Monday, 29 December 2014
Yusuf (Cat Stevens) "Tell 'Em I'm Gone" (2014)
I Was Raised In Babylon/Big Boss Man/Dying To Live/You Are My Sunshine/Editing Floor Blues/Cat and the Dog Trap/Gold Digger/The Devil Came From Kansas/Tell 'Em I'm Gone/Doors
"Though I teach I'm not a preacher and I aim to stay that way!"
'Cat's in a cage, chained to a stone, Max The Singing Dog is outraged, with less to chew on than a bone, Cat Stevens - come home!'
I've always been fascinated by the concept of time. How it changes depending on the feelings and emotions of the one experience it. The difference between how the same time span is experienced by people looking in or looking out. That's grown all the more so as I've got older and weaker with chronic fatigue and marvel at how roughly the same set amount of activity, approximately the same number of tracks and written words, can pass by in a flash one week and on others seem like the single most difficult task set possible. Time hangs heavier over some AAA albums than others: many were written in a blaze of inspiration and fire and noise; others took longer to write, painstakingly pored over and deliberated and written from the point of view of someone whose been around a long long time. Time hangs particularly heavy on Cat Stevens aka Yusuf's latest, 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' for a number of reasons. Practically, it's the first record Cat has made after a five year-gap: a blink of the eye to someone like Mark Knopfler or Pink Floyd who like to take their time over new albums, but more than double the largest gap in either of Cat's two careers. To put that in context, when last album 'Roadsinger' came out in May 2009 Alan's Album Archives wasn't even up on the internet and came as part of News, Views and Music issue 30 (we're on issue 279 today). In that time we've reviewed no less than six new Neil Young albums, three Paul McCartneys and either two or three albums depending on whether you're supporting Liam Gallagher in Beady Eye or Noel Gallgher and his High Flying Birds. To be honest I was beginning to assume that Cat had retired or at least had too many other things on his plate because, you see, this was a songwriter who always prided himself on the speed of his delivery, who thought nothing about releasing two classic albums ('Mona Bone Jakon' and 'Tea For The Tillerman') just four months apart and who didn't spend this long between releases even when he was in hospital dying from TB.
Of course things are different now - and that's really the theme of this rather odd third record since Yusuf's comeback. Frequently across this record we get flashbacks to times that seem so long ago: old R and B songs and standards Cat would have cut his musical teeth learning to play, serious references to supposed misdemeanours from Cat's years away that got misunderstood and playful ones about Cats and dogs. If the first comeback record (the pretty awful 'An Other Cup') was an old-style Cat Stevens record seen through the new eyes of a religious convert and second album (the much superior 'Roadsinger') was an attempt to see what an 'old style' Cat Stevens record might sound like with a contemporary sheen, then third album 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' falls somewhere uncomfortably down the middle. At times Yusuf wants to be young again, to return to the joyful wilful ignorance of youth - but his voice cracks and tears so painfully on some of the older songs he'd have once sung with ease that it's actually rather painful. The new originals, meanwhile, have Cat singing newer songs in his old style, but rather than sighing about growing population and modern day fears the way he did on 'Roadsinger' Cat sounds bitter here, sarcastically delivering two songs ('Cat and Dog Trap' and 'Editing Floor') that are his wickedest since 'Pop Star', laughing at the messed up capitalist world that didn't understand why he'd left them behind and why he couldn't just be left in peace. As a result we get a record that wants to have its teacake with the Tillerman and eat it, with Cat sounding young and old all at the same time - a nice idea on paper (especially with Rick Rubin, the producer who did so much to make Johnny Cash sound old/young at the end of his life, in the producer's chair), but sadly it doesn't quite come off.
