The artist formerly known as plain Cat Stevens is now on to the third album of a secular comeback that began in 2006. This time he’s keeping starry company, with Richard Thompson, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Tinariwen and Charlie Musselwhite among the guests.
Yet, despite its 50-50 split of covers and originals, this record feels very much like a lone pilgrimage. The overriding theme is the quest for freedom, with Yusuf in reflective mood as he surveys social and spiritual upheaval in the Holy Land (I Was Raised In Babylon) and Apartheid-era South Africa (Gold Digger). The songs carry his familiar imprint – spry acoustic guitar, plangent piano – though there’s also a fair helping of old-school R&B. He even conjures some self-mythology on the autobiographical Editing Floor Blues.
And while we can probably do without his appropriation of You Are My Sunshine, the covers of Edgar Winter’s Dying To Live and Tell ‘Em I’m Gone (aka traditional prison song Take This Hammer) are both moving and powerful. He may be older and wearier, but he clearly hasn’t given up on that utopian dream of the 60s./o:p