Monday, 30 May 2016
Yusuf/Cat Stevens "An Other Cup" (2006)
Yusuf "An Other Cup" (2006)
Midday (Avoid City After Dark)/Heaven-Where True Love Goes/Maybe There's A World/One Day At A Time/When Butterflies Leave/In The End/Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood/I Think I See The Light!/Whispers From A Spiritual Garden/The Beloved/Greenfields, Golden Sands/There Is Peace
"A spiritual dog in a top hat once received a vaguely-learned man who wrote far too much but still wanted to learn a deeper insight into the mysteries in life, such as what sandwiches the canine kept under his bonnet. The master dog served the learned man tea and offered him a slice of his bone 'n' Pedigree Chum sarnies but he kept being interrupted by questions and jokes about The Spice Girls. So the dog poured out the tea into his already overflowing hat and remarked 'like this receptacle you are so full of your own opinions and speculations,how can I show you anything unless you first empty it?' And the learned man said, 'Gee, I'm only a humble reviewer trying to make sense of a confusing album - give me some help here about what you were thinking when you wrote it and what it's all meant to mean instead of hiding behind zen philosophy passages and quotes from the Qu'ran'. 'Well' said Teaser Firedog 'If you thought that quote on the first page of the record is pretentious that's nothing on the album!' And sadly the sandwiches of goodness were left uneaten and the tea went so cold even the Tillerman wouldn't touch it" (A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom and Top-Hats, page 488)
"I must admit I'm not there yet, but something's keeping me going" or 'The Ten Bulls Part Nine: The Cat Ascended'
There was a time, even up to a few years before this record came out, when it looked as if the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens would never pick up a guitar again. Yusuf had sat out the first years of the 1980s quietly, as a scholar schoolteacher father husband and charity organiser, embracing the intricacies and details of his new life as a Muslim, far too busy to keep in touch with 'our' world. He then sat out the next fifteen years less quietly after getting embroiled in the Salman Rushdie scandal that became a source of much bitterness and confusion (when asked what he thought about Rushdie blaspheming Allah in 'The Satanic Verses', Yusuf commented that the Qu'ran would say that he should be executed, which is a scholar making a point not a former peace-lover turned murderer offering to wield the axe himself, as so many tabloids took it to be, too annoyed to keep in touch with 'our' world. The music business had all but forgotten Cat by the millennium, despite some bland-but-cheap CD re-issues of all his albums (even the hard-to-find later ones), several best-ofs (whose royalties kept Yusuf's Islamia Primary School going for a few more years, before the British Government were finally shamed into paying funds for part of it too) and the occasional new religious work to keep the dedicated fan going. By and large, though, there was a feeling around the year 2000 that most fans assumed Yusuf was either a recluse, or dead, or both, with no one really interested in him anymore. Though some AAA members would have been mortified or deeply resented this state of affairs, you sense that suited Yusuf pretty fine too: he'd merely turned his back on an old path that wasn't quite 'real' or fulfilling enough, the way he had back in 1970 when he fell poorly with TB and ended his 'pop career', no big deal.
Then things changed. Yusuf's children, especially son Muhammad, were now old enough to be interested in what their father used to do for a living and to take an interest in the guitar that had literally been hanging on the back of his bedroom door, untouched, since 1980 (and Yusuf's last public appearance at a Unicef charity concert). Yusuf naturally wanted to teach his children himself and used a few of his old songs as 'practice' and must have looked on proudly as his son - now roughly the same age Cat was when he wrote 'I Love My Dog' - instinctively understood how to play (meaning that music was a God-given genetic gift). Yusuf had also done enough reading around his new career to know that his knee-jerk re-action back in 1980 that you couldn't be a Muslim and a musician was wrong; you couldn't really be a Muslim and a pop star, but Yusuf hadn't been a 'pop' anything since 1968 and he knew enough musicians within the Muslim profession to know that it was a noble profession when done for the right reasons: to bring love, comfort, faith, peace or hope to an audience. What's more, Yusuf realised that love and peace was exactly what the world needed in a post-9/11 world, when suddenly his peaceful community he'd been such a part of for twenty years were being labelled as murderers and fundamentalists because of the acts of a tiny few. The world needed a 'Cat Stevens' in 2001 in a way it never had even a year earlier: a respected member of the Muslim community who still had a tiny influence left over from the 'old days' and who showed that religions could stand for peace as well as war. Suddenly going back to music wasn't a self-indulgence or betrayal of Yusuf's Muslim roots anymore, but the single best thing he could do for the world - bringing peace and succour to his fellow believers and hope and love to his old fans. In terms of the old 'Catch-Bull At Four' Buddhist scenarios, Yusuf had caught, tamed and transcended the 'bull' (his old lifestyle) and was at the final stage ten: 'Returning To Source', 'using no magic to extend my life...I mingle again with the people of the world'.