Most reviews I've seen of this record have reviewed it against everything else out at the time and come away scratching their heads. That's a bit of a danger - Cat's records never were of their time and this one is actually probably closer, if only because Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey made roots R and B 'in' again at the start of this year - but even so I'm left scratching my head a bit too. 'An Other Cup' was hopeful, bordering on naive, full of songs about how peace is still obtainable and how so many people want it. 'Roadsinger' was more realistic but mainly dealt with Yusuf's fears about growing older, family commitments, memories of lost loves and whether the world still needs an aging singer-songwriter telling it what it should already know. To take one of Yusuf's favourite metaphors, both works were fiery creations, with lots to say and an urgency behind saying it. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' reads like another urgent album: there's one song where Yusuf actually talks about dying soon and wanting to do his best until his number is up, but the only two songs that are anything quicker than laidback and snoozy are songs answering hurts against Cat made 30 years ago ('Editor's Room') or against the Eastern world centuries ago ('I Was Raised In Babylon'). Despite having found surprising success with his modern day career, outselling records by ex-Beatles and Stones and seemingly enjoying the journey up till now, suddenly Yusuf sounds tired of it all. There's no hope across any of this record, no sudden uplifting moment of joy and even the quiet sadness over lost opportunities that was the highlight of the last two records ('One Day At A Time' 'Maybe There's A World' 'Everytime I Dream') seems to have been replaced by an anger we haven't heard since 'Izitso?' days. It wouldn't surprise me if Yusuf disappears for good after this record. Even the title, a new name Cat has given to his recycled version of traditional standard 'If I Had A Hammer', sounds like we're getting the brush-off once again just as we did in 1977-78 with the contract-fulfilling 'Izitso?' and 'Back To Earth' records: 'ahh, tell 'em I'm gone, nobody's listening anyway'. Only Yusuf seems to have signed up to a whole new label Legacy - which seems a bit mean to old label Island who stumped up the money for the last two records (which were pretty successful too - well more successful than I expected them to be). As I write this album has fared a little better in America, but a little worse in Europe and it remains unclear as to whether Yusuf will stay put, continue on one-album/two album deals or disappear again for good. The bleakness of the record and the gap since the last one suggests that if there are any follow-ups there probably won't be many, which would be sad: the world needed the 'Roadsinger' style Yusuf and the claiming balm he could offer the world; I'm not sure the world needs this new sarcastic crusader turned blues covers singer quite so much.
Admittedly the twin themes of the record - our mortality and the inevitability of death on the one-hand and our inability to record how people see us when we're gone - aren't exactly made for uplifting listening. We start with this album's scope at its biggest, with several thousand centuries of Christian rule coming to an inevitable end with another turn of the wheel towards the East, America a second Babylonian Empire waiting to fall (although lately it's seemed more like Rome). The single most openly hostile Stevens song since 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun' (Not that an 18-year-old Cat really meant that at the time...),Yusuf even eggs the end on, perhaps reflecting on how badly the Christian West has treated him and his reputation since his conversion ('They used to call us civilised, those days are gone' Yusuf mocks bitterly at one point). 'Editing Floor Blues' really is a blues, a chugging 12-bar that features Cat talking about his life and how now when anyone mentions Cat Stevens all they'll tell you about is his misquoted line about Salman Rushdie deserving all he got for his blasphemous comments and how even when Cat rang up to sort things out to get a 'correction - well, they never printed that!' Had this song turned up on 'An Other Cup' I'd have understood it (wanting to speak out all those years and not having the platform too), but why wait now? What good will it do? 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a cleverer and sweeter take on the same thing, Yusuf reflecting on his younger self as 'ready to fall into any danger but about to learn'. Once again though it's a wild world out there and dogs are ready to jump on unsuspecting felines, getting them into fights they don't want to have. Finally 'Doors' returns us to the gospel of 'An Other Cup' with the idea that another opportunity will always be around when one seems to leave us and that 'another flower' will grow when one dies. It seems from the lyric as if Yusuf is finally making peace with what might happen to his catalogue if he disappears again (given the mortality theme of this record, perhaps he knows something we don't?), but even this song is scary full of long drawn out descending chords that makes even phrases like 'God makes everything right' sound like there's a zombie behind him about to kill him. 'All Things Must Pass' this isn't, but we fans have often wondered (or is only me?) what a Cat Stevens record about the afterlife might turn out to be. For the moment 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is more a pondering over what will happen to Yusuf and his past in this world once he heads onto the next, but he's clearly heading down that path - is a Paul Simon style trilogy about death on the cards?
