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Buddha and the Chocolate Box
Cat Stevens

A&M SP3623
Released: April 1974
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 36
Certified Gold: 4/8/74

Cat StevensThe last really good Cat Stevens song, two albums back, was appropriately titled "I Can't Keep It In." Since then he's been pouring out separate streams of interesting melody and dubious verbiage, streams that never converge. That would not necessarily be a problem -- Stevens remains a gifted composer no matter what -- were it not for the fact that his lyrics become so much more strident and incoherent with each progressively less promising effort.

However fresh and idiosynchratic a melodist he can be, Stevens's special genius has always been for sharply dramatic arrangemnts. But even that flair works against his most recent material, as he places furious emphasis on apparently random moments and never lets emotion ring true through the mood of constant contrivance. The charmingly obscure frenzy of his Tea for the Tillerman days is all but gone now, replaced by incontrovertible dizziness. "Music is a lady that I still love/ Cause she gives me the air that I breathe," he proclaims in the otherwise admirable "Home in the Sky." And in "Music," he disrupts a quirky but stirring arrangement with this: "Take a look at the world/ Think about how it will end/ There'd be no more wars in the world/ If everybody joined the band." Maybe it all makes a higher sense if you grasp the relationship between the bald boy, the chocolate deity and the spider with the flute, depicted on the back cover. Maybe... but only Cat himself, who was in charge of the illustrations, as well as dreaming up the unbearably precious title, can ever know for sure.

Cat Stevens - Buddha and the Chocolate Box
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Though its proselytizing efforts are nearly as noxious as the Foreigner Suite's pretensions, this is generally a more lighthearted, less stilted album than its predecessor. "Oh Very Young" is a lovely, simple melody, the vaguest song here and one of the most appealing. "Ghost Town" sounds like high-adrenaline Neil Young, and if you nod along to Gerry Conway's drums as feverishly as Cat himself would, you may not even notice lyrics that drop the names of Anne Boleyn, Houdini, Bill Bailey, Buster Keaton and King Tut. "Ready," "Music" and "A Bad Penny" all come on strong but never live up to the opening bars. "A Bad Penny" is the most interesting of the lot, if only because its reference to "idol lies" is never established as either a bad pun or bad spelling. All of the album is beautifully performed, but parts of it are overproduced. Cat needs a dozen good songs a lot more than he needs a dozen background singers right now.

- Janet Maslin, Rolling Stone, 5/23/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Why am I, at this late date, feeling grumpy about how coy/dumb a Cat Stevens album title can look in the right light? Why do I keep remembering the instrumental experiment of this album as a shouting match between the drums and piano when it is plain, when I am listening to it, that there is texture, there is a reasonable amount of lyricism, and thee are a few melodic ideas, at least, that are almost worthy of Tea for the Tillerman? I think my impressions of The Foreigner, which certainly was foreign in the recorded messages of Cat Stevens, are having some carryover here, and it isn't doing either Stevens or the interests of fair play any good. I sort of cringe every time logic calls for the post-Foreigner Stevens to make one of those grungy collisions with a piano keyboard, with glottal explosion to match. And I must say he could have done himself some good, even among people who weren't exposed to The Foreigner, if he had defied logic (or at least predictability) a few times.

All right. Carryover or not, "Oh Very Young" is quite a nice (if unsurprising) song. "Sun/C79" carries on the semi-mysterious side of Stevens with a fair amount of grace, even if the synthesizer part does sound grafted on, and "King of Trees" has elegance, "Home in the Sky" charm, and not only because they are cast in the humility that was, and may again be, the undeniably attractive thing about Stevens, taste aside. And "Ready" is a dud, with many a collision with the English language as well as the keyboard -- "I love I love I love I'm ready to love" indeed. "Music" isn't much better. "A Bad Penny" isn't so hot, and "Jesus" and "Ghost Town" are awful in other ways. I think The Foreigner was an experiment, which, on balance, probably shouldn't have been immortalized in vinyl. But it was a worthy exercise for the doer of it, while too much of this album -- considering the source -- seems like simple sandbagging.

It's time, I think, for certain gifted persons -- and not just Cat Stevens -- to stop inflating the value of their tiniest whims and get back to hard work.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 8/74.

Cat Stevens is back with the kind of material he does best, a selection of short, well produced, relatively uncomplicated cuts. In contrast to his Foreigner Suite set, Stevens sticks more to the kind of basics that first gained him his massive popularity here some five years ago. His singing is stronger than it has been in some time, and the background vocals, while noticeable, are unobtrusive. Perhaps the best thing about this set is that it is chock full of potential singles with easy melodies and relatively simple themes. Stevens depends more on keyboards here than he did on his last set, but this adds to the album's lush, full sound.

- Billboard, 1974.

Cat Stevens is coasting on the goodwill he earned for Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. My guess is his audience is becoming progressively younger, with many young men and women responding to him more as a sex star than a musician. The continued success of his records shows that they are oblivious to the decline in the quality of his work. Personally, even when I can tune out the blissed-out homilies about the religion of music and the good works of Jesus and Buddha, I no longer enjoy his voice, which has turned strained and gravelly. And the melodies and arrangements at which he once excelled are now sadly underdeveloped. But the band's musicianship and the production create a stylish sound that helps conceal the larger defects of Buddha and the Chocolate Box -- although my guess is, only for a while.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 6/6/74.

The difference between an album you love and an album you hate is often one or two cuts. An inspired song that fulfills a fantasy you never knew you had can make you believe in a whole side, while a song that commits some deadly sin can drag innocents to perdition. In "Music," for example, Cat tells us there wouldn't be any "wars in the world/If everybody joined in the band." This kind of lie is called a tautology; it's like saying there wouldn't be any hunger if everyone became an ice cream man. And makes you wonder why a guy who loves trees so much (reference: "King of Trees") designed a double-fold cover with cardboard inner sleeve for this unlovable single LP. C-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

At the time of its release, this was heralded as Stevens' best effort since Tea for the Tillerman. It wasn't. It did have a few good tunes, particularly "Oh Very Young" and "Ready," both hits. * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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