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38 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Testament to a unique and sadly underrated songwriter., 3 Sep 2005
This review is from: The Very Best Of Cat Stevens (Audio CD)
The career of Cat Stevens is a strange one, beginning in the swinging 60's with a handful of big orchestral pop numbers (often written by Stevens for other artists), before moving into the 70's and taking on the form of the melancholic singer-songwriter. His later songs, those from the latter half of the 70's suffer a little from their experiments with electronic instrumentation, but beneath the synthesisers and disco-production lurk some strong melodies and lyrical sentiments that preach of hope and forgiveness, as opposed to the much more chic wailings of self-pity adopted by similar artists of Stevens's generation.
It often irks me a little that Stevens doesn't get the same respect as the likes of Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley, despite being a songwriter easily in the same league (if not actually greater) than either of those cult figures. Perhaps it's because Stevens found faith, rather than dying too young... thus destroying any chance of an Ian Curtis style cult that would buy up every single posthumous b-side compilation or archive release that the record company decides to throw out in the hope of trading off his legend. Still, this twenty-four-track collection should be enough to justify his inclusion amongst the ranks of the greatest British songwriters of the last fifty years... with perennial favourites like I Love My Dog, Father and Son and Morning Has Broken standing alongside more obscure numbers like Hard Headed Woman, Don't Be Shy and Peace Train.
I first discovered the music of Cat Stevens through the use of his songs in Hal Ashby's cult-classic Harold and Maude... so this collection is integral, as it offers up songs from the film, like Where Do The Children Play?, Don't Be Shy and the elating, If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out, all of which were used in the film, but never official released on any album, besides the extremely hard to find Harold and Maude soundtrack. The other songs are just as great, offering a unique perspective on the world (songs about nuclear devastation and lovelorn nostalgia rubbing shoulders with an ancient prayer set to music, and an ode to the family dog) and some gorgeous melodies. I like the earlier songs, with the sound of the swinging sixties obvious from the bombastic production and swooning vocals, enlivening songs like The First Cut Is The Deepest and Here Comes My Baby... however, as great as those songs are, I find his more intimate acoustic numbers that follow to be the real gold of the album.
It's almost a cliché to say it, but songs like Farther and Son, Moonshadow, Oh Very Yong and Lady D'Arbanville are timeless gems; beautifully told stories with warm instrumentation and a minimal of production so as not to get in the way of the sentiment behind the songs. Like most of the songwriters of the time, Stevens' music switches from the personal to the political, taking something as seemingly confessional as How Can I Tell You (one of the most gorgeous odes to unrequited love ever composed) to the songs that look to more topic concerns, like the aforementioned Where Do The Children Play? and the glorious mini-epic, Peace Train.
It's a shame that Stevens is viewed as something of an AOR artist... or forgotten altogether because of his controversial conversion to Islam. These songs are fantastic, filled with strong arrangements and intelligent lyrics that, although a little world-weary, do offer a sense of hope and warmth for those listening. The second half of the collection throws in songs from his peak-period, along with some lesser-known tracks from the time when his career was reaching something of a cross-roads (Remember The Days Of The Old School Yard and Another Saturday Night are the songs that suffer most from the style of the late 70's, though I'd imagine that an acoustic version of both songs would show just how relevant and timeless they are capable of sounding)... as nice as these songs are, there are better songs that could have been offered instead, like the heartbreaking ballad If I Laugh and the soul-searching Trouble (a song that was written by a youthful Stevens while he was being treated for TB).
The collection ends on a high with the brilliant If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out, which will always remind me of the image of Bud Cort skipping over the hills at the end of Harold and Maude. It's perhaps my favourite Cat Stevens song, one that encapsulates everything that was great about his music during that early 70's heyday (great melody, strong performance, minimal instrumentation and joyful lyrics). True, songs like Old School Yard and Another Saturday Night could have been substituted for songs like BitterBlue, The Wind, Trouble and If I Laugh, but regardless... this is still a great collection. The songs here offer us a taste of Cat at his most celebrated, and Cat at his most obscure... and as well as offering those songs from Harold and Maude (previously hard to find... or so I've heard), this really offers perhaps the best introduction to the work of a unique and sadly underrated singer-songwriter.
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Location: Dublin, Ireland

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