Monday, 3 July 2017

Neil Young "Chrome Dreams Two" (2007)

Neil Young "Chrome Dreams Two" (2007)

Beautiful Bluebird/Boxcar/Ordinary People/Shining Light/The Believer/Spirit Road/Dirty Old Man/Ever After/No Hidden Path/The Way

'I want to be on this windy road for eternity...'

How very Neil Young: this album is a sequel to an album that nobody can own - because Neil never released it. But whereas the original 'Chrome Dreams' from 1977 is hailed as one of his masterpieces after being cut into bits to form the backbone of four separate albums ('American Stars 'n' Bars' 'Comes A Time' 'Rust Never Sleeps' and 'Hawks and Doves'), 'Chrome Dreams II' is itself a hodge-podge of songs not considered good enough for release on albums stretching back to the late 1980s. While there's still a hole in our collections even now where 'Chrome Dreams' should be - one of Neil's most beautiful albums - instead we get  'Chrome Dreams Two', an album designed to be ugly from the hurried slapdash sessions through to the close-up of the hood ornament on Neil's car which is easily his most horrific album sleeve (and there's been a lot of hideous sleeves to be fair). A lazy slow collection of ballads, this album got lost sandwiched between the angry zeal of 'Living With war' and the short funky simplicity of 'Fork In The Road' and is far less immediate than either of them. But there's also a case to be made that 'Chrome Dreams Two' is one of the most 'special' Young albums of the 21st century, in terms of songs at least if not performances or production, an under-rated beauty that's trying to peek out from under the surface noise and lack of finesse to paint a more interesting portrayal of where Neil's head is at than perhaps any of his other period albums.

Why this album now? The wheels were slowly falling off the wagon, in both a personal and career sense. On the one hand Neil is in a creative slump, having written 'Living With War' in a week and still fallen behind his usual regular one-album-a-year slot. That album was Neil's most divisive record, angering as many Republicans as it delighted Liberals with its damning portrayal of George Bush Junior's policies and it's scrappy as-live performances. Most fans loved it though, even if the general public hated it, which might be why this album is so 'fan heavy' for them, with much-delayed recordings of popular songs dropped into set-lists down the past twenty years and then never heard of again. And again, in Neilk's home life, things are getting difficult, with Neil facing that choice between the known (a thirty-year marriage to wife Pegi) and unknown (an almost as long relationship with actress Darryl Hannah) that was getting nearer to the point where Neil would have to make a 'choice' between them every day. Neil, famously, doesn't like telling 'us' his fanbase, what's going through his heart until he's ready - and he clearly wasn't ready to talk for so much of his career. So far Neil has coped with this distraction by disappearing (the long gap between 'Broken Arrow' in 1997 and 'Silver and Gold' in 2000), recording autobiographical songs masquerading as genre-experiment blues songs ('Are You Passionate?'), a soap opera about fictional characters ('Greendale') and an anti-Bush rally ('Living With War'). So far only 'Prairie Wind' has come from the heart or more directly the brain, a suite of songs inspired by Neil's brain aneurysm that gives him a whole new way of looking at the world that doesn't involve love and girlfriends but friends and family. What does Neil do next? He has a rummage round his discarded box for some oldies, while dropping the odd hint about what's 'really' going on in there for us too, hidden so we can't find them (heck one of them is even called 'No Hidden Path' just to draw our attention to the fact).

This album is named after 'Chrome Dreams' not because the songs are similar (there's nothing as inventive as 'Pocohontas', as daring as 'Will To Love' or as thrilling as 'Like A Hurricane') but because Neil is at a similar point in his life to how things felt when he wrote that first album back in 1977. He's just started a relationship that brings him comfort and joy and is preparing to commit (the Pegi-tribute album 'Comes A Time' and marriage came next) but isn't quite ready to bask in the sunlight yet, with the last hangover of nightmares from past relationships still haunting him. The lyrics to both albums have Neil sounding a little lost and looking for guidance - unsure whether to embrace his homing instinct for love like the 'salmon jumping upstream' or whether to escape the hurricane that keeps blowing him away. Here, too, Neil looks for guidance but seeks it from outside sources more than himself, looking for his 'spirit road' as he searches for a 'shining light' and after forty years of skirting the question finally admits to being a 'believer' in...something (later albums have Neil admitting to being a 'pagan', with 'nature' his 'God'). The 'chrome' part on both albums seems a bit of a misnomer (the 'idea' of the title on the original is that beauty comes from unlikely sources, including Neil's beloved man-made cars - but here the title seems to be more to get a picture of Neil's car on the front and to explore the half-theme of being on a 'journey'. It's the 'next' album 'Fork In The Road' that again ignores what's on Neil's heart and mind in favour of a concept album about his new electric hybrid car).

The other inspiration is that Neil has been confronted with his past a lot in this period. One other release that overshadowed poor 'Chrome Dreams' (an album seemingly deliberately 'hidden' and obscured) was the much-delayed release of 'Archives', the box set first discussed around the time of 'Decade' back in 1977! The set had really gained momentum in the late 1990s and every year since 1999 had been promised, then delayed, then abandoned, before being resurrected in new form. Putting the set together had entailed listening to all sorts of songs from Neil's 19663-1973 period and must have felt a little like Groundhog day as Neil went over the ground of his Buffalo Springfield, 'Goldrush' and 'Harvest' years before ending up at the start of the 'Doom Trilogy'. Knowing Neil as we do - never one to sit still - he was probably already planning 'Archives II' (although if he was it's a set that still hasn't come out yet) and this album sounds very much inspired by the 'next' decade of 1973-1983 when Neil loses his band, his second wife and his reputation before regaining multiple bands, his third wife and ending up voted 'Rolling Stone' magazine's 'artists of the decade' with his comebacks of 1977-1979. This album feels like Neil on the cusp of a similar wave, the music slowly flowing through him again as he allows himself to embrace his complicated love life and wonder about his future all over again.

Musically, though, this sounds more like his 'third' and 'fourth' decades, from 1983-2003, filled with songs that for whatever reason never made an original album in that period. 'Beautiful Bluebird' is the oldest album song, written for the first abandoned version of the countrified 'Old Ways' back in 1983 which may well have been inspired by the birth of Neil's youngest child Amber Jean (clearly on his mind after her inspiration for 'Sun Green' on 'Greendale'). 'Ordinary People, a highlight of the Bluenotes shows from 1988, would have jazzed up the 'This Note's For You' album no end (as well as nearly doubling it's running time!) 'Boxcar' would have soundbed very out of place on 'Times Square', the sort of 'halfway house' between the 1988 EP 'Eldorado' and the eventual LP 'Freedom', a low-key country blues about identity. These three songs, stuck at the beginning of the album, sound like a 'mini EP' apart from the rest of the record. Though all three were re-recorded at the album sessions ('Ordinary People' with much the same band who would have expected to play on it back in 1988), they don't feel like they 'fit', coming from Neil's younger sweeter side or his angry pondering styles rather than the more confused tone of the rest of the album. Frankly there are better unreleased Young recordings around than 'Boxcar' and 'Bluebird' (two songs that are amongst his flimsiest and most one-dimensional) and 'Ordinary People', while a great song and still the highlight of this album, is a pale substitute for what could have been (especially as Neil will release a late 1980s live recording shortly afterwards on the 'Bluenote Cafe' double disc in 2015). Neil said that he wanted to wait for the 'right time' before recording all three and that the songs all slotted in well with what he was writing 'now' - but they don't. 'Boxcar' and 'Bluebird' are an obvious shoe-in for the acoustic sound of 'Silver and Gold' but would have sounded out of place on any album after that (but especially this relatively complex one). Whereas 'Ordinary People' is an obvious candidate for 'Living With War' with its tale of how the rich and elite thrive while the poor suffer and struggle to survive, while it's angsty vulnerable vibe makes it ripe for plucking on other albums like 'Prairie Wind' and 'Are You Passionate?' far more than this one. I put it to you instead, dear reader, that these songs are here placed at the front of the CD in order to cloud the issue, to 'hide' what Neil is really up to on this album - and how lost he sounds on the other seven songs newly written for this record.

Neil said that this album as a whole was concerned with 'the human condition', which is interesting and fits with 'Ordinary People' but doesn't really fit with the rest of the album. Actually 'Chrome Dreams' is perhaps the first since the escapist rockabilly of 'Everybody's Rockin' not to be concerned with the 'human condition' (unless you count Betty Lou getting a new pair of shoes) because it's an album that's primarily about spiritualism. Neil spends whole realms of his autobiography 'Waging Heavy Peace' returning to this theme, going over and over the same ground to try to work out just what he really believes (paganism is his final answer, but not his first thought). Not since 'Natural Beauty' in 1992, not even on the near-death songs of 'Prairie Wind' does Neil spend this much time questioning whether he's on the right path and what his maker might have in store for him during this lost, soul-searching part of his life. Neil doesn't get the answers on this album and merely asks the questions, but what an interesting batch of questions they are for an artist traditionally as rooted in the 'Earth' as Neil is. 'Shining Light' is the other album highlight, a gorgeous vulnerable ballad that has Neil admitting that, deep down, he knows that 'you' always guide 'me' but that now he is 'lost', asking for a light to guide him through the darkness so he won't feel quite so alone. Next Neil tells us that he's a 'Believer', which will come as a shock to anyone whose ever sat through such anti-religious songs as 'Soldier' or 'Yonder Stands The Sinner' and yet doesn't sound out of place at all, given that Neil has always had a sense of wonder and awe about the world around him, especially since his children were born. As that comparison with 'Natural Beauty' or even 'When God Made Me' makes clear, Neil's never claimed to have been a non-believer - he just doesn't believe in the way that people around him traditionally believe. 'Spirit Road' has Neil actively searching for his true path, entering a 'long highway of your mind' that sounds like a cross between 'The Long and Winding Road' and 'Let It Be', a 'speck of dust alone in this giant world'. He still hasn't made it to the path  by the end of the song though, despite it lasting six minutes. 'Ever After' finds Neil asking more questions, Neil reduced to the idea that 'the only faith you're keeping is the faith that you still got', that believing gets harder with age not easier, again finding spiritualism through nature ('The trees is where I do my prayin'). On 'No Hidden Path' Neil sets off for a walk around his beloved ranch - something he knows he will have to give up as part of any alimony cases to come - and just for a moment feels like 'the chosen one' and that 'you're' walking here with me'. We don't hear who this is, but the lyrical references to 'wind', as on 'Prairie Wind', are clearly equated with loss. So is this Neil looking for guidance from his dad, Scott? (If so then it seems father and son talked a lot more in death than they did in life). Neil too is preparing for death, referring to his life as 'distant days' and wondering what comes next - signified by the most typically Neil moment with a howl from his 'old black' guitar that makes it clear he isn't heading into the next world quietly. This troubled searching album then ends, much like 'Prairie Wind' and 'Living With War' before it, on hope, certainty and a choir. On 'The Way' Neil is no longer choosing between two paths but has one he's sticking to (or does he? 'Fork In The Road' suggests more procrastination on the 'Darryl Hannah' front) and urges the listener that if we're 'lost and found' the way he is then all we have to do is a bit of soul-searching and we'll find the answer eventually. It's not a case of getting no answer so much as asking the right questions. It's an oddly triumphant note for such a subdued album - and yet this song too features a mightily subdued production, one that's muted to the point of being hard to hear, as if the 'Neil' whose recording this isn't anywhere near as sure as the 'Neil' who wrote it!

