Cat Stevens’ first self-produced album, much of it recorded in Jamaica, fails in virtually all of its fuzzy ambitions, the most conspicuous of which seems to have been an attempt to add some meaningfully avant-garde soul sauce to Cat’s basically bland Anglo stew. The almost complete lack of integration between these elements is aggravated by Cat’s singing, which has become increasingly ragged since Tea for the Tillerman. Cat seems determined to sacrifice the pleasantly hypnotic quality of an assured ballad style for an affected emotional exuberance that has him choking on his own words.
Foreigner comprises five cuts, the centerpiece being “Foreigner Suite,” an 18-minute, eight-part paean to True Love that is billed by A&M as “Cat’s most personal statement to date.” Occupying all of side one, it abounds in trite, undeveloped little melodies and tedious passages of instrumental filler (featuring Cat on electric keyboards, synthesized and otherwise) that are a stylistic hodgepodge of warmed-over folk, jazz and soul motifs, disconnected from each other and likewise disconnected from the lyrics, which are themselves among the most disconnected that Cat has ever written.
The suite’s lyrics (some 20 clumsy stanzas) are nothing more than simplistic claptrap. They have no narrative continuity, contain no interesting ideas, and culminate in such banal declarations as: “The moment you fell inside my dreams/I realized all I had not seen/I’ve seen many other girls before, ah but darling/Heaven must’ve programmed you.” That’s about as much as we learn about Cat’s relationship with this ideal computer date, since earlier on he has told her and/or us (it doesn’t make the slightest difference): “There are no words I can use/Because the meaning still leaves for you to choose/And I couldn’t stand to let them be abused, by you.”
Cat doesn’t fare much better on side two. In “The Hurt,” the first and most melodic of four longish cuts, he says to his lady love:
You say you want to learn to laugh ’cause music makes you cry
But the tears you shed are only in the eye
So you turn to any phony mouth with a tale to tell
But he’s just a hoaxer don’t you know, selling peace and religion
Between his jokes and his karma chewing gum.
No wonder Cat chokes on his own words. Either he has forgotten that not too long ago he was advertising rides on the “Peace Train,” or he is deliberately renouncing the sentiments of his past work. There is no way of telling (and then again, who cares?), since the lyrics digress completely, to end with the following confession: “Till I got hurt, baby, I didn’t know what love is.”
“How Many Times,” a decaffeinated R&B-flavored ballad describing emptiness and boredom in the aftermath of a love affair, is just barely passable. “Later” is more palpitatingly soulful, propelled by Phil Upchurch on wah-wah pedal, with tepid female backups, the soul beat interrupted for one disastrously maudlin stanza in which Cat waxes melodramatic: “… Oh babe/There’s nothing I can do, oh darling/I love you.” Lastly, we have “100 I Dream,” which opens with two nightmarish verses excoriating “the evil that’s been done” (by the older generation, what else?) and then turns into a shallow, preachy succession of cliches invoking the new world a-coming: “Rise up and be free and die happily/And in this way you will awake.”
Foreigner, if indeed it is Cat Stevens’ “most personal statement to date” (and there is no reason to believe it wasn’t intended as such), presents conclusive evidence that Cat is incapable of delivering the promise that a lot of people (myself included) thought might be forthcoming. It shows his ultimate artistic potential to be very narrow, perhaps even exhausted altogether. Among the most popular singer/songwriters who have gained critical respect over the past several years, Cat is apparently the least intelligent. He excels in one small area of creativity—working in short melodic forms derived from the English ballad tradition and extended into the romantic pop idiom with the help of a sympathetic producer like Paul Samwell-Smith. If a rehash of Tea for the Tillerman is the most we can ever expect from Cat Stevens, let us have it, by all means, and be done with this sort of pretentious puttering, for Foreigner is difficult to listen to and painful to review.