Even with this theme scattered throughout the songs like prayer mats across a temple, though, the result is an album that I don't quite understand. Had these songs been joined by others on the same theme I'd understand it more - an attempt to change direction 'Foreigner' style, however confusing and unliked the style might be, with a bit of 'All Things Must Style' repent-before-it's-too-late counter message that listeners can choose to take up or ignore depending on their own faith. But when Cat follows up a song about the fall of Christianity with a cover of an old blues song about being rude to your boss and later starts adding African lyrics to 'You Are My Sunshine', you have to ask what on Earth we're supposed to make of it. When I first read about this record people kept mentioning 'roots' 'R and B' 'back to basics' - all terms to excite, as even as early as the first album at seventeen Cat had outgrown his R and B phase and we never really got to hear that influence in his records bar the odd bit here and there (most notably parts of 'The Foreigner Suite' funnily enough). But this isn't 'really' a roots record: it's a couple of R and B standards played in the usual Cat Stevens vein, while the 'back to Earth' (or even 'back to 'Back To Earth', which would have been preferable) element of the lyrics really just means it's a bit more autobiographical than usual (not always in a good way). The closest thing this record is would be a call to arms to overthrow the Christian world - exactly what the powers that be feared with the first comeback album - but even that adds a bit of notoriety and danger this record doesn't possess - Yusuf's merely fed up of Western hypocrisy and just as he's always told us, doesn't pretend to know the answers or what comes next (there's less references to religion here than 'An Other Cup' too, though more than on 'Roadsinger').
Not that this is an awful record either: there's nothing here quite as bad as half of 'An Other Cup' and a handful of songs are rather good. We haven't mentioned 'Gold Digger' yet because it doesn't fit in even with the 'what the?' half theme of everything else, but it's a rather good dig at the Western world with some fancy sprightly playing that sounds like a natural progression for the younger Cat Stevens to have made. 'The Devil Came From Kansas' features one of the worst ever Cat Stevens lyrics - but comes with a catchy, singalong melody that's the single best since the return from retirement. 'I Was Raised In Babylon' might be delivered with the tired preach of an old convert but it's anger and shock at how the Western world is a brave statement made well (and again it's something the old Cat would have pointed out, though he'd have made light of the religion and politics and worried about the children instead). The Edgar Winter cover 'Dying To Live' is by far the most suitable one on this record and really sounds like a Cat Stevens song. The composition runs away from the message quickly, but the idea that some people live their lives through different views (as a training ground for what's to come, as punishment or as the only life you've got so make the most of it) is a good one, long overdue for studying in song. 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a sweet autobiography, even with a few uncomfortable lines within the lyrics I could have done without. Even the cover of 'Big Boss Man' is quite fun in a 'bootleg session warm-up' kind of a way, even though I haven't got a clue what on earth it's doing here. The rest, though, would have been a disappointment as a rushed, make-it-while-you-can follow up a year on from 'Roadsinger' - after a gap of five years and given some of the less than salutary messages inside it seems like a slap in the face from an old friend (made all the odder by Roadsinger's quite genuine sounding warm hug).
