Yusuf (Cat Stevens): Roadsinger

By: Dennis Cook

If there's a yearning in you that never fully subsides, if there's some steady sadness that lingers just below the surface, well, then there are few more sympathetic vibrations than Cat Stevens. After being driven away from his music for years after he suggested the ol' Peace Train should roll over Salman Rushdie (which he now denies vociferously, but even making allowances, he offered passive support for the fatwa against the author), recently I revisited Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat and found myself newly peeled back to some intrinsic humanity. There's a potent simplicity to Stevens' work that's both grand and direct, folk singer pure and artiste large, yet ever anchored to a search for capital "T" truths. So, with guarded excitement, I approached his second album under his new name, Yusuf Islam, and found a happy surprise packed with the same lovely, low heat beauty and childlike understanding as his early '70s heyday touched by understandable weariness and unapologetic longing.

"I saw a sign on your path/ All seekers this way," begins opener "Welcome Home," which spreads its arms to hippie wanderers and returning soldiers. It's subject matter that's often seemed dated after the 1960s but is given quivering rumble by Yusuf's barely aged voice and a gorgeous arrangement. You'll probably be singing the closing refrain by the end of the first listen: "Time rolls on/ And so we travel on/ Time rolls on/ It ain't no good to sit and moan." There's always been a mantra quality to Stevens' lyrics but his years of music-less isolation have given a little more heft and a bit more shading to his pronouncements. First single "Thinking 'Bout You" is a sweet lil' love song, but like George Harrison's "If Not For You" or "What Is Life" it's likely being sung to God and not some gal, yet it works both ways. But, this ain't all peace fingers in the air and the troubled "Everytime I Dream" shimmers darkly with a sophisticated arrangement full of smartly placed brass. The creep continues on "The Rain," which echoes recent Richie Havens in both excellence and prophetic aura. And I could easily knock out similar nutshells for every cut, and this after only a couple full spins. Roadsinger (released May 5 on A&M) is likely to be a grower, working into one slowly but leaving strong roots in the end.

A sense of gorgeous restraint permeates Roadsinger. Careful thought to each detail is apparent so the whole reverberates as a single work, similar ideas held up in different lights, offered variation in presentation, but often circling around what happens when "the light of truth has been put out." This is the right time to be asking such questions, and it's heartening to find one of the finest pop philosophers back at the lectern delivering mellifluous ruminations. So much to ponder, so many feelings, yet in the end, this truly does feel like a homecoming. Lovely that.

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[Published on: 5/8/09]

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