure and ego fuel). ‘Later’ is a short and snappy R and B finger-clicking stomp which has very few words (and, again, its unique in the usually erudite Cat’s canon) promising much but admitting that the results will only show ‘later’ (again it looks like Cat is acknowledging he’s distracted but is telling his fans to ‘watch this space’ because his life really has changed). The album then ends, finally, with a song that sounds like the ‘old’ Cat with ‘100 I Dream’, by far the best song on the record and among the best Stevens songs of all time for me, with Cat finally regaining his warmth and elder-brother feel in the lyrics, warning us to be true to our selves ‘and in this way you will awake’. Even this song, however, is made to sound at times as if Cat is ‘laughing’ at his old self – with self-consciously ha-ha-ing music lines whenever he tries to offer some great speech and a song that only really drops its self-conscious air for a mesmerising middle eight where all of Cat’s emotions finally spill over into a proper ‘song’.

Overall, then, ‘Foreigner’ is an album for fans who want to understand what makes Cat Stevens tick and are particularly intrigued about the life changes he went through circa 1972-73. It’s not an album for casual fans or those who want to hear hit songs and empty repetitive rockers and ballads and it’s not even particularly high on the list of ‘greatest Cat Stevens albums’, although ‘Foreigner’ is not without its good points. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect about this album is that Cat won’t make good on the promises made on this album (especially on ‘Later’) to tell us about his new life and the changes going on inside him; instead it’ll be kept a secret as Cat distances himself from his music and quietly retires in 1978. Although Cat’s albums after this all have their moments (and the next, ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ is a particular highlight) you somehow get the impression that this musical career is no longer the be all and end all of Cat’s life it once was and only as 2005 (when Cat came out of retirement as ‘Yusuf’ on ‘An Other Cup’) do we get the ‘end’ part of the story posed on ‘Foreigner’. Alas by then its almost too late: by now the religious conversion is no longer an exciting bold spiritual journey but a life that’s been lived for nearly 30 years and is definitely the sound of an older man looking back alarmed on the folly of his youth rather than an artist really getting to grips with the changes going on inside him. Ultimately, perhaps, the demands made by this album weren’t worth the struggle in the end; the fans got scared away (despite strong sales of this album at first), critics began to sneer and the momentum built up over the past few years where Cat seemed to be the perfect writer for his times began to fade away. By the next year (and ‘Buddha’) Cat is back with his old producer, his old backing band, his old English studios and his ‘old’ style and it’s as if ‘Foreigner’ never happened; which is a tragedy because for all its faults ‘Foreigner’ is clearly an album from the heart and one that does a pretty good job at getting across the feeling of major changes in Cat’s life, even if it doesn’t quite pin itself down as to what changes those are. ‘Foreigner’ should have been the start of a whole new lifestyle, Cat emigrating finally to a new land and embracing all of the nuances of a new culture – in the end it turned out to be just another holiday. But you know what they say, a change is as good as a rest and perhaps its ‘Foreigner’ that we owe the next great run of albums to, for without this album Cat might simply have repeated his successful formula to extinction. And in the long run that would have been a far worse crime that releasing one eccentric, genre-moulding, patchy album like ‘Foreigner’.

‘The Foreigner Suite’ is undoubtedly a song close to its author’s heart. The passion Cat puts into his vocal and the length he went to record and re-record it in several complex edited sections shows how badly he wanted to get it right and to boot cat also personally asked that a section of it (around 12-15 minutes in) was added to his first post-career ‘best of’ CD (not to mention Cat recycling one of the melodies for a song on his 2005 comeback). However, the trouble with this epic rock suite is that this song is so personal we listeners feel like ‘foreigners’ in this land, unable to translate all the little messages in the work and unsure about the final destination. All that said, there’s some lovely scenery here: despite the lengthy running time this is the closest we get to hearing Cat at his most basic and raw, aping the r and b sounds of his childhood. The way the music builds up layer by layer is classic Cat too, the singer staying off unsure of his journey before gradually getting to grips with where he’s headed and why. The musician credits suggest that this is an eight part suite but in reality it’s more like four: we start off with the narrator struggling to work out what’s going on in his life and trying to translate his ‘dreams’ before finally bursting forth with joy at the realisation that he’s on the right path (‘over to that sunnyside road’; I could write a whole essay on the metaphors inherent in that sentence but I’m willing to bet its something more simple, like the name of Cat’s new address in Brazil)/ The second (approximately 5 minutes in) is more universal, a surprise return to the ‘hippie dream’ that we can all be ‘free’ if we choose to and the state of our health, bank balances and occupations can’t divide us if we all come to spiritual enlightenment in our own way. The third (about nine minutes in) is back to the personal and sounds more doubtful, the narrator describing how beautiful the new ‘love’ in his life is (presumably the ‘love’ here is for ‘God’, a la George Harrison’s 1970s work) although its interesting that its sung not with conviction but with awe mixed with concern (does the narrator deserve this good change in his life?) The fourth (around 12 minutes in) is probably the weakest and sounds a little forced to me, as if Cat realised his epic song needed a better ending, so he simply tacks on a slow torch ballad procession about how sure he is that this is the right part. A sudden swirling musical flourish (‘Heaven must have programmed you!’) then rounds things off, though too late for my taste (I’d rather have had this brief finale as the complete last quarter of the song).