One other point to make is the 'sound' of this record. While 'An Other Cup' didn't know what on earth it wanted and alternated solo performances with orchestra extravaganzas, 'Roadsinger' was an acoustic guitar record very much like the 'old' sound. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is primarily a piano record, not quite the 'rootsy R and B' style genre we were led to believe but still very much down the 'Foreigner' route of Stevie Wonder style piano with everyone else falling in place behind that. The minor keys that most of this album sound as if they're played in means this is less 'up' than soul though, being either a sad Motown album or an uptempo blues record, depending which of those two sounds least weird to you. Even that is significant: after two records of trying to show he's like us, really, Yusuf is keen to point out that he isn't 'one of us' any more, he's an outsider reflecting on a world that's made it clear it doesn't want him there. This was roughly the message of 'Foreigner' and took place in Cat Steven's lifespan just before the Muslim conversion, at a time when he was getting increasingly angry and depressed at the modern world. Personally I quite 'Foreigner', which is challenging indeed on the back of four well-loved and fairly similar sounding records, but it's a hard album to get into, with Cat screaming at his audience throughout to stop coming to him for answers and going down the path of an 18 minute title track that veered suddenly between affection, doubt and sarcasm. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' sounds to me like another 'Foreigner' i.e. another record sent to be challenging which really sorts out the true Cat Stevens fans from the casual ones. The difference is that 'Foreigner' ended with one great message of hope (on '100 I Dream', one of Cat's greatest unknown songs): that all you had to do to find inner peace was to 'not let your weaknesses destroy you and to be true to you'. On 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' the message seems to be 'well, you're laughing at me in this world, but you wait till we're both dead and then I'll prove you wrong!' Hilarious, for the two reviewers who've probably long retired and once laughed at Cat for his part in the Salman Rushdie fatwah, but not very fair given that it's mainly Cat's fans (who never laughed at his conversion and stood by him even at his reputation's lowest) who are buying the flipping thing. Even the closing 'Doors', which badly needs to be the fond farewell Yusuf usually gives us (and which this album needs more than most) manages simply to hammer home one last 'believe in God' message before the mosque closes for business (and this from a songwriter who has the nerve to write the line 'though I teach I'm not a preacher' - anyone who categorically states that their belief system is 'right' and others are 'wrong' is a preacher in my eyes, even if I'm willing to concede that for all I know Yusuf is right; not that I'm off to train with the jihadis yet - the Western world may be unquestionably bad, corrupt, evil and threatening, but no empire in history has ever been bad enough to make it right for innocent people to die, no matter how sure of an afterlife you are. And yes most Western capitalists are innocent, whatever other regimes might think, all prisoners of the ignorant culture they were born in and guilty of nothing more than believing the garbled versions of world events they get on news reports - well everyone except possibly David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith who are guilty of everything going. And The Spice Girls).
Erm anyway, I digress. I was hopeful after 'Roadsinger' that we'd see a return of Yusuf as a voice for peace, delivering songs to remind the Western world that not all Muslims are out to kill (well, durrh, but there are a few Daily Mail readers out there who still like lumping people together) and picking up his career with the same wise, open eyes of before. Instead we get the tired harrumphing of the 'An Other Cup' convert, one who can't be bothered with all these modern hassles when there's so much more to see in the world - a fair point, but one already made far better and with more interest given over to the material than here. There are several entertaining moments, but nowhere near enough to sustain an album - certainly not a record lasting just 36 minutes (a whole five minutes longer than 'Roadsinger' but still pretty stingy). Ultimately there's not much in this record to make you want to follow Cat on the road he took to find out, because the cartoon devils and gold diggers he portrays are cheap and easy shots, not deserving of his talents, which is awfully sad. This is a return to the tired hectoring and poorly worked out songs of 'An Other Cup, a record that was bitterly disappointing after a 27 year wait, and while the lows aren't quite that low this record can't quite match the two highs of that record either ('Maybe There's A World' and 'One Day At A Time', not coincidentally the most free of religious songs there). The result is an album that I was hoping would be better because of so many things: the five-year wait, Rick Rubin working as a producer, this being the sequel to the excellent 'Roadsinger', the 'promise' of R and B given to us in pre-release interviews and the fact that the Western half of the world needs an articulate, peaceful spokesman for the Muslim half even more in 2014 than when we last saw Cat in 2009. Even taking those factors away, though, and viewed simply as yet another Cat Stevens record this one is below par, with only the occasional idea taking flight and the occasional performance suggesting that the singer-songwriter's heart is still in his 'second job'. Cat Stevens' spirit lived on in 'Roadsinger' but now I fear he's gone, man, solid gone.
