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Rolling Stone Magazine Issue 122 November 23 1972

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Catch Bull At Four A&M SP4365


Simultaneous with the release of Cat Stevens’ new album on A&M, Columbia has released a pleasing first solo effort by Alun Davies, second guitarist on Cat's records from Mona Bone Jakon on. Catch Bull is impeccably produced. Its musical contents are like those of Teaser and the Firecat—simple, short-phrased melodies and spare and vibrant arrangements. There are, however, notable differences between Catch Bull and its predecessor. The instrumental repertoire has been widened somewhat: three cuts make minimal use of a synthesizer, and on four cuts Cat plays piano. The result is a definite relaxation from the rigorous simplicity of Teaser—a simplicity that, for me, was just one step away from monotony, especially since it underscored the shallowness of Cat’s appealing but essentially frivolous, unfocused lyrics. Happily, the greatest difference between Teaser and Catch Bull lies in the lyric themes of the songs. Though some of the lyrics retain Cat’s fanciful imagery— word poems so dreamily obscure as to defy interpretation—he shows a new emotional directness, especially on side two, the albums "down" side. This is reflected in Cat’s singing, which becomes more assured and more emotive with each album. Alas, what is missing throughout Catch Bull is any single tune with the distinction and sweeping grace of "Morning Has Broken," the most memorable cut on Teaser.

The tone of side one is tentatively happy. It begins with "Sitting," which has Cat on piano and electric mandolin, and Davies on guitar. The song’s circular melodic patterns aptly express a resigned but not hopeless personal philosophy: "Just keep on pushing hard, boy, try as you may/You’re going to wind up where you started from." "The Boy with the Moon and Star on His Head" is a silly narrative "legend," styled after a typical "olde" English country ballad, about a luminescent illegitimate "love child." "Angelsea," "Silent Sunlight," and "Can’t Keep It In", are celebratory meditations, the first two carrying Cat’s elusive, sometimes shimmering visual imagery. Sound effects—muted synthesizer-on "Angelsea" and penny whistle on "Silent Sunlight" are used with delicacy and taste. "Can’t Keep It In" the most openly joyous cut, fittingly closes the side. The propulsive energy generated by Stevens’ and Davis' dual acoustic guitars is considerable, as Cat sings his outbursting message with infectious gusto.

Side two contains the meat -of the album. The mood here is of pessimism, terror, apocalyptic foreboding, a region of Cat’s personality that we have not been shown so directly before, and his success in revealing it describes a very promising avenue for future artistic exploration. "18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare)," the opener, is the album’s most ambitious cut and in every way its best. A vision of insanity and physical and mental deterioration, it accumulates the specific but disjunctive images of a nightmare that makes no literal sense other than forcefully embodying a premonition of metaphysical collapse. The music is also disjunctive, but brilliantly so. In the cut’s extended instrumental break, Del Newman contributes one of his best string arrangements ever, and there is stunning percussion work by Cat and Gerry Conway.

"Freezing Steel," though not as powerful, continues the nightmare theme, again expressing intimations of insanity this time in a dream of being kidnapped and taken to Venus: "...>>>" the pilot turned around/ He said we’re Venus bound/ Oh please take me home/After all I’m only human and the Earth is where 1 belong." The beautiful "Oh Caritas" (written by Stevens with Jeremy Taylor and Andreus Toumazis) is a passionate Greek prayer for enough longevity to attain spiritual enlightenment, first sung in Latin and then in English translation, with Toumazis on bouzouki and Cat on Spanish guitar and drums. "Sweet Scarlet," which follows, is a glowing, enigmatic song of love lost but self regained: "All those days are frozen now and all those scars are gone/Ah, but the song carries on…so holy." Cat sings it with only his own piano accompaniment, and it is a knockout—terse, mature, and emotionally convincing.

"Ruins," the finale, is the album’s most pessimistic statement, since it is neither nightmare nor romantic recollection, but depressing observation of mankind’s ecocidal tendency. A song about returning to one’s hometown and finding it disastrously changed, it has one of Cat’s most coherent and detailed lyrics—no flights of fancy or oblique metaphors here, only the truth of his own feelings, which he alternately expresses with fierce bitterness and dismal sadness: "I want back, I want back/Back to the time when the earth was green/ And there was no high walls and the sea was clean."

All told, I think that Catch Bull At Four is more interesting than Teaser, though tune for tune it is far less memorable. With Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillermnan I was content to bask in gorgeous melody and orchestration. The economy and simplicity of Teaser I admired more than I liked. But what could come next, if Cat continued in this direction? Though Catch Bull doesn’t answer this question definitively, I think it represents Cat’s challenge to himself to transcend poetic eccentricity and come out front with a clearer, more unified, more emotionally direct expression of what he is about. 1 hope he continues to wrestle with this challenge, even if its outcome is more truth and less beauty.


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