Cat Stevens’s transition from pop idealist to a meditative minstrel named Yusuf Islam seemed an abrupt disconnect. Along the way, he renounced his previous creative endeavors in favor of sacred music that underscored his newly embraced Islamic faith. It was a move that brought controversy and had fans wondering if he was forever lost to religion.
The release of An Other Cup in 2006 disproved that perception. No matter whether it was a return to the material world or simply a desire to reclaim some fame, the album found Yusuf re-engaging his pop musculature. Two more efforts followed—Roadsinger in 2009 and Tell ‘Em I’m Good in 2014. While the songs were a bit headier (most preached life lessons with an upward glance), in truth it was nothing new. Many of Stevens’s signature tunes—“Peace Train” and “Where Do the Children Play” in particular—were parables of unity.
Based on its title alone, The Laughing Apple suggests that the message is coming full circle. The cover revisits the fairytale imagery that graced the design of 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman—and, tellingly, credits the album to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. It’s the first time the name “Cat Stevens” has appeared on a studio album cover since 1978’s Back to Earth. Longtime sideman Alun Davies is back on board for the first time in 40 years. More significant, several songs from the earliest phase of Cat’s career are recast or given an initial introduction. “Mighty Peace” is one of the first tunes a teenage Stevens ever composed, written while busking the streets of London in the early ‘60s. A flimsy “Mary and the Little Lamb” is from that same era having existed only in demo form. Other offerings are simply remakes of tracks originally released on his obscure debut, Matthew and Son. The most memorable song of the set is the vintage chestnut “You Can Do (Whatever),” first included on the soundtrack for the cult film Harold and Maude, although it’s remade here with considerably less cheer.
Mostly, it’s difficult to discern which tunes are new and which are revamped archival offerings. Yusuf’s vocals are a bit more gruff than in days gone by, but his whimsical tone maintains the fanciful and philosophical lilt once so essential to that early, engaging style. If Yusuf himself still seems a bit earnest and naive, then at least he deserves credit for optimism. Those once hesitant to embrace this new phase of Yusuf’s career can take comfort that this Cat is indeed back.