The last really good Cat Stevens song, two albums back, was appropriately titled “I Can’t Keep It In.” Since then he’s been pouring out separate streams of interesting melody and dubious verbiage, streams that never converge. That would not necessarily be a problem — Stevens remains a gifted composer no matter what — were it not for the fact that his lyrics become so much more strident and incoherent with each progressively less promising effort.
However fresh and idiosyncratic a melodist he can be, Stevens’s special genius has always been for sharply dramatic arrangements. But even that flair works against his most recent material, as he places furious emphasis on apparently random moments and never lets emotion ring true through the mood of constant contrivance. The charmingly obscure frenzy of his Tea for the Tillerman days is all but gone now, replaced by incontrovertible dizziness. “Music is a lady that I still love/Cause she gives me the air that I breathe,” he proclaims in the otherwise admirable “Home in the Sky.” And in “Music,” he disrupts a quirky but stirring arrangement with this: “Take a look at the world/Think about how it will end/There’d be no more wars in the world/If everybody joined in the band.” Maybe it all makes a higher sense if you grasp the relationship between the bald boy, the chocolate deity and the spider with the flute, depicted on the back cover. Maybe … but only Cat himself, who was in charge of the illustrations, as well as dreaming up the unbearably precious title, can ever know for sure.
Though its proselytizing efforts are nearly as noxious as the Foreigner Suite‘s pretensions, this is generally a more lighthearted, less stilted album than its predecessor. “Oh Very Young” is a lovely, simple melody, the vaguest song here and one of the most appealing. “Ghost Town” sounds like high-adrenaline Neil Young, and if you nod along to Gerry Conway’s drums as feverishly as Cat himself would, you may not even notice lyrics that drop the names of Anne Boleyn, Houdini, Bill Bailey, Buster Keaton and King Tut. “Ready,” “Music” and “A Bad Penny” all come on strong but never live up to the potential of their opening bars. “A Bad Penny” is the most interesting of the lot, if only because its reference to “idol lies” is never established as either a bad pun or bad spelling. All of the album is beautifully performed, but parts of it are overproduced. Cat needs a dozen good songs a lot more than he needs a dozen background singers right now.