Monday, 26 August 2013
Cat Stevens "Catch-Bull At Four" (1972) (Album Review)
“Oh, I’m on my way, I know I am, somewhere not so far from here” “I keep on wondering if I sleep too long, will I still wake up the same?” “Life is like a maze of doors and they all open from the side you’re on, keep on pushing hard boy but, try as you may, you’re gonna wind up where you started from” “People would ride from far and wide just to seek the word he spread, ‘I’ll tell you everything I’ve learned and love is all’, he said” “She moves like an angel and seven evening stars dance through the window of her universal house” “Her clothes are made of rainbows and 20,000 tears shine through the spaces of her golden ochre hair” “Silent sunlight, welcome in, there is work I must now begin, all my dreams have blown away, and the children wait to play” “Don’t ever look behind at the work you’ve done, for your wok has just begun, there’ll be evening in the end, but till that times arrives you can rest your eyes, and begin again” “I can’t keep it in, I’ve got to let it out, I’ve got to show the world, world’s got to see, see all the love, love that’s in me” “You’ve got so much to say, say what you mean, mean what you’re thinking and think anything” “Why must you waste another day? You’ve got to live for today – and then let it go” “You’ve got too much deceit, deceit kills the light, light needs to shine, I said shine light, shine light” “It stung my tongue to repeat the words that I used to use only yesterday” “My hands were tied as I struggled inside the empty waste of another day” “They picked me up at seven when my eyes were weak from the light of the morning” “Brother won’t you tell me, is this a Eucharistic dove? Because I’ve been waiting for one to appear, but I’ve seen it in your face, and baby this ain’t the place!” “Ah this world is burning fast, oh the world will never last, I don’t want to lose it here in my time, give me forever here in my time” “As we drank down the wine to the last sweet scarlet, how was I to wonder why or even question this? Underneath her kiss I was so unguarded, but every bottle’s empty now and all these dreams are gone, ah but the song carries on...so holy” “She could move mountain ns in the dark, as quiet as a knife, she cut loose a life that she knew she never really wanted, all those days are frozen now and all those scars are gone, ah but the song carries on...so holy” “It’s so quiet beneath the ruins, walking through the old town, stones crumbling under my feet – I see smoke for miles around, it’s enough to make you weep, all that remains of the main street, up in the park on Sunday, dogs chasing and the children played” “It’s all changed, Winter turned on man, came one day when no one was looking and it stole away the land, people running scared, losing hands” “Where’s it leading to? Freedom at what cost? People needing more and more and it’s all getting lost”
Cat Stevens “Catch-Bull At Four” (1972)
Sitting/The Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head/Angelsea/Silent Sunlight/Can’t Keep It In//18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)/Freezing Steel/O’Caritas/Sweet Scarlet/Ruins
Three hugely successful albums within two years, the best-selling single of 1971 (‘Morning Has Broken’) and critical plaudits galore just three years after Catty nearly died from TB and thought at the least that his career is over. Surely he’s feeling happy? Vindicated for taking such a career change? Hopeful for the future? Content with life? Well, not exactly. Even though Cat’s albums have become bigger and bigger with every passing release to date, Cat’s clearly feeling fragile and isolated, hemmed in by public expectation and a world that seems to judge success by chart sales rather than artistic growth. ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ isn’t quite as eccentric and audience-shunning as the follow-up (‘Foreigner’ – see news and views no 178), but it’s not all that far away either, possessing a much bigger band sound than the one on best-sellers ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ and material that’s a little more (how can we put this politely?) eccentric. Some would claim that this album is more of the ‘real’ Cat, that he simply got lucky with the feel and texture of ‘Tillerman’ and kept as close to that sound as he could for the follow-up, but no – like most artists but more so, Cat was a restless, evolving creature who simply didn’t like going in the same place twice.
This is an album that starts with a narrator being forced to ‘sit still’, confined to a chair against his will when all he wants is to embrace ‘the road to find out’ and find something ‘new’, but secretly afraid that he’ll ‘wind up where I started from’. It also ends with the narrator walking through the ruins of a desecrated city, one ostensibly hit by a cold war bomb but also seemingly destroyed by it’s inhabitants’ inability to embrace change and the new. In between relationships end, sunlight pouring through a window signals change, Cat has nightmares about being trapped in Kansas City that only end when he flees to the airport, he waits for a religious sign that doesn’t come on ‘Freezing Steel’ (Cat’s about four years early for the religious symbol he will get in 1976, setting him out on the Mulsim path) and ‘O’Caritas’ ends with the discomforting line that ‘we who will perish salute death, while life goes on alone’. All the time this album screams ‘new, new, new’, utterly refusing to go near the sounds of ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ (much to the horror of period critics, if not fans who always seem to have embraced this album), with ten experimental variations on what we’ve had before, roughly half of which work quite well and half of which don’t really work at all. Still, unlike some albums that are simply the same as last time, but worse (a common problem in 1972 especially) at least Cat is bravely trying to go somewhere new and the listener often ends up praising this work, even if they slink off quietly to play ‘Tillerman’ or ‘Teaser’ again while this album gets quietly shelved. The times they are a changing, as they say, and Cat for one can’t wait for them to get a move on.