All these sections are held together by some extraordinary playing (until the end at least), with the first two sections particularly a rollercoaster ride of fierce attack and improvised spontaneity. Gerry Conway (later part of both Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention) is a heavy presence in the mix and ‘sneezes’ his way all through the song, with a tricky hi-hat shuffle that sounds more like jazz than rock and roll. Goodness only knows why Cat replaces him for the second half of the song, where the drumming by Nernard Purdie isn’t quite as alive or in-the-moment. Cat’s regular sideman Jean Rouseel is along for the ride too, adding some distinctive synthesised chirping to go alongside Cat’s piano playing although intriguingly he also plays a bass part (filling in for Cat’s usual sidekick Alan James). The moment four minutes in when Cat has built up to an emotional climax and the musicians all keep going, rattling into an impressive improvised jam session is especially thrilling, the tempo building up to a real climax before it slides sideways into section two. I’m less keen on the female choir who crop up near the end (turning this song slightly too far into ‘gospel’, when it should be ‘soul’) and its still a little disconcerting to hear absolutely no guitar on a Cat Stevens song for the first time (perhaps because Cat’s regular sideman Alun Davies couldn’t make it out to Jamaica to record the album). Overall, though, you only have to glance at the sheer amount of changes in personnel in the vinyl or CD booklet to realise just how much effort has gone into making this track – and how impressively joined together musically it all is, each quarter of the track segueing effortlessly into the next.

Alas the same can’t be said for the lyrics, which do sound like four separate songs stapled together. The ‘foreigner’ idea of the title isn’t really explored – it comes and goes as the narrator feels pulled towards or away from the new life opening up in front of him. The first section is a little clumsy by Cat’s standards, the words falling over themselves and struggling to develop any further than the opening ‘there are no words I can use...’. Some of the rhymes are quite clumsy too: ‘choose’ and ‘you’, ‘night’ and ‘fright’ and ‘met’ and ‘respect’. The second verse is more intriguing, if only because its so different compared to cat’s ‘usual’ work: the call-to-arms is a dead ringer for Lennon circa 1971 (‘Give Peace A Chance’ ‘Instant Karma’ and especially ‘Power To The People’), sounding like a marching band driving forward into ‘freedom’. The song pauses too often for my liking, raising and dropping the tempo before finally going full throttle but when this part of the song finally kicks in (‘You can live in the largest house...’) it’s probably the most satisfying part of the record. This part of the record is great, Cat mimicking George Harrison’s ‘Material World’ by announcing that all the status symbols and trinkets in the world won’t make up for spiritual lacking and that big mansions only leave you more isolated and cut off from the world. Cat then turns on phoney leaders, saying that everyone is looking for a ‘body to lead them’ but most of the leaders out there lead us away from our true path. The killer line of the whole suite is here right at the end: ‘Why wait until it’s your time to die before you learn what you were born to do?’ Cat is desperate to break away from the rest, living his life for a purpose rather than to fill in time before he dies and he’s adamant that we should follow him – although he doesn’t actually know which direction he’s turning to yet.

