The prince of music formerly known as the artist Cat Stevens is back. Yusuf’s Tell ‘Em I’m Gone arrives Tuesday with 10 tracks — half originals, half covers — as his first album in five years, with the former pop superstar/now roots musician further exploring themes of personal depth and spiritual quests — but not without winks of wry self-awareness.
And what could be more of a playful wink than covering innocent children’s chestnut You Are My Sunshine, a 1930s hillbilly song somehow fittingly enmeshed in this amalgam of folk, blues and American R&B — the sounds that spurred Cat Stevens to launch his pop career in the late ’60s. (The Tremeloes’ rousing turn for his Here Comes My Baby is still one of my favorite hits of that era.)
Those who only remember Yusuf’s work then may be put off by Yusuf, 66, now. His voice is older, huskier, as it should be, and he no longer caters to pop songwriting forms, though one original, I Was Raised in Babylon, would be radio-ready if radio dared to play it.
But largely this music finds Yusuf playing his own muse, reflecting on his life’s quest for spiritual peace while tapping his musical inspirations — even down to the melancholy innocence of You Are My Sunshine.
Enshrined earlier this year into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Yusuf emotionally is still the man whose Peace Train was a rousing 1971 anthem, and whose Foreigner Suite is the most ambitious, adventurous and moving epic music I’ve ever heard. But now he’s musically closer to the man who planted his roots in the rhythm and blues of ’60s London clubs.
Yet this album isn’t a “those were the days” reflection so much as a raw but potent tapping of those roots for today’s troubled times, with cutting lyrics such as “They used to call us civilized, those days are gone” in I Was Raised in Babylon crystalizing the gap between first and third worlds.
Still, the tender tunesmith also remains, as on a piano treatment of Edgar Winter’s Dying to Live — and on the sweet message of You Are My Sunshine. A lover of humanity, not just his fans, Yusuf almost could be singing about us.
— Bruce Westbrook