Out of 20 tracks on the recently released Very Best of Cat Stevens career anthology, only three were nabbed from this entire trio of the singer/songwriter•s final “pop” albums, before he retired from the music industry in 1979. That tells you all you need to know about how these discs stack up against the rest of Stevens’ catalog. And it’s not just that there were fewer “hits” scattered throughout these 29 tracks; after a remarkably successful run of some of the most influential and intriguing singer/songwriter folk-rock of the ’70s, Cat Stevens had just run out of gas.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying; these releases•recently reissued with upgraded sound, graphics and booklets — are some of the most intricately produced of Stevens’ career. But the muse had clearly abandoned him, and by the time of 1978’s limp Down To Earth, he was tapped out of the inventive melodies which seemed to spring effortlessly from some inner well.
Numbers, Stevens’ ninth album, released in 1975, is indicative of the trend. A song cycle/concept album subtitled “A Pythagorean Theory Tale,” the nine tunes don’t seem to be about anything in particular, although the 20-page book has some nifty drawings by the artist. Musically, it’s a kitchen sink approach, with female backing vocalists, a full string and brass section, sitar, and even David Sanborn tooting away on alto sax in very ’70s “Young Americans” fashion. Nothing is offensive, but the songs, especially “Banapple Gas,” a moderate hit single with pedal steel guitar phoned in from another planet, seem forced and clunky, a tendency that continued to a lesser extent through his next two albums. Stevens sounds committed to the project, but nothing here would have passed muster on any of his early discs, whose charming simplicity is completely absent from Numbers. Like the cover photo of the artist unrecognizable in a deep shadow, the project is murky and obtuse.
Things perk up slightly on 1976’s IZITSO. Stevens, or maybe producer David Kershenbaum, seems to have stumbled into a closet of synthesizers, which dominate the album’s sound, but results in some relatively snappy pop. “Remember the Days of the Old Schoolyard” was not only a charting single, but a far better melody than anything on the limp Numbers, and “Killin’ Time” actually rocks a little more than Cat’s usual fare. But Stevens’ most autobiographical tune, “(I Never Wanted) To Be a Star,” is an indication that all wasn’t well with his philosophical waffling between being a singer/songwriter and a worldwide arena attraction. It was also his last truly great song. The rest offers lightweight, inoffensive ditties that reach a nadir on the filler instrumental “Was Dog a Doughnut?” which even guest keyboardist Chick Corea can’t do anything with. As if an indication that his own inspiration was slipping away, the album’s final track, the sappy “Child For a Day” • backed by the American pros at Muscle Shoals — was the first tune Stevens had recorded in a decade that he had no hand in writing.
By no means an embarrassment, Steven’s final “pop” album before dropping out of the music biz, 1978’s Back To Earth was a return to form of sorts. He brought back the elegant simplicity of his earlier material by hiring back producer Paul Samwell-Smith, who worked on his most successful discs of the early ’70s. The songs aren’t as stiff as on the previous two albums, but nothing could save the execrable “New York Times,” a scathing indictment of New York City with simplistic, third-rate lyrics like “they’re just paper people not real.” Interestingly, the album’s closing track, “Never,” seems to indicate that this was the end of the line for Cat Stevens. He then had a near-death experience, retired from the music scene immediately after this disc’s release, sold his possessions, became a Muslim, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, entered into an arranged marriage, and has not recorded another pop album since. Which leaves these three intermittently successful albums as a coda to a career that could have been fascinating if allowed by the artist to continue.
But the Cat never came back.