In 2006, Yusuf Islam, the singer-songwriter formerly known as Cat Stevens, surprised the world with his return to mainstream music. An Other Cup, his first pop record in twenty-eight years, was one of the more intriguing and curious releases in recent memory. On one hand, it was a hodgepodge of songs more than a cohesive album, and Yusuf sounded very much like an artist who was shaking the dust off his guitar and trying to fit nearly three decades of musical ideas onto one tiny, little, plastic disc. On the other hand, standouts like “Heaven/Where True Love Goes” and “In the End” showed that Yusuf’s conversion and long hiatus had not diminished his ability to relate to listeners and deliver beautiful pop songs with a perfectly aged voice. In other words, An Other Cup wasn’t perfect, but it just felt good to have Yusuf back again-like hearing from an old friend who had been away far too long.
Last week, Yusuf further cemented his return with the release of Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night), eleven tracks musically inspired by Western influences such as seventies folk/pop. Yusuf, who acted as producer on the album, seems more in his element this time around. His strumming is vibrant and straightforward, and much of the album was recorded live, giving it the same immediacy and honesty that listeners came to expect from Cat Stevens. The lyrical themes are familiar ones for Yusuf: dreamlike landscapes of the world around him (both the beauty and peril) and the struggles and rewards of spiritual journey. In many ways, listening to Roadsinger is to observe an older, wiser songwriter rediscovering the tools he once worked with so well and finding ways to adapt them to his new music.
Roadsinger begins, appropriately enough, with “Welcome Home” and the album’s opening lines, “Saw a sign on the path/ ‘All seekers this way.'” It’s one of several songs on the record about moving beyond modern illusions in order to find a higher truth and how such a journey can at times mean loneliness and dangerous passage. Yusuf’s voice is rich and lush from the get go, and you can even hear the old Cat in an epiphanic moment in which he emphatically sings, “Never did I imagine what a dawn could be/Til’ I opened my eyes to see/It was welcoming me!”
“Thinkin’ Bout You”, the album’s first single, is an energetic ode to the type of person who brings joy to others just by being who they are. “Thinkin’ bout you, I could climb a mountain in the dark/Listening to you, flowers dance in the park.” The piano backing is gorgeous, and the percussion hits just the right spots, accenting Yusuf’s excited delivery. It should be noted that Yusuf’s voice is to folk/pop what Robert Plant’s voice is to rock and roll and Aretha Franklin’s is to soul. His vocal chords are the perfect instrument, and even at age sixty, he manages to combine his rare vocal gifts with a youthful enthusiasm that makes listening to him sing pure joy.
After two fairly upbeat songs, Roadsinger takes a detour into some darker territory, which isn’t unusual for Yusuf. His songs have never pulled punches, seeking out beauty and truth without shying away from the reality of the trials and difficulties that exist in our lives. “Every Time I Dream” is a visual landscape of troubling thoughts set to an acoustic groove with a layer of horns mixed in. On “The Rain”, backed by cellos and violins, Yusuf contemplates the fate of the world following a great flood; it’s a bleak picture with a glimmer of hope residing within those willing to do what is necessary to build a better tomorrow. “World of Darkness” embodies a similar idea. Yusuf’s plaintive vocals portray a world that is wicked and uncaring, but as always, he leaves room for hope. “In this world of darkness, evil rules by night/Somewhere in the shadows someone’s seeking light.” While these songs may depict human existence as capable of being cold and callous, they also put a lot of faith in ordinary people to move beyond and transcend their more destructive behaviors for the betterment of all.
As mentioned earlier, part of what makes this record enjoyable is the fact that Yusuf further reconnects with the style that suited him so well as Cat Stevens. “Be What You Must” even begins with the opening piano from Cat Stevens’ “Sitting”, which is appropriate because this song feels like an updated version of his classic about finding one’s way. We’re now catching up with Yusuf who is making the journey he once sang so passionately about in his youth, and he’s learned of the sacrifice and struggle that it involves. “To be what you must, you must give up what you are.” In the second part of the song, Yusuf is joined by a children’s choir, and the result is rewarding on a number of levels. To a certain extent, it’s an elder passing down advice, not unlike the father’s part in “Father and Son.” From another perspective, it’s showing the connection between generations and people everywhere, all of whom will have to negotiate their own journey through life. “And though you travel many roads/There’s but one way and that’s the one you chose.”
“Roadsinger” is a gorgeous, mid-tempo song that highlights this album and sums up its main theme quite well. “Where do you go?/Where do you go in a world filled with fright?/Only a song to warm you through the night,” sings Yusuf. This is a record about the troubled times we live in, but Yusuf makes sure to remind us that there is hope, beauty, and comfort to be found through it all if we take the time to look.
Has Yusuf released the next great pop album of his career here? Not quite. There are some speed bumps on Roadsinger, but it’s clear that he’s traveling in that direction and will one day reach that destination. After being away for so many years, it’s a long road back, even for a roadsinger.
“Thinkin’ Bout You”