Singer/songwriter seems to be a dirty term these days. You hear a modern artist tagged with that label and automatically visions of a bad Dave Matthews clone come to mind. That sameness is a bi-product of a similar problem that plagues today's popular music. But when I hear the term Singer/Songwriter I think back to the hey-day of the genre where the artists were as varied as popular music itself and they always had interesting things to say with their music. I'm talking about the greats; James Taylor, Harry Chapin, Jim Croce and of course Cat Stevens.
It's pretty astonishing looking back at the diversity of the music of the 70s, thanks in large part to the album rock format of the burgeoning FM radio, fans were treated to a wealth of different music ranging from Led Zeppelin, B.O.C., Sabbath to Country Rock to Disco and Punk. While the latter two came along after the singer/songwriter heyday, it does show just how different the music business is today from a few decades ago. And how much we are missing out on now.
A great singer/songwriter has a unique voice and just as importantly interesting stories to tell with their music. That easily qualifies Cat Stevens for the honor. We are not here to talk about what happened to him after he gave up music and found God following a near-death experience, we are here to talk about his musical legacy, which should stand on its own. A glimpse of that legacy is to be found on the new double disc compilation Gold. With one listen through you understand why Cat Stevens found fame in the first place and cemented his name in music history. While there have been a few "hits" collections for Cat in the past, this one seemed to strike the perfect balance between his radio hits and fan favorite album cuts.
In America, Cat's big breakthrough album was Tea for the Tillerman (in early 1971). That album is well represented here with some of his most memorable songs including the major hit "Wild World," the unforgettable "Hard Headed Woman," the somber "Sad Lisa" and classic struggle between young and old in "Father and Son". Curiously absent is "Miles From Nowhere".
Just as people wondered if Cat could live up to the musical promise of Tillerman he shutdown all doubters with the release of Teaser and the Firecat. which contained some of his best known songs including "Moon Shadow," "Peace Train," and the unforgettable piano ballad "Morning Has Broken". Other highlights from this album are included on Gold including "Bitterblue" and "The Wind".
Cat went a little heavier for his next full-length release Catch Bull at Four, which landed him his first (and last) number one album in the US. Not surprisingly Gold really showcases this release with several cuts from the album including "Sitting," "Angelsea," "Silent Sunlight," "18th Avenue," and "Can't Keep It In".
In 1973 Cat released his most ambitious album to date, Foreigner, containing an 18 + minute suite on side-a. You would think that would be a bit too much music for this compilation but A&M pulled out all the stops and included it in its full glory. Of course, the hit single "The Hurt" is also present here. The most remarkable thing about this album was the stylistic chance from acoustic guitar focus to a more jazzy keyboard and horns feel.
The later hits are also showcased on Gold including "Oh Very young," Cat's hit cover of the Sam Cooke classic "Another Saturday Night". However, the hit single "Ready" didn't make the cut. Cat's final few albums are also represented here including "Last Love Song" from his final studio album Back to Earth as well as the introspective "To Be A Star, (I Never Wanted To Be)" and "Old Schoolyard, (Remember The Days Of The)".
The best part of this compilation comes at the beginning and the end. While other compilations have focused primarily on the 70's hits, Cat's early years are represented in the form of "Matthew & Son," "Here Comes My Baby" and "The First Cut Is The Deepest". This compilation ends of a high-note with a brand new track, "Indian Ocean," a song originally released as a digital download to raise money for Cats' Small Kindness charity (which raised money for tsunami relief.) It's an interesting song that combines classic Cat Stevens with some of the middle-eastern influence of his faith. It hard to listen to this track and not wonder what Cat may have accomplished musically if he had not retired from music over two decades ago.
While not as far reaching as the 4-disc box-set, this 32-track retrospective does a fine job of showcasing how Cat Stevens made his mark on music and became a musical legend.