The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens is back in the music-business limelight with his first album in 28 years, and it veers from very promising to extremely disappointing in the space of 11 tracks.
Born Steven Demetre Georgiou, he grew up in London's West End. In the late '70s, he ended a folk-pop career--during which he sold more than 25 million albums--by becoming a devout Muslim and changing his name to Yusuf Islam. And for almost three decades, he got most of his attention for denying the worldly trappings (and more lascivious songs) of his pop career, endorsing the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and being denied entry into the United States for national security reasons.
On the best parts of An Other Cup, Yusuf (who records under his first name only) borrows from his past. Lyrics from his sublime 18-minute "Foreigner Suite" are in "Heaven/Where True Love Goes," focusing on the positive aspects of transcendental love. He gives "I Think I See the Light" (from the 1970 album Mona Bone Jakon) a complex, jazzy arrangement that throbs with conviction and grace. A song that once seemed little more than a sweet snippet now sounds like a revelatory epic.
As does "The Beloved," a gorgeous, mostly acoustic homage to a savior who returns to Earth--most likely Mohammed, but it could be Jesus Christ--and it is richly embellished by guest vocals from Senegal's Youssou N'Dour.
Although Yusuf's distinctive voice is still strong at 59 years old, the victim stance of some of his lyrics is distracting--from the otherwise charming, Latinesque opening track "Midday (Avoid City After Dark)," in which he expresses trepidation at the thought of being out at night, to the frankly self-pitying cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
On "Maybe There's a World," he yearns for a place and time "where nobody gets annoyed." This utopian dream begs for comparison to John Lennon's "Imagine," but it has neither the power nor scope. The pristine gloss of the album's overall production doesn't help, as it creates a distancing effect.
In contrast, most of the spectral blues-inflected folk songs on Scottish guitar master Bert Jansch's CD sound as if they were roughly hewn from ancient rock and weather-beaten wood found on a chilly island shore.
It's only been a few years since the last album by Jansch (who in the early '70s played with the bluesy English folk band Pentangle). He's always been a bit of a thin singer, but he acquits himself well here, and his crisp, haunting guitar playing still sounds amazing.
Three excellent tunes feature vocals by British folktronica goddess Beth Orton. Other guests include Mazzy Star's David Roback, playing ghostly slide guitar on "When the Sun Comes Up," and Devendra Banhart, harmonizing with Orton on the traditional "Katie Cruel."
Other standouts include the ecumenical, humanist "Bring Your Religion" (with funky organ by son Adam Jansch) and the sarcastic anti-Dubya, anti-Iraq war country stomp "Texas Cowboy Blues." Could this album be any more lovable?