So far, so good, with Yusuf returning for all the right reasons - but there was a suspicion hovering over this album within the musical world and fans alike that no amount of interviews, concerts or good-will gestures could quite shake off, that this wasn't really a return at all but a whole new, less interesting musical style. You see, 'An Other Cup' isn't really a second helping of 'Tea For The Tillerman' at all, despite what the sticker on the front of the CD says, full of comfort and hope and wisdom. It is instead a 'stepping stone' between what Cat was like before and the Muslim-themed albums he'd been making in the past twenty years. To some extent that was inevitable and fans were prepared for that: after spending so long searching for comfort in religion it would have been odd if Yusuf didn't then tell us about the biggest thing in his life. But every single track, even the cover songs (Yusuf's own and other people's) were all now seen through the prism of religion, with no rest or respite between recordings to think about other things. Though you could argue all post-TB Cat Stevens are religious albums (even if they're more about searching than finding) they've never sounded like this before either: most songs sound more like lectures, the sound of a believer struggling to understand and think on the level of a non-believer with the same 'you're with us or against us' philosophy that harms similar religiously themed albums (George Harrison had a few too...) Then, for good measure, Yusuf tells us that it's 'him' whose misunderstood, not us (on, erm, 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', an old R and B song revisited as OTT personal crusade). The brilliance of Cat's old work used to be its subtlety, where every song meant to the listener whatever they wanted it to while always being 'real' and heartfelt enough to have clearly meant something to its writer; whether it was about God, girlfriends or gnus was all down to whatever was in your heart. Suddenly even the songs that used to be ambiguous and shone from every angle (such as the glorious 'I Think I See The Light!' from 'Mona Bone Jakon' in 1970, re-recorded here to lesser effect) have become a blunt instrument, bludgeoning a point about 'Muslims being misunderstood' over and over, to no great result.
Which is a shame. Goodness knows the world could have used a Muslim-made record full of confession, worry and olive-branching album in 2006 to 'prove' to the few who needed it proving that Muslims were as concerned with peace and kindness as any other religion (probably more than most religions, actually, with 'Islam' literally translating as 'Peace'). Yusuf was in the perfect position to make this album to: he still had his voice (when he used it properly) refreshingly age-free and almost all of his old buddies from his old albums loved him enough to give him a helping hand making this record. At times, when this record drops it's whole 'the world needs to be saved by me' persona and starts getting humble,this is exactly the album 2006 needed too: 'Maybe There's A World' imagines a peaceful utopia that every faith can enjoy and 'One Day At A Time' has Yusuf standing in line like the rest of the album, trying to believe his own philosophy and let the past with all its fears and guilt and missed opportunities behind. When Yusuf is back to being one of 'us', back 'on the road to find out' rather than peering back down the road back at us with faraway eyes, this album shines: every word rings true, the twin acoustic guitars of Yusuf and old mate Alun Davies are as fine as ever and Yusuf's older, aged voice is 'real' and heartfelt, not trying to be an odd mixture of contemporary pop star and wise old prophet. Unfortunately this good work gets thrown away and lost alongside weird spoken word passages, Qu'ran readings, slowed down R and B cover songs with syrupy strings and curious attempts to do modern pop in a way even the Cat of 1967 would have blanched at (in other words, it sounds exactly like people who've never actually heard a Cat Stevens record think they all sound like - but actually, no, even after Cat's 1977 conversion nothing pre-1981 is ever so full-on religious or as embarrassingly twee). 'An Other Cup' is a curious brew then: part of it is too weak and flimsy, other parts come on too strong, while Cat's remembered just enough of his old sound to offer a flavour, even though his enthusiasm for that sound appears to have gone cold. It's a curiously unsatisfying cup after so long away and with so much 'news' you'd have thought Yusuf had to tell us, with a rather indigestible mixture of ingredients that don't really fit.