Lyrically, then, this is a strong return to form, second only to 'Prairie Wind' as the most interesting Young album of the 21st century so far with a series of songs that come from the heart and which are all long enough to properly explore their surroundings, with lengthy verses rather than repeats or guitar solos. This is, you could say, an album with an awful lot to say and an impatience to say it all. And yet that doesn't make it one of Neil's best albums even then. The melodies across this album feel familiar and often sound the same, so that (like 'Greendale') you're never too sure where one song begins and another ends. Too many of these songs sound rushed still, rigidly sticking to the same chord changes over and over instead of being inventive or exploring somewhere 'new' ('No Hidden Path' which runs for fourteen minutes, doesn't do much at all across any of them, while on the eighteen minute 'Ordinary People' the relentlessness and conformity of the song is the whole point but still not a point made for easy listening). On some Young albums this doesn't matter. 'Sleeps With Angels' for instance, gets much of its spooky ambience from its repetitive restlessness, as if Crazy Horse are so spooked by the outside world that they're afraid to leave even their central key. 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' too would have been a far worse album had it been cut up with middle eights and choruses. And yet 'Chrome Dreams Two' is an album that cries out for a bit of variety. It's a record about asking questions and sifting through answers after all - so it's a shame that so much of this album has Neil asking from questions at the 'same source'. This may be some high-falluting concept that Neil knew what the 'answer' to his troubles was all along (being with Darryl) but it's such a shame that such an inventive and sparky album lyrically ends up sounding so boring musically.

It's a great shame too that these performances are as lacklustre and messy as they are too. My intuition tells me that this is, on some level, deliberate: Neil doesn't want this to be a 'hit' album, even if it's one that had more chance of this than others of late, because that means people would be talking about this album and asking questions and he'd rather fly underneath the radar. A case in point is the one song that hasn't been mentioned yet. 'Dirty Old Man', which is kind of to this album what John Entwistle's were to Pete Townshend's on mid01970s Who albums. It's a big joke, taking the mickey out of Neil for thinking that he's doing anything spiritual or deep when he's just 'trying to make a living' and earn some money to 'go out and get hammered'. It's a little like George Harrison's post-Patti, pre-Olivia albums too, caught between immersing itself in the 'spiritual world' on the one hand and too empty and hurting to cope without the stimulants of the 'material world' on the other. But this performance is scrappy in the extreme, unfocussed and raw to the point where you wonder if the rest of the band were even taught how to play the song once before recording it (traditionally Neil's way of working). This is a particular shame when the same approach is taken to other songs that deserve far more love, care and attention. 'Shining Light' could have been truly beautiful if Neil had only sung it on key (and if he hadn't ripped off the melody to 'Memory' from Andrew Lloyd Webber's only decent musical 'Cats' along the way). 'The Believer' needs to sound proud and stand tall - instead it sounds like it's got a country-gospel hunch throughout. 'Ever After' sounds less like the polished country-rock of 'Harvest' 'Comes A Time' and 'Old Ways' than the one-take bar-room brawls of 'American Stars 'n' Bars'. 'No Hidden Path' spends more time hopping between two chords than even 'Like An Inca' with a less arresting song to go with it. And at least 'When God Made Me' and 'America The Beautiful' sounded sweet and sincere; the chirpy children's choir on  'The Way' just gets in the way of a good song (remember, the only time Neil ever used the services of a children's choir was when they were chanting 'gotta gotta control the violent side!' like a bunch of maniacs; that line oddly sounded less out of place than this song does).

Overall, then, it's yet another latter-day mixed bag for Neil. he sings in the last song that his critics say he has 'nothing in store' and that he is 'washed up and done' and to be honest nothing he offers here goes that far to undo this feeling. The opening two songs, simple to the point of stupidity, don't help and nor does 'Dirty Old Man', a song written for fun but which sounds deliberately ugly. Two songs that clock in at ten minutes longer than they need to don't help either. But as so often happens on Neil's most interesting albums ('Trans' or 'Sleeps With Angels') this is all smoke and mirrors to hide what's really going on here. Neil is in love again and has found true beauty and wants to embrace it - but dealing with the last few responsibilities before he can fully walk into his new life are ugly, so this album ends up being a beautiful album about searching for direction and finally finding it that's more inspired and spiritual than any we've had in decades, turned inside out to become an ugly album about nothing much at all. The truth, as so often happens on these sorts of Neil albums (including 'Broken Arrow' and 'Time Fades Away') somewhere in the middle: 'writer' Neil hasn't been this inspired for ages, but 'performing' Neil has rarely sounded more as if he's lost the plot. The result is an album hard to listen to and not always worth the effort - but if you can 'read' this album rather than hear it and have the patience to go where Neil is taking you, however ugly it sounds, then you will find beauty at the end. Maybe that ugly album cover wasn't quite so ugly after all - and yes you can always find beauty in the strangest of places!

'Beautiful Bluebird' is an odd place to start, given that it doesn't sound like an 'opening track' or like anything else on the album. Indeed for the longest time it wasn't - Neil heard a playback of the album where this song and 'Boxcar' were the other way around and switched them at the last moment. It's a bad move, making an album of muted interest sound deeply dull from the first, as indeed is resurrecting this song at all when there are so many better Neil outtakes out there to revive (including many better ones from the original 'Old Ways' where this song would have been easily the worst). It's a song of loss from years past, as a real bluebird flies into shot and makes Neil's mind wander to seeing one before, perhaps inspired by first wife Susan or second wife Carrie, but taken from the perspective of a man whose now happily married and can indulge himself in how great his other past loves were removed from all the dramas. It feels woefully out of place here on an album about moving on from love three (Pegi) to love four (Darryl), like a man counting his eggs before he's even bought his chickens (or bluebirds) yet. Or was this song always about Darryl and their first meeting, a long time ago even in 1983, luring him on to the 'top of a hill' when they can be together, all their troubles over? (Portraying girls in song as different types of 'bird' when you don't want ther world to know about them just yet is a very CSN thing to do. Indeed Stills had already used the talisman of the 'bluebird' for Judy Collins several times by 1983. Which brings me on to theory three: is this song about the fractious relationship between Stills and Young, finding something to make them 'smile...after all these years?' Unfortunately 'Beautiful Bluebird' is more fun to discuss and dissect than it is to listen to, being the single most hokey hackneyed recycled Neil country-rock song since the 'Silver and Gold' album (where all the songs sound like this). A description of a bluebird in flight is also no substitute for real storytelling, especially as Neil stops himself mid-thought as he comes up with the far more interesting and entertaining question of what hurdles he has been through since the last time her saw 'her' fly. An odd and unconvincing song, easily the worst on the album.

'Boxcar' is at least more 'Neilly' even if this song too sounds uninspired and vaguely familiar (being not unlike the melody of 'Old King' matched with the lyrics to 'I'm The Ocean', although this song came first, dating back to 1988). Neil, for the millionth time in his career, equates his long wandering musical path to a mode of transport but a 'box car' (ie a goods wagon for European readers) is one of his dumbest. Unfortunately the melody does too good a job of sounding like a lumbering van winding it's slow painful way up a steep hill, while the lyrics portray Neil in an oddly passive way, the 'passenger' to where his muse takes him and refusing to let him off to greet friends, family and bandmates or stay a while where he feels comfortable. Neil could have gotten away with this if this song had been as inspired as we know he can be, or as out of left-field as he often was and is, but no: this song sounds like 'Southern Pacific' only not quite as well-written (and that song wasn't great!) Along the way Neil tells us that he feels like an eagle, a snake and a 'black white and red man' (striped?!) but won't tell us why, instead running through a list of metaphors that spring to mind at random. We've already had the one central metaphor with the 'boxcar' and really don't need anymore. 'It doesn't matter where I get off' sighs Neil, aware his best work is behind already (and this is back in his forties), 'It doesn't matter where I lie'. And that's the problem with this song: it doesn't feel like it matters at all. No wonder it was dropped from 'Freedom' - it's one of the few unreleased Neil songs heard in concert fans weren't clamouring to hear again, so of course it's one that Neil had to revive sometime!

Fans were however longing to hear 'Ordinary People', which is like a bluesy first draft for 'Crime In The City' in both length and observation. It is indeed a powerful song and by far the best of the three revived for this album, with a series of characters all struggling to make ends meet whilst doing super-human things, like a Bruce Springsteen song but without the patriotism, pride or hope, just some mournful bluenote horns. It's a tale of America too and the falsehood that mankind has evolved along with his technology, people working in a busy bursting competitive factory where they used to fight out duels in the Wild West, 'fighting' to make 'parts to go into outer space' when they haven't learnt the first thing about being kind or creative or equal yet down on Earth, our horizons as narrow as they ever were whatever the technology we build. A second verse has a fat cat with a cigar staring out the window bored, earning millions an hour while his underlings all squabble and rush around to make ends meet, everything he gained inherited from a crime syndicate that went wrong full of people also struggling to make ends meet, 'skimming the top off when there's no one around'. Next we get an antiques dealer whose shop is just a front for selling weapons and who keeps five pitbulls at night to scare off intruders looking for somewhere warm and empty to spend the night. By this point Neil is getting lost in his own desolation so froths at the mouth on the next verse 'It's hard to say where a man goes wrong...' his idea of 'wrong' being not the petty thieves or starving workers napping on work-time but the greedy fatcats who exploit them. Instead Neil imagines a 'vigilante people' taking matters into their own hands (this song is pretty neatly times for the UK poll-tax riots), 'conscientious people' working things out democratically next time, 'cracking down on the drug lord's lair'. By the next verse though things are still helpless: there's a broken window at the factory the employees have to pay for, smashes by the people who used to work there and now sleep there homeless because they have nowhere else to go, while a downturn in the way America treats her employees starts a vicious circle where they can no longer afford the goods made which means more people have to be laid-off...The song ends with Neil both celebrating and patronising the 'ordinary people' who let it happen: 'Some are saints' he declares 'and some are jerks!' before moving on to three whole verses about trains and cars that don't add up to much. Impressive as this song is, in terms of length and un-relentless if nothing else (plus it's nice to hear the horns on a Young song again after a twenty year gap), this version is a pale facsimile of the hardened, angry versions heard on Bluenote live gigs. Though clearly revived because of the credit crunch, Neil seems less engaged with the song this time around, sleep-walking anonymously through the lyrics (even double-tracked!), which makes a mockery of just how heartfelt the lyrics are meant to be holding a mirror up to society and encouraging people to break out of their little boxes and see capitalism for the fraud it really is. The result is eighteen very long minutes where not much happens and where the characters are less strongly drawn than on the similar rant on the full-length 'Crime In The City'. Still, it's nice to have one (any!) version of this key Young song on the shelves at last after hearing about it for so long. It's just a shame that 'Ordinary People' is so, well, 'ordinary'.

