by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974, A&M)
Reuniting with Samwell-Smith and eschewing the longer fare – not to mention the R&B stylings – of Foreigner, Stevens seems to be making a conscious attempt here to reclaim any fans he may have shed with his more experimental last two discs. While the disc is a moderately more commercial outing than Foreigner, it’s not exactly a return to the more lighthearted Teaser and the Firecat, either – it’s a much more wistful and spirituality-minded affair than that record, especially on cuts like “Home in the Sky” and “Jesus” and “King of Trees” and consequently never quite as fun. The album is not entirely lacking in playful or radio-friendly fare – to the contrary, “Oh Very Young” would reach the Top Ten and become his biggest hit since “Morning Has Broken,” while the forceful stutter-step of the lustful rock’n’soul side “Ready” sounds light years ahead of its time (to the extent that you could easily imagine Britney Spears covering it) – but those songs sound somewhat shoehorned in to what is otherwise a very self-serious album and one that doesn’t cohere nearly as well as Tillerman or Firecat, even if its best moments are Stevens’ most winning excursions since “Sitting” and “Can’t Keep It In.”
Numbers (1975, A&M)
Easily the most embarrassing record of his career, Stevens – once again producing himself – inexplicably followed up the modest commercial comeback of Buddha with this unbelievably self-indulgent and confusing concept album about a number-dispensing machine on the planet Polygor. If this sounds considerably more uncommercial than the similarly experimental Foreigner, that’s because it is, and the lyrics neither make much sense (even if you attempt to follow the storyline contained in the enclosed booklet, and all power to you if you can), nor do the songs boast much in the way of hooks to make them a bit more easily palatable. Both the album and its parent single, “Banapple Gas” (which missed the Top 40 entirely, Stevens’ first U.S. single to do so since “Lady d’Arbanville), flopped. It’s possible to call some of these songs mildly engaging, like “Majik of Majiks,” “Land ‘o Freelove and Goodbye” or “Drywood,” but the sheer pretension of the album makes it hard to warm up to much of anything here, and it’s little wonder that Stevens’ star dimmed in a major way as a result.
Izitso (1977, A&M)
Arguably both Stevens’ most underrated album and his most satisfying outing since Catch Bull at Four, Izitso still falls considerably shy of the brilliance of Tillerman or Firecat, but it’s his most lighthearted and poppy album since that disc. The charming “(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard),” a duet with British pop songstress Elkie Brooks, would give Stevens his final Top 40 hit, and the self-referential “(I Never Wanted) to Be a Star” is equally endearing. The surrounding album cuts are also a tad more infectious than usual particularly “Crazy,” “Bonfire,” and, best of all, the tight and forceful rock-disco grooves of “Killin’ Time,” recorded with the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who sound as engaging as ever on this should-have-been single. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is the disc’s prominent use of synthesizers, Stevens going so far as to include a wholly synth-driven instrumental in the primitive techno-pop of “Was Dog a Doughnut,” which sounds at least half a decade ahead of its time.
Back to Earth (1978, A&M)
Stevens had long grown tired by now of being a rock star – “(I Never Wanted) to Be a Star” from the last record even stated so point-blank – but he owed A&M one more album, and his last album for the label would turn out to be not merely his last album of the ‘70s but the last pop album he would make until 2006. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that the album not only seems designed as a farewell (especially on the final cut, “Never”) but is a more noticeably somber affair than Izitso and one that also comes full-circle a bit, reuniting Stevens with both Samwell-Smith (who returns as producer for the first time since Buddha) and his old sidemen Alun Davies and Gerry Conway. It’s not as fun as Izitso, no, but it’s almost equally as underrated, Stevens seeming a bit more at peace here and the sound more in keeping with the introspective rhythmic folk of his earlier albums. “New York Times” (with a then-unknown Luther Vandross on backing vocals), “Bad Brakes,” “Last Love Song” and, perhaps most memorably of all, “Just Another Night” are all charming additions to the Stevens canon. It’s not an essential pick-up, but for a record that was crafted largely for the purpose of getting out of his contract, it’s also better than it has any right to be and makes for a suitable farewell to the industry.
An Other Cup (2006, Atlantic)
Overpraised at the time, An Other Cup – the first mainstream pop album from Stevens (who had since changed his name to Yusuf Islam) in twenty-six years – is still nonetheless a mostly charming return from an old friend, one who’s thankfully still in fine voice, at that. Original sidemen Alun Davies and Jean Roussel are even back as well. While there are some engaging songs here, particularly “Maybe There’s a World,” “Midday (Avoid City After Dark),” and “One Day at a Time,” the album feels partly redundant, Islam filling up part of the running time with unnecessary re-recordings of “I Think I See the Light” and, on “Heaven/Where True Love Goes,” portions of “Foreigner Suite,” while the cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” just doesn’t work at all.