Even the album title, greeted as a bit of classic Cat gobbledegook at the time until the singer admitted decades later it was based on the buddhist work ‘The Ten Bulls Of Zen’, is all about change (the Buddhist believer finds ten stages towards enlightenment, represented by ‘capturing’ ten elusive invisible ‘bulls’ representing the spiritual world – the first three are about seeing the ‘bull’, the fourth about ‘catching’ it and the last six stages about taming it and integrating it as part of everyday life; traditionally the fourth stage is the ‘longest’ one as the bull forever escapes and the believer has to completely change the way they think about life). Cat claimed later that he regretted choosing the fourth stage (‘in retrospect I’m not sure I’d even reached stage two back then!’), but it’s a very fitting title for an album that’s all about changing the way that we understand how life works. Cat’s front cover drawing, of a small boy staring down an angry-looking bull, is also a good fit for an album about facing up to challenges and mishaps. To go back to the ‘Ten Bulls Of Zen’, though, is it just me or is there quite a neat analogy for the ten post-TB Stevens albums here too, all representing a different stage of discovery? (‘Mona Bone Jakon’, in 1970, is very much ‘in search of a bull’ while Cat’s happiest album – ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ in 1974 – is surely ‘The Great Joy Of Riding The Bull Home’ represented by stage number six and what is album no 10 ‘Back To Earth’ if not ‘A Return To Society’?) Could Cat have had this ten-album list in mind from the first (or near-first, perhaps discovering the ‘Zen’ paper on his sick-bed aged 19? It might not have been a coincidence that his contract with Island records – signed shortly after in 1970 – was for the very round figure of ten albums). Or is it just a mystical coincidence? Cat, of course, never fully embraced Buddhism (he’ll turn to Muslim as his religion in 1977 after nearly drowning and calling out to God and receiving a copy of the Qu’ran from his brother in quick succession) but he’s toying with different religions as late as his final ‘Cat’ album in 1978 and it’s ethos of peace and wisdom is very in keeping with Cat’s lyrics in the first half of the 1970s especially.
The change that hits you first, if you’re listening to these albums in order, is the sound of this record. ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ are ‘warm’ and ‘happy’ records for all of their occasional troubles and tribulations; the sparse ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ is less so, but it’s more out of a toughness and brittleness and Cat’s determination that illness and illusion will not get the better of him. ‘Catch-Bull’ is equally sparse and isolated for the most part, but it’s an isolation born of sadness and mourning. Traditionally this record is seen as having an ‘up’ side (the first) and a ‘down’ side (the second), Cat grouping his more despondent songs together at the end. However even the supposedly ‘happy’ songs on part one seem ‘down’ compared to ‘Peace Train’ ‘Moonshadow’ et al; ‘Sitting’ is as loud and commercial as any of Cat’s songs, but the sound of it (with a piano sounding like it’s being whalloped over the head by drums and Cat at his lowest and most snarling vocally yet) is far from upbeat. ‘Angelsea’ is catchier still, but it’s cast from a backing that includes a swirling, out-of-control synthesiser (the first on a Cat Stevens record, but far from the last) that sounds like a black hole sucking all the usual Cat-style ‘bounciness’ from the heart of the song. ‘Silent Sunlight’ is a faintly optimistic piano-ballad, which should be the most ‘Teaser’ like on the record – only instead of being loud and in-your-face, it’s muted and desperate, as if it’s been recorded down the end of the corridor. The only traditional sounds come from ‘The Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’ (which lyrically is quite different for Cat, a parable that’s the most impersonal thing he’d written since his ‘teenage’ years as a ‘pop’ singer) and ‘Can’t Keep It In’ (the one great happy moment on the record, neatly placed in the middle to make everything else seem happier in retrospect). As for side two, well, only the side-long title track of ‘Foreigner’ comes close to this one for Cat at his most upset and emotional.
So what could have caused this? Well, Cat was back to being the most eligible batchelor in town. His break-up with Patti D’arbanville (yes, ‘Lady D’arbanville’, his ‘comeback’ single of 1970) had ended after a year, inspiring the more down-beat moments of ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ but Cat admitted himself after his comeback (as Yusuf) that the relationship was never meant to be from the first. Cat, too, had just broken up with fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon, although the two – who happened to be using the same studio and the same producer (Paul Samwell-Smith) were more after mutual support and friendship than anything lasting (although the one song of Cat’s we know was written for Carly, this album’s sombre ‘Sweet Scarlet’, suggests the relationship might have been deeper than was suspected at the time – Carly is for her part deeply supportive, praising Cat to the hilt on her songs like ‘Anticipation’ and ‘Legend In Your Own Time’). As it happens, Cat won’t have another serious relationship until 1979 (when he marries his current wife Fauzia Muburak Ali) following his conversion to Islam (barring a one-night stand warmly recorded on ‘Sun/C79’ from ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ anyway), but that’s more because of other things getting in the way than any sense of rejection or loneliness.
