Gems hidden amidst odd choices
Before the conversion to Islam, the statements about Salaman Rushdie that followed him around for decades, and dropping out of music for humanitarian work and philanthropy, there was Mona Bona Jakon. Cat Stevens, also known as Yusuf Islam, had established himself as a hitmaker with his debut Matthew and Son. Yet, Jakon proved he was not a flash-in-the-pan teen star after his sophomore record flopped and he embraced a stylistic change from heavily arranged folk-pop to something more pensive and sparsely arranged. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Stevens has released a four-disc box set of remastering, remixes, studio demos and live performances. For diehards and even casual music fans, the question is not whether these songs are good, but if the additional discs are worth the price or time, and the answer is unclear.
The second disc seems to know only one way of remixing; shoving all of the instrumentation to the very front of the mix and giving everything a brighter sheen. This method works for songs that featured some hidden depth that was previously buried underneath the craggy, sparse production or that had some poppier elements that did not work perfectly before. For example, the twinkling pianos on “Trouble” and the kitschy organ of “I think I see the Light” feel more natural in a more luminous atmosphere, and “Katmandu” sounds even more exotic and awestruck when played in a higher pitch. However, Stevens does not have the prettiest voice, so having him feel like he’s right in front of the listener’s face leads to some missteps. The layering of the title track only exacerbates all his froggy croaks, and “I Wish, I Wish” features him at his most blown-out and mugging with nothing to support such an auditory decision.
The third disc of demos is the most consistent, as Stevens leverages his rougher vocal tone with more stripped-down production. The charm, passion and charisma that can carry an unrefined singer into success shine through here. The belting on “Maybe You’re Right” could be insufferable if it did not fit the rawness of the acoustic guitars. Furthermore, several instrumentals really shine in this style; the anguished guitar tone on “Time” and the glittering of “Fill My Eyes” are more compelling and prettier than any of the other versions. The only issue on this disc comes from a home demo of the title track in which people can clearly hear the traffic outside Steven’s house and the static of the mic feedback. Even though the final passage and solo are nice, it’s odd to have it as the only demo of its type here.
The fourth live disc has the most wildly divergent quality because they come from four different sets. Five from a BBC performance, one from a German program called Beat Club, and three from a show called Pop Deux are scarily similar to the album recordings in quality. On the one hand, it is impressive that the two sound so similar, yet it also means that they don’t bring anything different from previous renditions that the listener has just heard. Where this disc falls apart is in six from the Plumpton Jazz and Blues festival. The audio quality is noticeable worst, and while the chatter of the audience might be immersive, Steven’s voice isn’t much louder than them and it’s jarring when none of the other sets also had it. All of these recordings are from 1970, so different time periods can’t be blamed. Furthermore, it is strange that this is the only disc with songs that aren’t from Jakon.
Though there is merit on each of these discs, it’s packaged alongside strange, undercooked decisions that make the project seem rushed. Perhaps the diehards will see something in it that more casual fans don’t, but even they won’t be able to defend the entire collection.