'Shining Light' is the album's quiet highlight, often overlooked due to its low-key nature after eighteen minutes of blaring horns. Though once again the melody is recycled ('Philadelphia' via Lloyd Webber - if 'Cats' had featured 'Buffalos' this couldn't have been more like 'Memory'), as on 'Borrowed Tune' that somehow doesn't matter: this is a song that had to be written in a flash of inspiration before it got forgotten and doesn't matter if it was written to another tune. Neil's been wondering for a while about what he truly believes spiritually, especially since nearly dying in 2005. Lost and confused, dazed by the pull and tug on his emotions from his readymade family and the lure of the new, he asks for direction and a light in his darkness. Neil asks for love, compassion, kindness and asks how he can 'stand in your glory', in such marked contrast to all his youthful anti-religious songs. 'Shed your light, show your love' Neil calls, sounding more than ever like a wounded animal with his voice high and trembly, while playing a sad and mournful minor key refrain that only finally finds peace on a resolution to the major key when the song slowly, painfully, makes its way to safety by the end of the track. Though the performance could have been better (there's too much going on and the backing band - made up of old friends Ben Keith, Rick Rosas and Ralph Molina - clearly don't know this song at all yet and are hanging on for grim death, there's a real sweet toughness to the playing and the backing choir made up of friends, wives, half-sister Astrid and all sorts is quite beautiful. Many past Neil Young songs have asked for redemption but this is, to date, the only one that seems to have found it, with a quiet peace and inner strength that will be repeated again across the 'Storytone' album when the split is made for real and Neil is similarly lost, worrying if he's done the right thing. This song 'wins' though, ebing one of the more under-rated and emotional moments from Neil's last half dozen 21st century records.

'The Believer' sounds more ordinary and earth-bound, even though these lyrics too talk about finding salvation and light in your darkest moment. The tune is one of Neil's chugalong songs, a so-so country-rock song played on acoustic with heavy plodding over-simplified drums (poor Ralph gets all the worst jobs in the Young catalogue!) and a tune that doesn't veer far away from two chords throughout. The lyrics are more interesting, again seeming to deal with Neil's muse, this time arriving in the form of a 'songbird', perhaps the bluebird from the first song. Neil still has the faith in his subconscious really, talking to himself about the 'long windy road' he's walked simply because of believing in the music pouring through his head and never daring to shape it. Sounding much like an outtake from 'Prairie Wind' Neil reflects on love and loss and the 'wind' from the afterlife that's getting stronger (though not yet 'like a hurricane'!) and remembering telling his mum Rassy once that he was going to live forever - perhaps a childhood memory of when he nearly died from polio. So, this is a song not just about living long but staying creative to the end too, Neil searching for 'faith' that this will happen and imagining 'keeping the church bells ringing' in his mind's eye. Intriguingly he also promises to 'make the changes' - was this to his diet and way of living after being so poorly? (there's a lot more of what Neil was told to do in his autobiography, though he hasn't written it at this point just yet). The song isn't great then and loses out thanks to yet another overly sloppy performance, but the lyrics about pure faith without proof are unusual for Neil and thus of interest to fans trying to follow his mindset. The song also makes a neat rejoinder to 1970 track 'I Believe In You' which, of course, was about not actually having enough belief to say 'I believe in you!'

'Spirit Road' is another of the album highlights, the only song here that really lets fly with the electric power Neil is forever associated with. It's gutsy, earthy, rootsy, recalling everything from 'Change Your Mind' to 'Down By The River' via 'Like A Hurricane' with a similar crunch that sounds physical and tough. However the lyrics are again ethereal and other-worldly, imagining a pathway of the mind that Neil walks down to find redemption. The twist is that he'd already found it once and lost it (when was this? When he first met and married Pegi?) and that gradually he's isolated himself to the point where he only his tired overworked brain for company. Neil sees himself 'painted into a cold, dark place', imagines himself as a 'speck of dust' in a 'giant world' and most oddly of all 'surrounded by snakes' who 'pinch your shoes and cut your nails!' He's desperate to find his true path and drive out of his scary place but even his faithful car that's in his mind with him won't start: he's 'lost the keys' and is 'down on his knees', searching for them whilst praying for forgiveness. Throughout the band's faux Crazy Horse style (with the right drummer but the 'wrong' bass player) is deliciously claustrophobic, adding the tension not through fast flourishes or show-off passages but through a gradual build-up of noise and oppression. Neil's guitar solo, much delayed compared to how the other 'templates' of this song work to a minute before the end, tries hard to dance around the situation, looking for a solution everywhere but he's trapped on the same single chord, this track recalling 'Like An Inca' in the way the band are locked in place for the whole song groove. The result is an impressive song and recording, Neil sounding committed even as he speak-sings the many Dylanesque words though with an emotion quite different to Bob's intellect. Rarely has Neil ever sounded so desperate and the fact that he sounds pinned down to one relentless chug actually works well in context, the song also (comparatively) short and spiky too at six minutes (if this was 'Psychedelic Pill' or 'Sleeps With Angels' you can easily imagine this song being stretched out to twenty!)

And this may be what Neil is running from. 'Dirty Old Man' also features just one gruff riff and maybe three chords at best this time, but is a jokey jovial song that sounds proud of the fact. Neil sounds proud of what an unemployable slob he is, fired for dinking on the job, hammered on Monday morning because he 'can't wait for Friday night' and 'sleeping with the bosses' wife in the parking lot', the attached word 'again!' saying everything about this unsavoury character. The song is clearly not true (though Neil had his boozy moments, especially around 'Zuma' time, he never got this out of control), but feels like it could be: Neil, pressurised by the marital problems he's facing, imagines himself ever further out on lost Human Highway rather than the Spirit Road and can only see a future where he gives in to all his worst excesses and drinks himself under the table. The thought may have been inspired by his gloriously unhinged riff too, which sounds like a more inebriated version of 'Prisoners Of Rock and Roll' via 'Piece Of Crap'. Many of Neil's more serious albums have a 'jokey' song to break the tension; this song's presence here reveals how serious this CD actually is (even if Neil downplayed its significance like mad at the time it came out and called it 'just another album') and fits better than most similar jokey songs do on his albums, this being the logical extension of his devilish ways if he moves too far off the spiritual path he yearns for on the other album songs. It's far from the best song on the album, with a deliberately ugly chorus repeated too many times for comfort and a suitably blurry-eyed performance which means the band don't get the best out of even this deeply simple little song. But it's the sort of track that kinda had to be here, to tether Neil back down to Earth after so many tracks spend searching for inner peace through his mind.

'Ever After' is back to the country-rock, with Ben Keith's pedal steel wailing nicely in the background for the last time (Ben will pass away in 2010, spending his last years on Neil's ranch). Though the sound is rooted to the Earth, however, with a slowed-down waltz, the lyrics are more existential questions from Neil, who sighs that 'the world is full of questions and only some are answered' before figuring that everyone who has faith has it within them already - it's only what happens to them in their lives that brings that side out of them. We never find out what Neil's 'faith' now is and he doesn't sound quite sure either, but he senses it 'in the air' whenever he hears music or people laughing. A weird verse then compares his searching self to a 'man with dozens of boxes' who wants to know what's inside them but knows life will never been the same again after finding out, so he keeps the box closed (which, if nothing else, tells us what Neil would do on 'Deal Or No Deal' - appearing on TV quiz shows in the genes after all given what Rassy used to do for a living!) Next Neil goes on a walk 'through the forest' to work things out in his mind, telling us that right here in nature is where he does his 'praying', but even then Neil backtracks and tells us in the next verse that the only truth he can count on in his search for answers to his questions 'is a wish in a song'. The song ends with Neil meeting his maker at last, who is both a real human being and female. Is this Darryl, calling him to him from beyond his current grief and confusion and leading him on to 'the ever after' where she lives, the 'next world' not found in death after all but in the rest of Neil's living. This is a fascinating song to study, but like so much of this album is less palatable to actually listen to, the lyrics really not going with that Johnny Cash boom-chikka-boom riff at all. The performance is also very sloppy, although the Crazy Horse-style sweet and sour backing harmonies are impressive in a sloppy kind of a way.

At fourteen minutes 'No Hidden Path' is the second epic on the album, but somehow it feels more like a summary of the album rather than an actual song in its own right and really doesn't deserve to last this long with its 'Song X' style sea shanty rhythm actually quite off-putting. Neil's out walking through the trees, he feels a spiritual light calling to him and is surrounded by a wind. However this time he isn't in his own mind but meeting a real person (Darryl?), enjoying the fact that with this mysterious other he can be his 'true' self, revealing everything good and bad about himself, 'no hidden path' as he talks about his failings and addictions as well as his desires to rise above them. This meeting is enough to inspire the best Neil guitar solo on the album, something which works well against Neil's own slashing rhythm part and the Rosas-Ralph bass drum plod. It runs for several minutes by which time Neil is emotionally spent, enjoying the free-flow flight above the basic backing underneath him to finally let loose on this troubled album and enjoy a bit of fun. On other album tracks that would be where the story 'ends', but here we get more extras after the guitar solo, a gospelly part as Neil pleads with his girl (and maybe his God) to 'show me the way' out of his current darkness. There's also a verse about how everything in life 'changes' when he's near her, how she's 're-arranged' the way he once used to see the world and that their union is marked by mystical signs including the 'Northern Lights'. By the end Neil is 'trying to hold onto the threads of time', willing his vision of the future to become reality in the present and wondering whether the Northern Lights will fade again this time the way they always do when he goes back home to his 'old life' or whether they'll stay put in the sky this time. We really didn't need to go through the houses all over again a second time (this song has a natural end point about five minutes in), but this is, after all, a song about obsession and Neil's reluctance to swap the vision he longs for over duty and responsibility back home so at least it makes thematic sense why this song should ramble on as much as it does. The first half of this song though is pretty thrilling, especially the instrumental passage that portrays in music what Neil is struggling so much to tell us with mere words.

