1970, Music

Tea for the Tillerman (1970) by Cat Stevens

At his worst, Cat Stevens is like a sappier James Taylor (which is really saying something). But, at his best, he’s more musically interesting and ambitious than his bloodless contemporaries. My problem with this record is that he’s at his worst far more than he’s at his best.

Stevens definitely has a great gift for melody; whether it’s the most famous song here, “While World”, or some of the deeper cuts, melody is absolutely not the problem.

I quibble with a lot of his lyrics, not the least of which is “Father and Son”, a song I actually thought was by somebody else. I have never ever been able to get over the line “You are still young, that’s your fault.” No, it’s not. If it’s the father singing, it is literally the father’s fault. If the line wasn’t delivered in such a soft, pop folksy vehicle, I likely wouldn’t notice or care. But Stevens sings it as if it’s wisdom.

Then there are the arrangements – over the top as you would expect from a ’70s folk pop record. But sometimes it’s over the top to a purpose, such as on “Longer Boats” or “Tea for the Tillerman”, which it feels artistic and it works for the purpose of the song. But most of the time it’s just unnecessary window dressing, making up for Stevens’ general lack of ability as a captivating performer (very much like James Taylor, though I’d take Stevens over Taylor as a performer).

When I first started listening to this, I accidentally put on Tea for the Tillerman2 because YouTube Music doesn’t do a good job of showing it’s different. And it’s amazing how much more musically interesting that record is, as if he’s grown leaps and bounds over the decades as a performer and arranger. But, on this record, he’s dull and over-produced more than he’s inspired or interesting. (And his lyrics are problematic at times, too.)


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