'I Was Raised In Babylon' is one of the two real highlights of the album, with Yusuf well out of his comfort zone, although some listeners might find it rather uncomfortable. A short history of toppling empires and civilisations, with verses taking in Babylon, Ancient Egypt, and the Crusades before ending in the present day. The track is clearly designed to show that white man's supremacy cannot last forever, ending with the shocking couplet: 'We thought our white skins would save us - then we got burned'. Cat sings the track with the most naturally 'old' voice he's had thus far, sounding like an aged prophet of doom whose seen many sights and knows that nothing can last. Had this track been made by any other figure it would have ruffled feathers, but the hint in the song is that capitalism and Christinaity have had their day, that the new regime will soon be upon us and no amount of natural born riches or inherited powers can save us. Considering that Yusuf spends a lot of his other 'conversion' era records (especially this one) claiming that peace is the only answer, this is a highly provocative message and the closest to a 'Muslim v Christianity' fight so far in his solo career ('I thought that we were the chosen - I must have been wrong'). Thankfully this time, at least, Cat is a better writer than that and really gets the feel of decay and fading lavishness the song demands, with a clever acoustic whine that sounds as if it belongs in the soundtrack of 'Lawrence Of Arabia', packed with sand and false promises, superbly helped out by guest star and fellow Muslim Richard Thompson filling in where Alun Davies normally would. Like a lot of the rest of the album, this track sadly doesn't go anywhere interesting past the opening, without any middle eights or even a chorus to break the song up, but what is here is rather good, Yusuf finally coming out and nailing the unvoiced criticisms of the Western world that have run through his two other comeback albums. It's not the sort of Cat Stevens song that would ever become my favourite, but it's easy to admire this song's stark monochrome-ness and the impressive seriousness of the performance.
'Big Boss Man' is an old friend - we've already reviewed cover versions by The Grateful Dead (which was fun) and The Animals (which was harrowing). Yusuf's version is somewhere between the two, with a rhythm borrowed from the chain gang that sticks rigidly to the same hammered beat, but with a playful keyboard part over the top that flies away and escapes the tyranny of the track for a little while. 'You ain't so big, you're just tall that's all' cackles Yusuf as he comes to terms with the fact that the boss overseeing him is only 'human'; in the context of this album and most of Cat's work the hint is that the boss only has power in 'this' world anyway, not the next. Overall this is quite a fun cover version and it's nice to hear Yusuf going back to his roots, although compared to most versions of this song doing the rounds this is a little over-polished, with its multiple guitar parts, harmonica, violin, clattering drums and choir. Considering that the whole point of the song is that the narrator has no power except what's in his mind this song ought to be tough, brittle and self-reliant; hearing it as a sort of mass-singalong is somewhat disconcerting. Still, another of the better songs on the album.
Edgar Winter's 'Dying To Live' is another successful cover song, a pretty ballad that's sung quieter and gentler than the original. It's a highly apt song for Cat to do, sounding like a cross between 'Morning Has Broken' (the lovely piano-based melody) and 'But I Might Die Tonight!' (the lyrics). In context it's clearly about Yusuf's belief in a better afterlife and trying to work out what to do with his life in the mean time and features perhaps his most menacing line in a song ever about the decadent West: 'I wonder if they'll all still be laughing when they've died?' (Funnily enough Winter is a Scientologist, so probably wrote the song with quite a different message in mind). The chorus seems to come round again awfully quickly and soon gets on the nerves, but there's some nice wordplay in there: 'Why am I fighting to live if I'm just living to fight?' and 'Why am I trying to give when no one gives me a try?' You can certainly hear a little of the outraged, frustrated younger Cat in this song and the piece would have nestled in snugly on 'Teaser and the Firecat' especially. The older Cat must also have identified with this song's reflections on a younger, confused self who used to 'weave words in confusion' and who 'lived life as an illusion', the memories of the 'Matthew and Son' era Cat now so far away. Overall it's a nice choice of song, although the fact that already by the third track on the album we've had more cover songs than originals is a little alarming.
