Monday, 23 October 2017

Cat Stevens "The Laughing Apple" (2017)

Cat Stevens “The Laughing Apple” (2017)

Blackness Of The Night/See What Love Did To Me/The Laughing Apple/Olive Hill/Grandsons/Mighty Peace/Mary and the Little Lamb/You Can Do (Whatever)/Northern Wind/Don’t Blame Them/I’m So Sleepy

Steven Georgiou was nodding off to sleep in the armchair at the party in his frilly shirt-sleeves. It was late, he was tired and many of the party-goers had gone home, while a combination of his inebriated spirits in all senses of the word were leaving him tired and a little in pain. He was unsettled: this was his fourth party this week and it was only Tuesday and Tuesday was already nearly dead. And he had another two tomorrow. Should he go? He felt he should go – it was important, as the eighth best selling artist of 1967 to keep his pop profile up into 1968. But suddenly his pop profile already didn’t seem quite as important as it did when he was young and foolish a year earlier, at seventeen. Also he was developing a nasty cough he really ought to see a doctor about. But not before this summer of parties were over: there were just too many interesting people to meet, too many exciting things to do and talk about and too many people who wanted to be with him. He might never get this lucky with his career again, as a nagging doubt about his latest release ‘New Masters’ fell over him. He ought really to have spent more time on it, to make it more of a serious tragedy than the cute comedy his record company wanted it to be. The album sounded really good as the acoustic demos he played in his head but…nah, nobody would buy a sombre acoustic album from an eighteen-year-old! He wiped the thought from his mind and began to drift off in a fit of coughing…

Only to find a face staring back at him. A face that looked somehow familiar yet somehow different to the late time he had seen it. A face that was adorned with a Muslim cap – oh no he thought, he’s not one of those radical religious nutters come to bore me is it? But somehow he knew it wasn’t. This was an old face, the kind of lined wizened look that Steven wanted to have for himself one day when he was older that suggested someone who had seen all of the world that he wanted to see and yet which still had a mischievous twinkle in the eyes and more laughter lines that he could ever have dreamed of. ‘Oh, very young…’ the old man murmured under his breath.

‘What do you want? I’m sorry if the party was making too much noise…’ he stammered.

‘Oh the party was bothering me’ the old man chuckled, ‘but I think might possibly be bothering you more than me. That’s a nasty cough’ he sighed. ‘You really should get it seen too.

‘I’ll get round to it’, the youngster replied and noticed that the old man winced.

‘That album that’s running in your head right now that you’re secretly afraid you’ll run out of time to make…you will finish it you know. Just not for a long time yet. Not before ever such a lot of adventures.’

The youngster coughed. ‘How did you know?’

‘Because I remember’

‘Then are you really…me? But you look so different’

‘I am. Very different. You have so much more to learn than you would ever have thought possible and your life will be a rollercoaster ride of love, death, religion and everything in between. The blackness of the night is already calling at your door. But you are blessed by a monnshadow – the darkness will never truly win, even when you think it will.I have seen so much and learnt and understand more than I ever thought possible’

‘Then you have come back to teach me what to do?...’

‘No, not exactly. Truly, I have come to learn from you. From your wisdom and rule-breaking. That song ‘The Laughing Apple’, how does it go again?...’

Of all the things I thought Cat might do to celebrate fifty years in ‘show-business’, re-recording some older songs was something I considered. A lot of artists do it, especially when they reach Cat’s age of pensions and bus-passes and though he spent much of his life looking forward, Cat’s been looking to the past for comfort and solace a lot recently. But I never expected him to return to his least celebrated period as an eighteen-year-old making his poorest-selling and least known album. I never thought for a second that it would be ‘New Masters’ that would get the makeover, delivered from old eyes. ‘The Laughing Apple’ is, despite the forty-nine-year time difference, the missing link between the teenage clean-shaven pop-savvy Cat and the mature bearded singer-songwriter in his twenties. It’s the album that Cat really wanted to make in 1968 but was still too young and insecure to insist on making his way when he was eighteen and which instead got battered and blasted to shape by a combination of inexperience, orchestral arrangements and a record market that measures things in how far records moved up the charts, not how many souls were moved by them. It’s a combination of four songs that never turned out to Cat’s satisfaction, one outtake that wasn’t released till the 1990s, one re-written nursery rhyme and five new songs about being young all jumbled together. The difference being that the songs from Cat’s Decca orchestral era that already hinted at the illness and seriousness that were creeping into Cat’s thoughts are being performed by his older, weakened self, all those nuances finally teased out into the open in the ‘setting’ that Cat made his own a few years later. For this record sounds more like ‘Mona Bone Jakon’, the ‘illness’ record made in 1970 as Cat was recovering from the TB that nearly killed him, with old compatriot Alun Davies back on second guitar at last and Paul Samwell-Smith back in the producer’s chair. It’s a little like ‘Father and Son’ for a full record, as a prematurely aged Cat (who suddenly sound much older than his sixty-seven years) sings songs of youth and optimism and hope in the voice of someone whose lived a lot, thought a lot and lost a lot.