I think Cat’s unhappiness came from a growing realisation that his ‘second’ career was as ‘pointless’ and ‘empty’ as his first, even with all the happiness it brought over people. Cat had prided himself on staying true to his music and his beliefs, re-creating his image as a singer of believable, impassioned, bearded songwriter who cared little for appearance (in contrast to the clever but often empty songs of a talented 17 year old with a taste for hip shirts). Cat must have been thrilled when Island offered him a ten-album deal and when the first three albums did much better than he’d ever dreamt of. To his horror, though, Cat’s spiritual quest had brought him further and further away from anything he could write down in words and melodies and from this point on the freedom of music becomes more of a restriction, limiting him to what he can say even to his now-bigger and more open-minded audience. Cat’s never quite revealed when it took place, but he’s meant to have started thinking ‘deeper thoughts’ after taking a holiday in Morrocco and hearing the Islamic call to prayer for the first time. After asking what the awe-inspiring music was, Cat was told it was – in the closest English translation – ‘music for God’.
Having written music for money and girls for two years, and for his audience for the next three, Cat suddenly felt very ashamed not to have ‘written music for God’. Most commentators put this story as happening later, when Cat is already started down the ‘road’ to Muslim, but I think the story fits better here – the moment when Cat not only realises that there is a spiritual side to life but seeks to ‘catch’ that power for himself. That would explain the interesting change in direction for the sound and style of this album, too, where Cat’s characters are often ‘imprisoned’ against their will, desperate to break free and where he often sounds almost ashamed of what he is singing, ducking the music and especially his vocal in the mix as if he only half-wants us to hear what he says any more (the mix has been cleaned up greatly for CD compared to my old vinyl copy, but it still doesn’t have the ‘shine’ of the other ‘Island’ albums). Cat even sings one song in Greek until the last verse (thankfully providing a translation on the lyric sheet), perhaps because of this uncertainty over what he is doing.
This might explain away some parts of the album, then, but the big question as ever on this site is whether the music is any good. And the answer as ever on this site is yes, in parts. Critics at the time complained that there was nothing on this album as ‘immediate’ as ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Moonshadow’, perhaps forgetting that just a year earlier they’d been praising ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ for being a ‘mood piece’ unbroken by need for commercial singles. ‘Catch-Bull’ has the best of both worlds; ‘Can’t Keep It In’ might not be the deepest single Cat ever wrote but it’s still one of his best, music and words perfectly going together on a song about joy that’s impossible to dislike and never sits still for a minute. It also sounds even better on album, brightening up the rest of an often downbeat record like the sun coming out. ‘Sitting’, too, deserved to do better in the singles chart, a bleak and angry record that still successfully conveys frustration and material chains in the context of a catchy song with a hummable riff. ‘Angelsea’, too, is the single that never was from this album, a churning hypnotic spacey rocker about a mystical lady that’s the crazy-paving lyrics of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ combined with the earthy music of a ‘Helter Skelter’. Elsewhere the quieter, humbler songs are a mixed bag: ‘Silent Sunlight’ and ‘Ruins’ are clever sparse songs about beginnings and endings respectively, sensitively played and sung on backing tracks that don’t need anything more to make them sparkle. ‘18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)’, too, is an interesting experiment, a nightmare in sound as well as well as words, with an unsettled centre that keeps twists and turns and simply refuses to go back in the box of the main key, resolving onto the last key you’d expect several times over. Elsewhere the album is less successful. ‘The Boy With The Moon And Star On His Head’ is by far Cat’s longest song to date (at 5:58 it’s over double the length of Cat’s 2:45 average timing and ends up becoming Cat’s second longest song of his career, after the 16 minute ‘Foreigner Suite’), but it deserves to be one of his shortest and is certainly among his least interesting, without even a chorus or instrumental to enlighten it’s three long verses. ‘Freezing Steel’ isn’t a bad song, but it suffers from coming straight after ‘18th Avenue’ (a song it closely resembles) and a curious short, stuttering riff that keeps sticking on the handbrake every time it ought to be soaring away into the distance. ‘O’Caritas’ ought to be a fascinating glimpse into Cat’s Greek heritage (both his parents are from Greece, although Cat himself was born in London), but instead it’s a rather severe and humourless piece about the end of the world that would have worked just as well in English. Finally ‘Sweet Scarlet’ is clearly from the heart – and I must confess has a much more interesting lyrics than I thought before studying it for this review – but the mutedness of the mix and the rather awkward melody don’t place it among Cat’s most interesting work.
