Monday, September 21, 2020

Yusuf / Cat Stevens Revisits Tea for the Tillerman Fifty Years On and Turns an Old Classic...Into a New Classic


Photo via laut.de

Released near the end of 1970, Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens was wildly popular during 1971, not the least because the single "Wild World" reached #11 on the Pop Chart. The key to the album's success were the compositions, all by British singer-songwriter Stevens, all offering a large dollop of sweet melody along with a unique voice and songs that mixed sense, sensuality, and spirituality. On both the strength of the single, as well as the rest of the album, it went on to sell in excess of 3,000,000 copies, just in the States. 

By the time I got to college in '71, Tea for the Tillerman had become a standard fixture in many dorm rooms along with Sweet Baby James by James Taylor, Tapestry by Carole King, and Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John, just to name a few. Although he had appeal in certain quarters due to his good looks stemming from his Greek father, Swedish mother, and that British accent, I think that the music on Tillerman transcends all of that. In fact, for most of my freshman year my roommate used to play two albums almost exclusively. Those albums were  Tea for the Tillerman  and Livingston Taylor's first album. Despite my extreme distaste for repetition, he played those records over and over, and fortunately I am able to say that the music was so good that I was not ruined on that music. 

I haven't followed Cat Stevens' history in detail, but I do know that he walked away from his successful music career to devote his life to the Islam faith, taking the name Yusuf Islam. At some point after that, I recall mentally writing him off after hearing the news reports that he supported the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie. I have been marginally aware of Yusuf's return to music in the new millennium, eventually using the name Yusuf / Cat Stevens.  

When I first heard that he was planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tea for the Tillerman by rerecording it, I was naturally skeptical. I guess I was expecting some sort of exploitation of that once great album for a quick cash-in. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong.

I don't know why I thought this, but I feared that Stevens' might just use the original music tracks for Tillerman², swapping in new vocals. That would have been weird and I'm glad he didn't do it. I still had reservations; it's a rare cover version that doesn't make me want to hear the original instead. The new album doesn't do that. Even tough I hadn't listened to the full original album in years, I can tell that the songs are the same, but different.

On the first spin, you can hear straight away that the arrangements have changed; some a little, some a lot. They're the same songs with the same melodies and the same lyrics, but everything else is different. Still, listening to the songs feels like a visit from an old friend. Take the opening track, "Where Do the Children Play?". Right off the bat you can hear that the instrumentation is different, but the lyrics of the song sound every bit as relevant today as they did fifty years ago. 

While the original recording consisted mostly of acoustic guitar and piano, Tillerman² has a mix that incorporates more electronic instruments and both versions are very pleasing to the ear. Then there is the difference of the voice. The younger voice sounds more energized and somehow lighter, while the older voice is slightly deeper and a little more resonant. I think that the urgency in the vocals in 1970 has been replaced (and I might be projecting here) by the wizened advice of an elder. 

There are many differences, but perhaps the most striking is the song "Wild World". As it was the hit single off the record, perhaps Stevens just wanted to change it up, having tired of the original's production style. I might even speculate that since the autobiographical nature of the song has been well documented, perhaps he just wanted to give himself some distance. I know that it reminds me of an essay I once wrote for a freshman English lit course that I'd just as soon forget. 

One of the least changed songs is the album's signature song, "Father and Son". This song encapsulates the very concept of this project in that the current day Stevens is now the father to his past self. This is nicely handled in the video below, which takes the new version and incorporates the vocal of the son part from the original recording.

The bottom line is that I can totally enjoy Tea for the Tillerman² on its own merits. Don't get me wrong, I still consider the original to be a classic and one of my all time favorites. Fifty years seems like a lifetime and the concept for the update offers us a very unique opportunity. Here we have the same artist recording his own songs again 50 years on, and we can hear the perspective that the years have given him. Maybe the years passing have made me, as a listener. more receptive to the new versions. In any case, Yusuf / Cat Stevens has taken an old classic and made it into a new classic.

In this video of the new version of "Father and Son", they artfully incorporate the part of the son from Stevens' original recording. 
Director Chris Hopewell, Jacknife Films and Black Dog Film

Tracklist

Where Do The Children Play?
Hard Headed Woman
Wild World
Sad Lisa
Miles From Nowhere
But I Might Die Tonight
Longer Boats
Into White
On The Road To Find Out
Father And Son
Tea For The Tillerman


Photo via Baltimore Sun