Astonishingly, we get a fourth. Jimmie Davis' 'You Are My Sunshine' is another much-covered AAA gem, most notably heard on The Beach Boys' 'Smile'. Yusuf's re-arranged version is arguably the weakest cover song on the album, turning what is one of the key songs of the American songbook into a religious rant, complete with an African translation of the central lyrics for no apparent reason (although as Yusuf admits in interviews, the translation came out sounding somewhat at odds with the original lyric!) The 'new' verse has no place in this happy uplifting song and sounds clumsy and patronising: 'My mama once told me what the soul should know, it's about the devil and I hate him so, he'll be crying if we don't frown, and keep on smiling, he'll stop hanging around'. The song's original floaty pretty melody has also been turned into an angry turbulent cliff-climb that ascends little bit by little bit and sounds like hard work. Thankfully some nice guitar work embellishes the track and makes it sound more interesting than it really is, but the main result is 'why?', followed by the thought that even for an album this short this song should have ended up on the editing room floor.
Ooh that's a good link if I say so myself, because here we are at the 'Editing Floor Blues', at last a Cat original although it doesn't really sound like it. Not since 'The Joke' has Cat attempted a blues song and thankfully that time the song got left behind (released only on a box set) because the style doesn't really suit Yusuf, even with some more strong guitar work to push the chugging riff along. Like 'I Never Wanted To Be A Star', but less interestingly, this song is a little slice of autobiography, telling us that Cat was 'born in the West End in the summer of '48...', while the most interesting years (1967-1970) get dismissed in a single sentence ('This boy became a star, then he dropped - but got up again'). There's a nice reference to Cat's elder brother David, early champion of younger brother's songs and the person who thought Cat might be interested in a book he'd just read on the Qu'ran which got him started ('Big brother took a trip...'), but sadly little else we haven't heard before, done better. The real meat of this song comes in the last verse when the newspapers call Cat up as a kind of go-to Muslim (with an excellent mock 70s music journalist voice at the end of the line) and asked about the Salman Rushdie fatwah (misquoted, Cat rang up to complain and tell them the truth, 'but they never printed that!' he resignedly sighs, although Yusuf's comparisons to 'Socrates' are a little over the top). Throughout the song that old Cat Stevens theme, 'the truth', keeps returning: he starts out offering 'the truth' from the editing floor where he's busy crafting his songs, but by the third verse the 'truth' about the world's religions is being 'buried' there instead, while the song ends rather oddly with the image of a 'cup spilling out on the editing floor': what does Yusuf mean by this? Has his cup of good faith overflowed? Is he reduced to begging to get his work done? Or is this the 'Tea For The Tillerman' Cat getting 'spilt'? The song that, to date, most fans and critics have been taken with, 'Editing Room Blues' isn't quite as sophisticated as it ought to be: blues songs are two a penny even if they're unusual from Cat, the autobiographical lyrics have been done before, better and the idea of the truth getting lost is only really enough to sustain one verse, not four. Also, why bring up an incident that's now old news? Had this song come out in the late 1970s (the period of the Fatwah, with Yusuf at his most misunderstood) then I'd have understood it more - but dragging up the past seems an odd move for one so keen on other songs to let past mistakes be bygones. A rather ungenerous and unlikeable track, even if the performance is nicely gritty and against the odds ends up sounding as tough as any Cat Stevens recording since 1977.
