Is it on the roads of Provence or the tube to Portobello Road that I visualize Cat? He is both the next in a long line of troubadours and very much the London neighborhood musician, encompassing at once the allure of the exotic and the ability to domesticate it. He wanders, but he returns home.
“Miles From Nowhere,” “Wild World,” “On the Road to Find Out,” “Father and Son” are songs of leaving — travel through time and space. Every song is an excursion into Cat’s personal world; together they constitute an album affirming the simple life and the individual’s search for values. All of this is a far cry, although only a causal link away, from Cat Stevens, “pop star” (listen to the song of the same title on his lovely Mona Bone Jakon), subsequently a refugee from the glittering life, and later still, the TB ward.
Cat’s melodies and lyrics are disarmingly, deceptively simple. He seems to fasten without effort onto tunes with a life of their own, tunes of small beginnings and wide resonances. He applies to them a furry voice with a kind of glottal buzz — perfect for the calypso “Longer Boats,” while adding the right touch of seasoning to an ageless folk song like “Into White”: “I built my house from barley rice/Green pepper walls, and water ice/tables of paper wood, windows of light/And everything emptying into White.” It really must be heard.
There is an equally childlike and nursery-rhymish “On the Road to Find Out,” which moves imperceptibly from fable to parable. Mixing theme and melody, I’d describe it as Dick Whittington meeting three blind mice, setting out to find London, and instead finding God. “Father and Son” is a dialogue between just that. Father, in a plea for the boy to stay, manages to reduce a complex thought to a trickle of words, “For you will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not.” To the boy, “From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.” Cat skillfully betrays a vested interest in neither role.
Sometimes Cat places an overreliance on dynamics for dramatic effect; also, his keyboard and guitar playing seem a bit amateurish, although that in itself has a certain charm — he’s just a folk singer, you know. If you’ve been listening to Donovan, Joni Mitchell, et al., though not necessarily these people, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be listening to Cat Stevens.