Which is a shame because 'An Other Cup' does manage to get at least one thing right: several songs on the album cleverly update points previously made on past Cat Stevens records. Sometimes, as with 'I Think I See The Light', it's obvious: revisiting an old song about the crossroads in life without the uncertainty or ambiguity or re-cycling the central motif from the 'Heaven must have programmed you/how I want to be loved' section from 'Foreigner' through the eyes of a man celebrating twenty-five years of marriage. Sometimes it's more subtle: the album begins with 'Midday (Avoid City After Dark)', which is clearly a sequel to 'Where Do The Children Play?', worried about their safety when the sun goes down; 'In The End' reprises the main theme from 'Oh Very Young' - that you can't go on patching up loved old things up forever and someday you'll have to die because 'there's no bargaining with the truth'; finally 'There Is Peace' also reprises 'Peace Train' from the point of view of someone whose been on it for a while and 'seen the signs' rather than someone getting on board. Most sweetly of all, 'Where True Love Goes' recalls the moment when Yusuf mentally converted to being a Muslim, swept away against the tide on holiday and calling out to do 'God's work', urging us to do the same if the time comes: 'And if a storm should come and if you face a wave, this may be the chance for you to be saved'. On that level 'An Other Cup' has just enough flavour of the 'old' Cat to win over old friends, building on past messages with new nuggets of hope and pointing out the things that Cat got 'right' even before his religious conversion. It's the way it's done that's unfortunate, with Yusuf either trying to sound fifty years younger (and failing) or fifty years older (and being all too convincing!), surrounding songs that sound like his old self with the sort of messages his younger, humbler, seeking self would never have delivered. Which raises an interesting point actually: many reviewers seem to have got the wrong end of the stick and 'assumed' that Yusuf was a different performer to Cat Stevens, but that was never the intention: the name change is an 'extension' of real-name 'Steven Georgiou' just as Cat was as well. Interestingly label Ya Records were quite happy to list the performer as 'Yusuf' - it was the singer himself who asked them to stick a label mentioning his past as 'Cat Stevens' (saying 'The cup is there to be filled with whatever you want it filled with: For those people looking for Cat Stevens you'll probably find him, while if you want to go a bit deeper and find 'Yusuf' you'll find him too'.
Certainly there are homages to the old Cat sound at several points across this record. Most of the time the album has an acoustic feel - unique amongst the three Yusuf 'comeback' albums so far - similar to the 'classic' era. Alun Davies' playing is heard more here than on any album since 'Catch Bull', while old keyboardist Jean Roussel plays with the same distinctive style as the 1970s, even if he now plays on more 'traditional' instruments than the beeping synths of long ago. Of the old team only drummer Gerry Conway (busy with Jethro Tull) and bassist Bruce Lynch are missing, though on the positive side fellow AAA Muslim convert, pentangle's Danny Thompson, is the best person possible to fill in the latter's role, giving this album a slightly jazzy, lively feel. Youssou N'Dour guest stars too, according to the credits, though he's all but inaudible. There are many times, especially on the 'Sad Lisa' style soothing piano chords of 'One Day At A Time' and 'The Wind' style acoustic searching of 'Maybe There's A World' where if you squinted your ears just a bit you could easily believe this was vintage Cat Stevens. It's the parts where this album tried to go all modern and contemporary that things start to go wrong: the near hip-hop-with-horns style 'Midday (City After Dark)' and 'Where True Love Goes' (which are both to 2006 what 'Teaser' was to 1971, with the sad reality that 2006 was a far worse year to pickle preserved in time than its predecessor), the new agey 'When Butterflies Leave' (a spoken word passage that even The Moody Blues would have vetoed for being 'too embarrassing') and the bonkers oriental-sounding instrumental 'Whispers From A Spiritual Garden' (so like past instrumentals 'The Artist and Nascimento' it may well be the most 'Cat' thing here!)
Interestingly many of the best songs ('Where True Love Goes' 'Maybe There's A World' and 'There Is Peace') were written not for this album but for the short-lived musical 'Moonshadow'. Though better than 'Mama Mia' and 'Viva Forever - The Spice Girls' (what isn't?!) it wasn't exactly Yusuf's crowning glory either: a similarly plot-free ramble through lots of old songs shoe-horned in randomly, joined by a small handful of new pieces. In many ways you can tell: Yusuf strains to sing these tracks, clearly written for different singers in different keys, but on the plus side they have more to do with 'life' than they do with 'God' (as per most of this album). In a mirror of Cat's life in 1968, lead character 'Stormy' is sucked into bad ways by an evil tempting witch and it takes a long time before the love of his life 'Lisa' (as in Sad Lisa...) tries to show him that there's more to the world than he thinks. A tale of redemption and hidden layers, it's very Cat but was far too complex for the stage (it closed soon after its Australian premiere and was never performed anywhere else in full) and features a questionably large selection of songs simply there because there were 'hits'. Far better would have been for Yusuf to have concentrated on writing a whole new score for the work as his characters are just 'Cat' like enough for him to pretend to be his old self again, without the need for all the religious hectoring. Though one further song, the slight 'Shamsia', will re-appear on 'Roadsinger', to date Yusuf has never returned to this project.