'The Cat and Dog Trap' is the second highlight of the album, a rather better slab of autobiography that tells Stevens' history as a sort of parable or nursery rhyme. Yusuf the older looks back, amazed at all he used to get up to in his first career, telling us 'There was a time when I was younger, I'd chase the tail of any danger - about to learn'. There's rarely been a better summary of Cat's mid-70s career than the last verse either: 'Cat's in a cage, chained to a stone, empty bowl at his side, just an old fish-bone, dreams of home' (we've been banging on about the recurring theme of 'Home' on Cat Stevens records for quite a few reviews now, although oddly it hasn't featured in his 'comeback' career much so far). Taken together, with a few pretty cat noises and barking dogs, this could have been a song on a par with Yusuf's best, certainly since his comeback and is undoubtedly the cleverest thing on offer here. But even then Yusuf has to spoil it: with such a career to choose from why settle for intervening verses like 'Cat jumps a fence, lands in a pram, baby screams 'mama', out runs the man, Cat gets the can' - if this was in a book of nursery rhymes I'd be disappointed. (Our sample of what might have worked better, at no extra charge: 'Then Puss got his boots, and travelled far, On The Road To Find Out, under a Whistlestar, used up his nine lives, will he be saved in the next? Still more to go in this quest...', I'm here all day, folks!) Ah well, a couple of duff verses and again a surprisingly rigid refusal to change anything in the song once it gets going (there's no middle eight and a single-line chorus of 'about to learn' tacked onto the end of every verse) can't get in the way of what's actually a rather moving and sweet little song, the one track here fully in keeping with the traditional Cat Stevens ethos (there's even an 'oohed' instrumental section in the middle, straight out of 1972-73!)
'Gold Digger' is the track that tends to stand out of the album on the first few hearings and has a nice jazzy rhythm that really suits Yusuf's deeper, older voice. There's a great production here too which again reverts back to the 'chain gang hammered-nails-in-the-ground sound and a singalong chorus that's by far the catchiest thing on the album. So why isn't this another album highlight? Dear God, those lyrics! 'Hey Mr Gold Man, where's my pay? Hey Mr Gold man, one more day, come along with us, get onto the bus!' Presumably Cat had the faults and inequalities of Capitalism in mind when he wrote this song about a bunch of gold-diggers who are bound to get burned in a something-for-nothing culture (these gold-diggers offer a service to no one but themselves and pick-sellers). That's a strong target, but this is not a strong set of words and the closing defiant gesture 'Don't come back - this is my country now' sounds rather eerie in the context of both this album and what's going on in the wider world: is this a threat from a Muslim convert to a Christian world? Normally I'd be cheering anyone who wants to point out that capitalism isn't quite the grand American Dream everyone treats it as (no other system barring dictatorships causes as much harm among innocent residents and I think the experiment has lasted long enough by now to prove it doesn't work - well, it doesn't work for the 95% trapped under the rich 5% anyway). But like much of 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' this song is woefully ungenerous in spirit: everyone gets lumped together here, with all of us the 'gold diggers' and we're all made out to be 'blind'; that's not actually the case, but the patient has very little chance of curing himself from a disease his doctor forces him to have - had Yusuf gone after reckless bankers rather than, well, all of us likely to buy this album this might have been a better song. It's still a catchy, memorable track though, which makes the weakness of the words all the worse.
'The Devil Came From Kansas' by Gary Brooker (but again with a few new additions - generally the worst bits) is another really oddball cover song whose message I can't decipher: is this is a song about Western greed in general, with Kansas - a rich state in a rich country - standing for everybody capitalist? Or is it a specific attack on someone (George Bush?) And are the confusing lines about 'silver paper' and 'cheese' a reference to Western bartering and unequal swaps for unequal goods or is it simply gibberish? 'If you really are my brother then you better start to pray' might also be the single worst line on this record, especially coming after one that says 'I'm a teacher not a preacher' because it's being exactly that: the younger Cat had eyes open to everyone and everything but his older self is telling us how to act and that sits wrongly somehow (so much for being true to yourself and finding yourself 'awake' as in the past). I'm quite happy for Yusuf to attack dated Western institutions, I'm quite happy for him to sing about his personal faith in whoever he wants, I'm even willing to listen to songs about how religion changed his life for the better - but the assumption by a convert of anything that we should all follow suit like sheep is not an idea that sits comfortably with me. Yusuf adds some lines about a monkey 'riding on my back' though he's 'no friend of mine' - a rare reference to Yusuf being less than perfect, actually, on this album to go alongside another line from this song: 'I am not a humble pilgrim' (compare to 'Roadsinger', which worked partly through it's humility). Bah! If it wasn't for another catchy melody and another strong performance I'd rate this the worst song on the record, but as it gets half of everything right I can't quite give it that accolade.
