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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
It's been 28 years since Cat Stevens released his last album, Back to Earth, soon after converting to Islam, walking away from rock-and-roll stardom and changing his name to Yusuf Islam. Now he's back with a new album -- _ An Other Cup_ -- and yet another new name, simply Yusuf.
Midway through this new album, Yusuf covers "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a song made famous by the Animals in the 1960s. In Yusuf's version, the song comes across as an earnest prayer about how this CD might be received. If that's the case, who could blame him? As one of the most prominent Muslims in the music industry, Yusuf has been an easy target for controversy from western media. In the late 1980s, he was accused of supporting a fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie, and in 2004, he was in the news again after being denied entry to the United States when his name showed up on a no-fly list.
Moreover, given his zeal for Islam and the anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States these days, some music lovers in the U.S. might not even consider giving this CD a first listen. I think that would be a mistake. An Other Cup is perhaps the most overtly spiritual album since Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming (circa 1979). While it contains veiled references to Yusuf's religion of choice (but never mentions "Islam" or "Allah" by name), it isn't a call to convert listeners to Islam. It is instead a call for listeners to empty their "cups" of preconceived ideas and consider another perspective. It's a musical variation on a Zen saying that is printed on the CD's inside cover, about a spiritual master who overflows a visitor's cup with tea. "Like this cup," he says, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you anything unless you first empty your cup?"
So, empty your cups, readers, and read on from a less-than-learned fellow sojourner who offers his own opinions and speculations about this CD.
An Other Cup is in one sense a spiritual journey that begins with the least spiritual of songs, "Midday (Avoid City After Dark)." This catchy calypso-ish tune captures the joy for life that comes from "Checking life out in the park" and watching children "splashing boots and kicking mud" but also cautions that darkness co-exists with love and light. The album then moves to more spiritual matters, with tracks reminiscent of Cat Stevens' idealistic "Peace Train," songs that more stridently "preach" about how we should live our lives, and a tune or two that offer a glimpse of what life beyond this one might look like. An Other Cup is, essentially, a sermon. But that's not so bad.
Despite the 28-year gap between albums, Yusuf's voice sounds as soulful and mellifluous as ever. On each of the eleven tracks, the vocals float above understated arrangements. Yusuf and co-producer Rick Nowels rely mainly on acoustic guitar, piano, strings (most prominently on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood") and a variety of percussion instruments. The exception is the horn section on the opening track, "Midday (Avoid City After Dark)."
The CD's spiritual essence blossoms with the second and third tracks, "Heaven/Where True Love Goes" and "Maybe There's a World." (According to the liner notes, both songs are from Yusuf's musical-in-progress, "Moonshadow.") While the lyrics of "Heaven/Where True Love Goes" are ambiguous enough to be interpreted as either a romantic love song or a paean to God, "Maybe There's a World" draws on "Peace Train," John Lennon's "Imagine" and similar pop utopianism.
I have dreamt of an open world,While _An Other Cup_ reflects Yusuf's own Islamic beliefs, it's ecumenical enough for people of other monotheistic faiths to appreciate. At times, though, it comes off as strident preaching -- nearly as strident as any contemporary Christian come-to-Jesus-or-be-damned pop tune. Consider the lyrics from the eschatological "In the End," which reminds me of Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," but from a different theological perspective:
You can't bargain with the truthIn the end, An Other Cup should be appreciated for its songcraft, musicianship and production, if not for its spirituality. But no doubt this album, like Yusuf's intentions, will be misunderstood by some.