I get the tune and then I just keep on singing the tune until the words come out from the tune. It’s kind of a hypnotic state that you reach after a while when you keep on playing it where words just evolve from it. So you take those words and just let them go whichever way they want…. “Moonshadow”? Funny, that was in Spain, I went there alone, completely alone, to get away from a few things. And I was dancin’ on the rocks there … right on the rocks where the waves were like blowin’ and splashin’. Really, it was so fantastic. And the moon was bright, ya know, and I started dancin’ and singin’ and I sang that song and it stayed. It’s just the kind of moment that you want to find when you’re writin’ songs.
– Cat Stevens to a Boston DJ
The immediate virtues of Teaser and the Firecat (A&M SP4313) have become pretty self-evident: it has already yielded three hit singles. Two of these hits are infectious but basically dreck, and I think their success can be attributed mainly to production coups. “Rubylove” has a pleasant enough tune, but it’s the novelty of those two Zorbas on the bouzoukis that makes the song. “Peace Train” has a healthy dose of Cat’s characteristic calypso funk, but what puts you through the windshield those first few times is all that hand-clapping and bass drum pedal.
Then there is “Moonshadow,” a simple, unadorned song whose beauty lies in its mystery. I think that Cat could be dismissed as an ingenious and reliable composer of lightweight hits were it not for this rare strain of mystery, or puzzlement, that touches most of his finest songs. “Katmandu,” “Longer Boats,” and “Into White” are very vague songs, unfixed in time or space, offering no story line, giving us no handle on the singer’s personality or his emotions. But like Zen riddles, the vivid, exotic images tease the imagination. This is not the painfully contrived exoticism of most pseudo-folk-songs. Nor should the provocative ambiguity of Cat’s best lyrics be confused with the mangled English of his worst, “I’m being followed by a moonshadow.” The phrase is as catchy as “somewhere over the rainbow,” yet somehow it doesn’t sound “thought-up,” it sounds too original and natural for that.
In one of his new songs, Cat defines his songwriting method in highly romantic but entirely plausible terms: “I listen to the wind of my soul.” Many of his lyrics seem to go straight from his subconscious and into the listener’s completely by-passing the intellect. Even in his early pop star days, many of Cat’s short, crude hit songs had the sound of weather reports from his subconscious. Not having developed much artistry or control, he sometimes let his thoughts escape in raw pathological form, set to absurdly inappropriate little pop melodies. For instance, “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun,” with its never-to-be-sufficient refrain of “I’m gonna get me a gun,/And all those people who put me down, better get ready to run.”
Then came his TB cure and two years of searching for satori. By the time he wrote Mona Bone Jakon, he was capable of achieving a synthesis of self-consciousness and sub-consciousness.
When his girlfriend, who happened to be named D’Arbanville, left him for Mick Jagger, he wrote “Lady D’Arbanville.” The melody (consciously or not) was very similar to Jagger’s “Lady Jane.” In the lyrics, Cat effectively laid Miss D’Arbanville to rest: “Tho’ in your grave you lie, I’ll always be with you,” etc., etc. Cat had transmuted his unseemly feelings into a courtly and mysterious ballad that was a hit in six countries. Courtly and mysterious and so gentle-sounding it makes your flesh creep.
Most of Cat’s songs about women have a weird edge to them, a fact not lost on Women’s Liberation. Ellen Willis, the rock critic of the New Yorker, thinks that ” ‘Wild World’ betrays a condescending, sexist viewpoint.” Reverse the roles, she says, and “It’s hard to imagine a woman sadly warning her ex-lover that he’s too innocent for the big bad world out there.” True, and that goes for “Sad Lisa,” too. If in these two songs Cat expressed a rather suspect concern for the ladies who were leaving him, in his new songs (“If I Laugh,” “How Can I Tell You” and “Bitterblue”) he yearns for ladies who are achingly inaccessible from the outset. All three songs are lovely, the first two being quiet ballads, the last one a heavily syncopated wail. Taken as a whole, they express Cat’s awe at the power of women, an awe that is old-fashioned and perhaps tainted with sexism, but which has always been the stock in trade of troubadours. Once again, the lyrics have a subliminal intensity, as if Cat were putting his obsessions to music.