An album of transition, then. For my money Cat’s later, lesser known albums are still more interesting (‘Buddha’ and ‘Numbers’ especially) and his earlier work has a power and punch that isn’t always there in this ‘middle’ period (‘Mona’ and ‘Tillerman’ being his greatest work to my ears). But Cat always releases something special on every record he makes – even his much-maligned pop year of 1967-68 and his past-caring heading-into-retirement years of 1977-78 have several strong and impressive songs amongst the ranks. The end result is that ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ is somewhere in the middle – a sometimes accessible, sometimes-mad, sometimes-great, sometimes-bad, sometimes-happy-but-more-often-sad album from a singer-songwriter who always something to say and more than a little knowledge about the best ways to say it. If there’s a slight awkwardness creeping in here, a boredom with the sound of the hit albums and a restless urge to try something new that stops it being as well loved and well regarded as ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’, there’s also a real sense of excitement at times over what’s to come and what will fill that gaping spiritual hole Cat was always trying to fill. The fact that the answer was even more dramatic, unexpected and life-changing than Cat expected and put into song here shouldn’t get in the way of what an at-times brave and uncompromising record this is, from a time when Cat was no longer the ‘New Master’ but not yet the ‘Foreigner’ of his album titles. Would that other songwriters of the day had reached even the first stage of the ‘Ten Bulls Of Zen...’
‘Sitting’ sounds from the title as if it’s going to be a nice, quiet, gentle, contemplative sort of a song, but not a bit of it: this is the sound of a toddler forced to sit still against his will, desperate to immerse himself in everything the world has to offer. Like many a Cat Stevens narrator the ‘journey’ the un-named soul wants to embark on is clearly of the mind rather than the body and its current worldly obligations that are forcing him to stay in the same place. In a neat return of the previous year’s song ‘On The Road To Find Out’ Cat opens the album with the lyric ‘I’m on my way, I know I am’, but his voyage sounds less likely to succeed this time around. A turbulent middle eight is so sudden it seems to drop out from the ceiling, crashing into the song mid-note (i.e. not on the natural beat you’d expect) and what a middle eight it is: ‘I keep on wondering if I sleep too long will I even wake up again?’ This is the sound of a writer afraid to slow down or loosen up in case he misses some vital clue top life and it makes for a very interesting comparison with the much more patient patient of the ‘;Mona Bone’ years (when Cat was of course felled by physical rather than spiritual malaise). Adding that there’ll be time to sleep when he’d dead and buried, Cat’s narrator is busying himself with spiritual books and ideas the same way his younger self used to drown out his fears of inadequacy with endless parties and drinking. The song ends with a curious repeat of the middle eight with new lyrics that’s almost incomprehensible (‘If I make it to the waterside, I’ll be sure to write you a note or something’) but does at least fit the storyline of going on a journey. The very end, too, is unexpected and downbeat, Cat finally addressing the audience rather than himself and warning us that everything he’s told us so far might turn out to be a lie after all (‘Keep pushing hard, boy, but try as you may you’re gonna wind up where you started from’). In fact, a silly throwaway reference to ‘the power growing in my hair’ aside (Cat must have been reading the bible and the ‘Samson and Delilah’ passage along with all his Buddhist and Islamic texts) this is one of Cat’s better lyrics, as spiritual as any in his canon but much more earthy and ‘real’. The accompaniment to all this turbulence and frustration is suitably dramatic, less a melody than a string of phrases stuck together with only the vaguest and fragile of glues that often threatens to break apart. ‘Sitting’ is difficult to listen o, perhaps, and doesn’t have the cosy glow of his better known work, but ‘Sitting’ is arguably closer to the real, uncertain, slightly guilty, reluctant millionaire Cat Stevens of the first half of the 1970s than ‘Peace Train’ ‘Moonshadow’ or ‘Morning Has Broken’. As a footnote, Cat will return to this song’s central phrase for ‘Be What You Must’, a track from the 2009 work ‘Roadsinger’ (his latest album at the time of writing) which takes quite a different tack, deciding that everyone works at their own spiritual speed and shouldn’t be coerced into going faster just because of some feeling that enlightenment is at hand, offering up a kind of ‘Father and Son’ monologue to his younger self.
‘The Boy With The Moon and Star On His Head’ is, as we’ve said, a bit of an oddball in the Cat Stevens canon. On first hearing the largely acoustic arrangement makes it the most traditional of the ‘Catch-Bull’ songs, but the whole structure is more like a medieval ballad than a pop song and there are none of Cat’s classic middle eights here, or even a chorus. Lyrically, too, this is a parable clearly not told by Cat or a stand-in version of Cat but a character who seems to have walked out of a fairy-tale, a place with names like ‘The Whisper Woods’ and where babies are left in baskets on doorways. We’ve reflected before how Cat tends to use ‘I’ and ‘you’ in his songs much more than other writers (Paul Simon and John Lennon being the two exceptions) and like those writers Cat rarely if ever uses another ‘voice’ to speak to us, as it were (Lennon does so only when writing about ‘social’ matters and Simon only in his ‘Capeman’ musical about a teenage murderer from Puerto Rico – both are widely held up as their creator’s weakest works at least in part for this very reason). And yet, given the lyrics that Cat will go on to write, it sounds as if there might be a ring of truth in the lyrics after all. The boy of the title is the son of the narrator, who doesn’t know of his existence until the lad turns up on his doorstep after a brief liaison with a ‘gardener’s daughter’, who makes good on her promise to give birth to a boy ‘with the moon and star on his head’. Compare this lyric to the much more realistic one on ‘Sun/C79’ (from 1974’s ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’) where Cat’s child asks him ‘why are we here?’ and instead of the expected spiritual speech gets a history lesson on his daddy meeting his groupie mum backstage at a gig, her hotel room number still ringing in his head with a sort of spiritual glow. Officially Cat only has his first child in the 1980s and we stress that’s probably all their is – but the proximity of the two songs (recorded two albums apart) does make you wonder...Unfortunately this kind of speculation is all there is to enliven up what is, by Cat’s high standards, a very dull song indeed. The tempo is slow, the rhyming scheme apparently deliberately simple and long-winded (to better fit the ideas of an Elizabethan sonnet) and the whole song is rigidly unchanging. Cat and backing band (including the ever-excellent Alun Davies, whose own work is well worth seeking out) liven the track up as best they can – adding sudden brief bursts of period music as fits with the words occasionally – but you know a song is doomed when a songwriter is trying to distract from the drabness of his own work. Thankfully Cat never tried anything like this again, the track appearing to last for much longer than its six minute running mark (almost a sixth of the running time of the album as a whole) and becoming easily the worst song on a Cat Stevens record since the lesser ones in his first crop of material when he was 17.
