Monday, 25 May 2015
Just Another Night/Day Time/Bad Brakes/Randy/The Artist//Last Love Song/Nasciemento/Father/New York Times/Never
Cat Stevens hadn't been in charge of his career when, as a hip young 17 year old, he was discovered signed to Decca and sent out on a whirlwind lifestyle of day-time TV specials in frilly shirts, evening concert tours with The Walker Brothers, The Who and Jimi Hendrix and night-time at big celebrity parties. While he clawed back a lot of this control in 1970, when he bounced back after a life-threatening illness and found a new style, new identity and grew a new beard, he still wasn't truly in control but always forced to think about the next album, the next tour, the next celebrity party invite he'd politely have to turn down. Move forward to 1978 though and Cat is at last fully in charge of his destiny. Music is just a hobby now, not the driving force it had once been, the singer's head turned by new insights into how life should be lived and a religion that has been taking up more and more of his time. His record contract with Island is up and while keen to re-sign him, Cat is no longer the multi-million seller he once was and the label don't fight that hard to overcome his polite refusals about new terms and one-album deals. His fanbase, while far from having forgotten their hero, are no longer the young idealists searching for answers and writing him long letters - they've grown up, have families and occasionally religions of their own to turn to. Cat knows he can walk away, head held high, his record company dealt with fairly, his fans now largely settled, his life's work in a musical sense fully done and new challenges starting. This being Cat's decision to say goodbye he doesn't tell anyone, happy to slink off quietly back into obscurity with his last two albums released to such little fanfare compared to the 'bad old days' of 1967/68 when every release was trumpeted with publicity blitzes. The difference between the way Cat started and the way he 'finished' (or paused - although it's his last record for 28 years which sounds like a full stop to me!) couldn't have been more different.
'Back To Earth' clearly isn't Cat at his best. Distracted by his new life he pays mere lip service to his 'old' one and rather than choosing to push his new found direction down our throats (as George Harrison had done) decides to treat music the way he sees it now in his new enlightened state: mere baubles and trinkets to give a little bit of fun and glamour into fans' lives - music is no longer the great platform for debating life's role, that's God's work not the work of a mere singer-songwriter. As a result there's no way that this final album could ever compare to past classics like 'Tea For The Tillerman' and 'Teaser and the Firecat' - Cat doesn't have a burning desire to say anything anymore; he's spent 11 years saying everything he needs to. Understandably 'Earth' and it's close cousin 'Izitso?' are in many ways the dregs of the Cat Stevens discography, the moment when those wonderful multiple layers of meaning and philosophy get bared back to the minimum and Cat to some extent goes back full circle to being just a 'pop' singer again - the difference being he's a contented 28-year-old fulfilling his contractual obligations, not a hungry talented 17-year-old star. The plus side to this is that 'Earth' doesn't try quite as hard as some of the other Stevens albums - record like 'Foreigner' and 'Numbers' that seem determined to find something to say even when they're not quite sure what their message is; far from the icy cold shower of polemic and reason 'Back To Earth' seems like slipping into a warm bath. Cat's got the last bits of anger out of his system on 'Izitso?' leaving a series of songs that float past rather than aiming for the jugular, with a series of songs that rarely change tempo and only infrequently change mood. Of this last batch of songs only 'Father' and 'Never' approach Cat as his best, the two songs that say 'hello' to the new life and 'goodbye' to the old ones respectively, but there's a unity of style that makes 'Back To Earth' one of Cat's more peaceful, calming albums and therefore easiest to listen to.
The title 'Back To Earth' is itself an interesting one, given that Cat is about to throw his 'earthly' life away in favour of a more spiritual one. Is Stevens being sarcastic here, having already given up his life to God sighing at being forced to going back to his 'old' life one last time? Or is he talking more about having to sing once more about subject matters his audience might understand - love, creativity, breakdowns, family (as that's how most people will interpret this album's sole religious song 'Father'). The album cover of a rushing waterfall makes it clear that Earth itself has enough drama and beauty for one world - so perhaps Cat is trying to re-connect with his more Earth-bound audience by saying that they, too, have the potential to reach the 'further' world he's now been accepted into? Could it be, too, that by 'Earth' Cat means rock and roll, the 'Earth-bound' music traditionally linked to the devil and by now something alien and slightly unclean to him (Cat gave up music not because his contract came to an end but because he felt it was a career 'banned' by the Qu'ran, filling people's lives with the uplift and spirituality fans should have taken from religion - he admitted on his comeback in 2006 that he 'mis-interpreted' the text and that as long as music came secondary to religious study it was seen as a respected, important job). While I always picture 'Back To Earth' as a serene and peaceful album - especially heard back to back with the tougher, tenser 'Izitso?' - what surprises me on hearing it again for this review is how much rock and roll there is.
