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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cat Stevens: Tea For The Tillerman

CAT STEVENS: TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN (1970)

1) Where Do The Children Play; 2) Hard Headed Woman; 3) Wild World; 4) Sad Lisa; 5) Miles From Nowhere; 6) But I Might Die Tonight; 7) Longer Boats; 8) Into White; 9) On The Road To Find Out; 10) Father And Son; 11) Tea For The Tillerman.

Since Tea For The Tillerman is commonly regarded as the highest peak of Stevens' career, this is as good a place as any to confess that I have a hard time recognizing Cat as one of the «all-time greats». As a composer, he is but barely experimental and adventurous, with most of his melodies on about the same level of compositional originality and complexity as, say, James Taylor or any other soft-rocker of the decade. As a lyricist, he is competent, but not exceptional — most of his texts make very explicit sense and largely manage to avoid the usual clichés, yet remain way below Dylan or Joni Mitchell. And while his charismatic personality is undeniable, at times the sentimentality can be overbearing: being too nice can sometimes ruin the experience.

Nevertheless, there is one art that Cat Stevens had mastered to near-perfection — telling simple stories of human relationships and painting simple portraits of human emotions in simple, but stunningly tasteful ways. Walking a fine path between the challenging intricacies of the afore­mentioned Joni Mitchell and the cringeworthy platitudes of the also aforementioned James Taylor, he writes songs like ʽSad Lisaʼ — simple and direct, but with a small, barely noticeable twist that gives the tune a special angle: for this tune, it is the use of the Leslie cabinet to give his piano a «watery» effect, and its combination with a baroque violin part. It's just a song about a depressed girl and vain attempts to console her, but there is something subtly doom-laden about that piano tone, implying that not only does ʽsad Lisaʼ not stand a single chance of ever finding happiness, but also that ʽsad Lisaʼ probably stands for something bigger than just one weeping lady.

Not that the song itself, or the album in general, falls in the category of «depressing». Stevens is troubled here, but he is also actively searching — most of the songs are energetic call-for-action tunes, and even on ʽSad Lisaʼ he is trying to do something rather than just stand in the corner and watch, although he does admit that chances of success are slim. Obviously, ʽSad Lisaʼ is not his ideal of a ʽHard Headed Womanʼ, a song that slowly, but decisively builds up towards a small explosion of acoustic guitars, strings, and drums that frame the songwriter's pledge to find a "hard-headed woman / One who'll take me for myself" — notice the cool lyrical twist, because before that day, a ʽHard Headed Womanʼ was most commonly associated with the Elvis song of the same title, and there was no talk about "taking me for myself" in that one. In any case, the tune reads very convincingly as a personal diary statement, and this is the point of the album: to serve as the songwriter's personal diary, rather than as a collection of detached pop songs that have no personal relevance for the songwriter.

And thus, we learn that Cat Stevens: (a) is very much worried about the fate of the planet that puts technological progress before the well-being of its individuals (ʽWhere Do The Children Playʼ); (b) has plenty of women problems, as his previous woman is leaving (ʽWild Worldʼ) and his next woman still remains an unreachable ideal (ʽHard Headed Womanʼ); (c) is looking for spiritual enlightenment and will probably stop at nothing to reach it one way (ʽMiles From No­whereʼ) or another (ʽOn The Road To Find Outʼ); (d) has serious Dad issues, but is willing to try and look at the issue from both sides (ʽFather And Sonʼ); (e) is cool with the Taoist knack of locating beauty and transcendence in the simplest things, from barely rice to red-legged chickens (ʽInto Whiteʼ). How many people have told you so many details about themselves in 1970? Not that there's anything particularly brave or scandalous about these disclosures, but the important thing is that Stevens' style makes them all believable. Above all, Tea For The Tillerman flaunts its sincerity and anti-commerciality — despite many of the songs being catchy enough to the point of becoming hits.

Ultimately, only ʽWild Worldʼ became a hit, and, honestly, it is probably the corniest song of the lot — at least, as a single, outside the general context of the album, it can be easily perceived as just another generic breakup ballad, and indeed there is something rather troubadourishly bland about the man's delivery of "now that I've lost everything to you / you say you wanna start some­thing new...", something more suitable for a seductive pop star than a sincere singer-songwriter, which is exactly the reason why the song so quickly caught on. The much more interesting ʽFather And Sonʼ, sung by Cat as a dialog of two voices, failed to chart in comparison — because it has no obvious hooklines to speak of — but it endured, I think, as a far more popular choice for Cat's devoted fans than ʽWild Worldʼ.