Talking of the past, despite the 'Teas For The Tillerman' connections made on the CD sleeve, there's an interesting comparison to be made between 'An Other Cup' and a quite different Cat Stevens album, released a whole 28 years earlier. 'Back To Earth' found Cat fulfilling a record contract he was legally obliged to see through, even though his heart wasn't really in it. Unsure what to do, he veered between the sort of clumsy, everyman pop that every artist was making back in 1978 (well, except for the punks...) and sudden moments of inspiration that explored his new insight into life and his worry about doing the right thing. 'An Other Cup' sounds completely different in style and texture: there are no late 1970s synthesisers for a start, while Yusuf largely plays older, not younger and the curios aren't maddening noisy instrumentals but maddening noisy spoken word-with-strings passages. That album filled in the silences with noise - this one might have been better if there were a few more of those silences filled in. But the feeling of not quite believing in what he's doing remains: Yusuf sounds awkward, like he's got a really important appointment over at the school (knowing him, he probably did) and he shouldn't really be wasting his time doing this. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn that this record was done piecemeal, Yusuf backing off and recording it in stages before deciding whether he wanted to release it or not (though if that's true there was never mention of this in interviews). By the end this record just doesn't hang together, being a tapestry of different ideas rather than the marvellously sequenced and consistent albums of old - 'An Other Cup' needed a rinse and a washing up remix before being sent on its merry way.
Thankfully, 'An Other Cup' proved in time to be just that first weak cup of tea poured from the pot too early rather than a whole new method of brewing and in time Yusuf will bounce back as strong as he ever was (post 1970 at least) with this album's sequel 'Roadsinger', which largely learns from this album's mistakes. There, Yusuf sounds mortal again, filled with doubts and fears and painful memories and willing to share them with us to help us, rather than tell us off for not sharing his same path. Here he sounds like any of us would returning to the jobs we used to do thirty years ago, a little rusty and not a little certain it's all beneath him. Given the amount of time away and the hype leading up to this release it had to be perfect to maintain our interest; sadly it wasn't even consistent enough to be half-good and stalled in the charts (well, in most places - in Germany it sold better than most of Cat's 1970s albums had for some reason). Still, even if this record only lights up the room some of the time, at least I think I see that light of old at times across this confusing record. 'An Other Cup' had a lot of ground to cover, a lot of time to make up for and an awful lot of souls to save: on that level it's a failure, without the authenticity care or creativity of even the worst Cat Stevens album ('Back To Earth'?), too flimsy to bring world peace and support to a suffering world. Heard as a record from an old friend we haven't heard from in a very long time and didn't expect much from, 'An Other Cup' seems rather better with two songs ('Maybe There's A World' and 'One Day At A Time') more than up to standard, a misguided return to what is admittedly a great song ('I Think I See The Light!') and a few nuggets of gold jostling amongst the melodies and lyrics that suggest Cat's old imagination is dormant, not dead. If this was a new singer getting a new career, he wouldn't have a hope of getting this record released, but then that's not the point: this is an old friend we've wanted round for dinner for a long time and as a result we end up loving it, warts and all. Just don't expect 'An Other Cup' to quench your thirst for a 'real' Cat Stevens return, which will be arriving very shortly in a very battered old van...
The title of 'An Other Cup' draws heavily on 'Tea For The Tillerman' even if the music rarely does - an exception is 'Midday (Avoid City After Dark)' which sounds as if it started in a similar way to that album's opener 'Where Do The Children Play?', with Yusuf out walking and casting a disparaging eye on the world around him. Yusuf is pleased to see children still out playing even after all these years, but worries about what happens to them after the sun goes down and the streets are no longer safe to be in (perhaps the biggest change in the ways the generations experienced childhood between 2006 versus 1970, even though technically speaking the rate of crimes committed against children has gone ever so slightly down not up; it's just that the 'danger' is more advertised by media these days). As with so much of the album to come, Yusuf can't resist adding a religious epithet for us to chew on, even though it feels very shoe-horned into the final verse ('I thank God for all I've got, mind body and heart') with nothing to do with the rest of the song, which sadly simply peters out without the same sense of grievance or frustration as 'Children Play'. This isn't some profound thought about the need for imagination or to remember the young when progress favours the old, but simply a song about a man who no longer feels safe at night without really giving any reasons why. The music too is similarly disappointing: the opening sudden rush of 'Sad Lisa' style piano chords, with Yusuf picking out his musical steps carefully, is terrific and very in keeping with past Cat Stevens melody lines without recycling any specific ones. Unfortunately the rest of the tune feels unfinished: the chorus line 'Avoid city after dark' has way too many syllables for the melody Yusuf has decided to use here and the song simply runs out of energy, with no real chorus or middle eight to shake the song up a bit. The only variation is a brassy horn part that sounds as if it belongs in another song entirely and is itself rather unfinished - is this a fanfare representing the coming of the blackness of the night or a triumphant blare that sunlight will return? In all honesty it doesn't sound like either, more as if a brass band has just passed Yusuf round the corner. An odd little album opener, so like the 'old' Cat in so many ways but clumsily falling into traps the younger singer would have been quick to pounce on.
