Despite calling myself a huge Cat Stevens fan—his songs have been a part of my life since I was a child—I own very few actual Cat Stevens full-length albums. Rather, I grew up with two greatest hits albums, and sometime in my twenties acquired a third greatest hits album that had a bunch more songs.
Why don't I own any outright albums? It goes back to my first record store job, back when I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. I was able to check out used albums from the store's stock for a few days at a time, so I sampled a few Stevens albums—I think it was Mona Bone Jackson and Numbers. My instant reaction at the time was that, aside from the excellent songs I already knew, the rest of his songs were hokey and unintentionally silly. There ended my engagement with his full-lengths.
Tea for the Tillerman is one of his most acclaimed albums, and I wonder if the reason I didn't sample that album those many years ago was simply because it wasn't an option to me at the time. Because here I am sixteen years later, more or less hearing it for the first time. Guess what? It's fantastic.
I say "more or less" because, of the eleven tracks here, I know six of them backwards and forwards. "Where Do the Children Play," "Wild World," "Hard Headed Woman," and more—I've known these songs forever and they rank among my favorites of Stevens'. Nevertheless, Tea for the Tillerman still surprised me in a couple ways—not least was that all the songs I didn't already know are also really terrific.
Hearing the familiar songs within the context of this album also made me hear them in a new way. One of my favorite things about the various greatest hits albums I own is that they are so uplifiting. The content of Stevens' songs are often concerned with searching for spiritual salvation, and are optimistic more often than they aren't. I also can't help but identify with his songs in a kind of childlike way—these were the soundtrack to my toddlerhood, so I hear a song like "Wild World" as if it's a nursery rhyme and not the creepy kiss-off that it actually is. (I'd always read it as a kind of father-to-daughter narrative until I grew up a little and realized it was a breakup song between an older man and a young woman.) There are some downer songs on the greatest hits albums, of course—"Trouble" being the most obvious and most heartbreakingly lovely—but overall the records feel really positive.
Tea for the Tillerman is a different animal. The hits that came from this album—i.e., a full half of this album—are decidedly on the sad side of Stevens' coin. "Where Do the Children Play" aligns modern life with a corruption of innocence; "Miles from Nowhere" is about being lost (its more optimistic flipside, "On the Road to Find Out," comes a few tracks later); and titles like "Sad Lisa" and "But I Might Die Tonight" ought to give you further indication that this is not Stevens' sunniest release. It is a truly beautiful album, however—one need only hear "Into White" to know that.
- Cat Stevens: Into White