Perhaps the best thing about this album is that, rather than take the 'easy' way out with the kind of religious conscious-soothing record Cat will make during his 'missing' years (starting with 'A Is For Allah') Cat fully walks into this record as a 'proper' goodbye, one last nod of the head to Cat's career by trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible with a real hint of nostalgia at times in the people and sounds on this record. Producer Paul Samwell Smith is back in charge for the first time in three years, adding a typically dense yet uncluttered mix that manages to sound both busy and slightly distant, the perfect accompaniment to Cat's busy yet peaceful mind-state. Cat also re-hires several old hands who haven't played much of a role on recent records, with Alun Davies, Gerry Conway and Jean Roussel all back, giving this album the 'feel' of a Cat Stevens album. Davies even co-writes two of the album's lesser moments ('Daytime' and 'Bad Brakes'), his only writing credits on Cat's records despite the pair's close collaboration (perhaps Cat's attentions were elsewhere and he was feeling 'out of touch' with the hit parade?) His colleague's memories of this album are interesting: Davies recalls not thinking that his friend would really go through with his planned musical retirement: he seemed too at peace, too in control of his destiny and enjoyed himself more on this record more than usual. To him, Cat's dalliance with the Muslim religion was just another passing fancy like the embraces of Buddhism and Christianity before it, even if the singer did keep interrupting the sessions in between the hours he needed to pray (with a prayer mat placed in the corner of the studio, measured with a compass to face East).
Certainly if you didn't know Cat's story (and many fans didn't at the time, or at least not the extent of Cat's conversion) you'd completely miss the sub-text of this album: that everything has it's time, that these times will never come again and that we have to make the most of our opportunities while we have them. This reaches a head in the grand finale, 'Never', a song that tries to comfort fans still suffering that 'there's going to be another kingdom - there's so much left for you to know' and tries to find calmness in the fact that, to quote another AAA artist, all things must pass (even if Cat undoes three minutes of hard-work with one half-gulped cry of 'love!' at the song's end). It's there elsewhere though: the album's mini hit-single (Cat's last under his Stevens name) 'Just Another Night' is about that too: the narrator's world has changed, he's seen things that have changed his life around but the people around him can't see that. Cat wants to scream, to tell them to make the most of their lives in the present, but the languid backing is on 'relaxed' mode and the message doesn't get through. 'Daytime', a song written for the international 'Year Of The Child' (but as far as I can tell only ever used on this album, not on any charity LP or TV event) takes the opposite tack: finding 'cause for celebration' in nothing more than the fact we're still alive, in the here and now. 'Bad Brakes' uses the over-extended metaphor of a car crash for the idea that bad things can happen suddenly, without warning. 'New York Times', an eerie premonition of Lennon's murder about how no one is immune from the seedy side of the hustling, bustling city with as many 'failures' as 'winners', is a final slap of the face to people who don't 'see' what Cat has discovered. Finally 'Father', written ambiguously enough to be both confessional spoken to a 'father' and a song of guilt for not making the most of times spent with an aging sick parent, says the same thing with both meanings: why didn't I make the most of time when I had it? Cat is on a mission here, impatient to move on to the next big part of his life (his Muslim School was already established and taking up much of his time) - that's been a part of his sound ever since 'Mona Bone Jakon' but understandably pulls into direct focus on this album, desperate to make us 'wake up' to all of life's possibilities which, if you count Cat's career as starting with the sick-bed 'Mona' makes for a delightful full circle. The difference between the two records is that 'Mona' sounds urgent - it's the sound of a man raging against the light of death, refusing to go until he's said all he's had to say about the state of the world, the pop business and himself. 'Back To Earth', though, is a much calmer record all round, with only 'New York Times' 'Bad Brakes' and 'Father' moving anywhere close to the accelerator pedal. It's as if Cat feels he's said all he needs to say already, that he's spent long enough trying to preach to the unconverted - his message now is for those who've already seen the 'light'.
