Cat Stevens Revisits ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ and Creates New Magic

Despite lacking the vulnerability and simplicity of the original, this revamped album is dramatic and experimental.

"Tea for Tillerman 2" is Cat Stevens's reimagining of his original album in 1970. Although the album is undoubtedly beautiful, it fails to capture the vulnerability of his previous work. (Illustration by Chandler Littleford)

“Tea for the Tillerman 2” by Yusuf/Cat Stevens is as lovely as the first time around but leans heavily on sounds instead of lyrics. It all feels very indie movie-esque, very heavy on the journey rather than the destination. The original didn’t need anything extra — it was trimmed, simple, soulful and sweet. This revisited album — which isn’t a sequel — is supplemental in sound and lyrically reserved. The focus is not on emotion, but rather on instrumentation — which, admittedly, is great. Groovy and dramatic, rich and full; it’s certainly a divergence from the original 50 years ago.

“Where Do the Children Play?” has an added hopeful flair through background guitar and background singers, but the changes are small. The track creates an ethereal, delicate and relaxed start to the album.  Stevens’ voice exhibits some wear and tear, but in the most delightful way. With some rough patches and even a little strain, Stevens’ voice is preserved beautifully.

The rest of the reworked songs are overall a bit more controlled (the reassurance of age, perhaps), implementing more background singers and guitar. It’s even a little experimental, especially for Stevens; where the original album leaned toward a folksy, vulnerable sound, this version is borderline theatrical. “Wild World”, for example, has a jazzy, French café-like sound, which fits into the album and Stevens’ overall discography of both folk rock and world music.The songs certainly all work together, yet they all have different dramatic qualities. “Sad Lisa” opens up with a mysterious acoustic guitar number before launching into the original piano solo. The songs also implement kalimba, giving it a playful, quirky vibe. 

“Longer Boats”, on the other hand, is downright irreverent when compared to the original, as the track plays with new lyrics and sounds in a cheap way. Stevens adds a voice saying, “Let our hearts beat as one!” He also adds in his own bit with the lyrics, “give ‘em hell for peace and love”, which is a new side of Stevens. He’s promoted peace before, but here he sounds like Ringo Starr or a hipster, trading the genuineness of his calls to actions for pop-y activist soundbites. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that when he first uttered those words fifty years ago there wasn’t a literal doomsday clock ticking off the days before the world reached an irredeemable state of being and such hopeful notes simply spew naiveté nowadays.

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“Father and Son” is also a divergence — but in the best way. For a song about a young boy and an older man not seeing eye to eye and failing to communicate their different viewpoints, Stevens tackled this track perfectly. He became the father, filled with wisdom and trying to advise his son, but now his son is his younger self from the original recording. It’s the most emotional song on the album by far, presenting itself as self-assured, albeit not as heartful and vulnerable as the original. As for the title track, “Tea for the Tillerman,” it’s still beautiful, reflective and essential and brief, above all. Just the way it was intended to be. 

Though it’s daring in itself to redo such a famous album, “Tea for the Tillerman 2” takes risks. In attempts to be current, Stevens has lost the timelessness of his work. Although certain bouts of experimentation enliven tracks like “Father and Son” and “Wild World,” most of the album feels unnecessarily reworked. Where it should offer more wisdom and a glimpse into the heart, it adds sounds, twists and empty lyrics to many already loved songs. Although the album is undoubtedly beautiful, it fails to capture the vulnerability of Yusuf/Cat Stevens’s previous work.

Email Izzy Salas at [email protected]

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