That might well belong to title track 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone', which senselessly takes the old traditional blues standard 'Take This Hammer' and, well, hammers it out of all proportion. A much repeated song that takes one line and repeats it endlessly before moving onto another, it works when most bands do it because they do it so fast you barely notice (although I must confess that even Johnny Cash's version of this song is a bit of a drag). Yusuf's version is deadly slow and the chanting mass vocals from the backing group don't help, turning what should be a resonating song that again came from the chain gang (and fits this album's theme of being tied in to some regime that isn't working) into a slow dirge. I don't want no more boring cover songs, I don't want no more boring cover songs, I don't want no more boring cover songs, take this message and take it to the captain, tell 'em if this album don't get better soon I'll be gone, woa yeah I'll be gone.
Alas the album ends on a fourth weak song. 'Doors' is a simple gospel with a profound message: that everything happens for a reason and that everything has its place. 'One door opens, another door closes', 'when a flower dies there's another one blooming', 'when the sun goes down the moon rises' etc etc. This should be a great platform for a writer who, more than any other we cover perhaps, has gone through career swings and personal shifts so huge that Yusuf's had to change his name for three separate parts to his career (sadly early talk that 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' would be the first of his 'comeback' releases under his old name proved to be unfounded, with the 'Yusuf' name bigger than ever on the sleeve). Alas we don't get 'that' song - instead we get a tired song big on metaphor and platitude but low on any actual insight or credibility. The 'God made everything just right' is also an excruciating chorus, comparable to the laughable side of 'An Other Cup' - again fair enough if it's made personal ('In my world God's made everything right' or even 'I believe God's made everything right')- but no - we get this statement unquestionably made, without any room for debate; trust me in a world with ebola, Ian Duncan Smith and The Spice Girls God so didn't get everything right! The result is a terribly twee and faceless way to say goodbye - all the more shocking if the hints of Yusuf having enough and leaving for good draped across the rest of this record make this the last song in his discography. Once again there's no change in this song and this time what's here is boring indeed, dragging long before the three minutes are up.
Overall, then, in many ways 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is a disgraceful record: we have ideas shoved down our throats without any questioning, there are some truly atrocious lyrics and five cover songs on a short-running ten track album is appalling, really. But there is plenty of talent on display too: 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a genuinely moving song, 'I Was Raised In Babylon' is more troublesome, but brave and courageous with it, while the best cover songs ('Big Boss Man' and 'Dying To Live') are at least suitable and rather fun. This record is less disappointing than 'An Other Cup' overall, with more good songs in ratio to bad, even if the best of them isn't quite at the same peak, but given that it came after the excellent 'Roadsinger' that in context it's probably more disappointing (we didn't know what to expect with that first comeback - we do now and to change it is fair enough if you have something new to say; the problem is Yusuf doesn't, by and large). The result is an odd little album - not terrible by any means, with much to enjoy, but full of some ghastly mistakes. Let's hope that this is just a blip and Yusuf will get on to making that R and B rootsy album we all thought this record was going to be when we read about it and that the singer once more goes back to making his songs personal statements and feelings, rather than sermons designed to tell us what to think (as Cat Stevens' superlative back catalogue deserves the tribute of a writer who can at least let their audience think for themselves).