Cat Stevens – Mona Bone Jakon/Tea For The Tillerman 50th Anniversary boxsets

Masterly vehicles for artistic reinvention

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By 1970, Cat Stevens had been absent from the charts for three years. Rendered hors de combat by a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis, the time out also offered an opportunity for a major reset. The likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were ushering in the age of the sensitive acoustic troubadour, and to Stevens their songs sounded so much more profound and poetic than the overblown, melodramatic orchestral pop of “I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun” and “Matthew And Son”. As he slowly recovered, a stream of songs in a more reflective folk-rock vein poured out of him.

Released from his old recording contract, Stevens auditioned his new material for Chris Blackwell, who had just signed John Martyn and Nick Drake. The result was Mona Bone Jakon. On its release in April 1970 the album flopped. Yet although five platinum LPs would follow over the next four years, MBJ remains the most compellingly human statement of his career.

Half a century on, the naked intimacy of the songs still sounds fresh and alluring, from the spiritual awakening and self-discovery of “I Think I See The Light” and “Katmandu” via the sardonic denunciation of his old life on “Pop Star”, to the confessional soul-searching of “Trouble” and “Maybe You’re Right”.

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The original, glorious album on which dandified pop star was reborn as bedsit poet is augmented in this expanded 50th-anniversary “super deluxe” edition with a new 2020 mix, a disc of stripped-down demos that sound even more introspective than the fully worked album versions, and a further disc of contemporaneous live performances.

When Stevens auditioned for Island he allegedly had a cache of 40 new songs, 11 of which appeared on MBJ. Others were recycled on later albums and there are early concert versions here of several tracks that would make it onto Tea For The Tillerman, plus “Changes IV”, which would surface on 1971’s Teaser And The Firecat. Yet somewhat disappointingly amid the wealth of unreleased demos, there’s only one song – “I Want Some Sun” – that we haven’t heard before. It’s fine enough in its way, an upbeat, countryish romp on which Stevens has never sounded so American. But you can hear why it didn’t fit on the album.

Within a month of the release of Mona Bone Jakon, Stevens was back in the studio recording Tea For The Tillerman. Several of its more pensive songs such as “Father And Son” and “On The Road To Find Out” fitted readily into the MBJ template. But at the same time, his writing was developing in other directions. Songs such as “Wild World”, the title track and “Where Do The Children Play” boasted a greater urgency that reflected his growing certainty in his new-found singer-songwriter persona, like a man who has tried on a new coat, wasn’t sure that it would fit but feels increasingly comfortable in its warm embrace. 

Again, we get the original album as heard at the time and in a new remix, plus the recent Yusuf-sings-Cat 2020 updates on the songs recently released as Tea For The Tillerman 2. Then there’s a swathe of live recordings and another disc of demos, this time with two previously unreleased songs, the heartfelt “Can This Be Love?” (which could have been a contender) and the throwaway “It’s So Good” (which has no such pretensions).

There are also half-a-dozen other semi-rarities, all of which were previously released on the 2008 boxset On The Road To Find Out. “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” and “Don’t Be Shy” were written for Hal Ashby’s 1971 coming-of-age movie Harold & Maude after Elton John had dropped out and recommended Stevens as his replacement. “Honey Man” is a sprightly duet with Elton from around the same time. “The Joke” is a surprisingly soulful electric blues with a hippie-friendly lyric about “too many schemers and not enough dreamers”, while the whimsical “I’ve Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandson Grow Old” sounds improbably like something The Incredible String Band might have recorded.

Inevitably, there’s a lot of duplication as two crisp vinyl albums that originally clocked in at around 35 minutes apiece
are expanded over nine audio discs and two Blu-rays, so that we end up with 10 versions of “Lady D’Arbanville”, and 16 of “Wild World”. But maybe you can’t have too much of a good thing. 1970 was Stevens’ annus mirabilis and Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For The Tillerman represent the high tide of his troubadour triumph. As he became a pop star for the second time round, he never sounded so real and true again.

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