Yusuf has always had a fondness for the epic 'Foreigner' suite (from 1973) that isn't shared by many of his fans it has to be said - a real outpouring of emotion, love and hate intermingled, it's certainly one of his more 'real' works, even if it rather outstays it's welcome. Yusuf revisits the song's biggest hook for 'Heaven/Where True Love Goes', turning what his younger self treated like a life-or-death romance that meant everything into a slow casual jog. To some extent this re-working is a good idea: with all the talk about religion it's easy to forget the other major change in Yusuf's life since the 1970s, of finally marrying and settling down - with love something the singer had been searching for as hard as religion. Yusuf now knows that true love doesn't lie in big gestures, emotional desperation or powerful feelings but in quiet companionship and unconditional support. Yusuf's re-working of his old 'Heaven' verse, in the one passage of this album where he suddenly sounds all of his fifty-eight years, is one of 'An Other Cup's best re-brewings, taking the exact same words but giving them a very different context, with Yusuf no longer a wannabe romeo wishing for heaven but along-term partner who believes in heaven because he's seen it with his own eyes. It's a man whose lived in 'Sunnyside Road' - he doesn't need to imagine what it's like to visit anymore. The trouble with this song is what comes after: the most contemporary production on the album really doesn't suit what used to be Cat's most contemporary mid-1970s song, offering a jarring commercial intrusion on what's meant to be a heartfelt romantic song. The addition of a second chorus (which simply runs 'I go where true love goes' over and over) simply shows up how inspired Yusuf's younger self was compared to his older one, how Cat always went the extra mile to surprise while Yusuf is happy just to repeat himself. Things improve for a verse that sheds light on the singer's conversion to Islam, the 'storm' that made him worry if he would ever be 'saved' ambiguous enough for fans to get the reference and non-fans to interpret their own way. Unfortunately it leads to another shoe-horned verse about how all of us will know love and 'heaven' after loss and suffering and that this 'may be a time for you to know His name'. The 'Foreigner' original touched on religion too, leaving it up to the listener whether Cat was in love with a girl or a God, but here the religious aspect is underlined, highlighted and printed in musical capital letters, just to make sure we get the point. The result is a song that's the one on the album that arguably got away: it's close to being really good, but the things it gets wrong irritate so much (we ran out of space to mention one of the worst string arrangements out there, one which I'm sure is so bored it even yawns mid-way through, or the 'poppy' chorus that adds a hopelessly 'modern' veneer where it really shouldn't be, like sticking a steel-plated finish on an antique table) that all that good works gets somehow lost. Heaven may have inspired the song, but hell must have 'programmed' it, or at least arranged it.
Thankfully 'Maybe There's A World' is gorgeous, without any needs for caveats or 'but!...'s. Even after all these years and everything he's seen, Yusuf is still on the 'road to find out' and dreams of a perfect utopian world that has to be out there somewhere, surely. Sadly it turns out that Yusuf wrote this song for a younger character to sing, as part of the 'Moonshadow' musical where 'Stormy' is fed up of his corrupt world and hopes for another out there. It would have been better still if this was the 'real' Yusuf admitting that his younger dreams of perfection were naive, while admitting he still believed in them even so. This song's wholly acoustic vibe really sounds like the 'old' Cat, while the inclusion of so many Muslim instruments give the song a 'Yusuf' flavour without hitting us over the head with the references to God (in fact, this is the only song on the album without any mention of Allah somewhere). It's also the only song from the album you can imagine appearing, no questions asked, on some earlier Cat record - it shares a similar golden melody (so obvious you wonder why no one ever thought of it before), philosophical yet uplifting lyrics and a sense of epic scale even though in terms of instruments this is a bare-bones acoustic song. There's even a fitting middle eight, something Cat was always so good at, fighting against the song's languid feel with a sudden yell of urgency and desperation ('I've been waiting for this moment to arise!') However only the modern Yusuf, aware of the more cynical world post 9/11, would have written a verse like this song's second one, dreaming of a world 'borderless and wide' where everyone is free to travel; Yusuf himself had been 'deported' from America in a shameful display of American over-reaction and mis-communication (the FBI clearly hadn't logged the words to 'Peace Train' in their file on Yusuf as an 'influential Muslim!') Yes the line where 'all the wrongs of the world will be put right - how nice!' is a little twee, but by and large this song has its heart in the right place and the execution of the ideas is spot-on too. Considering the many long years Yusuf spent with no interest in music, writing a song this good so soon and so like the 'old' sound while embracing the 'new' is highly impressive, whatever our comments on the rest of the album.