That comes in the third section which is pretty much a stand alone ballad. Cat plays alone to his own lovely piano accompaniment, with a real tension that runs round and round in bursts of emotion before finally landing flat and leaving us (briefly) in silence. A worried Cat is having doubts about his spiritual quest and begs the listener ‘Won’t you give me your word that you won’t laugh?’ as he bears his soul and admits that, without us (or perhaps his musical muse) ‘my life would be without sound’ (a very scary thought) before adding that this love he feels is so wonderful that ‘heaven must have made you on a Sunday’ . Cat gradually builds up both musical steam and certainty in his quest, however, returning to the opening gambit that ‘there are no words I can use’, but this time to describe the wonders of devotion rather than confusion. As per the music, this is lyrically the weakest part of the song, slowed down to a crawl, although there is a good line about the changes taking place in the narrator’s ‘heart’ and his shock that these changes don’t show in his ‘face’. The last two verses then round off the song with a seemingly straightforward declaration of earthly love, adding that ‘I’ve seen many girls before’ but only this one comes direct from ‘heaven’.

However even Cat couldn’t escape the ‘material world’ altogether. In 2009 Cat’s music publishers sued Coldplay (along with Joe Satriani) over claims that they had ‘borrowed’ the melody line from the final section of their song for their hit single ‘Viva La Vida’. To be fair Cat claimed to keep his distance from the whole affair and claimed he’d like to meet the band ‘over lunch’ to discuss the claim, but he rather pointedly re-used the melody himself for the song ‘Heaven/Where True Love Goes’ on ‘An Other Cup’ as if to stake his claim to the track. That all seems a bit of a petty come down for a song that really does sound as if it has the ability to fix lives and offer ‘answers’. Unfortunately ‘Foreigner Suite’ inevitably ends up trying to pull off more than it can and the end result is a mixed bag, with a strong opening and middle section that simply goes on too long and runs out of ideas by the third and fourth parts. However, you sense it’s a song that Cat had to get out of his system: that there was simply so big a change in his life at the time he couldn’t possibly contain it in a regular three minute pop song and it’s for its sheer depth and complexity that many fans love this track. I love the opening, with its darting soul and r and b dances and its sudden drive forward at the five minute mark after building up to a climax (only Pink Floyd’s superb ‘Echoes’ matches ‘Foreigner’ in the respect of a long tense build-up), but the ending arguably needs more work or a good editor. Or at least it does so here on the record – live versions of the song (in all its 18 minute glory!) are a little subtler and livelier I’ve found. There’s also something slightly cold and unwelcoming about this song if you sit through it to the end, a sense that we’ve gone through all the emotional weight of the start for little return and that in this journey only Cat himself can progress – we ‘foreigners’ are left to find our own way through the spiritual maze...

Side two is at least a little more accessible than side one, even if only one song is truly up to Cat’s highest standards. ‘The Hurt’, sadly, isn’t it despite being probably the best known song from the album (and a minor hit single). The song is really just an extension of the least exciting part (the last) of ‘Foreigner Suite’, dismissing those who sit at home expecting spiritual enlightenment to come to them without effort or those who turn to false prophets who don’t demand the same effort. However Cat doesn’t really tell us why we should listen to him any more than these other ‘spiritual peddlers’ and the whole atmosphere is rather uncomfortable – as if our favourite teacher is turning on ‘us’ simply because we haven’t had his experience or a chance to prove ourselves yet. I liken this song to many of George Harrison’s from the ‘Living In The Material World’ album – it would be fair enough if a spiritually enlightened soul turned on ‘us’ for not even trying, but turning on your audience (who by and large have proved their interest in spiritual matters by listening to your records) for not ‘getting’ the answers to life as fast as you seems churlish. What are we meant to do? So many of Cat’s songs tell us to work out the answers for ourselves that it seems doubly unfair to be attacked for not taking ‘this’ journey with Cat (who for all know is another ‘phoney mouth selling pace and religion in between karma chewing gum’). To be fair, like many a Cat Stevens song he’s probably getting at ‘himself’ every bit as much as the rest of us (‘you say you want to seek the truth – but you work alone’), but still the effect is one of further distancing Cat from his audience which is a step too far straight after ‘Foreigner Suite’. That’s a shame because the wistful melody on this track is one of Cat’s best and this is also probably the best performance on the album to boot, with a superb use of pedal steel (you can even hear one of the musicians let out a ‘whoop’ some three minutes in). The chorus is a good one too, Cat telling us that we won’t know what real love is until we’ve been ‘hurt’ and don’t have it around us anymore – that it can be defined by its absence more than its presence. A rather lacklustre and patronising middle eight aside (‘Don’t let me down, young son’) ‘The Hurt’ is at least rather ear-catching and is slightly less demanding than the songs around it on this album – it’s just a shame that the central theme of this sermon is such an uncharitable and cold-hearted response to Cat sighting the destination of his own spiritual journey, turning on those who haven’t had the luck of finding it for themselves yet.

