Cat Stevens’ fourth album Catch Bull at Four found a few changes in his music. His earlier work had been built primarily on the interplay between his and Alun Davies’ acoustic guitars. Although Stevens had often added keyboard accents to his work, from this point keyboard became far more prominent in the mix of his songs. A good example is “Angelsea,” which features a wonderful, vintage-’70s synth sound (I’m particularly a geek for loving the swooping octave drops at the song’s ending). Incidentally, I have no idea what the words are underneath the chorus – but I don’t believe the websites that claim they have anything to do with Carly Simon (I’m going to guess it’s Stevens singing in some other language again, as he’d done on Teaser‘s “Rubylove” and on this album on “O Caritas.”) The instrumentation of “18th Avenue” is almost entirely keyboards, and also introduces Del Newman’s orchestrations, which would play a larger role on Stevens’ next album Foreigner. “18th Avenue” itself is a dynamic, curiously structured track, oddly reminiscent (if proleptically) of a Springsteen epic turned inward (even down to the title).
If Catch Bull at Four had seemed transitional, Foreigner was definitively a change. Many of the musicians who’d worked with Stevens were gone, including Davies; Stevens’ whimsical cover art was gone, replaced by a stark, passport-like photographic self-portrait; and the album’s titular centerpiece was an 18-minute suite. Perhaps because it was one of the first albums by Stevens I heard (as opposed to the singles), I’m fonder of it than a lot of folks seem to be. What some critics can’t seem to get their heads around is that as a suite, it is a melding-together of several distinct pieces: that is, you could regard it as four songs run together, with a few bits of musical material held in common (and one part recurring to join the whole thing together). The first four and a half minutes gives a good sense of what Stevens is up to. After an introductory bit which returns later, Stevens launches into a fairly straightforward pop song, heavy on the keys. This leads into an extended instrumental break – and if you’re thinking, hmm, early ’70s, 18-minute suite, lots of keyboards, extended instrumental: must be prog rock, you’d be mostly wrong. While there’s a bit of proggishness lurking around the edges, the sound is far closer to some of the more ambitiously arranged and orchestrated R&B from this era: Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and so forth. The album closes with a somewhat odd song called “100 I Dream,” which again has a light R&B lilt but a somewhat odd, chorusless structure. The lead-in to the bridge features an odd lurch into falsetto and a tremolo guitar, which returns on the fade as Stevens hiccups into that falsetto in an almost donkey-ish fashion.
Stevens’ next album, Buddha & the Chocolate Box, continued his exploration of the keyboard. While “Ready” features a very lively treated rhythm guitar and prominent female backing vocals, the bright, rather sine-y synth figure in the bridge is the part I remember best in its shining melodicism. “Sun/C79” joins a brief, cryptic piece about the sun to a lyric set as a confession, from a man to his son, about the woman who’s his mother. The celeste-like figure at the beginning recurs, modulated, as another lovely synth figure (the vintage analog synth sounds on this album are a joy – none of the usual ELP squarewave-y stuff; Stevens favored cleaner tones), and Stevens’ acoustic guitar energetically powers the chorus. I’m fond of the drumming here as well.
(Stevens’ next three albums (Numbers, Izitso, and Back to Earth) were his last three pop albums, and are generally considered quite a drop-off in quality (although I have fond memories of some tracks on Izitso). I don’t own them yet – so there’s no part 3 – but I may well pick them up eventually. After Back to Earth, and a near-drowning, Stevens converted to Islam and left pop music. He’s recorded a handful of spiritual CDs, a children’s record, and a religiously oriented album that some critics have compared musically to Teaser and the Firecat – none of which I’ve heard.)