Tea for the Tillerman
Released: November 1970
Chart Peak: #8
Weeks Charted: 79
Certified Gold: 5/12/71
Is it on the roads of Provence or the tube to Portobello Road that I visualize Cat? He is both the next in a long line of troubadours and very much the London neighborhood musician, encompassing at once the allure of the exotic and the ability to domesticate it. He wanders, but he returns home.
"Miles From Nowhere," "Wild World," "On the Road to Find Out," "Father and Son" are songs of leaving -- travel through time and space. Every song is an excursion into Cat's personal world; together they constitute an album affirming the simple life and the individual's search for values. All of this is a far cry, although only casual link away, from Cat Stevens, "pop star" (listen to the song of the same title on his lovely Mona Bone Jakon), subsequently a refugee from the glittering life, and later still, the TB ward.
Cat's melodies and lyrics are disarmingly, deceptively simple. He seems to fasten without effort onto tunes with a life of their own, tunes of small beginnings and wide resonances. He applies to them a furry voice with a kind of glottal buzz -- perfect for the calypso "Longer Boats," while adding the right touch of seasoning to an ageless folk song like "Into White": "I built my house from barley rice/ Green pepper walls, and water ice/ tables of paper wood, windows of light/ And everything emptying into White." It really must be heard.
There is an equally childlike and nursery-rhymish "On the Road to Find Out," which moves imperceptibly from fable to parable. Mixing theme and melody, I'd describe it as Dick Whittington meeting three blind mice, setting out to find London, and instead finding God. "Father and Son" is a dialogue between just that. Father, in a plea for the boy to stay, manages to reduce a complex thought to a trickle of words, "For you will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not." To the boy, "From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen." Cat skillfully betrays a vested interest in neither role.
Sometimes Cat places an over-reliance on dynamics for dramatic effect; also, his keyboard and guitar playing seem a bit amateurish, although that in itself has a certain charm -- he's just a folk singer, you know. If you've been listening to Donovan, Joni Mitchell, et al., though not necessarily these people, there's no reason you shouldn't be listening to Cat Stevens.
- Ben Gerson, Rolling Stone, 2-18-71.
Cat Steven's new album Tea for the Tillerman may not make him the rage of two or more continents, but that's mostly because even poetic justice is so elusive these days. My reference list of slightly battered hip phrases defines "monster" as "fantastic, tremendous, etc." This album is a monster. For it, Cat Stevens wrote three kinds of songs -- good, very good, and excellent. In it he plays guitar with economy and drive and sings -- to put it quite simply -- better than any male solo vocalist now active in pop music. If that isn't enough, he also did the drawing for the cover of the jacket and did it well enough to convince me he could make a good living as a commercial artist.
Truly good vocalists -- those who can hit the right note, have genuinely pleasant-sounding voices, and can convey delicate emotional nuances -- are so rare I cannot think of anyone to compare Cat Stevens to. The best I can come up with is that he sounds a bit like a one-man Jethro Tull while sounding like a deeper-voiced Neil Young -- and, yes, I'm aware of the great distance between those guideposts.
The album doesn't fit any category, although it is both folky and rock-like. It does require attention, but if your taste is anything like mine, you can give that readily, knowing that not a second of your time will be wasted.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 4/71.
Coinciding with Stevens' U.S. tour, his latest LP is a beauty in melody and understatement, thanks to superb arrangements and production. "Sad Lisa," "Longer Boats," "Into White," "Where Do the Children Play" and "Hard Headed Woman" should enjoy considerable airplay and create consumer demand.
- Billboard, 1970.
It's evident that solo artists are the vogue today. Time and Newsweek have devoted coverage to the future of rock, and it seems their verdict is "soft rock" and that the solo artist will take over the lead in the '70s.
I'm quite skeptical about this, because rock will evidently take and progress into various forms which will include all departments of musical endeavors.
But in the field of soft rock, Cat Stevens should be one of the guiding lights. This album is quite flawless in the sense of individual tracks and as a complete overall product. Stevens' voice seems to be naturally made to complement and work with his lyrics. A really beautiful album, period.
- Bob Forward, Hit Parader, 11/71.
My big problems with this record are no doubt why it's a hit: the artificially ripened singing, which goes down like a store-bought banana daiquiri, and the insufferable sexist condescension of "Wild World." B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Tea for the Tillerman is like a musical collection of children's tales by Stevens. The delicacy of the arrangements, Paul Samwell-Smith's brilliant otherworldly production, and Stevens's entrancing melodies and images easily make this his best work. "Wild World" was a huge hit, but emotive tracks like "Father and Son," "Where Do the Children Play?," and the haunting "Into White" and "Sad Lisa" make this a must-own for fans of singer/songwriter pop. * * * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Even though he'd had a few hits, Tea for the Tillerman blasted Stevens into international superstardom. "Wild World," "Father and Son," "Where Do the Children Play," "Hard Headed Woman" and others made Stevens an album-rock radio staple. The album's cartoon cover art and the innocence expressed in the songs were perfect for the flower child ethos. * * * * *
- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Perfect to curl up with on a rainy day, this fine, thoughtful album brings back memories of a gentler time when hippiedom ruled and Cat was a favored son. A lost teller of tales, he wrote wistful melodies punctuated by playful tunes, leaping from "Wild World" to the melancholy "Sad Lisa." While some wonder why he left music to become a Muslim cleric at the height of his career, cynics suspect the clues were all here in this "icky treacle." * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
With its chamber-pop arrangements, Tea for the Tillerman is one of the British folkie's most ambitious albums. Both the hit single "Wild World" and the bleak ballad "Hard-Headed Woman" find him condemning his ex, Patti D'Arbanville -- who later shacked up with Mick Jagger.