‘How Many Times’ is another strangely grumpy song that’s closer in spirit to Ray Davies’ songs about boredom and mundanity. Slowed to a crawl, this ballad sports a really lovely melody line again but is swamped by a lyric and vocal that are both stretched to breaking point (and repeat the title line too many times for comfort). The narrator doesn’t sound spiritually enlightened here: instead he sounds fed up, turning to spirituality only for something to do in between eating, drinking, sleeping and ‘shining my shoes’. The chorus sounds downright peculiar, the song finally breaking into a trot on the line ‘nothing could ever ease the pain’ – even a belief in a greater power isn’t enough to overcome the daily grind of routine and boredom. The last of just two verses makes the scene a little clearer (the narrator passes his loved one’s house, ‘seeing the same old things’ when all he wants to see is the real her) and belatedly adds a bit of interest to the song – but sadly even this verse doesn’t really go anywhere either and ends up fading onto a tinkly piano solo and one of the longest fade-outs in AAA history (some 40 seconds or so). The song has a distinctive soul flavour and might have sounded powerful in the hands of a Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, but Cat isn’t that type of a singer and doesn’t have the power to sustain a song that revolves so much around his voice (two earlier attempts at this style from 1968, ‘View From The Top’ and ‘Image Of Hell’, both bonus tracks on the CD issue of ‘New Masters’ hint at this style but struggle even more as a still-teenage Cat was then growing into his voice). A worthy attempt to reflect the realities of life behind the spiritual scholar and the fact that even with our heads in the clouds we are destined to remain stuck on earth till our time comes, it’s a sad fact that in order to get across the sheer boredom of life this song itself has to be so boring. Had the lovely melody been sped up a little and given a sort of ‘then and now’ between the two worlds it might have been a winner; as it is the listener is left asking ‘how many times am I going to have to sit through this song every time I play the album?’

‘Later’ is much better, with a catchy vibrant feel that’s easily the best of the four ‘soul’ songs on the record. The song has a strut the equal of Mick Jagger and for once on this album the massive production really suits the song, giving the ominous riff dark shadows that fleet across its skies, thanks to a backing gospel choir that appear and disappear in clouds of production magic and a swirling orchestra dubbed low in the mix. One of the greatest grooves cat ever wrote, it’s just a shame that Cat didn’t come up with a song to match this initial idea. The whole song revolves around the title phrase, which is a sort of double-edged joke, promising both spiritual enlightenment and more earthly sexual needs ‘later’ , mixing the heady sexual urges and desire for change until they’ve become one indistinguishable whole. The sound is an unusual one for Cat and closer in style to the sort of funk style of a George Clinton or Isaac Hayes and some fans dislike it for being so basic in both theme and lyric. Actually it’s a logical step from ‘Can’t Keep It In’, the pounding rocker from ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ and hence forth will be part of many of Cat’s albums (‘Music’ and ‘Ready’ from ‘Buddha’ especially). It’s as if the more spiritual Cat’s interests get the more he’s trying to work out why he should have had to endure the earthly plain at all and thus pays more attention to his bodily needs. ‘Later’ is a mixed bag then; it sounds great and certainly livens up an occasionally sluggish album (especially this second side) but would have been better still with more developed ideas and lyrics to match.