This particular orchard tree took an awfully long time to ripen, but it sounds unexpectedly gorgeous now that it has. Cat – and he really is billed as ‘Cat’ again on this record given that’s who he was when he wrote most of it, even if he’s credited as a performer under his ‘new’ name of ‘Yusuf’ – has been fading away vocally for some years now, to the point where his last record ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’ might have seen him disappear for good as even easy vocal lines became strained and age lines showed in everything whether it was meant to or not. There are only a certain number of things you can do when your main way of expressing yourself gives up: carry on as if nothing has happened, hand your songs over to someone else to sing or embrace who you are now rather than who you once were. Cat’s solution may well be the bravest of all though: he hasn’t merely embraced his aged, more vulnerable self on this album but deliberately made a contrast between who he used to be and who he is now. Cat got lucky too: his teenage self was impressively old before his time already, leaving his future self lots of really suitable songs to sing that he couldn’t pull off at eighteen as the icy fingers of TB plucked at his lungs and his conscience, but which he absolutely can now. Returning to an album left unfinished because of the big disaster of 1968, when Cat so nearly died and lost his record contract and most of his showbiz friends into the bargain, finally releases ‘New Masters’ from its half-finished unsatisfied limbo and makes an album that was so nearly fantastic sparkle like never before. ‘The Laughing Apple’ ‘The Blackness Of The Night’ ‘Northern Wind’ and especially ‘I’m So Sleepy’ were all deep and vulnerable songs that pointed to the changes to come and work really well in this new sombre setting (though it’s a shame ‘Ceylon City’ isn’t here too updated to become ‘Sri Lanka’ or ‘A Bad Night’ to be less psychedelic and more spiritual). Better yet though are the songs that never got finished from the time: ‘See What Love Did To Me’ is a pretty love song that’s turned into one of Cat’s better hymns to God and ‘I’ve Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old’, written in his teens as a ‘warning’ to the self to grow up and take better care of himself, sounds gorgeously triumphant now that Cat is a Granddad at last. Though re-recordings are often the easy, lazy way out of an artist’s career, Cat has turned this around by delivering songs from his youth with the voice of his age and wisdom, tweaking the lyrics slightly so that true fans can really see the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ (it’s a real shame that ‘New Masters’ is so rare as this album would make a fine double-pack one day, nicknamed ‘Father and Son’ or ‘Before and After’ maybe).

The new songs too, though, are a mammoth step up from where we left off in 2014. Rather than being a whiny outsider, accidentally patronising in his attempts to make people be nicer to each other, Cat really gets under the skin of his fellow humans here and addresses us with the wisdom and advice of an old sage rather than the mad ranting of a teenage baby boomer. ‘Don’t Blame Them’ is the signature song for our times, a world where everyone is always blaming everyone else for their misery because someone is always seen to be getting something you’re not – but, really, we are all blessed to have anything at all (and eventually they’re all going to lose everything they had and turn on you anyway – it’s the human way of coping with life). ‘Olive Hill’ is a beautiful parable of peace that makes the Bible of all books seem far more real then fifteen years of R.E. lessons ever did. Even the re-write of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ is sweet rather than sickly cute, a tale of closeness and cuddliness that’s surely more about Cat and wife Fauzia or Cat and God than a girl and lamb. Against the odds it’s a track that makes you go ‘awww!’ more than ‘aaagh!’ ‘Mighty Peace’ is a beautiful song, one of Cat’s best in years, about everything that’s changed – and everything that’s changed the same – across fifty years of talking about peace in a world that seems to be permanently at war. Cat has somehow still found his own personal peace and is content – something that’s surprisingly moving to hear. Best of all ‘You Can Do’ is a lovely update of ‘If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!’ that, well, isn’t actually updated at all: this is the older wiser Cat giving his younger self a little pat on the back that maybe he wasn’t far wrong after all: live and let live, but make life better for everyone if you can, is a far better motto to live by than the ‘praise God’ of fellow comeback ‘An Other Cup’  or the ‘all humanity sucks, especially anyone who disagrees with me’ of ‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’. Of all the Cat Stevens comebacks since 2006 it’s this album and ‘Roadsinger’ that most sound as if they belong as a future stopping-off point of the ‘Peace Train’.

This sounds, at last, like a man at peace with his legacy, which is a pretty amazing and surprising place to be after all those decades spent avoiding it. Cat’s clearly been listening to the whole of his back catalogue – not just ‘New Masters’ – as there are ‘vibes’ and phrases from his old records sprinkled throughout this album, albeit with more grace and style than on ‘An Other Cup’. ‘See What Love Can Do’ bounced with the jaunt of ‘Land O’Free Love And Goodbye’, the song of heaven and imagination from 1974 making it clear that it was life on Earth that was really haven (at least the best of it – the time when Cat fell in love. Poor Fauzia has waited thirty-eight years for her first true ‘love song’ that wasn’t about God and it’s worth the wait, a bouncy thrilling exuberant song where even modern-day Cat sounds young again one last time). ‘Olive Hill’ has the real feel of a ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ song. ‘Mighty Peace’ starts like ‘Izitso?’ or ‘Back To Earth’, with a late 1970s synth riff that’s very similar to ‘A Child For The Day’, while the child laughter recalls ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and the chord structure is a direct lift from ‘Maybe There’s A World’, the best song on ‘An Other Cup’s comeback. ‘You Can Do Whatever’ is so close to ‘If You Want To Sing Out’ they’d make a fab medley one day. And ‘Don’t Blame Them’ sounds like every Cat Stevens song ever stuck in a blender without ever quite becoming specifically like any of them. This CD no longer needs to come with the caveat sticker that it is ‘by the artist who was formerly known as Cat Stevens’ because that fact is obvious from first note to last, with no attempts to be religious (‘An Other Cup’), contemporary (‘Roadsinger’) or go right back to the beginning and do blues (‘Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’). That’s true even of the front cover – the first Cat has drawn himself for a record since ‘Numbers’ in 1976 – a recognisably Catty bit of artwork of a laughing apple hanging in a tree while a character who looks not unlike the chap having tea with the Tillerman in 1970 reaching out to pick it.

‘The Laughing Apple’ isn’t always a bumper crop and does have some occasional bits of rotten-ness at its core, enough to place it just a smidgeon down from ‘Roadsinger’ as the ‘Cat Stevens comeback album everyone should own’. It’s ridiculously short for one thing: at thirty-one minutes and eleven tracks this record has the ‘feel’ of a 1970s Cat Stevens album in bad ways as well as good, which is a bit of a rip-off for an album after a three-year wait with no less than five re-recordings of tracks available in other form elsewhere. One other thing this album could perhaps do better is that signature Cat Stevens sound, which is here more than ever before in Cat’s comebacks but still isn’t quite here completely. There aren’t many songs where you can hear Cat and Alun play together the way they always used to (the re-make of ‘The Northern Wind’ is the only one that doesn’t bury that partnership with extraneous noise and even that one get noisy partway through). If you were being uncharitable you could argue that re-recording old songs, in whatever form and however good, is taking the easy way out. Cat has, after all, already done this in the past (his re-recording of ‘I Think I See The Light!’ post spiritual regeneration being the ‘other’ highlight of ‘An Other Cup’). But somehow this is an album that transcends the prejudices I had when I first heard about it (a sixty-seven-year old Cat telling Kitty that he’s going to ‘get it on’ would have been embarrassing – and what other song from ‘New Masters’ did even the biggest fans know?) to become a real treasure trove of beauty, wisdom and the healing of old wounds. You sense that Cat always felt that ‘New Masters’ was an unfinished blot on his back catalogue he tried to bury, ruined by too much fame, not enough time and nowhere near enough power. Now Cat doesn’t have any of these problems he’s reconnected with who he used to be through his own words and returning to these old songs, so at peace with his legacy.

So much so that I must admit I’m slightly worried. There has been nothing in the press or even speculation amongst fans but…is Cat alright? This is an album you make at the very end of your career when you think it’s going to be your last release, not the ongoing part of your career and it may be notable that Cat has reached back in time to the album he part-planned and recorded when he was first poorly, with an inkling that something is wrong without knowing what to do to change that. This record feels like a full-stop somehow, far more than ‘Back To Earth’s semi-colon pause ever did back in 1978 despite the twenty-eight-year gap. This is, after all, an album ends with the weary comment that ‘I’m so sleepy…soon I’m going to slip away’ and the sound of Alun Davies whispering ‘shhhh!’ I so hope that I’m wrong – quite apart from being greedy and wanting many more of these albums, we need heroes like Cat to keep fighting the good fight as our world gets darker. But finally tying up loose catalogue ends and going out on a high would be a worthy way to go. The last album tried to tell us Cat was ‘gone’ but it messed up its chance to bid farewell badly. This record, with its backwards glances and things learned the hard way, is a much more suitable place to say goodbye if a goodbye it is. But hopefully it isn’t: after all, a laughing apple a day keeps the doctor away…Whatever this album is and whether it’s a one-off or the start of a run of albums that are all like this, all you really need to know is that its good – really, really, surprisingly good – and that after a huge dip with that last album this magical orchard is bearing truly delicious fruit again, no matter how long it took to grow. Now how do you like them apples?!


Back in 1968 ‘The Blackness Of The Night’ was an early sign that there was more to Cat Stevens than mere pop – though the record still came dressed up in the best pop finery, with a fast tempo, swooning orchestra and that most mid-1960s of sounds, the Hammond organ solo. Though Cat’s re-make is far less catchy and his vocal is more spoken than sung, this second re-telling makes much more sense. We believe that this Cat is ‘alone, with no one by my side’, although ironically it’s this track that also reunites him properly with Alun Davies after a gap of forty years or so. Worryingly we also believe the lyrics that he’s ‘going to die’ as Cat sounds worryingly old and frail, though he was probably closer to death than he realised back in 1968. The mood isn’t all ‘down’ though – this was a song that always came with hope in there somewhere but now it does so with the sense that Cat has faced all this before and come out the other side, rather than through a clichéd organ solo. A sweet song that always got somewhat overlooked has now been transformed from a coming of age song (a daughter gazing at a photo of her family all together happy, while she stews in a flat alone) into a song about fighting against the odds. Only some oddly intrusive drumming and ‘Who’s Next’ style synths gets in the way!

‘See What Love Did To Me’ is a song that was started back in 1968 but didn’t get very far – it didn’t even get bootlegged as far as I know, but does sound very much at one with the early poppy-go-lucky songs of Cat’s early Decca career. If I know Cat, he would have written this song originally in the first flush of love for Patti D’arbanville and his amazement that a successful model and aristocrat wanted to be with a teenage cockney born to Greek immigrant parents. The gorgeously bouncy melody still sounds like something a teenager in the first flushes of love would write about and also does what many early Cat songs do, leaping about from section to section as if there are so many ideas fizzing through his head Cat doesn’t have time to write all of them down into separate songs and another will be along in a minute (the teenage Cat was ridiculously prolific!) Many of the lyrics sound as if they’ve been left over from this first draft too, but clearly not all of them. There’s a valedictory swagger to this song, the sense that all the hopes and dreams that the teenage Cat had about love eventually came true – though it took another twelve years, a lot of heartbreak and a lot of life changes before Cat married Youza, the first contact he made when he tentatively tried to become a Muslim (and who was kind enough to show him round his local mosque). Cat’s life has been transformed by love and it was every bit as wonderful as once believed it would be, temporarily turning him back to the happy teenager who ‘feels amazing’. Of course this being ‘modern’ Cat Stevens there’s a last verse that equates this love with God and a more vague one about finding love in a ‘raging sea’ (which is almost certainly a reference to Cat reaching out for God to ‘help’ him back in 1976 when he nearly drowned). However unlike some religious references that seem shoe-horned in to songs where they don’t fit, this all makes perfect sense: God created Cat’s loved one so is responsible for his happiness in a way. Cat’s take on his old teenage self, laughing at his naiveté (‘a child in the darkness…a broken arrow missing the mark’) is also fun, especially given that modern Cat is singing with the same sing-song patter of his younger self as if he is still the same person at heart and that his enthusiasm and affection were well placed, just in the wrong direction. A majestic sweeping string arrangement and the sudden ‘invasion’ of some hard-strummed guitars really get this song moving too, one of the better songs on the album.

‘The Laughing Apple’ was always a promising song in need of a better arrangement that emphasised the weirdness rather than the cuteness. Now at last, after forty-nine years, we get it, as this parable of picking the ‘fruit’ of your labours that will bring you greatest pleasure makes more sense than ever after all those years of Cat hanging up his guitar in favour of becoming a headmaster. We can now better believe that this aged Cat has ‘travelled the mountain and travelled the seas’ than we did at eighteen and the call of the ‘apple’ (surely the music) waiting to be picked as a career makes more sense than ever (especially as it was thought by Cat to be a ‘forbidden fruit’ in Muslim circles for so long – even though much of what we recognise as music in Europe was imported by the Muslims anyway). The opening is truly gorgeous, as Cat’s cute pop opening becomes a slower, moodier scene-setting overlaid with ghostly noises that makes it feel more like a horror movie. The string arrangement worked really well on the ‘New Masters’ original, but this ‘New New Masters’ version works even better with a more oriental feel, making it clear that the orchard Cat was reaching out for is quite a different one to the one he imagined back in 1968. Some things remain the same though: there’s a delightful group of harmonies at the heart of this song with Alun Davies finally getting to sing on a track that was still one of Cat’s latest at the time they first met. Updating the original without losing the essence that made it great, this is what all re-makes should be like.

‘Olive Hill’ is, as far as I know, a new song but it sounds as if it would have fitted onto ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ or ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ with no problems whatsoever. A parable for peace, it’s as Biblical as the now suddenly un-Christian Cat has allowed himself to be since ‘Morning Has Broken’. A ‘lightning horse’ suggests Hinduism though, suggesting that Cat might be swapping his religions around for this song as on ‘Buddha and the Chocolate Box’ and showing that all of them are the same underneath anyway. Cat is deliberately pointed out the gulf between how the religious and spiritual acted then and now: in times of old they met in peace and swapped ideas, ‘all new souls welcomed in’. Now, though, there are no olive branches, just factions fighting factions as the name of all religions spread and converts grow, ‘though some would say they’ve lost their head’. A sorrowful horn part adds a sombre melancholy tinge to the middle of this song, hinting at everything that was lost along the way unnecessarily. The end result is a sweet song that adds a nice acoustic vibe to the album like the days of old, with a very lovely melody that rises and falls with the effortless of old (was the melody perhaps left over from an earlier unfinished song? The lyrics though, surely, could only have been written since Cat’s ‘comeback’). Alas even on an album of originally unfinished works, it still sounds a little unfinished and simply ends without ever having really gotten anywhere – or is that the point? This is still an ongoing story and we have time to return to the ‘olive hill’ before it’s too late.

‘Grandsons’ is already being hailed as the album’s biggest success story – and for good reason. The ‘original’ of this song dates back to 1968-1969 and the ‘lost’ period when Cat was first poorly with TB and can be heard on the ‘On The Road To Find Out’ box set of the millennium under the title ‘I’ve Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old’. Brilliantly, Cat returns to this song now that he is a grandfather for real (even if his grandchildren are still young!) and though the song is substantially the same the ‘feel’ of it is very different. Cat is no longer worried about dying too early before having a chance to do all the things he wants to do – instead this is a celebratory, valedictory song. Against all odds and all his teenage fears about meeting the right girl and surviving illness, he’s made it this long way and has grandchildren to watch grow old. ‘Life would be so different then’ runs the chorus, but it isn’t – he got there, the way he once promised himself nearly fifty years ago. The song still works though, if now for different reasons: Cat still has ‘no time for silly chitter-chatter’ because life is short and precious and he’s getting nearer the end of it, even if most of his adventures are run. There are a few lyric changes along the way: there’s a whole new opening verse that recalls the already nostalgic ‘Remember The Days Of The Old Schoolyard’ as children kick cans and play games and the line about ‘while my blood’s still warm and my mind doesn’t matter’ now comes with the weaker tagline ‘I’m going to pray’ rather than the more meaningful ‘I’m going to stay’. Most of this re-write works, though, from the slower tempo to the mass vocals to Cat’s weaker older fragile vocal. Even so it’s the original of this song that was already near-perfect. How many other artists could truly record what they first wrote at eighteen-nineteen and have it mean even more as they reach their late sixties?! No one – which is why Cat’s decision to re-record these songs is so clever and so unique, this track especially, turning a song of self-warning to do better into a song of triumph about having achieved what you set out to do. Let’s hope that Cat really does get to see his grandchildren grow old, though, rather than simply ‘born’.

‘Mighty Peace’ is a lovely song – a new one as far as I know, though it has elements of all of Cat’s early 1970s recordings that are so special, with everything from ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ to ‘Peace Train’ in there somewhere and a synth opening that recalls Jean Rousell’s work on ‘Foreigner’ and ‘Buddha’. Cat is nostalgic, realising that he knew more instinctively as a child playing games with his friends than he ever did as a lonely adult. He sounds downright resentful that the ‘moon’ had to take over from the ‘daytime’, bringing him more adult woes, but when he looks back ‘oh what might peace I find!’ Cat next imagines himself as a ‘cloud’, watching the people below ‘rushing around’ and enjoying ‘nothing more to do than to rain and watch the colours change’. The hint here is that he’s looking forward to death, when he’s merely a part of the atmosphere and not running the show and can be part of everything and feel at peace. As distressing as it is to hear Cat talk about death and as tearjerking as this song is with another truly sumptuous melody that looks back with a real sniffle in its nose and a tear in its eyes, we’d still rather hear a goodbye song as moving as this and embracing death than one trying to run scared from it. The song really does skirt awfully close to ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ at times, in melody, lyric and a rather stuck-on sound effect of children laughing. But you may as well rip off the best, especially when that means ripping off your self, and the elegiac mood is just different enough to make this song work, with Cat remembering snippets of all sorts of other old songs in a ‘second’ career farewell to rate alongside ‘I Never Wanted To Be A Star’ (though the album references old melodies this time, not old lyrics). One of the real highlights of the album and of Cat’s comeback years as a whole.

After sitting through Wings’ la-lahed ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ I never thought I would want to sit through another song based on that nursery rhyme. But the subtly different ‘Mary and the Little Lamb’ is sweet and utterly in keeping with the Cat Stevens philosophy about being true to yourself and spreading love. In the song Mary is still laughed at and called names by her schoolfriends for never playing any of their human games when she has a lamb to kiss and cuddle. A switch at the end has the whole neighbourhood blown away in a storm, with everything Mary ever knew taken away, except for the one lamb who loves her so much he holds on tight and never lets go, saving her life. Given what we know about Cat’s conversion, of course, it seems more likely that this loose Christian parable is now a Muslim one. God is Mary (maybe even the Virgin Mary – Cat always liked swapping his religions around), we are her flock and it doesn’t matter how many people laugh at Cat for being a believer, he has a real love in his heart and it’s a love that saved him – literally given that Mary nearly gets washed away in a storm (which is very much what happened to Cat). The lamb is also one that follows Mary around so much she could never get rid of him as he was always there – which is a sort of parable for how Cat felt about his religion, that he was being ‘followed’ by something spiritual tapping on his shoulder until it got to the point where he couldn’t ignore it as he nearly drowned and lost himself. Thankfully, though, the parable is there for you to see if you want to – or to ignore and enjoy as a sweet updated nursery rhyme if you’d rather. One thing I don’t get, why would it ‘be too late for him’ in the song? Surely it’s never to late to be a ‘believer’ if you’re that way inclined? It certainly wasn’t for Cat, however long he ‘delayed’ his conversion. The ending is lovely too, whatever you think of the rest of the song, as after all that drama there’s a bona fide drama, Mary ‘snuggling next to him’ while the stars come out and shine down on them, Cat actively becoming ‘the lamb’ in the first person. I’m not sure I want a whole album of re-written nursery rhymes, but on an album that’s so concerned with re-writes, childhood and nostalgia Cat can get away with this surprisingly catchy and commercial song more than he could on another record.

‘You Can Do Whatever!’ is an almost exact re-write of ‘If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out!’ Cat isn’t here to preach (which ten years on from ‘An Other Cup’ is a relief!) and merely wants us to remind us that we get as much out of the world as we put into it. We can be a child or an adult and get something out of it; we can ‘laze around in our jeans or put on a suit’, we can be a boss or ‘just join a queue’ and we can either ‘close out eyes to the darkness or make it right’. We have a choice join how to live our lives and we ought to make it a good one – but if we don’t then, well, we still have the right to live and make what we want of our futures as it’s no one else’s concern what we do. What we don’t have the right to do is ‘steal’ or covet another person’s life – because we have our own to lead and all Cat asks is that we’re ‘true’ to our own intentions. A triumphant singalong song isn’t quite as effortlessly catchy or as original as the ‘Harold and Maude’ soundtrack and lacks that song’s delightful bounce. This is much more of a ‘list’ song that feels slightly more artificially constructed. However this is still a good song, with lots of funny lines as Cat allows us to ‘ride the tiger or walk the dog, it’s really up to you!’ Of all the Cat Stevens songs I wanted a sequel to, ‘Sing Out’ wasn’t one of them given that it’s such a simple and direct song anyway (one of Cat’s simplest across his long career). However as sequels go this is rather good, Cat even acknowledging the fact as he ends the song by saying that we have to choice to say quiet ‘but you can still sing out!’ The Alun Davies-Cat Stevens partnership is at its best on the album here as Cat’s acoustic dances in one channel and Alun’s electric hums in the other, both leading completely different yet compatible lives.

I was always rather fond of the 1968 ‘New Masters’ recording of ‘Northern Wind’, one of Cat’s weirdest songs. Sensing that change is in the air a few months before he gets really sick, Cat hints at ‘feeling kinda strange’ on an epic that builds for several verses and was clearly from the heart, even if it’s been re-written for the pop market and becomes a letter from the Wild West back home to ‘Billy’. This re-write is slightly less successful, perhaps the weakest on the album. The slower tempo isn’t a patch on the relentless pull-and-tug of the original and Cat really can’t sing in his old key, so instead he drops his vocal a full octave to the point where it sounds alarmingly frail and off-key. Unlike the other three ‘New Masters’ re-makes there seems less reason to re-record this one from an older perspective, although the verse about ‘wanting to live and make the stars shine bright’ does bring a lump to the throat when Cat sounds so frail and vulnerable and there is an overall sense that this next ‘Northern Wind…making me feel kinda strange’ might well be bringing death (‘I don’t want to gight it, Billy, ‘cause I got to go!’) The new string arrangement is rather good too, though I could have done without the choir that aaah their way through the song like an outtake from ‘Numbers’. Interestingly this is the only one of the re-makes not to have a single word changed, even though it would have only have taken a bit of tweaking to make this song even more pertinent and moving. I’m glad to see such a great song getting so much attention, but Cat’s original was much more moving than this slower slushier re-make.

‘Don’t Blame Them’ is a lovely final new song, the one track on the album that seems to deal with the ‘outside’ world – the mainstay of the last three ‘comeback’ albums. Cat is fed up of a whole culture of blame and jealousy. He sees a girl, perhaps in his neighbourhood or perhaps on the news, being criticised by Christians for wearing a veil or a burkha. He doesn’t see the problem? In the ancient past the Virgin Mary would have worn the same. He then sees the world criticising a boy for being angry and ‘shaking his fist’ and attempting to get his own back on the system for keeping him down in a world of Credit Crunch and no opportunities (that sees millennials branded as lazy and workshy, for having no work to go to) and says that in the Bible, too, David chose to fight Goliath. A very Cat Stevens lyric about perception perhaps lacks the gorgeous melody of old but the lyrics are very clever indeed, as Cat says that all blame comes from people who are afraid of the unknown and that the best solution, as it always has been, is to love. ‘Beware’ Cat sighs, urging us that what we have to be afraid of most is our own prejudice and that if we fight it head on ‘understand your hate and your hate will disappear, like it wasn’t there’. Though much of this song is slow, sad and melancholy, it suddenly reverts back to being a jumpy jaunty pop tune at the end as Cat urges us ‘don’t blame the child!’, the ‘Father’ now sticking up for the ‘Son’ rather than arguing with him as in the days of old. This is such a distinctly early 1970s Cat Stevens style song (again recalling ‘If You Want To Sing Out’) that I wonder if this ending was an unfinished fragment that never got finished. It’s a clever finale too: you can’t blame the food for the tummyache if you eat too much, or the money for making people greedy, when it’s all the fault of faulty motivations and greed. And as the last line says, if you blame everyone else for your life not being perfect, then eventually they’re going to blame you.

The very end of the album though is a final re-make of a ‘New Masters’ song. ‘I’m So Sleepy’ was in 1968 a pretty song that’s the perfect song for me and my fellow sleepy spoonies. There was an always an ‘edge to this song though, especially the sudden violent switch to a minor key that worries ‘Soon I’m going to slip away, I won’t fight it I’ll just write it!’ This re-make, like all the others, is slower and more fragile, making it all the more believable that Cat might just slip away one night and making an eerie coda to the album, especially when someone (Alun?) urges Cat to ‘hush’ at the end and the song (and album) trail away mid-note. Parts of it work well: Cat sounds better for being older and more audibly tired and the song suits the ‘Tillerman/Teaser’ acoustic format far more than the original’s booming overpowering strings (surely too noisy to send anybody to sleep!) However I could have done without the twee xylophone accompaniment that makes this song ever more likle a lullaby and this song’s lyrical tweak is the least successful of them all on this album: ‘I could lay my head on a book I’ve read’ is a religious reference too far compared to the original’s perfectly suitable ‘piece of lead’. The result is a bit of an anticlimax as an album ending (the title track might have been better) but isn’t bad by any means as another overlooked song gets another welcome airing.

Despite the title of that last track and the fact that this is largely an album of re-makes and updated outtakes, it’s amazing how wide awake, bright-eyed and bushy tailed Cat Stevens seems again. Freed of the need to make big statements, the way he has with his last three albums, as the pop world’s ‘go-to Muslim’, Cat has re-energised himself by ignoring world politics and going back to his own roots for inspiration. Though ‘Tell ‘Em I’ve Gone’ tried a similar trick, that album messed up by trying to pretend that the older, wiser Yusuf of 2014 was still exactly the same boy that once sang R and B songs like he meant them and exploring an angry, acerbic side that never felt as if it fitted Cat that well.  On this album Steven Georgiou’s stepped back in time in more ways than just going back to his ‘old’ name of ‘Cat Stevens’ and sounds at home singing about peace and everything he wanted for his own life and family, making this a much more ‘real’ and heartfelt record than we’ve had since ‘Roadsinger’ and even compared to that return to form is arguably more consistent, if not quite as ambitious. You could argue that re-recording old songs and making your teenage self do all the work for your old age pension is taking the easy way out. I thought that too when I heard what Cat was planning with this album, until I heard it. There are many parallels between the youthful illness of 1968 and Cat growing older and feebler and this album makes them all without ruining the originals or throwing in a bunch of new songs that stick out like a sore thumb. Instead ‘The Laughing Apple’ works ridiculously well for an album forty-nine years in the making and released on the fiftieth anniversary of Cat’s first record. Would that all singer-songwriters still found as much to write and sing about – or that they had such talented beginnings they could still be mining their ‘forgotten’ songs for inspiration and have them still sound so suitable nearly half a century later. I’m not sure I’d ever take this album over ‘New Masters’, one of the unsung highlights of Cat’s discography, but there was always room for another album like it and this ‘New New Masters’ is very clearly taken from the same source of orchard. Let’s just hope that the air of doom and finality that hangs over this record is as premature as it was back in 1968…

 Other Cat Stevens articles 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)
Surviving TV Appearances 1967-2015
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1969-2009
Non-Album Recordings 1966-2014
Compilations, Box sets and Alun Davies LPs Part One 1963-1990

Compilations, Box Sets and Religious Works Part Two 1995-2012

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