Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Cat Stevens

Wasn't it Isadora Duncan who encountered an Italian fisherman on a Mediterranean beach and vowed to conceive his child then and there? Watching Cat Stevens at Philharmonic Hall Tuesday night, I fantasized that during the period of obscurity that is apparently obligatory for all heroic singer-songwriters, Stevens read of this and vowed then and there to emulate the fisherman. He certainly did look nautical in his long-sleeved boat-necked T-shirt, his simple blue pants, his white shoes. His skin shone bronze in the artificial light, his golden locket swung astrologically, and his black curls earned the term "locks" better than any rock hair I've ever seen. He was young, he was virile, he was sensitive, and he was inarticulate.

Very roughly speaking, Stevens is the English James Taylor. Like Taylor, he is a promising but failed rock and roller from the sixties who built his reputation as an acoustic singer-songwriter in this decade, and like Taylor he now works with a band on tour. His second solo album, Tea for the Tillerman, was to 1971 what Taylor's second solo album, Sweet Baby James, was to 1970. Currently, his fourth album, Catch Bull at Four (the title refers not to death in the afternoon but to Buddhism), is number one in the country. But while both performers attract an audience that is devoted and well behaved, Taylor's is much more concentrated among what might be called the collegiate counterculturists. Stevens attracts a good sprinkling of adult-identified adults and a great many of those luminous teenybopper girls who five years ago used to gaze adoringly at Donovan. In fact, his resemblance to Donovan is rather eerie.

Unlike Donovan and James Taylor, however, Stevens is almost always very rhythmic, and he tries to be sexy in a more or less conventional way. Although he never goes so far as to stand up while he sings, he is intensely enthusiastic. But only within a limited range. His crucial talent is an undeniable genius for the melodic catch-phrase, and from there he tests one's tolerance for redundancy. For emphasis, he always repeats a syllable--"Trouble, you're too much for me, ee," just like that--and for a climax, he always raises the decibel level, although never to an unseemly level. For general excitement, he shakes his head and locks. Many sit-down performers do this, but not with Stevens's hypnotic persistence. I kept trying to figure out what it reminded me of, and I finally did. Stevens looks as if someone just punched him out and he is trying to regain his wits.

It should go without saying that I wish he would. As a rock and roller, Stevens failed because he was ahead of his time--the slightly surreal values of "I Love My Dog" and the antibusiness tack of "Matthew & Son" were rare virtues for the midsixties--but times have changed, and if anything, Stevens has moved away from them. Despite his pretensions to poetic obscurity, he is without doubt the most mindless of the major singer-songwriters, even running slightly ahead of John Denver, and all the time he's spouting his romantic and generational clichés he's also playing the guru. I don't mind when Johnny Nash sings a charming ditty about how things are getting better, but when Stevens informs the world that we're all on a peace train, I get annoyed. We're not, and if Stevens ever stops shaking his head long enough to see clearly for a second, he might realize it. I wish I were convinced that he would then be honest enough to break the news to his audience.

Newsday, Nov. 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

James Taylor Joni Mitchell