Cat doesn't know of course that this isn't a final 'goodbye', although he made it as 'final' as he could. He'll be back, in 2006, with a pair of records which (especially the first) sound like exactly the sort of thing fans must have been expecting when 'Back To Earth' came out in 1978: over-fussy arrangements, heavy on the ballads and with references to religion everywhere (the second is a little bit like that but thankfully adds more earth-bound songs; by right's it's 'Roadsinger' that should be titled 'Back To Earth!'). The surprise is that the two albums aren't more similar: yes there's nearly three decades between them but Cat was always old before his time and felt the pull and tug of Islam as strongly in the 70s as he did on his return in 2006. At time on this album he sounds reluctant to talk about the major changes in his life despite having spent most of the past decade making his quest for spiritual answers the main part of his records. I'm still not sure if that's for the better or the worse on this record - comeback album 'An Other Cup' is a struggle to sit through at times, sickly and overly concerned with religion as opposed to spirituality (a subtle difference but a significant one). But then again that album does have a message whereas so much of this album doesn't. The 'real' gems of the Cat Stevens collection, though, are songs that touch on these ideas without shoving them down our throats: songs like this album's 'Father', the last album's 'Life' and the next album's re-recorded version of 'I Think I See The Light'.
So, is 'Back To Earth' an album worth listening to for those of us who didn't follow Cat all the way to the end of his destination? Yes and no. In truth parts of this album are immensely frustrating: we know Cat can do so much better and songs like 'New York Times' 'Randy' and 'Last Love Song' offer us the ultimate insult of being the sort of things that could have been written by any writer with a knowledge of two chords and a basic grasp of English. Slightly more interesting but still rather tacky are the two instrumentals 'Nascimento' and 'The Artist', which sound like what every instrumentalist in the late 1970s was doing (though thankfully both are better than the two instrumentals on 'Izitso?') Cat's lyrics on all three songs are truly banal, his melodies basic pop-fodder that in another context would have seemed like desperate grasping onto top 40 radio but in this context seem more like Cat writing as simply and generically as possible, as if hurrying to get this album out the way as quickly as possible. In many ways it would have been better if he hadn't made this last album at all - if he'd simply offered Island another compilation or a cheap and easy re-recording of his hits. Cat sometimes sounds as if he doesn't care all that much about fans or reputation here (he's got bigger things on his mind) and coming after so many great albums that at least try to offer something new that fans couldn't get anywhere else it's awfully sad to hear him reduced to becoming 'just' another fading pop singer with a fading career. In fact this album is what you fear the 17-year-old singer of 'Matthew and Son' might have slid into when the hits stopped coming: increasingly commercial and less quirky to the point where he sounds like everyone else.
Yet at other times Cat gives us more than he needs to, unwilling or perhaps unable to stop that marvellous productive creative brain that's been steadily ticking over for 11 years. 'Just Another Night' isn't the best Cat Stevens single ever written but it's exactly what this album needs: an admission that he's moved on and left us behind, sung not as a slap in the face so much as an apology. 'Everybody needs a little help' Cat offers in the middle eight, offering us one last aural elder brother hug and the hope that everything is going to be better from now on. 'Daytime' is a sweet ballad that marks the last time Cat looks out of his window at the world in physical rather than spiritual terms, delighting in the idea of the world uniting together for the sake of children everywhere, even though the slight gloom in his voice gives away his feeling that he's not convinced it will work. 'Father' is classic Cat Stevens, asking an authority figure he trusts whether he's right in what he's doing, whether 'life is a dream' and a curtain pulled across the 'real' meaning of life, a nice bit of doubt and drama amongst this often rather cosy album. The figure could be a priest or elder Muslim figure but also sounds like Cat speaking to his own dad, wondering whether he too was 'lonely as a boy' and went through the same doubts he has now. Anyone who fell in love with the 1970-72 run of Cat Stevens albums will easily relate to the troubled son asking for advice and the song sports one of Cat's better more rounded melodies from the second half of his career too. Finally 'Never' ends with a last word of comfort, though whether to us or Cat himself (or both) is never made clear. 