Ever since Yusuf Islam returned to the pop music scene in 2006, his music has contained a sense of freedom that wasn’t present back when he recorded under the name Cat Stevens. He’s no longer writing songs questioning his place in life or his spirituality. He knows who he is and his place in the universe, and it’s not just the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Never has that been more clear than on his brand new album, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, an album waving goodbye to a lot of the (non-spiritual) authority in his life.
While the phrase “it’s been a long, strange trip” has veered into cliché territory, it’s particularly true for Yusuf’s life. It’s been thirty-six years since Cat Stevens converted to Islam at the height of his musical popularity and left his career behind, and eight years since his return to pop music with 2006’s An Other Cup, followed by 2008’s excellent Road Singer. Three albums in an eight year stretch might not sound like much, but that’s a ton of material from someone who had completely disappeared from the music world for over two decades with no promise of a return.
Tell ‘Em I’m Gone shows that though years may pass between albums, Yusuf is just as capable a songwriter and musician as ever. This album, however, goes in a different direction than his usual fare. While still recognizably Yusuf Islam, this is a decidedly new venture for him: a blues-folk album. Half of the songs are covers, unprecedented on a Yusuf/Stevens album. Apparently this kind of album is something Yusuf always wanted to do, and it turns out he’s pretty darn good at it. (Yusuf also released an album entirely of commentary on Spotify, where he gives short explanations of the stories behind his songs, which is absolutely worth a listen.) Tell ‘Em I’m Gone has that rough-yet-polished sound that only producer Rick Ruben can deliver, and uses some techniques not heard before on Yusuf’s albums, including the use of background noise to establish place as well as more complex arrangements. The album features some heavy (but never overdone) production, including use of distorted guitars, blues riffs, and occasionally even a more prominent bass beat. The acoustic guitar so integral to the Yusuf brand is still pleasant, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on the album.
Yusuf excels at writing thoughtful songs that don’t cram their message down the listener’s throat, and for the most part he gets that right here as well. “Gold Digger” (which is unfortunately not a Kanye West cover) comes across as Yusuf’s take on greed and selling out, things that drove him away from the music industry to begin with. It was inspired by an article he read about the gold mining industry in South Africa, and how the dangerous environments still continue after both the 1946 mine strike and independence. Since we went decades without hearing much from him, it’s always refreshing to hear his take on the music industry–an industry which has both kept him fed and set him off on his spiritual path. The song has strong production, far from simple acoustic recording, and is emblematic of what he’s aiming for sonically with this album.
“Editing Floor Blues” is an album highlight, despite being a vessel for an irksome message. It’s Yusuf’s most recent attempt to claim “the media” has taken things he’s said out of context. While this has certainly happened–one need look no further than his denial of entry to the US in 2004 or when a German newspaper falsely claimed he did not speak to unveiled women–it’s hard not to think of this at least in part as his most recent attempt to magic away what he said about Salman Rushdie. (In short, when asked to comment on the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death order on Rushdie, he has merely confirmed that yes, according to Qu’ran, the author’s sacrilege does warrant death.) A review of an album I like isn’t the place for a morality thinkpiece, but suffice it to say the idea that he’s still trying to wave off the inflammatory things he said as “stupid and offensive jokes” kind of taints this otherwise solid song. In “Editing Floor Blues,” Yusuf employs some interesting techniques. These include the sound of a car zooming by to establish setting, someone placing a call asking to “speak to Mr. Stevens,” and some honest-to-goodness blues lyrics (“some people like to come in there and call it night / but for me it was all day”). If you can move past the borderline hypocrisy, it’s a great song. Yusuf just seems like the wrong person to sing it.
“Cat & The Dog Trap” is a cute little song, despite being about a kind of injustice: a cat getting blamed for something he didn’t do. There’s also a little bit of autobiography in there, something he has confirmed personally on his Spotify commentary, in which he explains how he’s not as wild as he used to be and doesn’t “chase danger” anymore. Much like “Editing Floor Blues,” it features an intriguing use of background sounds–cats and dogs mewling–and this adds a sense of richness, a sense of place, and to an extent, characters, which makes it feel more intimate. As such, this song is an excellent example of the fusion between his new sound and his old Cat Stevens sound.
His cover versions elicit a rare honesty and fit the album just as well as his originals. For instance, “Dying to Live” (as covered earlier) sums up the life philosophy Yusuf’s been singing about all these years, and seems to be a reflection on life, existence, and positivity. Yusuf’s arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” is particularly noteworthy. That famous and cheery chorus we all know so well is taken vastly out of context. It’s not a particularly happy song. Yusuf’s version, loosely inspired by Ray Charles’ incarantion, is much darker and rootsier. It emphasizes the harshness of the song while remaining a pleasant listen. “Take this Hammer” (called “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone” on this album) was one of the first songs Yusuf ever learned to play, so it’s appropriate that he put it as the title track on this, his labor of love. It’s a blues-folk song that more than serves its purpose as a late album track by affirming everything you think you’ve been hearing thematically: it’s a blatant yet pleasant (in other words, Truly British) way of saying “goodbye” to earthly authority.
The final song on the album, “Doors,” is largely a hymn of sorts, a musical declaration that every time God closes a door, a window opens. Even if it is a little jarring in contrast to the subtlety of the album on the first few listens, it’s still a fitting end to the record. Compare it to the “I love you Jesus Christ” lines from “King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” off of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea–it seems out of place, but after a few listens you realize it’s an integral part of the album’s theme.
Tell ‘Em I’m Gone proves once and for all that an old dog (or, in this case, Cat) can learn new tricks, and make it seem like he knew them all along.
Tell ‘Em I’m Gone is available now online and at your local record store.