Tea for the Tillerman 2CD - A&M / Universal
Teaser and the Firecat 2CD - A&M / Universal
Cat Stevens - the performing name of Steven Georgiou (known now as Yusuf Islam) - released his first recording in 1967, and became something of a pop-star in his native England. His career, however, was quickly put on hold during an extended treatment for a bout of tuberculosis. But in 1970, Stevens began his comeback with Tea for the Tillerman, an album that would rocket him into stardom in the United States, no doubt ably aided by the placement of four of its songs in Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude. 1971 would also see the issue of Teaser and the Firecat, a follow-up that would fix his place in the musical firmament of the early 1970s.
While continuing to record throughout the 1970s, and restarting again in the mid-1990s following a hiatus owing to his conversion to Islam, Stevens never again reached the height of these two albums. The work here is rooted in folk and blues idioms, couched in small, somewhat delicately wistful chamber arrangements, and Stevens has described both the engaging simplicity of his melodies and his songs' lyrical content as coming from the child-centered place within him. Tea for the Tillerman, as with its follow-up, concerns itself with typical issues of its time, a period of serious post-1960s idealism hangover. Stevens' songs deal in the conflict between primeval spiritual innocence and its modern secular corruption, spurring a hopeful if restless search for peace, both for himself and for mankind at large. It all touched a chord in youthful musical consumers, and both albums became monster sellers worldwide.
Although the best known songs populate Tea for the Tillerman - probably thanks to Harold and Maude - the hit singles actually came with Teaser and the Firecat. "Morning Has Broken" (a cover of Eleanor Farjeon's hymn and featuring Yes' Rick Wakeman on a typically florid piano arrangement), "Moonshadow" (said by Stevens to be his favorite), and the number-one "Peace Train" grace a disc that on the whole is more shaded and less memorable than its predecessor.
The standout cuts from Tea for the Tillerman ("Hard Headed Woman," "Wild World," "Father and Son," and "Longer Boats") may distract from the rest by virtue of their strength of melody and imagery, but it is the quieter moments that make this record deserving of its sterling reputation. The exquisitely gorgeous chamber-folk of "Sad Lisa," a memorable tale of two hungering souls mutely attracted - possibly fatally - to each other, the dynamic emotional paean to personal freedom that is "Miles from Nowhere," and the delightful fairytale setting of "Into White" - each would be star cuts on other albums. The apparently nonsense chromatic imagery of the latter, particularly, is notable: "I built my house from barley rice, Green pepper walls and water ice, tables of paper wood, windows of light, and everything emptying into White..."
Both reissues have been remastered (Teaser and the Firecat, in my ears, seems a bit overly punchy), and are accompanied by generous liner notes and companion discs of demos and live takes (hardly essential but nice to have). Perfectly fitted to their time, this pair of reissues admittedly come off just a bit quaint in the post-deconstructionist ennui and universal weariness of the new millennium. Still, let us judge them of their time. As Madame du Barry must have surely once (and doubtless without diffidence) murmured, "Autres temps, autres moeurs..."
By Michael Meade