'There'll never be another you' he sings, admitting the hole that losing his audience will leave in his life, 'but it won't always be Winter' - all we need to do is follow him to our respective spiritual paths, whatever they might be, and we too can see the promised land he sees in his life. Cat could have merrily carried on without a backward glance, or perhaps ranted and raved at us to follow him to his destiny but he's s kinder, cleverer soul than that - instead he offers out one last hand of help to enable us to follow his lead - and his last choked strangled cry of 'love' (the full stop his career will rest on for 28 years) suggests that rather than smugly leaving us without another thought he really is torn about saying goodbye. This half of the album is the 'real' Cat Stevens, still as powerful and poignant as he always was and - while 'Back To Earth' is a bumpier ride than perhaps every other Cat Stevens record since the first one - the high points outweigh the low ones. While 'Back To Earth' is too distracted by bigger matters that aren't shared with us to be his best album, it's still pretty good for a record made on auto-pilot. Ultimately too, 'Back To Earth' is, perhaps, truer than we suspect about where Cat's head was at in 1978, with doubts and worries in his mind as he makes the biggest change of his life - even bigger than the one in 1970 during his TB-induced 'comeback', but still generally as sure as he can be that he's on the right path. By the time he returns Cat will have a new name, a new sound and an even longer beard now flecked with grey but he'll still be 'our' Cat Stevens - with the same mixture of defiance and doubt that made us flock to him the first time round in 1967. This album, from a period when more than any other Cat was preparing to change his life, is so much more than just another night.
A sad postscript: Cat was only trying to leave his music world behind, not the whole of his past. But his dad Stavros Georgieu - along with Cat's brother his earliest supporter - died suddenly the very day that this album was released (something which gives the song 'Father' in particular a very eerie feel). By the time of this album's release almost all of Cat's bridges seem to have been burnt - Cat must have been feeling alone and at times this album is almost a premonition of this, coming back to earth with a real bump after alighting apon his true spiritual path of Islam.
'Just Another Night' is a sweet little song. Cat returns with his beloved to the place where they used to meet often but is alarmed to find she holds such different opinions ('I was dying, but for you it was just another night!') However the urgent middle eight drops the questioning tone of the song for a more conciliatory 'everybody needs a little help' line that suggests the friendship isn't beyond repair. I've always been fascinated by this song, which given the context of a final 'goodbye' sounds like a sequel (of sorts) to the last album's 'I Never Wanted To Be A Star'. To my ears, Cat isn't really saying goodbye to a beloved girlfriend but to us, the listeners and fans who've 'kept me well' and 'clothed' all these years. Cat's worried about us and what might happen to us, but equally he's tired of living out his deepest darkest moments in plain sight when for us it's just 'another night', turned off and forgotten the second the record is back in its box. Cat sought out our company when he was a 'lonely child' and his public were 'much amused' by his antics, accidentally using up his resources until 'there was no more left in me'. Cat's now been hurt, abandoned, left in the middle of the road ('and why I still have no idea') by indifferent sales and reviews, but he still cares. He just doesn't want the 'pain' any more (because I've had enough of that') but he still wants to stay in touch and thinks we should visit sometime, day or night, whenever the feeling strikes and we too get hit by the realisation of life that Cat's just had. Cat's nervous little riff is perfect for the song, which see-saws to its own meandering path, only occasionally making it onto the 'main road' of the melody where everything is greeted by bristling staccato drums that suddenly sound deeply commercial. Cat's vocal is also one of his best, turning from bemused parent to hurt child from line to line. All in all, one of Cat's better songs of the period which deserved to do far better in the charts (which, as if to underline how 'left out in the cold' the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens was in 1978, just missed on both sides of the Atlantic).