'One Day At A Time' runs 'World' a pretty close second for album highlight. This song is the only one on the album that's purely acoustic all the way through and sounds like one of those great Cat ballads circa 1970 - another 'How Can I Tell You?' or 'Don't Be Shy'. Yusuf's narrator has experienced true horror and chaos, but he's also resolute and hopeful that someone or something (a God or a 'peace train') will come and usher in a brave new world. All Yusuf needs to do is live, one day at a time, until the better day comes. The second verse moves scope from the personal to the universal, like a film director pulling out of shot, Yusuf clearly singing about the Muslim community as he sings about 'the gates to the Garden open wide' for '70,000'. This verse works compared to so many similar ones on this album, though, because it's about empathy and hope for a group of people, not damning those who aren't in the group or looking down on us. Yusuf's later verse about a newborn child - maybe like himself - being born into the world 'eyes blind' before seeing the 'right' way to his life kind of works too, because Yusuf isn't as explicit as normal what that 'right' path is. I'm not quite sure about the final verse ('One day we'll learn why birds survive' is one of the more oblique Cat Stevens related lyrics out there), but even that has a neat rejoinder to 'Children Play' with Yusuf's hope that 'one day we can put machines aside' and embrace spirituality instead. Though musically this song is slim, without much going on at all, Yusuf's darker deeper vocal and a wonderfully slow climax across the song mean this clever little song makes good use of what little it has got going on too. Another most excellent little song.
Unfortunately the forty second link 'When Butterflies Leave' is way more embarrassing than anything Cat did in his first career - even head-scratchers like 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun', 'Banapple Gas' and 'Was Dog A Doughnut?' (what?) The theme is that man understands his true mission on Earth when he dies and ascends to heaven (which is a shame, because a few clues would really help us all a lot!...) and goes from being a slug to a caterpillar depending on whether he's prepared enough for the journey ('Those who worked for tomorrow will not miss the dreams of yesterday'). Sadly it's all done in the worst possible way, like some awful spoof of what the 1960s was really like with choirs, synthesised harps and Yusuf's over-earnest spoken word (still with an East End of London accent, note, which sounds as 'wrong' reading these words as The Moody Blues' Brummie accents did on their albums) and the whole thing ends up being more Rutles than Beatles (but without the humour). At least it's short, but this reprise of the epic style of 'Numbers' feels wasted on a track so insubstantial you wonder if it took even forty seconds to write.
'In The End' features one of the more thought out lyrics of the album, with Yusuf reflecting on the next world and how however much people ignore or deny the Qu'ran teachings in 'this' world we'll all find out how true Yusuf was in the next one. It's a little like George Harrison's 'The Lord Loves The One That Loves The Lord', switching the writer's usual feeling of 'us versus them' with 'me versus you', which I for one find uncomfortable (we've been invited to follow Cat down so many roads to find out by now, why does he assume we won't follow?) As if to make up for the controversy of the words, the music is bland and unforgettable, lacking Yusuf's usual distinctive touches. However this song is not a complete loss and some of the lyrics match past home-spun philosophical nuggets from years past: 'You can't bargain with the truth!' Yusuf snaps, telling us that each of us will become equal once we walk through the same 'door' to the afterlife: our race, class and age won't matter, we'll get judged on everything we've done and we'll have to hope that it was 'right'. You wonder whether Yusuf will get 'judged' on making statements like the one in this song though, which somehow gives off the impression that somehow Yusuf is 'above' us. Not a patch on the similar song of death as the great equaliser 'Oh Very Young' from 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box' and the lack of such patches make this return harder still.
The candidate for the album's weirdest recording is the slowed-down highly-strung-with-strings cover of R and B favourite 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', which confused the heck out of many fans and reviewers when this album first came out and probably hasn't done a lot for those who've come after as well. Cat used to sing this song briefly as a teenager back in the 1960s when everyone did it (including fellow AAA members The Moody Blues, though The Animals always did it best). Though Yusuf doesn't change a word, the inflection has clearly changed: this isn't a song about two lovers going their separate ways but about a man whose been misquoted and misunderstood his whole life through. It's clearly the singer's defensive response to the media's treatment of him since the 1980s and the 'Salman Rushdie' fatwah, with lines like 'Don't you know I'm only human' and 'I find myself alone regretting some foolish little thing that I have done' taking on a whole new meaning. On paper that's fine: the song's versatile to take it and at least Yusuf isn't simply delivering a cover song 'straight' the way he will on 2014's 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone'. Unfortunately on record it means that an already slow song is made even slower (with Yusuf rivalling even Humble Pie for taking away the excitement of the original along with the tempo) with one of this album's typically atrocious string arrangements, all too obviously artificial and computer-based rather than the real thing (although even the real thing would have sounded ugly). There's a ten second pause between each pause (filled with some Alan Price keyboard riffing on the Animals' version) and a vocal performance from Yusuf that struggles to connect with this song and which leaves him painfully on the high side for the chorus. The result is a misunderstood song whose intentions are good, but that doesn't stop it from being a misguided disaster, swapping the authenticity and urgency of the original for something less believable and far more awkward. Listen out during the opening few bars for some synthesiser 'cat purring' by the way, which rumbles across the speakers four times between 0:13 and 0:19 before being drowned out by the violins.