Tea for the Tillerman was chosen as the 206th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Tea For The Tillerman built on the early promise of Cat Stevens' comeback album, Mona Bone Jakin, and established him as a major talent in America. The album was released though Mobile Fidelity Records.
With his career having been on pause at the end of the 1960s after contracting tuberculosis, Stevens re-emerged with perfect timing early the following decade, just as the singer-songwriter movement was taking hold.
Opening track "Where Do The Children Play?" typified Stevens' new direction. A seemingly straightforward pop song, it addressed on closer examination the artist's concerns about the price society was paying for the advancement of technology. "Wild World," his first US Top 20 single (Number 11), provided a novel twist on the break-up song, while "Father And Son" cast its writer in both title parts ina conversation between the generations.
Ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith provided a loose, gentle production, whic allowed Stevens' songs to breathe. Urged on by the success of "Wild World," the album took five months after release to reach a peak of Number Eight in America, where it played on the chart for 79 weeks, while in the UK it reached a more modest Number 20.
As of 2004, Tea For The Tillerman was the #92 best-selling album of the 70s.
- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.
London-born Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Steven Georgiou) had scored hits since the late 1960s, but with Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth album, he became a global star.
Previous LP Mona Bone Jakon (featuring hit single "Lady d'Arbanville") had seen Stevens emerge as one of a new breed of reflective singer-songwriters. For ...Tillerman, he preserved the same core of musicians (Alun Davies, guitar; Harvey Burns, drums; John Ryan, bass) and the producer (Paul Samwell-Smith), maintaining the uncluttered prduction of Mona Bone Jakon.
Apart from Stevens' ear for a great melody, what caught the listener's attention most was the sensibility of his lyrics and his readiness to address pressing issues of this time -- notably the search for spiritual direction that underpins "But I Might Die Tonight" and "On The Way To Find Out." "Father And Son" was written at the heels of massive explosion of youth culture, but the song is all the more poignant for the lack of recrimination between the eponymous pair. (The album's sleeve, painted by Stevens, picks up on the subject of youth and age.) The album's melodic appeal and gentle charm saw sales soar and it garnered a gold disc. Seven years later, Stevens became a Muslim, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and abandoned the music business to practice the spirituality yearned for in his songs. Since then, his work has rarely approached the tuneful simplicity of this much-loved album.
- Liam Pieper, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Pop music is home to seekers, earnest Herman Hesse-reading types who are (as one song title here declares) "on the road to find out" and more than willing to send back dispatches. Born in England to Greek parents, Cat Stevens (Steven Demetre Georgiau) wasn't the first such soul. But he was among the most successful. For several years starting in 1970, he made spiritual inquiry -- and introspection -- seem a vital and necessary part of a young person's life.
Starting with a sonic palette somewhere between the late Beatles and the then-rising California singer-songwriters, Stevens created homily-rich songs that portrayed internal questing as a richly rewarding, and possibly sexy, pursuit. He wrote koans about religion, sometimes exhibiting a profound skepticism. He sang about technology, loss of innocence (most poignantly on "Where Do the Children Play?"), and the eternal struggles between brash youth and experience.
Tea for the Tillerman catches Stevens at his most brazen as a thinker and his most daring as a pop auteur; the record he issued six months after this one, Teaser and the Firecat, has the more simiplistic singles "Morning Has Broken" and "Peace Train." This album is wound tighter, and takes more rhythmic chances; at times its questioning feels somewhat more severe. These are pluses: The sudden shifts of tempo jolt listeners from complacency, and the (few) varied musical approaches give Stevens's notions about romance (the search for a "Hard Headed Woman," the sketch of "Sad Lisa") an almost mystical aura.
Amazingly, Stevens's contribution to pop endures despite his well-publicized conversion to Islam in 1977, and his harsh condemnation of Western idol worship that followed. It's fine if he doesn't want to be a star anymore. But his choice doesn't change the resonance of these serene, entrancing hymnlike works, created at a time when Stevens was wandering "the road to find out."
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
With its chamber-pop arrangements, Tea is one of the British folkie's most ambitious albums. "Wild World" and the bleak "Heard-Headed Woman" find Cat Stevens condemning his ex, Patti D'Arbanville -- who later shacked up with Mick Jagger.
Tea for the Tillerman was chosen as the 205th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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