By Emily Votaw
Yusuf Islam, (aka everyone’s favorite bearded early-’70s heartthrob Cat Stevens) hasn’t had the most stellar musical output since reappearing in the public eye with 2006’s “An Other Cup.” While the full- length releases he’s put out since 2006 have had a certain charm to them – it is Cat’s sweet, sweet voice you’re hearing, after all – it’s true that there hasn’t been another “Mona Bone Jakon” since 1970.
“Tell ’Em I’m Gone” shakes things up a bit for the legendary radio pop favorite, and that’s a very good thing. This album feels like a more even representation of what Islam has probably been aiming for ever since he started recording again: music that he would make now. Not a rehash of his hits from soft rock radio, not even a reinvention of the stunning work he recorded on albums like “Mona Bone Jakon” and “Catch Bull at Four,” but an actual, real representation of what he, as a musician, should be creating at this time in his career.
The album has its shares of blunders, and sometimes you find yourself winching at lyrics in such a way that you remember doing the first time you heard “Tea for the Tillerman.” But, you must remember. Eventually, that song became effortlessly charming, even if it did, at first, elicit that initial flinch.
Will the same be true of tunes like “Gold Digger” and “You Are My Sunshine?”
Someday will digging out “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone” elicit the same type of dreamy nostalgia that pulling “Teaser and the Firecat” does now?
Even with those occasionally cheesy lyrics?
Maybe. There is a certain strength to songs throughout Islam’s most recent work. “Editing Floor Blues” is a story-in-a-song affair that takes on Paul Simon-sized determination and loveliness. The song is shorter, under three minutes in length and punctuated with a dirty, trashy guitar riff. It’s refreshing to hear Islam’s sometimes cornball lyricism backed with some music with some undeniable guts.
“Big Boss Man” is where a certain level of political-mindedness creeps into the album, and that’s unfortunate because it’s the second song on the album. However, it’s pretty easy to forgive where Islam gets a little heavy-handed just because he’s experimenting with the sonic landscapes in which his music is laid. The song is not only more raucous than what you might expect from Islam, it’s legitimately groovier. Something about the perfectly layered guitars and the constantly shuffling percussion elevates this track from the rest of the album, a pretty immediate highlight.
Really, you don’t get a hint of “oh, this is grandma’s CD” until you hit the painful “You Are My Sunshine,” which shouldn’t be as unappealing as it is. Honestly, at first it sounds fine, but the triteness of those lyrics is hard to deny, especially when Islam is making such an obvious emotional shortcut in his craft.
“Editing Floor Blues” is proof that Islam is still a great storyteller, something that he always excelled at, regardless of what portion of his career you examine — everything from the cartoony excellence of the characters he developed on “Matthew and Son” to the everyday mysticism presented throughout “Buddha and the Chocolate Box.”
Maybe “Tell ’Em I’m Gone” isn’t the finest album that Islam has released, because, to be perfectly honest, he’s released more than his fair share of absolute stunners. This album sounds much like the continuation of the work that Islam has brought to the forefront since he started actively recording music. It sounds more mature, it sounds more thought out, and it sounds like something that is at least slightly more in line with what the likes of the same cat who released “Catch Bull at Four” would be working on in 2014.