I find myself more intrigued by those of the man's songs that are not so easy to decode: ʽLonger Boatsʼ, for instance, which is about his fear of UFOs — something you won't be able to under­stand by simply listening to the repetitive, cheery chorus that makes the whole thing sound like a work song: "Longer boats are coming to win us, coming to win us..." as if this were not only inevitable, but not even very regrettable. It is certainly a more curious endeavour than ʽOn The Road To Find Outʼ, equally cheery but a bit too close in spirit to proverbial gospel.

And still, like I said, there is not a single song here that prompts for the word "great", simply because this is not an album that aspires to any sort of greatness in the first place. It is a humble, friendly, sincere record that has just enough depth to not come across as primitive, yet stops pre­cisely at the point upon which somebody could label it as pretentious. It could benefit from a bit of humor — not Stevens' forte, really — but it does not have any particularly «heavy» moments that would scream and beg for comic relief, either. It has the word Tea in the title and it features the Tillerman tilling tea on the cover — enough of a hint for you that you should probably have yourself a cup of tea while listening, taking a break from routine work and relaxing together with the artist, lightly pondering the fates of mankind, the future of your own spirit, and the grim fate of Sad Lisa. It gets a thumbs up, yet it is not one of the great, turbulent, monumental master­pieces of 1970: it is the album to which you turn for calm and comfort once you've made it through all the turbulence and your nerves are in desperate need of a cooldown. Of course, you could always choose James Taylor instead — but cooling down nerves is one thing, and going down dying from boredom is another.

12 comments:

  1. Ah, really man? Joni Mitchell? The challenging intricacies of her melodies are really challenging. In fact so challenging that I honestly cannot remember any of her melodies ever. Which gives me a suspicion they are non-existent. It is ten times harder to write a Cat-style, super simple yet memorable melody than all of that crap she churns out.
    You're damn right about James Taylor though...

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    1. Chelsea Morning?

      Love her songs. Less keen on her singing. Cat's voice is perfect here, and on the earlier stuff, but takes on a preachy tone as his songs start to get worse.

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  2. A lovely album, and a strikingly honest one. Trouble is, it left him with little more to say, and his work went into decline immediately afterwards.

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  3. I would say the greatness of many of these songs is in their lack of pretension or experimentation. What's the difference between "very good" and "great"? Both depend on a level of excellence. But the latter seeks to stand out through difference while the former eschews complexity of uniqueness. As for originality WH Auden once said that the mark of a true artist is authenticity not originality.

    It seems to me we've gone so far down the road of pretension in music that it's become hard to tell what's even good anymore.

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  4. With "charisma" I think you have hit the nail on the head with Cat Stevens, there is something almost shockingly "personal" about him, and this just comes over in the charisma of his voice. He is also a 1st rate producer and arranger something that becomes more apparent in his later albums.

    I would also say he offers far more in hooks and melodic variety than James Taylor, who I like. A few albums in and JT gets very limited.

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  6. The enduring cult film Harold & Maude most likely played an important role in giving this album its slow-burn inertia toward classic status. Its black-comedy tone de-cornifies (for lack of an actual word) the soundtrack tunes just enough to allow them to sink in.

    Case in point: I haven't been able to suppress a slight inner-cringe whenever I hear the naked, post-pubescent hang-uppery of "Father & Son" and "Sad Lisa", but I can somehow stomach the naked, post-pubescent hang-uppery of all the soundtrack tunes. I've learned to like the other songs over time, but maybe a cinematic treatment from Hal Ashby would have gotten me there sooner. Sometimes you need to be brainwashed into liking nice things.

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  7. Oh, I don't know, I think Father and Son qualifies as great. It's one of the rare songs that I have, at points in my life, played it on repeat at least half a dozen times.

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    1. I know what you mean, but it took the whole album to wear me down. "Father & Son" reminds me of Wainwright's "Your Mother and I" in terms of how family-related crisis can be directly laid open. The cringe I feel probably comes from how they both cut right down into emotional bone without much musical anesthetic. Hide the authenticity, pain, and doubt of F&S, add some rip-roarin' bombast, and the exact same sentiment could easily come out as something like "Born to Be Wild".

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    2. Surely Father And Son is his out and out classic. Really gets me!

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  8. Weirdly 'Father and Son' was originally written for a rock opera or stage musical (forget which) about the Russian Revolution called 'Revolussia', and the young man in question was going off to join the Revolution.
    When the Revolussia project collapsed, Cat was happy to take the song out of its original context, feeling it'd make the song more relatable to a wider audience.

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  9. Ever notice that The Flaming Lips's Fight Test sounds a lot like Father and Son?

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