The album then ends on five minutes of 'The Way', the most gospel-themes song in the Young canon. A children's choir chirp merrily alongside Neil on a song about being found after fearing you were lost forever. After an hour or so of looking for the light, Neil has found it and wants to share it with us, telling us that if we feel the same then we already have the answer buried deep within. Once again we get more lines comparing life to a 'series of highways' and paths that are rightly or wrongly travelled. In his life Neil has been everywhere, down more roads than most and u-turned more than the average human being, his critics telling him he's been everywhere useful and is 'washed up' and 'should run'. But 'they just don't know' because they can't see what he sees: this road's never been open to him before and it feels right and different, spiritual and peaceful in a way he's never felt before. So far so good and this song sports one of Neil's prettiest melodies that's bouncy and childlike, but in a very likeable kind of a way rather than a cutesy 'top forty' song. But who invited the choir? And if Neil had to use them why does he have to mumble alongside them in a way that really doesn't fit? 'Chrome Dreams Two' may well be Neil's subtlest album, even for a writer whose generally subtle (unless he's trying to scare Geffen or recording noisy synth songs as per 'Landing On water' anyway). But there's nothing subtle about this song, which so heavy-handedly makes the point about Neil having found redemption that it might just as well have come with the cast of 'Sister Act' in the background! This is a shame because, more than most, you feel this is the song that 'got away' on this album, a track that should sound beautiful and haunting rendered ordinary and unlistenable. Still for a second there Neil sounded as though he found the answers - and after so many albums and so many recordings that in itself is worth a celebration, just not this one!

Overall, then, 'Chrome Dreams' is a real oddball of an album. We're not meant, at least back in 2007, to know what was going on in Neil's mind when he wrote and released it. We're meant to be left scratching our heads as to this sudden lack of faith, this need to experience pastures new and be deliberately fooled by the opening twenty-five minutes which have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the record. That album title too is a red herring (it's only loosely connected to the first 'Chrome Dreams' in as much as it's about a new relationship flourishing, but even then 'Zuma Volume Two' would have made more sense of this, being the 'real' crossover point between Carrie and Pegi), as is the album cover (never has an album cover this ugly and metallic been used for an album that's at heart so spiritual and ethereal). If puzzles are your thing, though (and as a Neil Young fan they probably are) then this album might still fire up your engine and leave you with more to go on than most of Neil's recent other albums, a discussion of the 'self' that also borrows heavily from the 'past' in direct opposition to the recent 'Living With War' about the outside world at a particular recent point in time. To be brutal the melodies on 'Chrome Dreams Two' aren't as memorable as on that album, the performances are scrappy and messy and Neil sounds half asleep (he sounds better foaming at the mouth on that record) and Neil has lost the consistency with which he made his last two records. But there's an inner peace and a spiritual heartbeat on 'Chrome Dreams' that makes it pretty much unique in the Young canon ('Are You Passionate?' tried to go there too, but that album's performances were even worse!) and enough pieces of the jigsaw are there for us now to go back in time and connect the dots. You'll have your work cut out on this album and Neil doesn't make it easy for us to see how good this album really is, but there's a strong half album in there somewhere, a rare concept album about being lost, then found, saved not by Geffen court-cases, drunken wakes or robotics this time but by faith and spiritual healing. A deliberate 'fork in the road' next aside, this is Neil having finally worked out where he's going after a rocky fifteen-year period and as such 'Chrome Dreams Two' will, I think, be seen as a key cornerstone of the Young canon in years and decades (and 'Decade'-style compilations) to come, even if for now this is the Young album hardly anybody remembers and even fewer fans talk about. Which is, you sense, exactly how Neil wanted it at the time. A great album? No way. But a special one? yes, most of the time, with a sense of space, of healing and hope that makes it amongst Neil's most uplifting, soulful works, whatever the gritty grotty sound of some of the performances. 

'Neil Young' (1968)
'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)
‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)
'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)
'On The Beach' (1974)
'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)
'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)
'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)
'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)
'Old Ways' (1985)

'Life' (1987)

'Freedom' (1988)
'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)
'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)
'Broken Arrow' (1997)
'Are You Passionate?' (2002)
'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)
'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)
'Storytone' (2014)
'The Monsanto Years' (2015)
'Peace Trail' (2016)
The Best Unreleased Neil Young recordings

Other Young-related articles from this website you might be interested in reading: 

Cat Stevens: Compilations/Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012

Yusuf "The Life Of The Last Prophet"

(Mountain Of Light/Jamal Records, '1995')

Call To Prayer (Adhan)/Introduction/The Lone Orphan/The Trustworthy/The Black Stone/Polytheists and Idols/The Cave/Read!/The Opening/Allah The One/Rejection and Boycott/The Night Journey/The Lote Tree/Five Daily Prayers/Al-Madinah/The First Constitution/Migrants and Helpers/Charities and Fasting/People Of The Book/Permission To Fight/Battle Of Badr/Truce Of Hudaybiyyah/Call To Rulers/Common Terms/Makkah Opened/Iha Illa Allah/Idols Smashed/Religion Of Truth/Farewell Pilgrimige/This Day/The Death Of The Prophet/Muhammad Al Mustafa/Supplication/Tala'a Al Badra Alaynu

"Although he was relatively poor, Muhammad's truthfulness and generous nature made him loved and trusted by everyone who knew him"

You remember at school when there always seemed to be one teacher that was dying to make a record, leave the class behind and become a rockstar? Well, Cat Stevens must surely be the only rockstar who ever dreamed of giving up his rock audience to become a teacher. And yet he did - and became a very good one according to most of the pupils who passed through Islamia Primary School in London, pretty much the first religious investment Cat made with his music money back in 1977. 'Prayers Of The Last Prophet' is the closest glimpse most of us will ever get over what Yusuf is like as a teacher (though technically he never worked as one, he was heavily involved in his school), with the singer narrating his own tale about the history of the Muslim religion and the prophet Muhammad's life in particular. First published as a book earlier in the year, it made sense for Yusuf to record a spoken word version in tandem, to fulfil his quest of teaching the outer world about his religion as well as preaching to the converted. He even established a new record company, 'Mountain Of Light', to effectively self-publish this work away from the commercialised world  (it's available solely through Yusuf's website , although secondhand copies do turn up from time to time). Though only a small step in musical and sales terms, it's an important one as it marked the first time Yusuf tried to connect with the outer world outside the school, breaking a seventeen year silence. It's also the first time he officially used his 'new' Muslim name of Yusuf Islam on an official work (derived from the Muslim spelling of Joshua, a name he'd always loved, and 'peace'), though he had been using it since his late musical career (and was billed as such during his performance at the Unicef 'Year Of The Child' concert). At this point in his life, Yusuf was still convinced that singing songs was frivolous and making money from them wrong, banned directly in the Qu'ran. As time goes by, though, he softens his approach due mainly to his new Muslim friends who explained that his translation of the Qu'ran was too black and white: it's using music for the 'wrong' things like fame and fortune that were frowned on. Actually music is an honourable profession for Muslims and many of them were in fact wandering minstrels in centuries gone by. For now, though, Yusuf is content to spread news of his new beliefs through the written not the musical word.

Certainly Yusuf has a way with language as you'd expect from his lyrics and takes to biographical writing readily, telling quite complex tales in accessible compact form without losing the essence of the Qu'ran. That's especially true of the last chapter, when Yusuf recounts Muhammad's death in what Western eyes would view as depressing circumstances: alone with no money and few possessions. Having got his message 'across' though, he had nothing more to live for and died happy and at peace - it's the sections like these, that add emotions to the bare bones of the factual story, where this work shines the brightest. However, Yusuf is not a natural speaker and fluffs quite a few lines as he reads as well as sounding slightly surprised every few paragraphs (almost as if he's forgotten what he wrote in his own book), being rather upstaged by the un-credited narrator who also joins in occasionally. There is very little music and what little there is doesn't feature Yusuf, a brief chant above the sound effect of some wind (always a recurring theme) aside: there's a few traditional chants in between chapters and a sort-of theme that plays a few bars at the beginning and ten minutes' worth at the end of the work (which is pretty breathtaking when a capella, less so when the noisy tablas come in). Something of a key text in the modern Muslim community, especially amongst children, this is a well loved work - especially amongst fellow converts who discovered Islam rather than being born into it and need an extra guide halfway between a children's tome and a heavy set text. Though hardly a set text for Cat fans who are only interested in 'Morning Has Broken', those curious to know what Yusuf was learning in his 'missing' years will learn a lot from this work. 

Yusuf "Prayers Of The Last Prophet"

(Jamai Records, '1999')

Introduction/O Am Indeed Close/O Son Of Adam/Praise Be To Allah/Be Mindful Of Allah/Rabbi Ya Rahmnan/Chief Of Prayers/Bedtime Prayer/They Forsake Their Beds/Night Prayer/Call To Prayer/Light/The Morning Prayer/If You Ask Me/Let Not Our Hearts Deviate/Istikharah/Sovereignty/Leaving Home/Travel Prayers/Visiting The Sick/70 000 Angels/Entering The Mosque/Truly My Prayer/Water Ice and Snow/Prostration/Al Tashhahud/O Allah Help Me/Leaving The Mosque/Rivalry In Worldly Increase/Visiting The Graves/Entering The Home/Grant Us Wives And Offspring/Pray For Children/Prayer For Parents/In Sa'Altu/Prayers For Eating O My Servants/Prayers On The Prophet/Blessings On Muhammad/Salli 'Ala Muhammad

"If somebody recites it during the day and has firm belief in it but then dies before the evening then he will be of the people of paradise and if somebody recites it at night with complete faith in it and then dies before the morning then he will be of the people of paradise"

After the unexpected success in the Muslim community with the history of Muhammad, it seemed inevitable that Yusuf would come up with a sequel - but this time a work that features Qu'ran readings, prayers and nasheeds (a capella chants dedicated to Allah) rather than Yusuf's thoughts themselves. The general theme is based around the 99 Pillars of Islam (the different names given to Allah) and though this is a long album with lots of songs Yusuf doesn't quite get through all 99! As a result this second work is probably less interesting for fans. For a start Yusuf only reads/sings part of the work and if anything his 'narrator's voice' gets in the way, interrupting the singing and outward expressions of belief. He has, however, grown as a speaker and sounds much more confident here, the success of the 'Life of the Prophet' work having clearly done wonders for his confidence. Almost as well received in the Muslim community, this work is again most readily available through Yusuf's website  even though, oddly, it's the only Yusuf religious work not released through his 'Mountain Of Light' production company but a different one used for Islamic works.

