History seems to always hold a place for truly great artists who decide to take a step away from performance. In 1977, the man then known as Cat Stevens found a new spiritual identity as a Muslim, legally changed his name to Yusuf Islam and two years later, auctioned off all his guitars for charity, focusing his energies on various philanthropic and educational causes related to his faith. He didn’t make any music for 28 years until 2006 with An Other Cup, which reminded the world of his iconic voice and unparalleled songwriting skill and he did much the same on 2009’s Roadsinger. So here we are in 2014 when legitimate voices of peace are dangerously few and far between, so it’s an incredible relief to have someone like Yusuf back in the music-making fold.
Interestingly, Islam is promoting this month’s somewhat ironically titled return to form Tell ‘Em I’m Gone as both Yusuf and “Cat Stevens”. It could just be a sly marketing move but given the nature of the record, is more likely is a nod to the incredible body of work he left behind before his nearly three-decade sabbatical. Opener I Was Raised in Babylon is a gorgeously hushed tale of philosophical insight which is a far cry from the bombastic synths of (Remember The Days of the) Old School Yard, but not too far from the early-‘70s folk that cemented his place as one of the world’s finest writers. The punchy Wurlitzer that darts and weaves throughout the bossa-nova blues of Big Boss Man couldn’t be more authentically ‘70s if it tried and the tender piano balladry on a truly stirring version of Edgar Winter’s Dying To Live is one of Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’s highlights.
There’s something admirably humble about a songwriter like Islam seeing fit to include 5 songs that aren’t his own on this record – his version of the traditional You Are My Sunshine takes on an almost swampy southern vibe that segues nicely into his own Editing Floor Blues. Both rock with poise and purpose and serve as a reminder that Yusuf is just as adept a musical re-arranger as an honest and insightful songsmith.
The 12-string/glockenspiel driven restraint of Cat & The Dog Trap is as much a beautiful canvas for Stevens’ retrospective musings (presumably, he himself is the titular “Cat”) as it is a vehicle for his perfectly sympathetic vocal harmonies. The literal chain-gang blues (you can hear them rattling throughout) of Gold Digger has a somber jauntiness that underscores spoken theatrics and wonderfully subtle Hammond organ flourishes with folky authenticity.
Procol Harum’s The Devil Came From Kansas takes on a great country-rock aesthetic and feels as profound as it does carefree and much like Robert Plant a couple of months back, Islam also includes an adaptation of a song by blues pioneer Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. Tell ‘Em I’m Gone’s title track is a reworking of the timeless Take This Hammer (covered over the years by everyone from John Prine to The Beatles) and again highlights Yusuf’s deft ability to convey so much power with his music without any hint of histrionic desperation.
There probably couldn’t be a better track than the wide-eyed optimism of Doors to cap off a record like this. The lush walls of vocal harmonies coupled with an arrangement that serves the song immaculately draw Tell ‘Em I’m Gone to a sentimental and cinematic close. Again, it’s such a treat to have one of the ‘70s finest figures back making honest, insightful music in today’s pretty ephemeral climate and we can only hope he sticks around this time.