'Daytime' is a little more ordinary but still possesses a sumptuous tune and some typical mid-70s Cat Stevens keyboard work. Written under pressure to celebrate the 'year of the child' for charity Unicef, Cat really isn't at his best when given a particular theme to write about and this syrupy song pales in comparison to, say, 'Where Do The Children Play?' Children, though, tended to be the charitable cause that Cat championed the most (he could have opened a mosque or Muslim University, but in keeping with the work he'd done throughout his career he built a school instead) and in many ways he's the obvious candidate to ask. So why wasn't this song better known? Cat didn't even release it as a single, perhaps fearing a big hit that would see the hassles of record labels trying to snap him up when all he wanted was to drift away quietly. 'Daytime' could have been a hit with the right push behind it, with a pretty melody and lyrics that are vague but always heartfelt, aiming to celebrate rather than castigate and believe that happier times for the world are indeed ahead if only people would listen. Samwell Smith's arrangement is one of his better ideas too, subtle but carefully poised, like a flower that opens up gradually throughout the song, blossoming into life. The only trouble is that the song feels a little unfinished and needs something else to make it a classic, with one too many spaces in the backing that call out to be filled. The 'time of year' much mentioned in the lyrics is a bit of an odd one too: was this originally meant to be a Christmas song? (The whole point of Unicef's 1979 campaign was to push for a whole year of discussion of children's rights on the 20th anniversary of a section of the human bill of rights dedicated to youngsters and their rights; instead of relegating the subject to one day or week or month, easily forgotten when the next thing came along - by sustaining the problem of child poverty in the press worldwide for a full year hopes were high that changes could, this time, be made. The project was a success, too, with a step forward in the West's view of children as second-class citizens, although sadly there's still so much further to go. Cat's last ever concert was on January 9th 1979 when the 'year of the child' was celebrated with a concert in the grounds of the UN General Assembly in Massachusetts).
'Bad Brakes' is a last return to the feel of 'Izitso?' An angry, turbulent backing track would sound really good with any other lyrics except these, which seem like a middle aged man's idea of what the young were listening to (Cat is all of 28, but an 'old' 28 by now with everything he's been through). Was Cat inspired to write this melody thanks to some deeper troubles which he feels he can no longer share with us? (Part of the reason he left music behind was his belief that people had to find their own solutions to problems instead o looking to rock stars and celebrities). Either way, 'Bad Brakes' is one of his least inspired lyrics ever, an entire 3:26 of an extended metaphor about a broken down body well past it's MOT 'heading for a break down'. Cat switches between an obviously older body and a youngish narrator 'sipping coca-cola down at Sammy's cafe' chasing girls (where a Spanish girl inevitably cries 'ole!'), suggesting that he's talking about moral and mental breakdowns rather than physical ones but seems deliberately to have missed out all mention of religion and spirituality, leaving up to the listener to decide just what exactly the 'carburettor' and 'motor' are metaphors for. Samwell Smith has fun dressing up this novelty record in all sorts of pretty paper (the sudden computerised squeal after the line 'my motor blown' is a noise common to many records of the late 1970s and never heard of since), but it's a shame that a better home couldn't be found for the excellent tough-as-old-boots riff at the heart of this song.
'Randy' doesn't even have the decent riff. One of many average Cat Stevens love songs about no one in particular, the biggest fun can be had guessing whether Cat is singing a love song to a man or a woman ('Randy' is usually a boy's name, but the lyrics are cleverly worded to avoid 'he' or 'she'). The tune waddles dangerously close to 'Daytime' throughout, while the lyrics sounds like Leo Sayer or Elton John (that's not a compliment, by the way). Cat sings about his/her 'cherry black eyes' suggesting he isn't being completely serious, but in typical Cat style a gorgeous middle eight rises out of nowhere to suggest that, actually, he's being deadly earnest here. 'You never said it would rain!' he cries, as if slagging off a weather forecaster who caused him to get drenched, 'You only told me that the sun would come again!' However there's nothing in 'Randy' that hasn't been said or done better a hundred times before - filler material beneath Cat's usual standard.
'The Artist' is an evocative instrumental that sounds more like something David Crosby would write. Like many instrumentals it would have been better with words (there's a very obvious line for the vocal - Cat sings 'la la la la la ' to it throughout) but the melody really is lovely and the piece is more interesting than the similar instrumentals on 'Izitso?' A song of two halves, the first half uses what was then very daring and new 'Starlight' synthesisers while accompanied by a tuning up string section and some very interesting sound effects; the second half sounds more like the rootsy gospel work of 'Foreigner'. That lone suggests there's more going on in this song than meets the eye and it's curious that Cat should write a song about 'art' for his final album (he could be talking painting of course, the usual art-form for which the word is used, but I still say musicians who write music and lyrics both are 'artists' twice over, with the ability to express using language and form; the closest a painter can get to that is a longwinded and descriptive title). At only 150 seconds, it's a shame more thought wasn't put into the actual composition of this song (like giving it some words), but it's all gloriously arranged and beautifully produced.