Slightly better is the song's second 'cover', actually a Cat original from 'Mona Bone Jakon 'I Think I See The Light!' The original is one of Cat's greatest moments: a so-real-it-hurts song about discovery and uncovering the truth, though it never tells us what that truth might be, leaving it up to the listener (at the time it was more Cat's discovery that there was more to life than being a pop star and his relief at having not succumbed to TB, with the singer desperate to learn more about life and live it differently as a result). This re-make is all too clearly a song about religion, with Yusuf now singing not to a girl but to a God who shows him a world far more complex than the 'clouds' and 'cold stone floor' that's always been the narrator's lot up until now. Though Yusuf doesn't change a word, he changes the structure and arrangement of the song quite a lot with mixed results: there's now heavy percussion, as if Yusuf is trying to throw off his earthly shackles (which works quite well), a heavy chorus, a bleeping synthesiser and brass section (which doesn't, especially on the shrill final note before an unnecessary 80 second long reprise), a thrilling jazz bass from guest star Danny Thompson who does similar magical things to old songs in Pentangle, a slowed down tempo (which robs the track of much of the original's excitement) and a new doo-doo-doo-doo-doo piano riff linking the verses (which adds a bit of excitement back again). In one sense this re-recording is a rotten idea, with Yusuf all too obviously older and more set in his ways by direct comparison to one of the real peaks of his early career. And yet in another it's the best choice Yusuf could have made, returning to a point when he first began to see the 'light' and using this return to the studio to 'remember' what his life might have been like, with just enough changes to make a re-recording worthwhile. The original is still far better, naturally, but this isn't a complete travesty (unlike Yusuf's period re-arrangements of 'Peace Train' and 'Wild World' - in Zulu for crying out loud! - made before this album).
'Whispers From A Spiritual Garden' is a two minute extension of 'Butterflies'. The opening oriental melody is graceful and catchy and reminds you of Cat's late 1970s experiments in 'new' sounds with their distinctive, so 21st century flavour and mix of sounds. Unfortunately in comes another spoken word part, one even more ugly and off-putting than the first. God's in every part of the universe (what, even The Spice Girls?!) and can be seen by our 'desire' to find 'another' unlike ourselves (what, even The Spice Girls?!) while both halves serve a 'purpose' (surely not The Spice Girls?!?!?) we mere mortals cannot understand (Ah right - that bit sounds more like The Spice Girls!) Even on one of Yusuf's recent 'Islam' albums this 'song' would have been the runt of the litter - on the same album as 'Maybe There's A World' and 'One Day At A Time' it sounds like a really bad idea done in an even worse way. The Cat Stevens section of my personal spiritual garden wilted the first time I heard this, with a song so obvious and tacky you wish to goodness Yusuf had never done it.
'The Beloved' has the feel of a mid-70s Cat song, with a more polished 'Buddha and the Chocolate Box' style production feel to it than the rest of the album. Like that album's 'Jesus' it re-tells the story of religious figures, but unlike that album it doesn't weave Yusuf's own believes and his own comparisons between parallel religions to make it more poignant. This is, instead, like every other Muslim song out there, albeit with a pretty melody, nice guitarwork and some atmospheric 'cries' in the backing vocals that at least keep the song moving, unlike most of the album. Seriously, though, where did all that beloved ambiguity go? Yusuf can do what he likes on his 'religious' themed albums - they're designed to 'preach' to the 'converted' after all and fans curious enough to know what they sound like may well benefit from learning what Yusuf has to teach, depending on where their own personal path is taking them. But what Yusuf really needed to do on 'An Other Cup' was talk to non-Muslims in a way they could understand: this is what Yusuf now feels, this is the benefits Islam has brought to Yusuf's life, this is how fulfilled he feels now having discovered what he was searching for so many years. What he really shouldn't be doing is passing on 'stories' (or at the very least Qu'ran teachings) without comment, offering up a song that adds nothing you couldn't have learnt from other sources with no idea of how this affects Yusuf or how strongly he believes. You could argue that the stirring music makes a good case for how 'loved' Yusuf now feels, but it would have made all the difference to have heard that in the lyric: to be told not just what happened, but why. The result is like an interminable RE lesson with a teacher who isn't even trying to reach out and be on the same wave-length as you and who ends up convincing nobody but himself, like one of those Cliff Richard albums of hymns that always sounds as if it's playing at the wrong speed and nobody in the studio is having any fun at all, never mind what the lyrics say. A waste of the single best melody on the album and Yusuf's singing of 'Beloved' (as 'Bay-looo-vid') is particularly off-putting.
