Cat Stevens was one of several post-folk-pop innocents who came along in the early Seventies and were immensely comforting at the time. Carole King and James Taylor were two more singer/songwriter siblings of this sort, with Joni Mitchell the Mater Dolorosa. Stevens' charmingly simple tunes had an especially consoling, childlike quality, but while the other artists "grew up," he didn't. After Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, his whimsicality became increasingly cloying, the naiveté childish. Pretty soon, his records resembled foolish toy-box music, like Wings at its worst.
Insofar as he's forsaken Cloud-Kiddieland, Cat Stevens has, on his new album, come Back to Earth. For one thing, the sound and arrangements are attractively muscular, and nowhere more so than in "Bad Brakes," an exciting if uncharacteristic exercise in power-chord rock. Elsewhere, Stevens' trademark, guitar-led syncopation and unpredictable melody making are gratifyingly in evidence.
But taken individually, most of the songs are too weak to deserve their excellent arrangements or to keep the singer interested. Not just the amiable throwaway instrumentals or the truly icky "Father," but also such sincerely romantic numbers as "Last Love Song" and "Never," both of which are minor, unresolved imitations of earlier and stronger Stevens compositions. One of the most sensually delightful tracks, the pulsating, hyperproduced "New York Times," has the dumbest lyrics: "New York poor New York/Sniper on the rooftop New York.../Not fit for a dog in New York.../You need a gun to walk into New York."
There are some qualified pleasures here, however, including the opening cuts, "Just Another Night" and "Daytime." And "Randy" features Cat Stevens' most inspired vocal, though the crashing climax unbecomingly recalls "Mandy" (not, unfortunately, "Sandy," "Candy" or "Brandy"). The most conclusive thing to be said about Back to Earth is that it neither disappoints nor completely satisfies.