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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 10. 1971

Tea for the Tiller man Island

Tea for the Tiller man Island

Cat Stevens cover art

It's official now. Time has run a feature on James Taylor and the new rock is now 'bitter-sweet and low. Notwithstanding the putative erudition of the music editors of Time, I think the new move in rock might be more accurately described as a 'renaissance in Romanticism.' I use these words advisedly, for many of the new stars produce songs with all the delicate balance and finesse of Elizabethan madrigals. If we accept these premises, then Cat Stevens is one of the 'new' rock artists. Except that he isn't.

Cat Stevens put out a string of hits in England in the mid-sixties (Semi-detached Suburban Mr. James' et al.) Even then his songs, though rather trite, displayed a little more artistry than the music many of his pop contemporaries were issuing. Stevens was not very happy with his product however, and finally, after a new breakdown, managed to get out of his contract by demanding his next record have a hundred-piece orchestra and massed choir. Nothing was heard of him for some years, until Mona Bone Jakon his first album for a long time, suddenly took off in the U.S. He had tapped the first demand for the 'new rock'.

Stevens can't really be compared with James Taylor or people like Elton John, though he has, like Taylor, spent time in mental institutions. But while Taylor's music is indeed 'bitter-sweet and low', Stevens has, perhaps, a message more of hope, though in a similar mood. Tea for the Tillerman, his second album, is a sparing LP, using only a few sidemen and strings. The music is finely balanced, two acoustic guitars dominating (Stevens plays guitar and keyboards.) Delicacy and precision are the watchwords. Cat Stevens' songs are most intricately written. It is obvious he is quite scrupulous in polishing them for recording. He does not use a straightstanza very often, but winds the music about the words, repeating words in different rhythms when there is a point to make.

Here I wish to emphasise that it is wrong to consider Stevens as a 'folk musician', at least in the strict sense of the words. One of the highly-trained rock musicians (someone like Keith Emerson, I don't remember whom) said recently that The Beatles and similar groups were really folk musicians, playing for the people on a fairly shallow musical level. Stevens is not. His music is well rehearsed and well executed. It is not the sort of music that any singer could put down in a day given competent sidemen. The pauses, the balance, the interweaving of vocal and music are the products of highly competent musicianship.4, Stevens' voice is a curious one. At once it seems delicate and highly poised, and about to break into a shouting blues a la Stevie Winwood. It is a beautiful instrument the way he uses it ('the medium is the message?') The lyrics of the songs are by Cat Stevens for Cat Stevens. Quite personal, they rather convey a mood of romanticism, bitterness, sadness, and hope, than explicitly state a message. Odd phrases suddenly leap out at you and take you by surprise, however ('nevertheless you know you're locked towards the future') and stick in your mind. One song, Into White, is completely abstracted:

I built my house of barley rice, green pepper walls and water ice.

Fire and spring ice? It is very evocative.

So. If you are tired of heavy heavy heavy rock, or if you wish to balance your mind. Cat Stevens is an excellent choice. A beautiful and delicate LP, Tea for the Tillerman conveys, with some subtlety, the sort of moods we seem to lose most of our ability to express after leaving the confines of the College Magazine, and is a most refreshing noise. Understandably jaded with heavy music, it's easy to see why the Arrierican and British audiences have turned to artists like this, branded new as the bitter-sweet and low apostates of the new rock.

-The One..