"Remember - The Ultimate Collection"

(Universal, November 1999)

Moonshadow/Father and Son/Morning Has Broken/Wild World/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Lady D'arbanville/Oh Very Young/Matthew and Son/Sitting/Hard Headed Woman/I Love My Dog/Rubylove/Don't Be Shy/Can't Keep It In/Here Comes My Baby/Into White/(Do You Remember) The Days Of The Old Schoolyard/Where Do The Children Play?/The Land O'Free Love And Goodbye/Another Saturday Night/Foreigner/Just Another Night/Peace Train/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!

"When I'm dead and lowered in my grave, that's gonna be the only thing that's left of me"

Do you 'remember' the days of the old CD shops? This set used to pile up a lot! Well it had imaginings and all kinds of things and it made us laugh when we needed love, yes I do. And I remember the weird child model on the cover too: why, with all the Cat Stevens images out there to choose from, did they go with a boy sitting on a magic carpet surrounded by Arabian temples? (Is this Universal's response to people's idea that Cat Stevens had always been a Muslim, even though he was officially for a grand total of two of the 24 songs on this collection). Well, flawed as the packaging may be, this is still an excellent and arguably the best single-disc Cat Stevens CD you can buy, stuffed full with all the songs you'd expect to be there and an impressive collection of songs that you wouldn't. There are, for instance, a four songs from the early Decca years (with 'Here Comes My Baby' the unexpected newcomer to go along side 'Dog' 'Matthew' and 'First Cut') and no less than six songs taken from the post-Catch Bull era that always seems to get ignored (a three minute extract of the 'Foreigner' suite, the overlooked hit single 'Oh Very Young' and the beautiful 'Land O'Free Love and Goodbye' are all well up to the standard of the better known songs). All this plus both of the semi-rare songs from the 'Harold and Maude' soundtrack making their CD debut ('Don't Be Shy' and 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!') and the single-only 'Another Saturday Night' also made this set of interest to collectors not just newcoming fans. Even this set isn't perfect - the track selection is a jumble and the running order doesn't work as well as 'The Very Best Of' with the sudden switch back to the early Decca years particularly hard going, while the package designers let the side down badly in more ways than just the strange front sleeve. If you can look past though or only want one Cat Stevens CD in your collection then this is the one - a pretty dazzling and comprehensive look at the whole of Cat's pre-Yusuf career, not just the famous bits.
"The Very Best Of Cat Stevens"

(**, '2000')

Matthew and Son/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Lady D'arbanville/I've Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old/Wild World/Where Do The Children Play?/Hard Headed Woman/Father and Son/The Wind/Morning Has Broken/Moon Shadow/Peace Train/Sitting/Can't Keep It In/Foreigner Suite/Oh Very Young/Another Saturday Night/Majik of Majiks/(Remember The Days Of The) Old School Yard/Just Another Night (US Edition)

"I've got to show the world, the world's got to see, see all the love, the love that's in me - oh!"

A new best-of for a new millennia, strangely using the same name as an old compilation. This one, though, has a touch of the 'blackness of the night' about it, with a dark black cover featuring a characteristic shot of a pensive looking Stevens in prime 'curls' era and some fairly dark tracks amongst the track listing compared to normal too: the black humour of 'Matthew and Son' licensed from Decca, a five-minute edit of the epic 'Foreigner' Suite, the doom-laden 'Majik Of Majiks' and the sighing farewell from 1978 'Just Another Night'.  The big news at the time, though, was the appearance of outtake 'I've Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old', a year before it's appearance on the 'Road To Find Out' box set. It's a nice song - and very Cat Stevens with its reflections on time and taking care of yourself for your family's sake -but it can't compete with the deeper, more substantial material on this set and sounds rather out of place. This compilation even includes the songs in the right order for once, making it arguably the best single-disc compilation out there in terms of track selection, packaging and general usefulness, though 'Remember' might still edge it by courtesy of featuring so many more 'later' recordings. This is the original American edition reviewed above by the way - the European Edition released later the same year features the same tracks and adds 'Sad Lisa' 'If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!' 'Don't Be Shy' and 'How Can I Tell You?' and on that scale is even better, though sadly that edition has the running order in a complete jumble, like most of the other Cat compilations!

Yusuf "I Have No Canons That Roar"

(Jamai Records, May 2000)

Mother Father Sister Brother/When Adhans Are Called/The Blossoms Are Blown/Where Are Makkah and Madina?/Spring of Tasnim/Hey Homeland!/Allah Is Enough For Me/Last Flight/I Have No Canons That Roar/The Little Ones/I Am A Son OF Yours/Summary

 "They're making the graves deep, so the world cannot see, so that tonight we may sleep"

Not strictly speaking a Yusuf album, but he was the prime mover behind this various artists set and by far the best known performer so this set used his name in big print. The album features multiple artists from the Muslim community singing songs either of peace or ones made famous in the Bosnian war and was inspired by a young singer-song-writer and Muslim, Irfan Ljubijankic, who wrote to Yusuf shortly before flying out to the war on a 'mission of mercy' with a copy of the song and asked if he might consider releasing it on one of his albums. Yusuf wasn't planning to make any more records, but he was touched by the song's sincere message of peace and when Ljubijankic died, his helicopter shot down by a Serbian rocket, wanted to fulfil his wishes and make a recording. It's easily the highlight here, with Yusuf joined by the singer Dino Merlin on a spooky sweet song about having no faith in war leaders and politicians but having faith only in God. Yusuf plays second fiddle really, which is a shame, but this modern 'Peace Train' written by a real soldier is very poignant and a good fit for Cat's own past. Yusuf also sings on a traditional anti-war song 'The Little Ones' largely acapella, a tough song that in true Cat Stevens fashions looks at the horrors of war from the point of view of the children, imagining tiny coffins of innocent lives unfulfilled. Yusuf also provides the minute long message of hope for Bosnia at the end of the album. In truth the rest of the album is probably the weakest of Yusuf's 'Muslim community' releases, with some very repetitive songs, a tinny modern low budget production and some pretty dismal performances by the likes of Senad Podojak and Aziz Alili. Still, back in the days when the Western world was largely ignorant about the horrors of war in Bosnia and Serbia and paying tribute to either side was controversial, this album did a lot of good and sees Yusuf again proving that he doesn't sing about 'peace' in his songs lightly - he's right there in the frontline of wanting to put things as right as he can. Casual fans don't really need to own this album, then, but the title track is more than worthy of release and 'The Little Ones' is a powerful recording - both tracks deserved a place on the 'Footsteps In The Light' compilation.

Yusuf "A Is For Allah"

(Mountain Of Light, July 2000)

Introduction/A: Allah/Ayat Al-Kursi/Say He Is Allah/B: Bismallah/Bismallah/T: Taqua/Th: Thwab/J: Jannah/Surah Al: Kahf/H: Hajj/Kh: Khatam/D: Deen/Our Guide Is The Qu'ran/Dh: Dhikr/R: Ramadan/Z: Zakah/Surah At Tawba/S: Salam/Salam Salam/Sh: Shams/Surah Al-Anam/S: Salat/D: Duha/Surad Ad-Dhuna/T: Tareeq//Turn To Allah/Z: Zill/I: Ilm/Gh: Ghayb/F: Fatihah/Surah Al-Fatihah/Q: Qu'ran/Surah Al-Qadr/Qur'anu Rabbee/K: Kalimah/L: La Llaha Illa-Allah/M: Muhammad Rasul-Allah/Seal Of The Prophets/N: Nawm/Surah As-Sajda/H: Hijrah/W: Wu'du/Surah Al-Muddathhir/Y:Yawm Ad-Deen/Surah Al-Infitar/A Is For Allah/The Last Word

"A true believer will not waste his time in this world counting his wealth for himself or his children"

The young Cat Stevens always wanted a family and especially wanted to be a father. It crops up again and again in interviews even in his teens about future goals and what would make him happy and yet it took Cat until his thirties until making the plunge (which is late for a rock star with the pick of any girl he fancied - except perhaps Patti D'arbanville anyway). People think that Cat left music purely for religious reasons, but a little part of him wanted to devote his full attention to being a husband and father too after meeting his wife Fauzia Muburak Ali at a Muslim prayer group. The pair got married in September 1979, a little under a year after Cat left the music business and the couple had six children in quick succession (sadly the second died in infancy). Naturally the children were brought up Muslim like their mum and their dad and went to Islamist schools. However Yusuf noticed that the way they were taught was very different to his own upbringing as a Catholic student at a school on London's Drury Lane and their lessons lacked some of the things he remembered as a child, namely the songs. When Yusuf learnt that there were no Muslim equivalent of children's nursery rhymes or hymns (the way that, say, 'Morning Has Broken' is a staple of the Christian church) he vowed to write his own. 'A Is For Allah' was the first, a pretty song based around a religious theme for each letter of the Muslamic alphabet and went down so well at Yusuf's Islamia school that he ended up writing another 47 individual songs to go with it. Eventually anyway - his oldest daughter Hasannah (the one he started writing the title song for) was twenty by the time this album was finished! All 48 short songs are included in this double CD set, which came out at the same time as a book containing all of Yusuf's words.
The result, obviously, makes most sense if you're aged four and go to an Islamic school or pre-school. 'A Is For Allah' was never designed to appeal to Cat's old audience and has probably sat un-played on the shelves of most people's collections (like many a children's collection of every religion it tends to get monotonous after about track three - repetition is what works best with children trying to learn something though, there's no point the teacher moving on too quickly). If I come out and tell you that 'A Is For Allah' is a musical work on the level of, say, a 'Tea For The Tillerman' then you'll plainly think I've lost my marbles. However, on its own terms and viewed through the eyes of its audience, 'A Is For Allah' is a good album. It's made with love and care and though I don't know many Muslim children the ones I do know all seem to love it. So do most of the reviews out there, at least from the people with children as opposed to adults complaining about the amount of religion in the work. Yusuf doesn't perform alone and is again joined by Zain Bikkha and Raihan along with new singers Sheikh Muhammad Gibril and Hamza Yusuf, but there is no children's choir until very late through the album this time (track 37 in fact; despite this being a children's record - by and large children don't like hearing other children sing, though many adults do).

