Cat Stevens was only 22, but already impressively bearded and professing worldly wisdom, when he released 1970’s ‘Tea for The Tillerman’, a cosy collection of pop-leaning folk songs. The record made the shy singer-songwriter a global phenomenon. With swooning lead single ‘Wild World’ – a tribute to the Londoner’s girlfriend, actor Patti D’Arbanville – he invented the softer side of dad-rock, and topped it all off with a cutesy cover illustration of the titular tillerman sipping on a nice cup of Earl Grey.
50 years later and Stevens – known as Yusuf Islam since converting to Islam in the late 1970s – has decided to commemorate its release not by packaging it up in a tasty boxset, but by re-recording the whole damn thing. The tillerman of the artwork too has jetted 50 years forward, now sporting a spacesuit instead of his classic Captain Birdseye jumper, and drinking his tea under ominous moonlight rather than next to a blazing sun.
Not just a charming – and no doubt quite fun – thing for Stevens to busy himself with, it’s also a powerful way to track the passing of time. On the original album, opener ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ was a perky acoustic musing on nascent environmental awareness, written when people were beginning to open their eyes to the problems of pollution. Now, after half a century of destruction, deforestation and the looming spectre of global warming, a string section backs the gravelly voiced Yusuf. Sage lines such as “Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass / For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas” seem even more prescient. Swooping orchestration aside, it’s a fairly faithful rendering of the original song.
On the other hand, fan-favourite ‘Wild World’ takes a totally different tack, with a glitzy cabaret sound and oompa jazz; this accordion-assisted version seems more suited to a low-lit burlesque bar, Yusuf shimmying around in a plunging velvet gown and tapping a long cigarette holder into rich men’s martinis.
Another big hitter, ‘Father and Son’ – since covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Boyzone – sees Yusuf now far more believably inhabiting the role of the kindly dad offering his offspring life advice, while ‘On The Road To Find Out’ showcases the most impressive transformation, weaving in North African desert sounds against steadfast lyrics of self-discovery. It suggests that Yusuf has now finally found just what he was looking for all those years ago.
Release date: September 18
Release label: A&M Records