It was always going to be an ambitious project, but Yusuf (aka Cat Stevens) has managed it, with his new album, ‘The Laughing Apple’, out today on Decca/Cat-O-Log Records. Yusuf celebrates 50 years since his first album, ‘The Laughing Heart’ and reunites with producer Paul Samwell-Smith and guitarist Alun Davies, who worked with him on his seminal album, ‘Tea For The Tillerman’.
Combining new songs with re-interpretations of older released and unreleased tracks, ‘The Laughing Apple’ is familiar and yet a revelation. Yusuf may have recently turned 69 but his voice is as strong and distinctive as it was since the heady days of ‘Morning Has Broken’, and ‘Matthew And Son’.
Opening with ‘Blackness Of The Night’, originally released on his 1967 ‘New Masters’ album, there is a sadness to Yusuf’s voice – causing the listener to wonder if perhaps it’s a song of faith and questioning. Even with its organ sounds, it’s no less relevant today as it was in the late 60s – it’s still a time of confusion and fear. “In the blackness of the night I seem to wander endlessly”.
The upbeat ‘See What Love Did To Me’ is one of Yusuf’s more recent compositions, and it’s a far happier track, with its reflection on what love did to the young man and how it’s shown in him now. Although a tiny bit repetitive in places – there’s a particularly long instrumental break which could have been cut down slightly – there are nonetheless lovely harmonies and the lyrics are uplifting and cheery: “And now I see what God did for me” – he takes time to look at the small things around him and encourages us to do the same.
Yusuf’s lyrics are simplistic but nonetheless intriguing. Title track ‘The Laughing Apple’ is another from ‘New Masters’, and has a world-music feel to it, almost Middle Eastern, with its use of what sounds like bagpipes and other folk instruments.
Guitar-led fourth track, ‘The Olive Hill’ is another new song, and is notable for its gentle vocals and percussion. There’s some more naive lyrics characteristic of Yusuf, “Time stood still on the olive hill” but it’s nonetheless uptempo and catchy.
‘Grandsons’ is based on an unreleased demo called ‘Got A Thing About Seeing My Grandsons Grow Old’, and shows us the ageing Yusuf; it’s sad in one respect, as the grandfather who knows he’s getting older – but he’s chosen to rather be too busy to sit around and stagnate. “we’ve got no time for silly chitter-chatter”. He’s wanting to live for as long as he can – “cos I’ve got a thing about seeing my grandsons grow old”. He easily conveys the idea that he’s a much-loved grandfather.
‘Mighty Peace’ is one of Yusuf’s earliest songs, half-written back in his days working the folk circuit in London. The song is deceptively simplistic both lyrically and thematically – finding peace as a child or as a cloud. Is the message perhaps that mighty peace is able to be found only when we strip back of all the busy-ness of our lives? It’s an interesting thought. What more peaceful than a child at play, or a cloud in the sky? If for no other reason than this song, we’re grateful that Yusuf has revisited his archives.
‘Mary And The Little Lamb’, with its calypso feel is accompanied by an animated video featuring drawings by Yusuf (he’s done all the illustrations for the album), starts out feeling like a nursery rhyme, but with a deeper meaning. Mary places her trust in the things around her, people and possessions, but the one thing which remains true to her is her lamb. The song encourages us to take stock of what is around us and realise what is most important.
‘You Can Do (Whatever)’, the 8th track on the album, was originally intended for the 1971 film, ‘Harold And Maude’, for which Yusuf wrote the soundtrack. It’s positive and upbeat, and encouraging. “You can be a child in your heart or you can grow old”. It’s a song of its time musically, reminding us of ‘Wild World’, but the sentiment still remains valid.
‘Northern Wind’, another from ‘New Masters’, is perhaps the most distinctive of all the tracks on the album, with Yusuf’s voice gravelly and deep rather than his usual light vocals. Yusuf seemingly sings from deep in his boots, but somehow manages to maintain a strong and firm timbre.
Penultimate track, ‘Don’t Blame Them’ is another new track, and has a very poignant message in our times of distrust and blame-shifting – basically don’t point the finger at others lest they do the same to you. Nobody is without sin, nobody is able to say they’re not responsible – those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
‘I’m So Sleepy’ is a gentle lullaby and the perfect end to a beautiful album, in which Yusuf has both revisited the past and charted for himself a new future. It’s both a challenging album and a trip down memory lane, but all in all it’s a welcome addition to Yusuf’s Cat-O-Log Records imprint.