As the album's only writer Yusuf plays a much bigger role on this album than most of his Muslim-themes works. There is very little instrumentation here too: most of the songs feature vocal chants and a few are joined by percussion. The parts of the set that don't 'work' are, as usual, the religious texts or Yusuf's introductions to each letter: spoken word and music doesn't mix, however vital to the songs the Qur'an verses are (that's what 'bonus tracks' are for!) Musically there are a few highlights though, notably the title track, the brief 'Turn To Allah' (which sounds like a Muslim Michael Jackson), the traditional song 'Seal Of The Prophets' and 'Bismilliah' ('I Am A Muslim') which will become the title track of the next Yusuf record. If you're a casual Cat Stevens fan with no interest in his religious views then you will find this record full of lectures and childish verse very trying - but at the same time it's easy to see why for so many Muslim schoolchildren the man singing 'Wild World' and 'Moonshadow' on TV is merely the voice from their favourite childhood record.  One final note of trivia: listen out for the most used AAA sound effect as the chirping birds from the EMI vault (heard on everything from The Beatles' 'Across The Universe' to Pink Floyd's 'Cirrus Minor' and 'High Hopes' to The Kinks' 'End Of The Season') crops up for a fifth time after the speech on the track 'Nawm'.

Various Artists "Bismillah"

 (Mountain Of Light, September 2001)

Basmillah/Fortunate Is He/God Is The Light*/Syukur/Say He Is Allah/Allah Ta-ala/Sifat 20/Rabbi Ya Rahman/Which Of Allah's Favours Can We Deny?/The Wind*/A Is For Allah*/Thank You Allah/Turn To Allah/In Sa'altu*/Alhamduillah/Give Thanks To Allah/Asmaa Al-Husnu/Bismillah
* = Yusuf

"Where I'll end up only God really knows"

Released just ten days before 9/11, 'Bismilliah' is a case of interesting timing. A record with a title that translates literally as 'I am a Muslim' was always going to suffer a rough ride in the wider world given the change of events and the messages of peace and worship seemed at odds with the horrors being shown on the news every night for months. Yusuf of course couldn't have known what world this album was going to be released into - it was, after all, a limited edition humble release promoted not with blazing publicity or mega budgets but a short advert on Yusuf's own website and the odd plug in his Islamia school. In many ways it's the weakest in the pure religious records Yusuf released. Rather than telling a story or passing on prayer or having fun with children's songs Yusuf hands much of the album over to fellow Muslims singing Nasheeds (songs) in praise of Allah while joining in himself on a re-recording of 'God Is The Light' (first heard back in 1981), a re-recording of what he's long considered his first religious (though not yet Muslim) song 'The Wind' from 1971 (which is slower, a capella and more reflective here than on 'Teaser and The Firecat'), yet another version of children's song 'A Is For Allah' and new recording 'In Sa'altu' which sounds like a hummed out of tune of 'The First Cut Is The Deepest' with love for Allah replacing the message of heartbreak. The other fourteen recordings only feature Yusuf as 'executive producer' with fellow musicians Zain Bhikka, Raihan, Duwud Wharnsby-Ali and Ziad Sinnou singing the rest between them. As with so many of Yusuf's Muslim works, this will only make the most impact on fellow believers and will confuse those after pure 'songs'. However it's another crucial stepping stone towards Yusuf's true musical comeback and features him back recordings songs not stories at last. Despite the fact that we're on territory closer to the olden days, though, this feels like a slightly disappointing release when set beside 'Prayers Of The Lost Prophet' or 'I Look, I See' without the same levels of awe and inspiration as some of the companion work. It certainly wasn't enough to stem the anti-Muslim tirade post 9/11 and heal the world, but then it wasn't intended to: this is a believer's album, albeit with a special seat reserved at the table for non-believing guests who want to try a 'cup' for themselves. It's a shame more didn't choose to drink instead of trying to turn the table over and smashing it into the wall first (blaming all Muslims for 9/11 is rather like blaming all Christians for the damage in The Crusades after all).

"On The Road To Find Out" (Box Set)

Re-issued as "In Search Of The Centre Of The Universe"

(**, '2000'/   October 2001)

CD One: Back To The Good Old Times/I Love My Dog/Portobello Road/Here Comes My Baby/Matthew and Son/The Tramp/I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun/School Is Out/A Bad Night/The Laughing Apple/Kitty/The Blackness Of The Night/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Northern Wind/Moonstone/Come On Baby (Shift That Log)/Lovely City (When Do You Laugh?)/Here Comes My Wife/The View From The Top/Where Are You?/If Only Mother Could See Me Now/Honey Man/The Joke

CD Two: Time/Fill My Eyes/Lady D'arbanville/Trouble/Pop Star/Katmandu/Lilywhite/I've Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old/Where Do The Children Play?/Wild World/Sad Lisa/On The Road To Find Out/Father And Son/Love Lives In The Sky/Don't Be Shy/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!/The Day They Make Me Tsar/The Wind/Moonshadow/Morning Has Broken/How Can I Tell You?/Peace Train/I Want To Live In A Wigwam

CD Three: Crab Dance/Sitting/Silent Sunlight/Angelsea/Can't Keep It In/18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)/The Hurt/Foreigner/Oh Very Young/Music/Sun-C79/King Of Trees/Bad Penny/Lady D'arbanville (Live)/Another Saturday Night

CD Four: Whistlestar/Novim's Nightmare/Majik Of Majiks/Banapple Gas/Blue Monday/Doves/Hard Headed Woman (Live)/Tuesday's Dead (Live)/Ruins (Live)/(Remember The Days Of) The Old School Yard/Life/(I Never Wanted To Be) A Star/Child For A Day/Just Another Night/Daytime/Last Love Song/Never/Father and Son (Re-Recording)/God Is The Light

"I only wanted to run my own race so I could win a small lace in your heart"

We've speculated before now over AAA box sets, where four sets of CDs for artists like The Small Faces or Buffalo Springfield who only ever completed three albums is a bit much, while not nearly enough room to explore those like Paul Simon or Neil Young who've released so much. Cat Stevens' eleven half hour albums (up to this point at least) made him the ideal candidate for the box set treatment, with just the right amount of space given over to each of Cat's many albums and where Decca material brushes shoulders quite naturally with the Island releases. Though Cat wasn't that involved with this set, having moved on from his musical past a long time or go (or so he thought...) someone involved in the making of this set clearly knew and loved him: the original name 'On The Road To Find Out' is the perfect title for a Cat Stevens set and in many ways this box feels more like a road-map than a box set with each CD given its own name and 'stop-off point' in the journey: the Decca years are 'The City', the Mona-Teaser years are 'The Search', the Catch-Bull through to the rare 'Saturnight' live album is 'The Hurt' and finally 'Numbers' all the way through to 1981's rare single 'God Is The Light' is titled 'The Last' - wrongly as events six years in the future will show, but the compilers wouldn't have known that back then.

The biggest talking point is the large amount of rare and unreleased material across this set, of varied but generally strong quality. The set even begins with a rarity: the earliest surviving Cat Stevens recording from 1966 with the bluesy 'Back To The Good Old Days' - little would the seventeen-year-old have known it at the time, but this nostalgic look back to past times is the perfect start to a career-spanning box set, even if it sounds a little strange coming from one still so young. Other unreleased tracks include a sorry-for-itself 1968 demo 'If Only Mother Could See Me Now' that's at one with the other the-parties-over-and-I'm-all-alone-and-dying songs of that difficult year, the peculiar Elton John collaboration 'Honey Man', an R and B 1970 outtake 'The Joke' that's the only 'extrovert' song recorded in Cat's most introverted year, a sweet but similar demo for the Medley 'Time' and 'Fill My Eyes' from 'Mona Bone', a (very) early version of 'The Land O'Free Love and Goodbye' from 1970 that's fascinating for the lyrical changes Cat made along the way and the bluesy but over-produced 'Blue Monday' from 1975.  Most of these songs are curios that are nice to have rather than anything earth-shattering, but the exception is an unreleased 1971 demo 'The Day They Make Me Tsar', which is a unique song for Cat and finds him playing a 'character', presumably the Tsar's young son enjoying everything life has to offer with childish glee, while 'we' all know the cruel fate waiting for him in the Russian revolution that means he'll never be ruler and his childhood will be short. It's one of the last songs about Cat's memories of his pop star contrasted with his death-bed understanding about what life is really all about and a song that really deserved to see the light of day. In addition there's every rare B-side that had never appeared on album or on CD which collectors had been scrabbling to collect for years: lots of the Decca stuff (with psychedelic epic 'A bad Night' the highlight), the delightful 'I Want To Live In A Wigwam' and cute instrumentals 'Crab Dance' and 'Doves'. All that plus three songs from the rare 'Saturnight' live album only released i Japan in 1974, one track - 'Ruins' - cut from the recent 'Majikat' CD of the 1976 tour and the oh so Cat outtake 'I've Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old' from 1970, first released on a best-of the previous year and well up to standard even amongst Cat's greatest year. Not a bad haul of rarities for a set this size, one that's clearly been made with fans in mind rather than just cashing in.

