Review Summary: Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, re-enters the singer-songwriter realm after a 30 year hiatus and reminds us all of why we love him.
Without that title: --- Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
He was born Steven Demetre Georgiou. In 1978, after converting to the Islamic faith, he changed his name to Yusuf Islam. In 2004, he was prevented from entering the US as his name had mistakenly been added to the no-fly list – it seems they had confused him with suspected terrorist Youssef Islam. So it would seem there's actually a lot more in a name than Billy Shakespeare would have you believe, but if it makes things easier, this album's packaging let's us know that you can still call him Cat Stevens.
The reason I'm presenting all of this is not to stall; I've started this review countless times over and am under no pressure to finish it. No, I'm bringing this up because first impressions are important, even if they're of an already established artist, and thus are not first impressions at all. Confusing I know, but you'll get it eventually. This is Yusuf Islam's (simply known as Yusuf on the cover) first pop album since the name change, but fear not, this is the same guy your parents/peers/grandparents fell in love with thirty years ago.
Yusuf hasn't missed a beat, as this is still the same sound he made famous on 70s staple "Tea for the Tillerman" and later perfected on "Teaser and the Firecat", and while it's certainly not as impactful, I'm comfortable saying that "An Other Cup" comes pretty close.
Yusuf relies, as always, on the piano and acoustic guitar, as well as his warm, soft voice, which has only become more effective with age. At its core, the music found on "An Other Cup" is relatively simple, but beneath the subdued singer-songwriter sound you'll find plenty of subtle nuances to keep things interesting. "Midday (Avoid City After Dark)" opens the album focusing almost entirely on Yusuf's voice, which lends itself to the production. The song tells the story of a man enraptured by a city's implicit beauty, but terrified of the night. Along with the traditional guitar/piano sound, the track employs tribal-esque drumming and, perhaps the most interesting of twists, horns. Perhaps the horns are supposed to exhibit the apparent contrast between day and night, quiet and loud, but probably not. I think it's what it sounds like –good.
Other stand-outs include the romantic "Heaven/Where True Love Goes", a song describing true love, and more specifically, how Yusuf follows his heart regardless of situation. As it says, "[he] goes where true love goes, [he] goes where true love goes". As the title implies, the track employs two specific themes, which interchange flawlessly; you'd be hard-pressed to actually notice when Yusuf shifts from describing an immaculate beauty programmed by the heaven's themselves to the way he lives his life.
"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", Yusuf's interpretation of a song first made popular by Nina Simone over forty years ago, is probably the most important on the album. While it may not be the best, it's definitely the most necessary. In lieu of all the controversy –the fatwa, the name/faith change, that beard – Yusuf wants to make sure that people aren't getting the wrong idea. To do this, Yusuf enlists the help of strings, which, upon being paired with the piano and Yusuf's voice, make for a very heartfelt plea; one that sceptics will hopefully take to heart. As the lyrics once again state, "[he's] Well I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lord, please don't let [him] be misunderstood".
It's not perfect by any means. Some songs can often be a little bit dull, perhaps even a little samey, and the album does seem to, at times, lack the power found in classic songs such as "Wild World". "Whispers from a Spiritual Garden" is, for lack of a nicer word, a useless interlude; a new-age romp complete with an awkward spoken word jaunt at the end. In the end, "Whispers From A Spiritual Garden" is barely two minutes in length, and besides these few minor faults, Yusuf reminds us of how he got to where he was, how he made it to a level where a simple change of faith could cause a backlash. He's been gone a while, but listening to this, it's a fact you'll have a hard time considering. Yusuf Islam is a genuine and talented songwriter, and while the album isn't without flaw, that's probably why it works. It is, after-all, a highly introspective album, laced with his beliefs (which does mean you will find some God talk on here), his ideas and of course his classic storytelling.
I think it's time the public welcomed him back with open arms, so I suppose I'll get the ball rolling.
Welcome back, whateveryournameis.