The best records — and I guess by “record” I mean the standard late 20th-century long player — feel like one long song. But I don’t think this sense comes just from the record itself, although certainly most musical artists search for unity in their work. Just as much it comes from the listener, the tricks of memory, emotions of sound and a tuned mind’s expectations. I often hear musicians say that the meanings of their songs are ultimately as much up to their listeners as to themselves, and this, I deeply believe, is true: We are not a raggle-taggle bunch of music nerds, we are the song’s second composers.
Composing the life of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Steven Demetre Georgiou has taken a long, and at times fraught, road towards himself. His journey, written into his music early as if he was an oracle, reads like a movie script: young man finds himself an English pop star in the late 1960s and doesn’t care for it; reinvents himself as a singer-songwriter and becomes a pop star again, this time worldwide, despite his reluctance; has a life-changing experience in the late 70s that spurs a religious conversion and exit from the stage; finds himself in the center of controversy 10 years later based on his religion’s teachings — there is regret, denial, and heartbreak for him and for his fans, his co-composers, who so treasure the peaceable and gentle music music he once made; seasons pass; twenty years on he starts making records again.
A remarkable, and remarkably human, life, full of success and missteps. It’s all there in the song “Into White,” from Stevens’ fourth LP, Tea for the Tillerman (1970). But the same could be said of any of the songs from the three albums flanking that record, Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Teaser and the Firecat (1971), and Catch Bull at Four (1972). With ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith producing and guitarist Alun Davies providing detailed flourishes to Stevens’ simple strumming, these albums largely defined a genre in the early 1970s, their consistency of sound — acoustic, breathing, mostly stripped of effects except for exquisitely executed mic placement and recording — matched by Stevens’ lyrics of personal searching and that incomparable voice. “Into White” is, in Stevens’ own recounting, a song about color, and how when the color wheel is spun it turns white. He turns the effect into poetry, surely, much as one might expect from the man who could make such an album and also paint an LP cover that so deftly illustrates his own music. The images he makes in the song are ripe with Green, Brown, Yellow, Blue, Red, and Black, as he renders this waltz-time world a temporal illusion, with “everything emptying into white.” Youth and wisdom and a turning universe reside here.