'Last Love Song' is another generic romantic song, this time a weepie. 'If you don't love me, please don't treat me this way' sings Cat. I'm tempted, after that analysis of 'Just Another Night', to see this as a similar song about Cat not wanting to be 'left out in the cold, eyes drifting by me like someone you don't know'. But there's less of a feeling of 'reality' about this song which comes across as pure imagination - the kind of thing any half-talented writer would come up with when uninspired but told to get on with creating all the same. Played back to back with most of 'Mona Bone Jakon' and the differences are profound: this just doesn't sound 'lived in' somehow, an artificial song for an artificial situation other people experience every day but Cat never has (the closest he came was his time with Patti D'arbanville or - allegedly - Carly Simon - but neither seem the type of women to inspire such a song).
'Nascimento' is a noisier instrumental based around Alun Davies' unusually heavy guitar work that suggests that had the whole Muslim School thing not worked out Cat would have made a fine film score writer. There's a great deal of tension in this song, with some interesting chord changes and some glorious wordless 'aahhs' from Cat that recall the theme from 'Shaft'. Perhaps a little too polished for it's own good, this instrumental was exactly the sort of thing punk came around to destroy but it would be a shame to denigrate it too badly: given most of what was around at the time this piece is at least well played, well produced and made with care. How interesting that Cat is still looking round to extend his usual writing style and ability as late as his last LP, when he knows he'll never have the chance to follow any of these experiments up. Fittingly this title translates from Portugese as 'birth' - relevant both to the contemporary sound of the piece and Cat's 'discovery' of a new religion that - in a phrase borrowed from a quite different religion - has left him literally 'born again'.
In truth the album has been drifting ever since the second track. Luckily 'Father' has all of the depth of classic past Cat Stevens songs and is one of his very best (along with 'Life' it's his best from the second half of the 1970s). As we've discussed it cleverly bridges the idea of who the father figure is, who offers Cat both hope and guidance. Is it his real father who Cat suddenly realises is more like himself than he ever realised (struck by the realisation his dad had a past before he came along, he asks wide-eyed whether he was ever as afraid and confused as himself, the first verse trailing off on the poignant question 'were you lonely as a boy?') Cat is removed, at a distance, and while he still keeps in touch he longs to 'go on a small boat' or 'take a long walk with you'. Reports of Cat's father Stavros' death the very day of the album's release date would suggest that the family had been expecting this; Cat certainly sounds here like a man coming to terms with the mortality of someone he always thought would be around forever (the lyrics are Cat's most poignant since 'Oh Very Young', another song about short lifespans). But from what I've read no one was expecting it; Stavros was fit and well without any lingering illness. There might then be another layer at work in this lyric. 'Father' is a favourite term of many religions, hinting at further wisdom and understanding in both the Christian and Muslim communities: Cat's song has the feel of a 'confessional' about it, admitting his doubts and coming out of it seemingly blessed ('I feel there's something out there reaching out for me' he sings at one point). In this context he's asking Allah (or at least his bodily form) 'did you have the same doubts I have when you stepped out from what everyone else thought and spoke of another God?' Like Jimmy in Quadrophenia Cat even chooses the favourite Biblical spot of 'a small rock; for his imagined conversation to take place. Cat is excellent throughout but especially in the middle eight where the figure we're so used to giving us advice (the glorious '100 I Dream', for instance, is a lecture set to music) suddenly admits he needs it himself, calling for 'the power not to be afraid' and for Him to be there 'when I close my eyes...let me see you once in the light!' (ambiguous lines that could refer to either interpretation. Thankfully this wonderful song is also given the best production on the album, sounding on the one hand distant and formal (with a rather 'proper' riff underpinning the song and played on a business-like sounding guitar) and on the other hand a sea of emotions only just held in check (more well-used songs). 'Father' isn't quite the best Cat Stevens song around (there are so many to choose from, especially around 1970, that it would be unfair to list them all) but it's arguably the last really great Cat Stevens song, the last to dig deep into a subject matter few other writers would consider. It's easily the highlight of this patchy last album and saves the record's reputation single-handed.
