50 years later, Yusuf pays one more visit to the Tillerman with this beguiling remake of his beloved classic
Okay, let’s start by chasing the elephant out of the room. The first question that naturally comes to mind on hearing that Yusuf, A.K.A. Cat Stevens, wanted to revive his masterpiece Tea for the Tillerman is…well…why?
Now 50 years old, the original album summed up all the cheery, post hippie happenstance that was so was integral to the younger Stevens’ mellow mindset. So why revisit it now? And if he did choose to do so, wouldn’t it set up unrealistic expectations as a result?
In many ways, this is a first. While artists naturally cover their age-old classics in concert, while often veering wildly from the original template (Hello, Bob Dylan!), it’s the result of fans’ demanding that their heroes reaffirm a seminal sound. Okay, but still, one would be hard-pressed to find any example of a performer taking an entire album and doing a makeover the way Yusuf does it here. Only Neil Young’s upcoming live reboot of his Greendale album comes to mind, but that particular effort can’t claim anything close to the stature of this particular Cat classic.
Artist: Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Album: Tea for the Tillerman²
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Then again, over the past decade or so, Yusuf has seemed more willing to reconcile with his pop past and bring Cat back after turning his back on his early success and stardom. In that way, Tea for the Tillerman² might be seen as the ultimate compromise, a way of reconciling both his personas in a safe space that accommodates both. Given its themes of acceptance, contentment and philosophic sobriety, it satisfies all aspects of Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ sometimes conflicting personas with songs that speak to each’s spiritual stance.
Happily, too, the new Tea boasts a flavorful blend of its own. The songs still retain their essential original melodies, but in most cases, varied treatments and added nuances allow these new versions to stand on their own. Opening track “Where Do the Children Play?” is somewhat muted in its designs as compared to the original, given its softer sheen and a more tempered edge. “Wild World” seems more meaningful than ever before, and its sprightly set-up is well served by a crisp clarinet solo that adds an extra flourish to the proceedings. “Longer Boats” takes on an assertive edge that injects a rap interlude to further fuel its initial drive. Likewise,”On the Road to Find Out” finds a rockier way forward, courtesy of a solid stomp that lends added emphasis.
VIDEO: Yusuf/Cat Stevens “Where Do The Children Play?”
It’s fortuitous that Yusuf/Stevens opted to work with some of his same collaborators as before, including longtime sideman Alun Davies, bassist Bruce Lynch and co-producer Paul Samwell-Smith, all of whom replay their same prominent roles as before. Yusuf is in great voice as well, his burnished vocals slightly more hushed but still as emphatic as ever. So while this new Tea doesn’t replace the old, it’s an ideal companion piece that emphasizes the best of both.
Along with the original, it ought to be considered equally essential.