Thankfully ‘Angelsea’ is much better, a song with more of the customary Cat Stevens easy breeziness than either of the album’s first two tracks. This song deserved to become the album’s first single, in fact, a catchy breathless singalong about some mysterious ethereal creature that sounds a little like ‘Lady D’arbanville’ sped up. Few songwriters ever got quite as carried away when in love as Cat did and I’d love to know whether this song was written for Patti D’arbanville, Carly Simon or perhaps the mysterious stranger who possibly inspired the last song and ‘Sun/C79’ – sadly Cat never spoke at the time and seems unlikely to relive that part of his youth again now. As mentioned, this song excels through the clever trick of merging airy-fairy ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ lyrics with a wonderfully earthy, tough melody and performance. A full band, including a five-person backing choir, kick up a great deal of noise but it’s Cat’s then-pioneering synthesiser playing (just a few months on from its first use, on ‘Who’s Next’) that’s the most memorable part of the song. Had Cat recorded this song just an album earlier then he’d have probably been forced to use the still-analogue mellotron, which has a much softer and psychedelic sound. Having this much tougher sound (associated now with futuristic images, machinery and robots thanks to the likes of Karftwerk, The Human League and Neil Young) really helps the song and stops it falling into the trap of not being taken seriously, like ‘Lucy’ and it’s many copycats (The Hollies’ ‘Butterfly’ and parts of Small Faces’ ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ being the best). Cat doesn’t so much sing this song as shout it, overwhelmed throughout by the visions of ‘evening stars’ ‘crystal echoes’ and a ‘mistress to a magician’ with ‘golden ochre hair’ which sound like an aural sock to the stomach. Listen, too, for the latest in a series of astrological images on Cat Stevens songs (not least the ‘moon and stars’ of the last songs) where Cat imagines his beloved as an angel ‘dancing through the windows of her universal house’ (the arrangement of the stars in the heavens thought to influence life on Earth). One of the most memorable tracks and certainly recordings on the album, ‘Angelsea’ would have been better still with an actual chorus and middle eight or three (I know we always seem to be moaning at bands on this site for not doing this, but Cat is usually one of the best at adding variety to his music), but is still easily one of the album highlights.
‘Silent Sunlight’ is a much quieter, reflective ballad about change. Like ‘Sitting’ Cat’s narrator is impatient for change and wants to get on with the changes in his life, embracing the morning light when it floods through his room because it means he can get on with the next stage in his life. There are hints that this song is not as hopeful and upbeat as it sounds – ‘All my dreams have blown away’ is the song’s third line, in fact – and for all his talk of looking only forwards Cat can’t resist getting nostalgic in the song’s third verse, reflecting on a past when ‘all things were tall, our friends were small, and the world was new’ (in fact it’s very like fellow Cancerian Ray Davies’ ‘No More Looking Back’ from the 1975 Kinks LP ‘Schoolboys In Disgrace’, which does nothing but look back!) The melody, however, is stately and grand – maybe even a little pompous – adding a regal rigidness and artificial smile onto proceedings which together with the genuinely happy opening couplet makes it sound a lot more upbeat than it actually is. The real story in the song comes in the final verse, where Cat returns to the theme of ‘Sitting’ and tells us that ‘don’t ever look behind at the work you’ve done, for your work has just begun’, suggesting that this is another treaty about embracing spiritual changes and learning. Cat tries hard with this song, including his own playing of a tin whistle part that must have been quite tricky to learn, but there’s something rather uninvolving about this song. The curious mix doesn’t help much either: as we said above, it’s almost as if Cat was deliberately hiding what he had to say by mixing it this low and quietly, so that fans can only really get to know this song by reading the lyric sheet or turning this recording up extra-loud (sorry neighbours!) In the end, ‘Silent Sunlight’ is both pretty and pretty revealing – it’s just that, like the sunlight that inspired it, the effect is only fleeting and this song gets rather lost in between the two noisiest songs on the record either side of it. It’s also not a patch on even the weakest ballads from the first three post-TB albums.
