Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Matthew & Son (1967, Deram)

A –

A commercial hit in the U.K., where the disc went Top Ten and spawned a string of hit singles, but largely unnoticed on American shores, the debut album from Cat Stevens is a far cry from the sound of his early ‘70s albums for A&M, instead being comprised of an equal-parts blend of whimsical folk and baroque-pop akin to early BeeGees sides like “New York Mining Disaster 1941” or “Holiday.” Why the siblings caught on immediately in the U.S. while Stevens took several years to finally find a North American audience is anyone’s guess; perhaps it’s simply that the singing is a bit quirkier and more tentative here than it would be on later (and much more self-consciously arty) efforts like Tea for the Tillerman, though Stevens has already fully blossomed as a songwriter, as can be seen on such cuts as the British hits “I Love My Dog” (a far greater and more biting song than you might guess from looking at the title), “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,” and the chiming title cut. Nothing here made much of an impression on U.S. radio, but the Tremeloes would go on to cover the jubilant pop of “Here Comes My Baby” and take the song into the Top Twenty. To this day, this album still doesn’t get much notice in the U.S. – neither of his pre-A&M releases do – but it’s one of the more appealing lost pop albums of the late ‘60s.

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New Masters (1967, Deram)

C –

A steep dropoff in quality from the debut, Stevens’ final album for Deram simply suffers from a far less impressive batch of songs, and one senses that the performer was simply rushed back into the studio too soon. But it’s not all filler, and the album gets off to a strong start with songs like “Kitty” and “Northern Wind.” Most importantly, the disc contains Stevens’ own rendition of one of his most covered songs of all (and a song that most casual Stevens fans may not even realize he wrote), “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” later to become a major radio hit for both Rod Stewart and again three decades later for Sheryl Crow.

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Mona Bone Jakon (1970, A&M)

B –

After a three-year hiatus during which Stevens battled with a series of health issues, including a collapsed lung and a severe bout with tuberculosis, he returned on a new label and with a new sound, one that largely eschewed the playful vibe and baroque touches of his first two discs in favor of a more intensely dramatic brand of folk-rock that rested comfortably alongside the confessional and deeply personal singer-songwriter pop of such then-up-and-comers as James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. But the album is both noticeably more sparse instrumentally and less obviously commercial than his later albums for A&M, nothing here sounding like it would have worked well on American Top 40 radio although the album isn’t without its hooks, either, particularly on the flamenco-like “Lady d’Arbanville” (a Top Ten hit in the U.K.) and the haunting title cut. [“Lilywhite,” “I Think I See the Light,” and “Trouble” are all standouts as well, the latter two also noteworthy for being incorporated into the score for the cult-classic film Harold and Maude, while original Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel unexpectedly shows up to play flute on “Katmandu.”] It’s a fine disc overall, but it lacks the fun of the later records and isn’t exactly the best entry point into his catalog, serving as something of a transitional disc between his more baroque-styled years on Deram and the run of fuller-sounding radio hits that Stevens would have on A&M in the seven years ahead.

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Tea for the Tillerman (1970, A&M)

A +

It’s definitely a bit too ballad-heavy and lethargic to truly be the most fun record he ever made (that would come next), but Stevens’ second outing for A&M was a folk masterpiece and was just commercial enough to serve as his American breakthrough, going triple platinum and yielding his first major radio hit in the #11-peaking ballad “Wild World” (later covered to Top 40 success by both reggae singer Maxi Priest and rock band Mr. Big). It’s little wonder that so many of the songs here have been utilized on both the small and big screens when you consider just how emotionally powerful these tracks are, whether you’re talking about the muted pounce of “But I Might Die Tonight,” the haunting “Sad Lisa,” the meditative “Where Do the Children Play?”, or the conversational-styled tearjerker “Father and Son.” But, lest you think the disc is wholly somber, Stevens is astute enough to inject the occasional comparatively light moment to provide some relief, as he does on the gentle singalong of “Longer Boats,” the sparkling ballad “Into White,” or the lightly jaunty “On the Road to Find Out.” The result is his most cohesive and rewarding album yet and one that, if not his best album, was certainly his most influential and groundbreaking.