At any rate, I prefer those of Cat’s songs that sound as if they had bubbled up from the back of his mind. The more thought-out ones tend to reveal the workings of a staggeringly banal intellect. Cat’s political visions indicate a less than nodding acquaintance with current events. “Peace Train” at least delivers its simple-minded message in an appropriately childish tone. “I’ve been happy lately” thinking about the possibilities of the future; “I’ve been crying lately thinking about the world as it is.” That simple. In “Changes IV” however, Cat attempts a full-blown statement of his world view and succeeds in sounding like the Knute Rockne of the Age of Acquarius: “And we all know it’s better/Yesterday has past/Now let’s all start living/For the one that’s going to last.” Musically, the song is almost a parody of Cat’s flashiest and cheapest tricks, of his tendency to overdramatize a tune with rubato and heavy dynamics. An absurd flamenco guitar flourish keeps popping up as Cat heralds the new day when “the people of the world/Can all live in one room.” I know he means something nice by that, but taken at face value it sounds like a proposal for universal genocide.
The only lyric on the album that makes a really sophisticated, coherent statement about the world is “Morning Has Broken.” As Cat announces at his concerts, “Morning Has Broken” was a “hit hymn” of the Victorian Age. It is a gorgeous hymn, offering God respect and gratitude in suitably sentimental formal language. It has a grandeur of diction which no contemporary song can match. The hymn is absolutely right for Cat; it expresses his optimism, his reverence, his sentimentality more fluently than he himself can. He sings it about as well as it can be sung and gives it a dignified piano/guitar/muted chorus arrangement that is perfect.
Cat’s finest songs seem to spring from self-examination, from his search for a personal ethic; his inner voice speaks with a complexity and a conviction that his strictly self-conscious efforts lack. The three most interesting songs on Teaser–”Tuesday’s Dead,” the most spectacular number on the record, consists of a manic tumble of words ending with the chorus: “Whoa, where do you go when you don’t want no one to know/Who-oo told tomorrow Tuesday’s dead?” I have no idea what the chorus means and neither, as far as I know, does Cat. On stage, he prefaces the song with some mumbled remarks about New York hotels being weird and having to tip people and getting caught up in life’s trivia. As a whole, however, the song manages to convey Cat’s determination to hammer out a working set of values–the same idea expressed in “On the Road to Find Out.” The language of the chorus–that combination of words–is gripping, no matter what it means. The music–the irresistible calypso tune, the delayed entrance of the second guitar, the exclamatory punch of the bass pedal, the classic Jamaican choral work–is Cat at his flamboyant best.
The other two songs are quiet and peaceful. Both songs use bizarre and Zen-like images to express a resignation to fate and a simple faith in the future–very different from the mindless, cheer-leading optimism of “Peace Train.” The moonshadow is a purifying light that will comfort Cat even in the most terrifying physical trials he can imagine–blindness, dumbness and mutilation. Patient meditation has finally brought him peace, hopefully a lasting peace: “Did it take long to find me/ I ask the faithful light/Did it take long to find me/And are you going to stay the night?” That is a very satisfying lyric, one that works perfectly on both the real and metaphysical levels. The child-like, traditional-sounding tune fits the words to a T. The guitar duet accompaniment by Cat and Alun Davies, and the hint of tambourine, are just right.
“The Wind” is a model of economical songwriting, a far cry from the early pop songs in which Cat endlessly repeated the same trivial verse, padding it out with meaningless breaks. In less than two minutes, “The Wind” compresses Cat’s philosophy and a description of his working methods into a few mysterious images. The language is beautifully controlled, the melody is exquisite, the vocal is soulfully phrased, and the two guitars play in elegant counterpoint. A gem.