The album then closes with ‘100 I Dream’, the highlight of the album and a last return to Cat’s traditional style, as if to prove to his fans that he was still capable of sounding like he’s old self, he simply had bigger fish to fry. The warmth and humanity absent from the rest of the record is back in spades, with cat back to the role of a kindly elder brother, putting his arm round our shoulder and telling us the best course to take through life as he has found it. The opening even sounds like a biblical text (‘They brang us up with horns...’ , truly one of the strangest opening lines for a song on this whole site and mentions of ‘ ‘old leader’s bones’ and a land formed by a ‘bluebird on a rock’), as if the whole song is a discovery passed down through epochs of time. The title, indeed, may be a ‘mock homage’, as if it’s an extract from Cat’s bible (but instead of ‘Deuteronomy Chapter I’ its ‘I Dream Chapter C’). In fact Cat seems to be addressing the 60s/70s generation as a whole, teaching them that what came before them was based on ‘lives built before us’ that ‘we had no choice’; in changing – and yet ‘when they’re gone we’ll be the voice’, able to determine the next chapter in human living and (hopefully) one more cut out for spiritual beliefs. It’s as if everything mankind has been through in the past was to prepare us for the ‘now’ (or the 1973 version of ‘now’ at any rate), with the creators of the universe whispering to one and all to ‘rise up and be free – and in this way you will awake!’ Cat adds that the path is open to all if we can throw off manmade shackles, embrace nature and can ‘silently soak up the day’, seeing the world as it was meant to be seen before capitalism and class got in the way. By the end of this fourth verse Cat has been sounding like a wise old scholar, passing on wisdom with the fumes of library dust and studies still in his voice, but he drops it all for a remarkable middle eight that’s among the greatest single moments of his entire canon. ‘Pick up the pieces you see before you, don’t let your weaknesses destroy you, you know wherever you go the world will follow, so let your reasons be true, to you’ – this is the central idea Cat’s been trying to pass on since starting his writing career and it comes out in one unexpected rush of energy and passion that turns the whole song on its head and brings out of the classroom and into real life. All we can do is be kind and patient with each other, learn from our mistakes and face life head on. His energies spent, Cat reverts to his ‘old’ voice telling us that we can ‘die happily’ if we’ve made the world a better place than where we found it and then bringing things to a close with a last angry snap of ‘come on, come on and awake!’ before the song ends suddenly, the last paving slab of our spiritual journey stretching out ahead of us like a question mark, waiting for us to walk on it and follow. So ends one of the greatest Cat Stevens songs of them all on one of the strangest of albums, belatedly doing much of the work promised on the rest of the album.

Having finally given his message to the world, Cat Stevens’ musical career wound down after 1973 as his own religious beliefs took over (mind you, cat still wasn’t entirely sure about Islam in this period – hence the fact that the next album is named after Buddhism and has a Christian-themed song named ‘Jesus’ as one of its songs). That leaves ‘Foreigner’ out on a limb – its the last place where we ‘travelled’ with Cat on his journey with him ‘on the road to find out’ that properly got started in 1970 with ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and hereafter Cat will spend his songs looking over his shoulder from the heavens, trying to see he can get us to follow him there. This road is often painful, full of traps and snares and maya (illusions) and none of its stretches are more treacherous than this last road in a ‘foreign’ climate, but the journey is all the more reading when you are there. To be honest ‘Foreigner’ is a step too far for most fans – me included – and arguably changes one too many things in the traditional Cat Stevens sound (the r and b flavour together with the harsher, more distant lyrics makes for an uneasy, uncomfortable ride into the unknown). The 18 minute opening suite is all but designed to put off fans who aren’t committed and I know several casual Cat Stevens fans who don’t understand this record at all – and even if you pass that first hurdle many of the side two songs are equally harsh and uncompromising in their world view. However, there is much to love about ‘Foreigner’ (‘100 I Dream’ especially) and certainly a great deal to admire. I would add, too, that ‘Foreigner’ is a terribly misunderstood record, dismissed for far too long by critics who didn’t understand the true significance of the changes going on in Cat’s life – though to be fair Cat almost seems to have wanted this a hard album to come to terms with, what with the ‘outsider’ title, the 18 minute track and the often harsh tones of the narrators. Conversely there are people out there who love this album for its slightly edgier feel, its more soulful tones and its cold detached air (it’s certainly less schmaltzy than other Cat Stevens records about peace and love) and who knows you might be one of them; for me, though, this record is a fine place to visit, a trip to foreign lands that broadens the mind and reveals the sights (and sounds) of an entirely new culture; I just wouldn’t want to live there and I’m rather thankful ‘Foreigner’ proved to be a one-off experiment rather than the start of a whole new sound. Overall rating – ♫♫♫♫♫ (5/10).

Other Cat Stevens reviews from this website you might be interested in:

'New Masters' (1968)

'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970)

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)

'Buddha And The Chocolate Box' (1974)

'Numbers' (1975)

'Izitso?' (1977)

'Roadsinger' (2009)

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