‘Can’t Keep It In’ is like a warm bath after all that reflectiveness on the first four tracks. An over-exuberant puppy of a song, this one is all over the place and out of control but all the more pleasing for that; Cat’s refusal to put a wrap on his feelings for public consumption all the more unexpected and enticing after the last few songs. Lyrically there’s not much going on here on what is, by cat’s standards, quite an empty pop song about how he feels so much love he can’t help but let it spill over into his work. There are still some interesting ideas, though, even if some of these are sadly only brief: in one of the best couplets on the album Cat tells us ‘You’ve got so much to say, say what you mean, mean what you’re thinking – and think anything!’, summing up the lack of restrictions he longed for on this song’s polar opposite ‘Sitting’. This time around Cat is free to move around and is loving his freedom Musically this song is like a merger of ‘Sitting’ and ‘Moonshadow’ – it possesses the first song’s restless energy and the second’s nursery-rhyme-like string of interlocking repetitions (‘And if I lose my teeth/hands/eyes...’, compare to the above quoted lyric and the way that too has the meaning of one line leading directly to the next). Performance-wise, too, this is by far the best on the album, the players clearly much more at home with Cat’s more commercial instincts and Cat himself is on great form, navigating this song’s sudden key changes with consummate ease and an audible twinkle in his voice. There’s even the last of Cat’s band’s final ‘comical’ write-offs (heard most frequently on ‘Teaser’) when the band suddenly end up walking down the song’s spiralling chord structure, only instead of flicking back upwards they simply fall down a musical hole-in-the-floor, finally relinquishing control with a funny cymbal crash. The hint is that Cat’s narrator is so blinded by love that he’s inevitably heading for a fall and that he probably knows this himself but at the moment doesn’t care. Again, it’s interesting that Cat – never really known for his love songs – seems to have so many on this album (is it that mysterious lover again?) Clever, catchy and confident, ‘Can’t Keep It In’ has a swagger that makes it stand out a mile on this album and it deserved to do better when released as a single – indeed, it’s the best of Cat’s singles not released later after becoming popular album tracks.
‘18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)’ starts off the much edgier second side as it means to go on: the song is timid and vulnerable, all the confidence and hope of the past song having evaporated (in fact whoever mastered this album for CD got this badly wrong – there should be a chasm of silence between the two sides, not a millisecond pause which throws us far too awkwardly from one to another; remember any album before about 1985 was written with the certain knowledge that under normal circumstances listeners would take at least 30 seconds to get off their chair and turn their vinyl records over). A deeply unsettling and uncomfortable track, it’s hard to tell if this song is about a real incident or only an imagined one. In truth, nothing really happens in this song, which is coy about what exactly causes the narrator to ‘struggle inside’ so badly. It’s tempting to see this song as Cat rejecting the attention given to his life (he was on the verge of becoming a ‘superstar’ in this period, after three big albums on the trot), with ‘people I knew who all came there to take a view’ (it speaks volumes that the next Cat record is ‘Foreigner’, the one Cat made after leaving Britain supposedly for good). Something is making Cat’s narrator tongue-tied anyway, where ‘repeating my words’ (at a concert or press conference maybe?) causes the words to have ‘stung my tongue’. There’s yet another return to the confinement of ‘Sitting’ as Cat finds his hands ‘tied’ and bitterly mourns ‘the empty waste of another day’ where he isn’t free to do what he wants. Only a sudden turn of the car he’s driving and the sign for an airport bring the matter to a close, Cat sounding on the verge of tears, madness or both as he screams ‘boy, you’ve made it just in time!’ We’re used to hearing Cat cover a variety of emotions by now if you’re listening to these albums in order (he gets cross a lot more often than you might expect) but he’s always been in charge before now – even when singing to a metaphorical demon on ‘Trouble’ cat never sounded this hopeless and out of control. This song clearly means something then and it’s interesting that it’s at the ‘heart’ of this record (track six out of ten) even though it doesn’t sound at all like a side-opener, with its timid start and lack of any real hooks (and Cat is a songwriter who knew about such things – ‘Tillerman’ is so successful in part because it’s a record that’s so cleverly programmed, with every song in the perfect order in relation to each other; of the other Cat Stevens albums only ‘Foreigner’ is this out-of-kilter and that’s probably just a problem that resulted from having merely five songs to juggle with). Is it this moment when Cat really symbolically turns his back on ‘us’ and the fame and career and concentrates on religion as his main goal, not later in 1976 as so many people have assumed? Either way, ‘18th Avenue’ is an admirable but uncomfortable song that stretches out into quite new directions we’ve never gone to with Cat before and the middle instrumental (the musical equivalent of a panic attack) is particularly striking, with its pounding piano riff and haunting strings. I’m glad this sort of song didn’t become a mainstay of Cat’s writing but I’m also glad it’s there as a one-off, a highly revealing slab of nerves and hopelessness that adds a few more dimensions to the other, more confident sounding songs around it.