Things could be better, as they often could with these sets. The booklet that comes with the set is disappointingly slim considering that Cat has quite a story to tell and that it has never yet been told in longer form than a magazine article of a chapter in a book on singer-songwriters (well, till this one anyway!) That's especially true of the budget re-issue of the set (frustratingly given the lesser title 'In Search For The Centre Of The Universe'). The pictures are nice though. The track listing too is sometimes curious: 'Buddha' 'Numbers' and 'Izitso?' particularly get short shrift and including the full eighteen minute 'Foreigner' suite is a brave move, that sadly also means there isn't room for more than two songs from that album - so no '100 I Dream' for instance. Few fans would rate 'Come On Baby (Shift That Log)' 'Banapple Gas' or 'Last Love Song' as Cat's greatest achievements either, although refreshingly many of the best little known songs really are here from 'The Tramp' right back in the early days through to 'Sad Lisa' 'Sun/C79' and 'Life'. There's also quite a few songs represented by live versions, from the rare 'Saturnight' and recent 'Majikat' live discs, as well as Cat's last public appearance in December 1979 singing 'Child For A Day', which can't compete with the studio originals which sadly aren't here (a particular shame in the case of 'A Bad Penny' and 'Hard Headed Woman', but at least the 'Ruoins' cut from the 'Majikat' CD is here). In other words, you're still going to have to look out all eleven studio albums and even both live records in order to hear everything great that the artist formerly known as Cat ever released - but that's no bad thing. If you're new to the Cat Stevens portion of the universe has enough of worth here to make you want to devote your life to exploring the rest of it. As box sets go, this is one of the better ones out there offering lots for committed fan and newbie alike. The only thing about it that didn't really come off was the timing: the anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11 hurt sales a year later and prevented this box set from staying on catalogue as long as it deserved (hence, perhaps, the low budget re-issue a few years later), while Cat's return to music as 'Yusuf' means that another disc's worth of music could have been added has the compilers waited just a few more years. Never mind, though, there's more than enough here to declare Cat/Yusuf's time as a citizen of the universe - and a gentleman to boot!
Yusuf "In Praise Of The Last Prophet"

(Mountain Of Light, '2002')

Qu'ran Al-Hazar 56/In'Nilta/Sunshine Dust and The Messenger Of Allah/Ya Rabbi Bil Mustufa/Praise To The Prophet/Tala Al-Badru Alayna/Extracts From The Qasidah Burdah/Rakan Selawat/Salli Allah Muhammad/Madinah Tun-Nabi/Blessed Mustafah/Sevdim Seni/Cahaya Selawat/May God Bless You

"Carrying wisdom to thirsty ears"

The last chapter of the 'Prophet' trilogy sounds much like the first two, the emphasis this time being on Muhammad's messages to mankind and each Muslim's relationship with him. Sadly, though, Yusuf doesn't often use the opportunity to pass on some personal perspective about what Allah means to him - instead this is the usual mixture of traditional Nasheeds (songs) linked by more narration. Oddly considering that it's mainly about love, this set has a much more sombre, adult tone than the other two records and the tracks feel much longer across a running time of an hour this time round. As usual, despite the credits Yusuf is executive producer and occasional singer rather than the lynchpin of the performance and those who bought this album just to hear his voice will be disappointed. Other performers get more to do, this time including old hand Zain Bhikha and Raihan alongside newcomers Aasiq Al Rasul and Dawud Wharnsby. Yusuf does, however, speak all of the linking passages again and by now is really growing into his role with his most confident and emotive readings yet (especially on the creation parable 'In'Nilta': 'As time goes by on its horizon you stand a moon amidst darkness, stars shining, a memory as fresh as fragrant flowers, qualities of a garden exhaling...') 'Sunshine Dust' is the clear album highlight and one of the few songs on these albums performed in English, with a bouncy gleeful tune similar to 'Moonshadow', though seven minute epic closer 'May God Bless You' has it's moments too (and is a much better attempt at the same idea than 'A Spoiritual Garden' on 'An Other Cup'). The album cover is perhaps the nicest of the trilogy, Yusuf choosing to use a picture of a flower because 'nothing more demonstrates the diversity of His majesty than using a flower, of which no two are alike'.

Yusuf, Friends and Children "I Look, I See"

(EMI, '2003')

I Look I See/Al Haliq/Allahu/Bismillah/Months/Sing Children/Our Guide/Your Mother/Ta'la Al Badru/'Alayna

"I Read I Read I Read...I Know! It helps my knowledge grow"

'What do the children learn?' seems to have replaced 'where do the children play?' in Yusuf's career these days, with another record made primarily for kids. 'I Look, I see' features nine Islamic children songs performed by Yusuf with fellow founders and teachers and the pupils of his Islamia school in London. We're still three years away from the 'comeback' in this era and you can tell that Yusuf is still in head-masterly mode because every song is followed by a short lecture, this time focussing on the Five Pillars Of Wisdom. A cross between a pop record and those interminable cassettes of Carol Vorderman making you practise your nine times table that ruined every school outing ever, this set manages to be both heart-warming and irritating in equal measure. You see, this is the first 'real' time we've heard Yusuf making music since 1978 and it's a major step - even if it's a major step based on nursery rhymes and simpler songs than any recorded in the Decca years. For the target audience who haven't got a clue who Yusuf is this is fun though - at least some of the time - which is far more important for this album than fans waiting for Yusuf to come out of retirement. Where this set works are the times when Yusuf stops trying to teach and simply enjoys the moment, revelling in the fact that he's in charge of a class of children who have (in his eyes at least) been given the best spiritual start possible in life. Cat's always been involved in children's charities but, brief cameos on 'Old Schoolyard' and 'Monad's Anthem' aside, we've never heard him work with children before. He knows these children so much better, after potentially years spent working with them and clearly has a rapport with them which is great to hear. Like many a lesson, though, the lecturey overtones get in the way of what might have been a fun day out. The catchy title track is arguably the strongest thing here and could well have found its way on the later 'proper' albums. The set was popular enough for a sequel to be released five years later, featuring a younger set of pupils.

Yusuf and Friends "A Night Of Remembrance"

(Mountain Of Light Productions, Recorded October 2003, Released '2004')

Sarah Rhalem's Introduction/I Look I See*/Praise To The Prophet/Selawat/Al FatihaGod Is The Light*/Children's Ideas For Peace/Introduction/Intentions/Madad/Nkosi Sikelel/Our World/Talal Al'Badru Alayna/Drug Free/Save Me/A Word Of Thanks*/Peace Train*/Tala Al Badru Alayna (Reprise)/Al Fatiha/Thankfulness/People Of Hope/(Untitled Track)*
* = Yusuf performance

"I see a world of beauty, I feel a world so real, and everything I do I dedicate to You!"

In 1983, five years after retiring from the music world, Yusuf used his money to finance a school for Muslim children. It was a big step, with Yusuf taking on a full-time job as teaching assistant/caretaker/headmaster/dogsbody at the school after years away from the spotlight and a controversial move at the time greeted with horror by Britain's right-wing press. This London school was the first faith educational establishment ever opened in Britain that wasn't related to the Christian church in some way and came after thirteen years of the Muslim community  campaigning for one. Yusuf, now a parent for the first time himself, was horrified at how few services there were in his community and vowed to do as much as he could to help, effectively taking over most of the funding before the Government (then under Thatcher) finally caved in and helped. A breakthrough came when the school board jointly allowed pupils of over faiths in to study too at a ratio of 1:10, to give the school a more diverse background (which is something more Christian schools should consider adopting). In 2003 the schools had survived media attacks and  post 9/11 ignorance and turned out several years' worth of pupils - given the dark times in the Muslim world around the millennium, a little celebration seemed in order, with a smattering of old pupils and teachers taking part and lots of friends from Yusuf's Muslim musician community.

The event took place in The Royal Albert Hall with performances by Yusuf alternating with readings from the Qu'ran and other Islam resources by pupils and teachers alike. The result is a little like a school assembly with a guest musician and can become a little tiresome across two full hours, especially for English listeners who don't understand the Arabic or Zulu languages much of this spoken word passages are spoken in. Like many a class activity, it won't make much sense to anyone outside the class themselves, though for them it must have been a spectacular souvenir of their childhood days. However even to the outsider (foreigner?) this is a set worth hearing, once at least, with its heart in the right place and Yusuf sounds rightly proud, far more pleased when his pupils take the spotlight than himself. The set includes the studio recordings of  'I Look I See' 'God Is The Light' and 'Peace Train '03' but does at least include a Yusuf reading frok the Qu'ran (un-credited at the very end of the second disc) and a heartfelt message of thanks from Yusuf near the end of the show that the singer says  'will perhaps light the hearts' of those who have taken part, something which seems more than likely given the enthusiastic response Yusuf receives here. It sounds more fun (and a good deal more organised) than my class concerts ever were anyway, though fans who just want Cat/Yusuf for his music probably aren't missing a lot if they pass this set by...


(A & M Records, November 2005)

Matthew and Son/Here Comes My Baby/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Lady D'arbanville/Trouble/Where Do The Children Play?/Hard Headed Woman/Wild World/Sad Lisa/Father and Son/Don't Be Shy/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!/The Wind/Moonshadow/Morning Has Broken/Bitterblue/Peace Train/Sitting/Silent Sunlight/Angelsea/Can't Keep It In/18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)/The Hurt/Foreigner/Oh Very Young/King Of Trees/Another Saturday Night/Drywood/(Do You Remember The) Days Of The Old School Yard?/(I Never Wanted To Be) A Star/Last Love Song/Indian Ocean

 "Nature found a way - it picked me up from the dark side"

Another excellent Cat Stevens compilation , this is one of the best in record label Universal's 'Gold' series of two-disc sets that offer a bit more detail from an artist's work than the usual single CD compilations. Thankfully everything is here in the right order and with 32 tracks to play with you get a far stronger sense of Cat as a person and songwriter than you can from just hearing the hits. The set is far from perfect - there's only three tracks from the Decca years for instance and only nine rather odd choices from the five record post-Catch Bull run of albums for instance. The packaging is pretty minimal too. However Yusuf was heavily involved in the making of this compilation and it shows, with not just the hits but some personal favourites in there too as he clearly knows what his audience want - in the middle years at least. The set also contains the first 'mainstream' Cat/Yusuf recording in twenty-four years with the appearance of 'Indian Ocean', a track released as a digital download to raise money for the Asian Tsunami sufferers of 2004 and unavailable elsewhere on album. 'Gold', then, isn't quite golden ('Silver' would be a more fitting if less commercial title) but it played a big role in Yusuf's return to the musical stage, his song's interest in the guitar, the public's continued interest in his music and the understanding post 9/11 that the world needed songs of peace more than ever all conspiring to a 'proper' return the following year and left Yusuf far more at peace with his past than ever before. This compilation should not be under-rated, then, though it can't really match the 'On The Road To Find Out' box set for scope and size, a set which cost only a smidgeon more. 