'New York Times' is a lesser song all round, a follow-up of sorts to 'Killin' Time' from 'Izitso?' Cat's new understanding of how the world works (that this world is a mere 'test' for what comes next, when we'll be judged by our actions in this) leads him to criticise and laugh at quite a few of the Western world's sillier institutions. This record's target is the hustle and bustle of New York businessman who treat homeless tramps as part of the furniture and never speak to their neighbours (the second verse details a prostitute found dead on the second floor, unable to come to terms with her life there). Like the subject matter Cat's urgent verse swifts blindly on, never really stopping to look at the surroundings or take it's time. With another world recession on (the same one that inspires The Kinks' priceless 'Low Budget' LP the next year) Cat sings about 'money getting tighter', but in an off-hand way as if it won't bother him (or rather his ignorant narrator). Unfortunately, Cat's pot-shots don't have the same majesty or shock value as his anti-gun tirade 'Killin' Time' with a tune that cleverly captures the feel of the city (think of the title credits to Frasier crossed with Sesame Street') but doesn't make for repeated listening. The title is clever though: New York led the way, the most financially successful part of the most financially successful country in 1978 and are really just an 'example' of a way of dog-eat-dog living that's getting on Cat's nerves (this is about the New York era, it seems, with the title of the song also reflecting the leading newspaper of the district).
Thankfully Cat's farewell message is near-perfect. 'Never' is one of those 'to be continued' credits that so many TV shows insist on using these days, flashing forward to what will happen for both singer and listener in the future: the darkness won't last, it won't always be winter, people will wake up and realise all they should know one day. While George Harrison got their first with 'All Things Must Pass' in 1970 this song is almost as good, this time involving the listener in the speech, telling us that 'there's going to be another story', just one he won't be joining us on this time. Addressing us as 'love', Cat admits that whatever he goes on to feel or be with in his life 'there will never be another you'. One final glorious middle eight promising support from afar (through already released albums perhaps?) suddenly increases the tension, Cat pleading that there's only one thing that can save us all: 'You've got have trust in me baby, you've got to have faith...in yourself'. The sad little piano lick at the heart of this song suggests that, for all his good intentions and growing belief, it still pains Cat to say goodbye and no matter how much he tries to frown it out with noise, hope or faith it keeps coming back, causing several false endings that keep getting bigger and bolder and more epic before Cat finally manages to end the song. He promises 'there'll never be another you' over and over, near alone the way he always used to be in his peak-selling era, trying to comfort us that there are better times ahead, as if lulling off a child to sleep. We believe him too - right up until the final word that Cat Stevens will ever sing on a mainstream record released in the Western world for 28 years, pulling out the rug of belief and optimism from under us. Ending the song on a half-strangled cry of 'love', caught through with all the emotion Cat has been trying to hold back till now, is a masterstroke - suggesting at once that Cat doesn't believe what he says, that the destination to the end of the journey will be harder than he and we think and perhaps that he doesn't really want to go. The song then brings down the curtain on Cat's career the way it always going to end, with a question mark hanging over everything, that note poised in mid-air waiting to come down on one path somewhere, caught at a crossroads of choice where Cat knows that, reluctantly, we can't follow (unless we choose to). We won't know where it's going to come down until the next century, by which time everything - yet nothing has changed.
I'll tell you something - there'll never be another Cat Stevens, no matter how hard he tries to sound like everyone else across this record. A complex, difficult long goodbye at times it sounds like a record made to fulfil a record contract and nothing else - and at times like something else entirely, a cornucopia of mixed feelings about this new journey that Cat is embarking on. If at times 'Back To Earth' feels like a postcard sent back to the past out of duty, for fans who can no longer understand what Cat is going through or where he's been, at other times it seems like a deep and complex poem, full of hidden layers, meanings and messages of support. While it's not the perfect place to say goodbye, on a par with classics of old, 'Back To Earth' is a very special LP indeed at times, the three best tracks of which can happily sit alongside any Cat Stevens best-of from any era.
Mademoiselle Will Decide (Mark Knopfleer with Jools Holland, 'Big Band Small World')
David Knopfler: Ship Of Dreams (2004)..........................................
Mark Knopfler "Privateering"