Cat Stevens: Back to Earth

1978.

More than 40 years ago, Cat Stevens changed into Yusuf.  His last album as Cat Stevens was Back to Earth, a very curious addition to his musical library.  It was 30 years before we heard anything musically from Cat Stevens / Yusuf.  The world knew of Yusuf from various news reports which were often unkind.

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I have another blog about Cat Stevens / Yusuf if you would care to read that story.

Two years ago, Yusuf decided to re-release Back to Earth in a 40 year anniversary edition.  The sound was to be cleaned up through remastering and there would be an edition with bonus material and special merchandise from Islam.  Artists usually do this to celebrate certain albums, resulting in collector editions of demos, live tracks, books, video or high-end 5.1 or Blue-ray discs of the music.

Yusuf’s website even talked about a five-disc boxed set of material including all kinds of things from the vault to be released as part of this set.

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Enter Pledge Music, the U.K. based crowd funding organization that would raise money from fans to finance artist’s projects by offering these suped-up editions of old albums and new ones, augmented by the trinkets listed above, plus t-shirts, autographs and other special items.

In early 2019, Pledge Music announced a variety of Back to Earth editions, and I ordered a two-disc set of the original album, remastered, and bonus material.  It was to be signed by Cat Stevens / Yusuf.  The release date was to be May 2019.

In February 2019 I received an email from the Cat Stevens \ Yusuf people indicated problems with Pledge Music.  They were looking into the situation, but it appeared that Pledge Music had gone bankrupt.  In doing some research, the bankruptcy involved many artists who were depending on the crowd funding to finish their projects.

In October 2019, I received an email from the Yusuf folks wanting anyone who had failed to get a refund to provide them with the original order information.  Yusuf was looking into providing those who got the shaft, to receive something, but they were not specific.  In December, I received an acknowledgement of my response to team Yusuf.

No other response was received, yet I saw the remastered Back to Earth had been released to the public in late 2019 / early 2020, but no two-disc sets.  Despite the earlier emails, I was losing hope in receiving anything.

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In early May 2020, a package arrived from merry old England.  I did not recognize the sender, but some things I order come long afterward and I tend to lose track of my purchases.  I unwrapped it and found a single disc copy of Back to Earth and a 7 inch single “Butterfly” / “Toy Heart”.  I looked at the packing slip and it came from a “remedy” service, whatever that is.  These items were not what I originally ordered, but I felt fortunate to receive anything for my money.  “Butterfly” and “Toy Heart” were left off the original album; good songs but not really fitting the style of the other songs.

Pledge Music left artists owed almost $10 million, and Yusuf was one of them.  I do not know the particulars of any bankruptcy settlement, but I am assuming he ate the cost to provide these items to me and other project investors.

The album.

The album was originally released in 1978 to very little fanfare.  Cat Stevens, as he was known, decided not to tour or really promote the album, although he did play a concert in London, that he recorded.  This concert was supposed to be part of the “unearthed” treasures he was releasing as part of a boxed set.  He recorded the album prior to having a near-death experience, drowning in the ocean, where he made a promise to God to change his life.  He owed one more album to A&M, his American record company, and this was it.  Whether he was not very interested or simply did the songs his way, the public did not take notice of the album.

I don’t know what he did to this album, but the remastering sounds amazing.  It makes me pine for the second disc of material that I never received.

Forty two years ago when I first heard this album, I was a bit disappointed.  None of the songs really struck me as an instant classic, like what you would find on his earlier albums.

Rolling Stone at the time wrote this about the album: “But taken individually, most of the songs are too weak to deserve their excellent arrangements or to keep the singer interested.”

Back to Earth is a deceptive album.  On the surface, many of the songs feel slight and overall, the album seems to lack inspiration.  The singer/songwriter of a few years earlier was nowhere to be found.  This was a different man.  Paul Samwell-Smith is back in the producer’s chair.  Samwell-Smith, a former member of the Yardbirds 1960s blues-rock band, worked with a number of singer-songwriters in the 1970s.  His production here is to let the songs breathe, only bringing in the heavy traffic of instruments when called for, and backing them off, often to let Stevens and his guitar or piano shine in the foreground.  His prior two albums had bigger, saucier arrangements, but here Stevens took a more personal approach, more like his early 1970s albums.  In 1978, soft, reflective albums were out of step with the times.

“Just Another Night” Nicely arranged, the intricacies in the different instruments is fascinating. It is a pleasant song, supposedly about his native England. Very bouncy arrangement.

“Daytime” A hopeful, upbeat song with an orchestral backing.

“Bad Breaks” The one real rocker on the album, tough, riffing guitars. This remastered version is exquisite.  You can really hear the guitars and the bottom-end of the bass really pops.

“Randy” A lovely ballad accompanied by electric piano and orchestra. The song shows off his very reflective style of singing.

“The Artist” A short song without lyrics, upbeat but with Stevens vocalizing the melody over his guitar and arrangement.

“Last Love Song” A sad song about realizing it is over. The song is slow then builds to great emotion.

“Nascimento” Probably the most unusual song Stevens recorded. A fast, jazzy, new age kind of thing. No words, but Stevens vocalizes, almost scat style. This has been my favorite Cat Stevens song since forever. The great moving bass line keeps the song’s vibe sharp and the riffing guitar is like nothing else he’s played. Where did this song come from and why didn’t he do more of this?

“Father” An upbeat, groove song about understanding the sanctity of the earth as well as having strength against the challenges that wear you down.  This mix really brings out the bass and the guitar picking.

“New York Times” The one song on the album that I don’t get. Brassy, uptempo song. Not exactly a love song to the city.  In the late 1970s, New York City had a lot of problems and this song points them out.

“Never” An upbeat ballad about how everything will change in time, but there will never be another you.  A little bit of his spirituality creeping into the song.  This light, reflective song would be the last we heard from Cat Stevens for nearly 30 years.

 

 


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