Rolling Stone Magazine Issue 122 November 23 1972
At Four A&M SP4365
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 Firecatsimple, 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 Teasera simplicity that, for me, was just one step away from monotony,
especially since it underscored the shallowness of Cats 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 Cats
fanciful imagery word poems so dreamily obscure as to defy interpretationhe
shows a new emotional directness, especially on side two, the albums "down"
side. This is reflected in Cats 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
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 songs circular melodic patterns aptly
express a resigned but not hopeless personal philosophy: "Just keep on pushing hard,
boy, try as you may/Youre 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 "Cant Keep It In", are celebratory meditations, the first two carrying
Cats elusive, sometimes shimmering visual imagery. Sound effectsmuted
synthesizer-on "Angelsea" and penny whistle on "Silent Sunlight" are
used with delicacy and taste. "Cant 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
Side two contains
the meat -of the album. The mood here is of pessimism, terror, apocalyptic foreboding, a
region of Cats 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 albums 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 cuts extended
instrumental break, Del Newman contributes one of his best string arrangements ever, and
there is stunning percussion work by Cat and Gerry Conway.
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 were Venus bound/ Oh
please take me home/After all Im 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 knockoutterse, mature, and
the finale, is the albums most pessimistic statement, since it is neither nightmare
nor romantic recollection, but depressing observation of mankinds ecocidal tendency.
A song about returning to ones hometown and finding it disastrously changed, it has
one of Cats most coherent and detailed lyricsno 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 doesnt answer
this question definitively, I think it represents Cats 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.