'Greenfields, Golden Sands' would be nice if not for another tacky string arrangement that swirls around the opening like a film score for one of those black and white movies where the central character becomes an orphan before the opening credits. It's like a cue to bring out your hankies because soon you're going to feel very sad. And so it proves, with a sadder re-write of 'Moonshadow' that tells us in the words similar things about how Yusuf has everything he needs to live so 'let the wind blow hard - I don't mind', while the music is weeping buckets full of tears. You sense that Yusuf still isn't as accepting of his nay-sayers or as laidback about the criticism laid at his door as he pretends to be - and rightly so, the way he was treated in both the UK and US alike between the 1980s and now has been shocking (faith is such a personal thing, no one else has a right to knock it - unless you're a reviewer who ends up finding that this faith has inspired a pretty ordinary bunch of songs anyway; this review wouldn't change much if 'An Other Cup' was a Buddhist, Christian, Sikh or Jewish record). However you get the feeling that Yusuf can't bring himself to address that feeling of being picked on in song, almost as if he's ashamed to have been as affected as he is. Unfortunately that means we get either warped sarcasm ('Boots and Sand'), misguided defensive-but-it-isn't-really-because-it's-just-a-cover-so-he-can-deny-it tracks like 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' and this track, which clearly doesn't believe a word it's saying. Cat used to stand for truth and honesty, no matter how much this reflected badly on the singer; this just sounds like a man in a huff going 'Hey I don't care, I know there's more to life than this and why should I want to convince you otherwise? No don't go - seriously, I had some more to tell you about why I'm not interested in your opinions. Come back!' A pretty ugly selection of piano chords and that syrupy string arrangement (will we have to pay more for this album if it gets re-released after the UK's sugar tax?!) would make this a tough song to love in any case, though. Even this song's return to an earlier Cat track ('The Wind') is clumsier than elsewhere.
That's where we have to leave our American cousins I'm afraid, although British fans (and other European followers eventually) got one extra track in 'There Is Peace'. Though not the best thing here, this is certainly one of the better tracks and deserves it's spot on the album more than most, a heartfelt reprise of 'Peace Train' with the promise that, even if the train is running late, it's still coming. Like the best of this album, Yusuf goes back to being 'humble' and including himself in the throng of humanity waiting for better days. He fits in a few 'Mona Bone' style digs at people still living their lives the 'old' way ('rushing around' with 'heads bowed' without looking up at the sky and heaven) before telling us, finally, that God is for everyone not just a particular sect of believers and that everyone has the ability to 'approach him if you try'. A lovely opening reprises the children's choir of 'Buddha' and 'Numbers' but uses them equally sparingly thank goodness, while the gentle acoustic accompaniment returns us more or less to just the sound of Cat and Alun Davies' twin guitars. The song could be better, it tends to ramble and the cooing backing vocals are just the wrong side of sickly, but this song's quiet urging for us to embrace the unknown (Gods, dreams and peace alike) is far more suited to what the 'old' Cat would have done with the understanding the 'new' Cat now has, determined that the peace train runs for everyone and not just the lucky few.
'An Other Cup', then, has most of the dregs near the end even if the last sipful is sweet. It's not a record to everyone's tastes, whether you're a fellow convert (too poppy), an old fan (too newfangled and preachy) or just a curious music fan with no knowledge of past history or sound (too weird!) At times the ingredients just feel far too mis-matched, either undiluted and strong or insipid and weak. There's not enough milk of human kindness here to take away from the sour bite of the religious fervour, while at other times there's too much 'froth' and not enough real substance at all. And as for the sugar - at its worst there's a good six lumps in here, clogging up the album's promise with sickly sweet strings and all-too obvious spoken word disasters. Reading these tea-leaves did not spell good fortune for the other 'comeback' albums to come. And yet, just occasionally, everything falls into place: the teabag of words is warm and nurturing, placed in a warm cup of music that's brewed to perfection. At its best Yusuf shows that he'd lost none of his abilities and compared to many of his contemporaries sounds impressively close to his younger self in voice and ideas. There's many a slip between cup and lip, sure, with even the best songs sometimes clumsily handled and this album's worst moments outnumber the best by three-fold, no question. At times you'll feel like a right mug for ever having been sucked in by the hype and agreeing to buy this album, when Yusuf clearly wasn't quite ready for a full pop comeback just yet. But there's more than just artificial flavourings here: this really does feel enough like a Cat Stevens album for Yusuf to get away with the 'Tillerman' quote on the front cover and for fans who'd wondered for years what a post-conversion Cat album might sound like, this is very much how you'd imagine - if not always, sadly, as good.
An Other Cat Stevens/Yusuf cups from this website you might be interested in pouring: