written by Penny Valentine
Cats Subtle Love
CAT STEVENS walks out of
the burning sun, through the huge glass windows. Its a surprise to see him. He seems
as surprised to be here. I thought about It. I was in two minds about coming along.
"I mean I didnt feel like being interviewed or anything like that, but then
its my new album and its a really-great day and" ... Well anyway he did
make it up through a 90 degree Holland Park to The Orangery white walled and cooler
than any place in London on Tuesday where his record company are throwing a
lunchtime "benefit" for journalists to hear his new album.
cut in two weeks in Jamaica earlier this year, and Stevens was "really relaxed right
through. I never thought about my voice or exactly what I was doing. I just went with
it". It sounds it too: "Catch bull was very paranoid. I mean
Ruins, that last track? It said it all."
Hes not long returned
from Greece where hes been holiday. He looks dark, and the beard and hair mingle in
that black curly mass that has always made Stevens stand out and his origins hit you
soundly in the face. Its no surprise then, that while he was away he bought a plot
of land outside Athens and is going to build his own white house there this year. White
houses run through his life somehow.
Were chatting about
the album. No notebook, no pen, just informal "how are you?" stuff. Its no
day for hard labour, and anyway - sixth senses tell you not to come on strong. One of the
reasons hes so happy with the album is its pacing musically. It used to worry
him, he says that when he went into clubs and his records were playing nobody felt too
inspired to get up and leap happily around to them. "Id walk in and
thered be a kind of silence. Everyone would just sit and listen - a bit
The lunchtime jollity
doesnt end as well as it started. Hes whisked off to "chat" to a few
people. He obliges politely. But the queues and notebooks get endless and by the time
someone wants to pose for a picture with him; someone wants to read him a poem on the spot
and someone has asked him the burning question does he wear false eyelashes? Hes
beginning to wilt. Its vicariously interesting to sit and watch and yet oddly
unpleasant to think youre part of it all. So much for the price of fame. Its
higher than youre ever led to believe.
So much for the
surroundings. Now, what about the reason for it all? What about "Foreigner"?
Does it leave a real mark in the passage of Cat Stevens path upwards and
In retrospect, I found
"Catch bull" an unnerving experience. At the time of writing about it I found it
hard to decide whether I really liked it or not, and so cowardly as I am I tended to sit
firmly on the fence. As easy as it ever is to write about Stevens work and it
isnt, in my experience "Foreigner" is a softer trip right across
the board. Hearing it makes you realize that what "Catch bull" did for Stevens
as an artist was to break formation. It wasnt setting him off in a new direction as
much as ridding him of certain emotions, musically and personally, and bore no real
reflection of anything past or to come from Stevens as an artist.
"Foreigner" comes as a refresher capturing much of the light brilliance
that sparkled through on "Mona" and "Tillerman" and yet giving him new
dimension and new musical canvasses to work on as a writer and singer.
It is not to say that
"Foreigner" is simple to grips with. Although Stevens himself has never
understood that his music is anything but simple and direct. Ive found it something
that takes time to digest but offering its own rewards to a listener able to give it
the time it need. As usual his lyrics sound, his lyrics sound like they started life as
poems drawn out or chopped dead unexpectedly to fit in with the musical patterns
that surround them his music ear still tuned in to those jerky sliced rhythm
patterns that have always been his stamp of identity and which owe no allegiance to
anything else in contemporary music.
That a side, of all his
albums "Foreigner contains the most surprises and is really his best since
"Mona" The title track turns out to be a Suite of eight songs reflecting, as
does the rest of the album, love. In fact, the whole set is like moving through one love
affair. A continual theme set by the suite which shifts so subtlety from one song to the
next its hard to tell where one phase starts and another ends, and despite its often
phonetic passages like "How Many Times" and "Later" on the second
side, it is an album that is ultimately optimistic. Its not a breast beating parade,
this collection.. More reflective. Yet equally its not laid back. Stevens makes his
points with needle fine precision, and when on the rare occasions he lulls you it
isnt long before youve been torn back into consciousness.
The surprises on
"Foreigner" are not so much a question of writing or delivery on Stevens
part but of the very construction of the album musically. For the first time its a
very internal affair with Stevens producing alone, and with his pianist Jean
Roussels delivering the goodies as arranger. Its hard to decide where
Roussels influence starts and Stevens own objective outlook on his work ends.
I ended up with the impressions that they worked so closely together the outcome had to be
as tightly knit as it is. Roussel brings in woodwind and strings to colour and leap and
expand everything Stevens does. Equally Stevens has left plenty of space for
Roussels work to fill and pulsate and snear, to build and fall back on every track.
The result with the extra
bonus of some excellent back up girls Patti Austin, Barbara Massey and Tasha Thomas and
with Phil Upchurch, Gerry Conway, Bernard Purdie, Herbie Flowers and Paul Martinez
is often superb, always exciting, and surprisingly pacy.
Its 3.15 p.m. and
Stevens has gone as suddenly as he appeared and people are drifting off down lawns and
through flowerbeds and careful theres another naked body worshipping
the sun. On the stereo inside the Orangery "How Many Times" is carried out on
- "How many times
- must I wear the same old things.
- And hear the same old things,
- that I do, I do"
"Foreigner" is by
no mean the same old thing.