‘Freezing Steel’ is a more muscly, confident take on the same subject that suffers badly for coming straight after such an experimental song. Had this one come first, I might well have been admiring its own courageous decisions to show frustration and emptiness like never before – as it is, it sounds like Cat chickening out on going all the way (as per ‘18th Avenue’) and writing his very real and tragic feelings of confusion and panic as a comedy song. Like his younger self after one too many parties Cat has fallen ill, his eyes ‘weak from the light of the morning’ after another night without any proper sleep, but this time Cat seems to be suffering from insomnia. Another ambiguous song, the most realistic reading seems to be that Cat’s narrator is in a mental asylum (‘The House Of Freezing Steel’), where yet again he’s being restrained (‘they tied my body up’) and seemingly fed against his will (just listen to the shock and disdain with which Cat sings perhaps the oddest line of his career – for a few years and the ‘Pythagoreon Theory Tale’ album ‘Numbers’ anyway – ‘A cold plate of lamb and cold potatoes too, now what’s soul to do?!’ Then again, this adventure seems to be happening all in the narrator’s head – he hasn’t walked or been carried to the ‘Freezing Steel’ House, he’s ‘flown’ there and his body’s ‘back’ safely home before his brain is. The last verse is even odder, a ‘freak without a face’ from ‘Venus’ trying to abduct him before the narrator speaks up and pleads to be taken home. Could it be that this song is all a hallucination – and if it is, could it be a leftover from the days when the drugs Cat was taking for TB did give him some kind of hallucinatory experiences? (or, if a new song, is this a memory of some past frightening experience?) In that case the ‘House of Freezing Steel’ is – what else? – a hospital (it would also explain the lines about food – anyone whose ever stayed in a UK hospital will tell you that, no matter how awful or life-threatening an illness you have, the hospital food will always be worse). That problem solved, it’s worth mentioning that this is yet another of ‘Catch-Bull’s turbulent songs, one which goes through more keys than a caretaker but has a stronger, more hummable melody line over the top than any of the album’s other, similar restless songs – if not quite as memorable as ‘18th Avenue’ or the more traditional songs on this LP.
‘O’Caritas’ is a traditional sounding Greek song – or ‘Laiko’ as it should properly be called (translated as ‘A song of the people’ as opposed to one for religious or political causes). It’s the only time Cat ever tried to address his Greek ancestry in music (born in London to the son of a Greek restaurateur, Cat probably heard a great deal of traditional Greek music in his youth, although with the West End on his doorstep he’s admitted that his biggest pre-Beatles influence was actually musicals) and as a result is fascinating and of huge historical importance, even if sticks out like the Spice Girls at an awards ceremony as part of his back catalogue. Naturally Cat sings in Greek almost throughout (changing to English for the last verse), but interestingly he uses this foreign language to talk not about something personal or something particularly suitable to his Greek heritage but one of his most universal songs. A ‘cold war’ song about the threat of annihilation at a moment’s notice and how mankind is not the best or most caring caretaker for the planet he lives on, it’s as if Cat is trying to show how the threat affects us all, not just the countries at the heart of the conflict. The song would be known in English as ‘Oh, Love’, but addresses love as a universal concept rather than an individual, Cat pleading ‘love...be with us always!’, while painting a vivid portrait of the end of the world (‘I see all things burning, I hear men shouting, now is the light of the world and the stars going out...’; thankfully there’s a full translation of the lyric in the booklet for both vinyl and CD; very interesting reading it makes too!) Curiously, too, you could claim that this Greek, foreign-language song is the closest we ever get to hearing Cat sing a ‘Christian’ song in the same way he sings ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Islamist’ ones elsewhere (perhaps for Cat the ‘Christian’ view of a burning Armageddon is something he learnt in his childhood – was the bible read to him in Greek perhaps?) Cat plays the Spanish guitar himself but brings in expert session musician Andreas Toumazis in for the bouzouki, while what’s credited as the ‘Cat Stevens Choir’ (in reality lots of Cats overdubbed on top of each other) provide the vocals. It’s great to hear Cat trying something so different and the band do a great job of coming up with a performance worthy of a Nana Mouskouri record, but despite it’s worth it’s hard for non-Greek listeners to get inside this song; the end result is a little like watching a Eurovision song in the days before subtitles allowed us to laugh at all the daft translations and get to grips with each entry. Still, the lyric alone is fascinating and worth a read.