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Teaser and the Firecat (1971, A&M)

A +

Arguably the greatest album he ever made, Teaser and the Firecat doesn’t seem quite so self-consciously arty as Tea for the Tillerman, but that’s a large part of what makes it feel so satisfying. The album coheres well without necessarily feeling as if it was designed to be any kind of elaborate album piece, simply containing ten extremely solid, easily memorable songs with melodic hooks that stick and lyrics that are still substantial without feeling too heavy-handed. Further, Stevens is in a far more playful mode here, even rocking out on occasion, freeing drummer Gerry Conway to let loose in a way that Harvey Burns, the drummer on the prior two albums, was never able to. There are three major pop hits to be found here: the Top Ten-charting chill-inducing anthem “Peace Train,” which manages to be both mildly haunting and inspirational at the same time, the folk singalong “Moonshadow,” and the lite-acoustic-pop adaptation of the Christian hymn “Morning Has Broken” (sporting some lovely piano flourishes from an uncredited Rick Wakeman from the prog-rock band Yes) which unexpectedly followed “Peace Train” into the Top Ten, a very rare feat indeed for a song with such a deeply religious genesis. But it’s the astounding strength of the surrounding album cuts that truly make this Stevens’ most consistently engaging full-length, be it the playful groove of the rollicking “Tuesday’s Dead” (as unapologetically fun a song as the typically-self-serious Stevens has ever released publicly), the deeply introspective wistful folk of “The Wind” (later immortalized on the big screen in the film Rushmore to great effect), or the infectious and shockingly heated acoustic-rock of “Changes IV” or “Bitterblue,” the hardest Stevens has ever rocked out on disc before. How “Bitterblue” got overlooked for consideration as a single is a bit of a head-scratcher because it’s arguably more immediately infectious than any of the actual radio hits here – although it may be that the label simply thought it might polarize fans of the far mellower “Wild World” – and stands as the catchiest album cut in Stevens’ entire discography. Yes, the three radio hits are available on Greatest Hits, but the sheer quality of the non-singles here still make this disc a must-own for even the more casual Cat Stevens fan.

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Catch Bull at Four (1972, A&M)

B

It sold roughly only a third of what Teaser and the Firecat did and spawned only one hit single, but Catch Bull at Four ironically bears the distinction nonetheless of being Stevens’ first and only studio album to reach Number One. That it was a lesser commercial success than its predecessor is not much of a surprise – there simply aren’t nearly as many hooks or noticeably commercial tunes to be found here in comparison to the virtually filler-free Firecat. It’s an intense and passionate album, to be sure, and one sure to delight fans of Stevens’ more experimental side, but aside from a tiny handful of moderately rewarding album cuts (the unexpectedly-synth-laden “Angelsea” and the dramatic “18th Avenue” in particular), the disc is largely carried by its two most famous tracks, the Top Twenty hit “Sitting” and, even more memorably, the playful romp “Can’t Keep It In” (which boasts one brilliant lyrical link after another, particularly when Cat gets to the couplet “You’ve got so much to say, say what you mean / Mean what you’re thinking and think anything”), which was strangely bypassed as a single in the U.S. but is easily the most infectious song here. Since those two songs are typically found of most best-of packages by Stevens, some casual fans may want to pass this one over, although vinyl enthusiasts may want to pick it up, anyway, as the packaging of this album is very well-crafted indeed and helps to make the record a more alluring buy than it might otherwise be. (The customized label on the second side of the original vinyl is a real beauty in particular.)     

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Foreigner (1973, A&M)

C

Temporarily jettisoning his longtime producer Paul Samwell-Smith (who would thankfully return on the next disc) and opting to produce himself for the first time, Stevens takes a very left-field turn on this experimental affair, casting aside his signature sound for something a bit more R&B-oriented (the album’s solitary single practically plays like a soul cover) while also devoting the entirety of the album’s first side to a single track, the multi-part epic “Foreigner Suite.” [The song would grab headlines decades later as part of a plagiarism suit filed by Stevens and Joe Satriani against Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”; if you want to hear the passage in question, skip right to the fourteen-and-a-half minute mark.]  While the disc is undeniably interesting and ranks among his most fascinating ventures, he’s not really playing to his strengths here, and the disc consequently pales wildly in comparison to the prior four albums. “The Hurt” is the most commercial cut here and consequently saw release as a single, but it only climbed as high as #31 and would later get left off of Stevens’ first greatest-hits record, which may have been an acknowledgment of sorts that this album was something of a misstep. It’s never bad per se – it’s just a bit too self-indulgent to truly satiate most fans.