The Long and Winding Road of the Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens
by Cat Johnson
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Cat Stevens was a standout of the singer-songwriter craze in the 1970s. His albums Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat went triple platinum, he was scooping up awards by the handful, and he helped define the music of his generation.
Where other artists fell away from mainstream awareness, the music of Cat Stevens continued to sell, be played, and be passed from generation to generation. There was just one thing: his music was still around, but Stevens, who had changed his name to Yusuf Islam, was nowhere to be found. In the late-’70s, he converted to Islam, sold all his musical instruments, and dedicated himself to philanthropic and educational projects in the Muslim community. His departure from the music business was driven in part by his spiritual beliefs, but as he says, “I wanted a life.”
Decades later, in 2006, much to longtime Cat Stevens fans’ excitement then confusion, Islam released an album titled An Other Cup. It signaled the reemergence of the artist and attracted a flurry of press and attention that far overshadowed the actual music, which was met with lukewarm reviews and held little resemblance to the artist’s beloved classic-era music.
Islam’s 2009 album, Roadsinger was a bit of a return to form, with songs that found Islam singing about the path of the seeker—a familiar theme in his early music. By this time, the news of Islam’s conversion, move away from the music industry, and re-entry into it was old news and the release came and went without too much fanfare.
Recently, Islam released Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, an R&B inspired album that is the closest thing to the Cat Stevens classic sound that Islam has released. Full of introspective lyrics, the perspective of a lifelong spiritual searcher, some blues and even a little humor. Islam says the album is about being misunderstood and people wanting you to be, and remain, what you are to them.
Co-produced by Islam and Rick Rubin, the album is a nice balance of singer-songwriter sensibility, soul-infused melodies, and a roots-rock aesthetic. The playing and production are clean, tight and beautiful (Thanks, Rick), Islam’s voice is in top form, and it’s an enjoyable listen. If you’ve been holding out for a Yusuf Islam album that sounds like a Cat Stevens album, this is the one.