Yusuf "Footsteps In The Light"

(Jamal Records, December 2006)

The Wind/The White Moon/If You Ask Me/I Look I See/Tala'al Badru Alayna/Seal Of The Prophets/Wild World (Bana Bana)/Angel Of War/In'nita/Salli Ala Muhammed/God Is The Light/Peace Train/A Is For Allah/The Adhan (Call To Prayer)

 "He was a guide to all people and a mercy to the universe"

Curious fans who'd just bought 'An Other Cup' and wanted to know what Yusuf had been up to during his time away could buy this compilation to find out, a set that featured the best of all of the singer's Muslim recordings spanning 1981 to the present day. The clever title is Cat's own reflection on how pure he considers such music and is deliberately presented as a 'contrast' to his second 'pop' compilation 'Footsteps In The Dark', with a shot of a now-white and bearded Yusuf surrounded by light, as opposed to the moon at night. For fans who want to taste the waters of the 'missing years'  without necessarily leaping in and getting baptised themselves (if you don't mind the crossed religious metaphors) this is a more than fair summary, allowing you to hear Yusuf's passion and appreciate how Islam has shaped his thoughts and songs in the most mainstream way. If you're curious, there's plenty more to choose from - and if you're not then at least you get an idea of what all of these 'other' records in his catalogue, from children's songs to prayers, are like. Yusuf has re-recorded three of his old songs in a new Islamic style and all three appear on this album: there's a nice rendition of 'The Wind' to start the set off, a chanted 'zulu' version of 'Wild World' and a rather over-made 'Peace Train'. There's also the best  actual 'songs' (as opposed to religious texts) from this era: the dramatic 'Angel Of War' and the uplifting Lion King-style 'God Is The Light'. There's a nice booklet too where Yusuf is eager to talk about the songs on this set - in contrast to his relative silence on his more 'pop' work. What you don't get is the same sense of pattern and flow that you get from hearing these albums 'properly', with the tracks not segueing in as well as they do on the nine Islamic albums this set is drawn from. There's a few occasional absentees, which is a shame (a few more tracks from 'A Is For Allah', represented here only by the title track, would have been nice), while the track selection isn't perfect: 'I Look I See' is way too shallow and 'Sali Ala Muhammad' heartfelt but difficult to listen to. However, that's a problem for many a compilation, not just this one, and while it all sounds very different to Cat/Yusuf's more 'mainstream' work, there's enough depth here to satisfy the converted and explain a little bit more to the non-converted. If you've heard all the other 'mainstream' albums in this list and want to know more then start here with a set that leads to several possible doors you may or may not want to open.

Cat Stevens "20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection"

(A&M, May 2007)

The Wind/Wild World/Oh Very Young/Where Do The Children Play?/Hard Headed Woman/Moonshadow/Peace Train/Father and Son/Sitting/How Can I Tell You?/Morning Has Broken/The First Cut Is The Deepest

"It's hard to get by just upon a smile"

Seriously? A compilation with the word 'millennium' in the title years into the 21st century? What were A&M thinking?!? That aside this is quite a good compilation, gathering together not just the usual hits (in fact there aren't many at all, with only 'Morning Has Broken' charting in the top ten in the UK) but a few surprises as well such as the only Decca era song 'The First Cut Is The Deepest', the beautiful 'How Can I Tell You?' and the neglected late period single 'Oh Very Young'. There's also a nice and relatively rare picture of a half-smiling Cat on the cover. But beware: with so many songs to choose from selecting just twelve with a total playing time only a little past half an hour feels like a great big cheat in the CD age. There are better Catcomps out there, though admittedly there are worse ones too.
Yusuf, Friends and Children "I Look, I See 2"

(Mountain Of Light, '2008')

Ramadan Moon/Upsy Daisy/Shaytan/All Of The Prophets/Heart Of Muslim/Silent Sunlight

"The children want to play, they'll soon remember things to do when the heart is young and the night is done and the sky is blue"

Simple and direct, yet warm and inviting, 'I Look I See 2' improves on the original by providing more fun and less lectures. In terms of pure user-friendlyness this is a far better children's record, far more likely to send your Muslim children giggling to sleep than being thrown across the room. However there is a warning for the Cat Stevens collector that Yusuf himself has far less input to this album, spending more time being executive producer than performer so full-on Cat fans will prefer the first volume. There are lots of highlights though, even without the 'headmaster' on board, with the pop of 'Upsy Daisy' (about an excited boy who can't wait to meet up with all his friends at prayer the next morning) the silliest yet catchiest material on a Cat-related album since the Decca years. There's also a children-sung a capella version of 'Silent Sunlight' (from 1972's Catch Bull At Four') that's deeply impressive and rather moving, if no match for the original. It would have been nice for the song's creator to make an appearance on it, though.

The Deluxe CD Re-Issues

(Island, November 2008-May 2009)

'Tea For The Tillerman' : Where Do The Children Play?/Hard-Headed Woman/Wild World/Sad Lisa/Miles From Nowhere/But I Might Die Tonight!/Longer Boats/Into White/On The Road To Find Out/Father And Son/Tea For The Tillerman//Wild World (Demo)/Longer Boats (Live)/Into White (Live)/Miles From Nowhere (Demo)/Hard Headed Woman (Live)/ Where Do The Children Play? (Live)/Sad Lisa (Live)/On The Road To Find Out (Live)/Father and Son (Live)/Wild World (Live)/Tea For The Tillerman (BBC Session)

'Teaser And The Firecat' : The Wind/Rubylove/If I Laugh/Changes IV/How Can I Tell You?/Tuesday's Dead/Morning Has Broken/BitterBlue/Moonshadow/Peace Train//Moonshadow (Live)/Rubylove (Demo)/If I Laugh (Demo)/Changes IV (Demo)/How Can I Tell You? (Demo)/Morning Has Broken (Demo)/Bitterblue (Live)/Tuesday's Dead (Live)/Peace Train (Live)/The Wind (Demo)

 "While the record companies sin, the children still play and play, remembering those happy days"
By and large the Cat Stevens albums on CD are pretty much what you'd expect from an artist who liked keeping things short and to the point and simple, with no real sleevenotes and no bonus tracks, but always at a more affordable price than his competitors (depending which shops you use anyway!) However there are two exceptions to that rule, with curious and slightly pompous elongated 'deluxe' sets for Cat's two biggest selling albums. The problem isn't that these sets are bad or that they take away from the original albums - but they certainly don't add to them and the bigger packaging praising Cat seems like it runs against everything his career as always been about. There's nothing bad on either of these sets, but there's nothing really worth releasing either: near-enough identical demos (these are Cat's 'acoustic' albums after all), near-enough identical live performances - some of them performed years after the original (and which have already been released on 'Saturnight' or 'Majikat' and in some cases even Yusuf's Cafe Session' over forty years later) and one lone near-enough identical BBC session. The original idea seems to have been to build a complete 'alternate' album on the second disc, featuring different performances of every album track, but that reasonably good idea is ruined by the decision to the more 'famous' tracks first so that 'Wild World' opens the second disc of 'Tillerman' and 'Moonshadow' opens the second disc of 'Teaser'. These 'extra' songs could also have easily fitted onto the running time of a single disc (none of Cat's albums went far over the half hour mark), so re-issuing them at twice the price with effectively the same material in expensive packaging just feels wrong somehow: it's what a band like The Rolling Stones would do, not Cat Stevens. Even adding the period tracks from the box set would have been something! Still, the artist probably had little control a couple of the pieces - such as a pretty 'On The Road To Find Out' and a fragile 'Changes IV' do have their charms; if you own the original CD re-issues though, they're plenty good enough. Sadly the series seemed to end after two albums, which is a shame given that demo and BBC recordings from the 'Catch-Bull' through to 'Back To The Earth' eras would have been of far more use and worth. 

"Opus Collection - A Journey"

(Hear Music, August 2010)

I Wish I Wish/Changes IV/Father and Son/Trouble/The Wind/Miles From Nowhere/Angelsea/Oh Very Young/Katmandu/If I Laugh/Morning Has Broken/Thinking 'Bout You/But I Might Die Tonight!/Everytime I Dream/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!/Roadsinger

 "The voice a crystal echo lies humming in your soul"

Another cup to go alongside 'An Other Cup', this time made up of older brews and served not in a record shop like the safe days of old but in a Starbucks. It's hard to imagine the 'old' Cat ever contemplating such a move, but actually - pretentious title aside - 'Opus Collection: A Journey' is one of the best AAA compilations the coffee chain put together. Though seventeen songs still isn't many from a canon as rich as Cat's undoubtedly is, there's just enough room to throw in some well-chosen album tracks, mainly taken from the two albums released in 1970 'Mona Bone Jakon' and 'Tea For The Tillerman'. Admittedly more songs from the later years would have been nice (there's only one song from the albums post-'Catch Bull') and there's nothing from the Decca years here, so this isn't a perfect journey or even a particularly comprehensive one. The better songs are chosen from 'Roadsinger' though and there's a semi-rare recording from the 'Harold and Maude' soundtrack too. If nothing else the album makes for a more value for money purchase than the coffee! 


(**, December 2012)

Peace Train/Moonshadow/Oh Very Young/The Wind/Roadsinger/Everytime I Dream/Morning Has Broken/Father and Son/Miles From Nowhere/Trouble/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!/Wild World

 "Only a song, to warm you through the night"

Goodness if any artist would have hated the 'Icon' title of this series of CDs then it's the 1970s Cat Stevens, having learned the hard way that fame and flattery will get you not just nowhere but ill. However it's not just a hastily made title to make a compilation sound good - instead it's part of a larger series of 'Universal Icons', with the record label Universal buying up the rights to round about 50 acts (usually either signed to their own label or partners Sony) and subjecting them all to short 10-14 track compilations that are relatively cheap. For the newcomer it's an interesting series and a good way of trying out new acts, full of the famous and obscure, with Cat's 2012 edition for instance putting him in the middle of Michael Jackson and George Strait. There are some unusual, rarely heard flowers picked here too that suggest this set was picked with more care then the rest: 'Oh Very Young', 'Miles From Nowhere' and 'Trouble' from the old Cat and 'Roadsinger' and 'Everytime I Dream' from the 'new' Cat, classics all. However if you already have an interest in Cat then you can probably find a dozen compilations better and certainly more complete than this one and the packaging is pretty minimal too, with just a picture of a 1971 vintage Cat tinted blue. 

Other Cat Stevens/Yusuf reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Matthew and Son' (1967)

'New Masters' (1968)

'Mona Bone Jakon' (1970)

'Tea For The Tillerman' (1970)

'Back To Earth' (1978)
'An Other Cup' (2006)

'Roadsinger' (2009)

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