‘Sweet Scarlet’ is Cat alone at his piano and back to singing from personal experience again, not quite sure whether to be pleased or embarrassed at being ‘so unguarded’ with a girl he fancies. For years I assumed ‘Sweet Scarlet’ was the person (this is another of Catch-Bull’s songs that seem deliberately mixed to be muffled and hard to hear, especially on vinyl), but no – now that I’ve belatedly studied the song properly the ‘sweet scarlet’ turns out to be the drops of wine in the narrator’s glass. Cat revealed after the album came out that he was thinking of Carly Simon when he wrote this and I’m not sure whether she should be flattered or not (on the one hand there’s the line ‘A gypsy with a grin from an old country far away’ – on the other ‘deep beneath her curls...there was so much more to see’). Cat’s singing the song in the past tense and the partnership is clearly over by the third verse (‘All those days are frozen now and all those scars are gone’) but makes it clear that, being songwriters, the two of them will be drawing from this well of memories for some time to come (‘Ah but the song carries on...so holy’). Listen out for the album’s upteempth astrological reference (the pair are ‘looking for a way, Moons in an endless day’ – both Cat and Carly are Cancerians). It’s interesting too that yet again Cat should stick in a religious reference in a song where it doesn’t seem it should belong, as if his search for human companionship and his spiritual quest have become inextricably linked. Lyrically, in fact, ‘Sweet Scarlet’ has enough material for writers like me to keep them going a long, long time. It’s musically (and production-wise) this song suffers: the piano melody isn’t anywhere near as strong as the accompaniments Cat played throughout ‘Tillerman’ and ‘Teaser’ and seems to be more to give the vocal something to sing along to than exist in its own right. The curious mix, which puts everything into the background once again, is also particular damaging here, making the song cold and uninviting when it should be invested with more emotional warmth than pretty much anything else on the album. A bit of variety wouldn’t have gone amiss again, too, with three straight verses, a one-line, two-word chorus and a frustratingly brief instrumental solo in the middle.
The album ends on a highpoint with ‘Ruins’ though – if the destruction of the world can be called a ‘highpoint!’ At first, Cat’s revelation that he’s walking through the ‘ruins’ of a ‘quiet town’ suggests some grand Roman excavation or some WW2-hit monument before it gradually dawns on you that the time is the near-present and that the destruction could take place at any moment without warning, although Cat is ambiguous whether the destruction is natural or man-made (‘Winter turned on man when no one was looking’). Cat once again mourns not for the loss of people in the quiet, secluded neighbourhood but the sound, energy and hope that used to ring out (referring back to his lyrical favourite of a place where ‘children played’). Cat is at his poetic best in the song’s lyric, which must be one of the bleakest he ever wrote and takes in ‘shadows of falling sand’ ‘buildings standing like empty shells’ and ‘people always running scared’. Again the mix puts Cat in the background, but this time the effect is a positive one, making Cat sound as if he’s afraid of breaking the aching silence all around him. The song only really gets ‘loud’ for two sections – a curious repetitive chorus (‘So nice to see you coming into this town again’) that doesn’t work too well (it sounds like it belongs in a different song altogether and is never referred to in the verse’s lyrics) and a much better middle eight, that builds and builds across nine torturous lines, screamed at full volume (starting ‘You’d better know what you’re going through now...’). Cat then turns to us for a final reflective verse, returning to the quiet opening of ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ with his plea that technological progression isn’t really progression if it sends the spiritual course of man backwards resulting in one of the album’s best lyrics (‘Where’s it leading to? Freedom at what cost? People are needing more and more and it’s all getting lost’). Cat’s final plea for ecological sense and a return to the days ‘when the Earth was green’ isn’t the first or last time he’s used this tack, but it is one of his most effective, an environmental song that far from being namby-pamby or a cosy singalong (like so many charity-driven environmental protest songs) tells it like it is and what will happen if things don’t change. The fact that some of what Cat sang about 40 years ago has come true only makes this gentle preach of a song all the more powerful. Easily the best song on the album you can’t find on a ‘greatest hits’ LP, ‘Ruins’ is a song that too often gets overlooked in Cat’s oeuvre, but is one of his most effective and by far his best attempt at working on a song of two halves, with a noisy middle and quiet beginning and end effectively controlled.
Overall, then, ‘Catch-Bull At Four’ is an intriguing album. Sometimes the toreador wins, sometimes the bull, with Cat clearly at a crossroads point in his life (if there’s one linking theme on this record it’s how so many songs are ‘homeless’, dodging keys this way and that and seemingly lost in the emptiness of space). The Cat Stevens records get stranger and stranger from this point on in (although I do have a soft spot for the sheer bravery behind next album ‘Foreigner’) and Cat is clearly casting around for a new direction here, before finding a new religion and a new source of nourishment in his life when his music calms down again. ‘Catch-Bull’, then, is a stepping-stone of a record from the Cat whose finally sussed out how to talk directly to his audience and the Cat who realises that he doesn’t really need an audience anyway. Thanks to ‘Sitting’ ‘Ruins’ and ‘Can’t Keep It In’ especially, though, there’s still plenty here for his old fans to enjoy if you can sit through the lesser moments. Overall rating – 6/10
Other Cat Stevens album reviews you might be interested in reading from this site:
'New Masters' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/news-views-and-music-issue-114-cat.html
'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-35-cat-stevens-mona-bone-jakon.html
'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-41-cat-stevens-tea-for-tillerman.html
‘Foreigner’ (1973) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/cat-stevens-foreigner-1973.html
'Buddha And The Chocolate Box' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-62-cat-stevens-buddha-and.html
'Numbers' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-46-cat.html
'Izitso?' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-140-cat.html
'Roadsinger' (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-31-yusuf-aka.html