Tea for the Tillerman

Cat Stevens

album cover

Ohhh, Baby, Baby, It's a Wild World

Pop music is home to seekers, earnest Hermann Hesse–reading types who are (as one song title here declares) "on the road to find out" and more than willing to send back dispatches. Born in England to Greek parents, Cat Stevens (Steven Demetre Georgiou) wasn't the first such soul. But he was among the most successful. For several years starting in 1970, he made spiritual inquiry—and introspection—seem a vital and necessary part of a young person's life.

Starting with a sonic palette somewhere between the late Beatles and the then-rising California singer-songwriters, Stevens created homily-rich songs that portrayed internal questing as a richly rewarding, and possibly sexy, pursuit. He wrote koans about religion, sometimes exhibiting a profound skepticism. He sang about technology, loss of innocence (most poignantly on "Where Do the Children Play?"), and the eternal struggles between brash youth and experience.

Tea for the Tillerman catches Stevens at his most brazen as a thinker and his most daring as a pop auteur; the record he issued six months after this one, Teaser and the Firecat, has the more simplistic singles "Morning Has Broken" and "Peace Train." This album is wound tighter, and takes more rhythmic chances; at times its questioning feels somewhat more severe. These are pluses: The sudden shifts of tempo jolt listeners from complacency, and the (few) varied musical approaches give Stevens's notions about romance (the search for a "Hard Headed Woman," the sketch of "Sad Lisa") an almost mystical aura.

Amazingly, Stevens's contribution to pop endures despite his well-publicized conversion to Islam in 1977, and his harsh condemnation of Western idol worship that followed. It's fine if he doesn't want to be a star anymore. But his choice doesn't change the resonance of these serene, entrancing hymnlike works, created at a time when Stevens was wandering "the road to find out."

Genre: Rock
Released: 1970, A&M
Key Tracks: "Where Do the Children Play?," "Wild World," "But I Might Die Tonight," "Longer Boats," "Father and Son"
Catalog Choice: Teaser and the Firecat
Next Stop: Donovan: Sunshine Superman
After That: Jim Croce: You Don't Mess Around with Jim
Book Pages: 741–742

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Comments:

#1 from Whit Andrews, Over there - 09/30/2008 7:15

Stevens will someday peel off when Croce and James Taylor are still audible. My 7-year-old probably won’t find Stevens in his copy of 1000 Recordings, umpteenth edition, which I hope to buy for him some day. But it’s lovely work, precious to hear, and to apply myself to now. I’m finally more complicated than this music (and so is Yusuf Islam, I hear), but it’s wonderful to have this stone to touch again.

#2 from viewdemonde, Australia - 08/04/2009 8:15

Witness:  “Where Do The Children Play” and “Wild World” redolent of my days in high school - yes, that old school yard…..

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