Friday, July 12, 2019

Cat Stevens 11: Back To Earth

From time to time an artist will attempt to regain his or her footing in pop culture by getting back to the sound that made him or her so successful in the first place. Oftentimes this intention is accompanied by the statement that so-and-so is “back”, and sometimes they even put it in the album title. While Cat Stevens was never that blatant, Back To Earth is an apt moniker for this album, as most of the songs avoid the modern sounds so prevalent on his recent work. At first, anyway.
An acoustic guitar, gentle piano, and muted drums carry “Just Another Night”, even through the double-time bridge, though the lyrics remain vague. While it’s based on the electric piano that had been prominent lately, “Daytime” is a gentle celebration of children worldwide; indeed, it was written for a UNICEF campaign. With its power chords and synth effects, “Bad Brakes” sticks out like a sore thumb, but somehow it doesn’t torpedo the proceedings. Given its comfortable yacht rock motif, “Randy” seems to be of a piece with other name songs of the time (i.e. “Mandy”, “Brandy”, “Sandy” etc.) but even given his emotional delivery, it’s not clear to us who this Randy person is, what he or she did, or why it had such an effect on the singer. “The Artist”, which follows, is a lovely understated instrumental in two parts that nicely concludes the side.
Side two begins promisingly, with “The Last Love Song” nakedly and achingly expressing hurt. But then it’s straight to the disco; we can’t tell if the instrumental “Nascimento” is supposed to evoke Milton Nascimento, but this minor-key boogie betrays a lack of lyrical inspiration. The disco influence still pervades on “Father”, a gentler prayer that sports lots of tricky changes and is past due for a simpler re-recording. The mood is dashed by “New York Times”, which paints an even nastier picture of the Big Apple than the Stones would, underneath a backing that’s part TV theme song, part travel advertisement. (In fact, the rhythm section is Will Lee and Steve Jordan, who would one day accompany Paul Shaffer on Late Night With David Letterman, and the singers include Luther Vandross.) So it’s relief when “Never” closes this short album in a more humble, laid-back mood, bringing it full circle.
Long-suffering fans may have been encouraged by Back To Earth, but had no idea that this was the last they’d hear from him for decades. We didn’t know then that he had already converted to Islam, changed his name (again), and wanted to devote his time to his faith and his family. He did owe the label one more album, so this was intended to close out his life as a performer. Now, of course, we can hear some hints of his intentions, but at least he tried to deliver something listenable.

Cat Stevens Back To Earth (1978)—

No comments:

Post a Comment