Roadsinger (2009, Island)
A vast improvement on An Other Cup and quite possibly his most cohesive and satisfying full-length since Catch Bull at Four, Roadsinger finds Islam not merely more inspired (there are thankfully no re-recordings of past songs here) but at peace with his legacy, even going so far as to incorporate archival pictures and old song title stickers into the album art. Martin Terefe, best known for his work with Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall, and James Morrison, makes a much more suitable producer for Islam as well than Rick Nowels, who had helmed An Other Cup, and Terefe helps Islam fully recapture the sound of his early ‘70s albums on songs like “Thinking ‘Bout You” and “Be What You Must,” which even works in a quick snippet of “Sitting”! “This Glass World” is a first-rate ballad and “The Rain” effectively haunting, while Islam throws in some new interesting twists via the country licks and brass accents of “Everytime I Dream” and the sax solo on the otherwise sparse acoustic ballad “Dream On (Until ….).” The disc is also noteworthy for featuring an all-star cast of backing vocalists that includes the aforementioned James Morrison, Gunnar Nelson, Michelle Branch, and the Hollies’ Terry Sylvester. Nothing here may be quite as infectious as the biggest hits from his early-‘70s discs, but it all gels together incredibly well, in a way that makes the disc, though far from being quite of the same quality as Tillerman, feel just as quietly ambitious and substantial as that record.
Tell 'Em I'm Gone (2014, Legacy)
Terefe is sadly replaced in the producer’s chair this time around by Rick Rubin, who isn’t nearly quite so suitable a collaborator for Islam. A large part of the reason that Tell ‘em I’m Gone feels considerably less satisfying than its predecessor is that there are just too many covers included – some that work (Luther Dixon’s blues classic “Big Boss Man” and Edgar Winter’s “Dying to Live,” the latter of which would have sounded right at home on any of Islam’s landmark outings on A&M) and some that don’t (the bluesy adaptation of “You Are My Sunshine” but nearly all of which feel a bit like stalling for time. But the originals are generally quite good: “Doors” has fabulous lyrics, the ballad “Cat & the Dog Trap” is surprisingly engaging, and the spare folk of “I Was Raised in Babylon” is rendered all the more appealing by a guest appearance from the great Richard Thompson. Roadsinger is definitely the more impressive album piece and the warmer of the two discs, resting the most comfortably alongside classic discs like Tillerman or Firecat, but Tell ‘em takes more chances and, in spite of its occasional hiccups, still feels a bit more self-certain an affair than An Other Cup.
The Laughing Apple (2017, Decca)
Samwell-Smith unexpectedly returns as producer on this happy, peaceful disc that is likely to appeal to children as much as it will to Islam’s oldest fans. The biggest obstacle for older listeners is that, as he did on An Other Cup, Islam is still recycling old material here, and four of the eleven songs here are reprised from New Masters (although “I’m So Sleepy” does make the perfect album closer, so its inclusion is a bit more warranted), while “Grandsons” is a rewrite of an archival cut that had already been unearthed and officially released to much attention on The Very Best of Cat Stevens back in 2000). So, technically, only six songs here are fully new. But those six songs are rather endearing – especially the inspirational “You Can Do (Whatever)”, the swaying breezes of “Olive Hill,” the tranquil and lovely “Mighty Peace” and the sunny “See What Love Did to Me” – and the album has an enormous charm and easygoing vibe about it that makes the album feel more satisfying than it really has any right to be.
The 1975 quadruple-platinum Greatest Hits should certainly make do for most fans. All his early Top 40 hits from “Wild World” to his Top Ten-charting non-LP cover of Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night” are here with the sole exception of “The Hurt.” While it’d be nice to have “Bitterblue” and “The Wind” here, “Can’t Keep It In” is thankfully included, as is the oft-overlooked Top 40 hit “Ready,” and this is also one of the very few places where you can find the Top 40 hit “Two Fine People,” which is inexplicably almost always forgotten about whenever a new Stevens best-of is assembled. The 2005 double-disc set Goldis more fully career-encompassing if you want something a bit more extensive, but it’s also a bit of a wasted opportunity; on one hand, this rounds up most of his major sides from both his years on A&M and his earlier outings for Deram like “Matthew and Son,” “Here Comes My Baby,” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” and it’s also a way to obtain such A&M-era fabulous album cuts such as “Bitterblue” and “The Wind” – not to mention the late-‘70s Top 40 hit “(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard”), which arrived too late to be included on Greatest Hits – without having to buy the individual studio albums. But there’s also too much filler from albums like Catch Bull at Four, Foreigner, Buddha, and Numbers included while more infectious and Top 40-charting sides like “Ready” and “Two Fine People” are strangely bypassed, making the disc feel like more an artistic statement than an actual fan-friendly hits compilation.
Strangely enough, the lone Cat Stevens live record issued before his original retirement, 1974’s single-disc Saturnight, was issued only in Japan. It’s more of a curiosity than an essential pick-up, but if you’re an avid Stevens fan looking for a fun challenge, see if you can track down an original vinyl copy of this obscurity.