Yusuf / Cat Stevens – King of a Land – “A Peaceful Heart”

by | Jul 9, 2023 | 0 comments

Yusuf Islam recently referred to his new album, King of a Land, as a mosaic. The record took a decade to craft after 2014’s Tell Em’ I’m Gone and contains a collection of biographical parts and pieces hailing from his long and storied career. When these various bits are compiled, a narrative arc appears, and in turn reflects the long-held themes of Yusuf’s songwriting.

The basic tenants of Cat Stevens and now Yusuf’s compositions have always been the search for and pursuit of peace. After reconciling the rules of his conversion to Islam with his own internal creative drive for music, Yusuf has been able to join both sides of his being into song. 

King of a Land is Yusuf’s sixth album since rejoining the world of popular music in 2006 and his seventeenth career LP.

The record is a result of his previous discography, and his current recordings. Yusuf touched upon his past with the 2020 reimagining of his 1971 record Tea for the Tillerman. In hindsight, this look backwards was a necessary step forward on the path to King of a Land

Yusuf’s current creativity blends the essence of his religion, his beliefs, and his history, into a melodic expression that also explores the basic elements of humanity. Never didactic and always comforting, Yusuf is sincere in his expressions and his playing.

That has always been his way. By placing himself into and looking through the lens of the most innocent time in one’s life, childhood, he can access an unobstructed view of the world. Whether in previous songs from his 1970’s catalog like, “Father and Son,” “Oh, Very Young,” or “If You Want to Sing Out,” Yusuf has always used a child’s eyes to more honestly assess the world around him.

Yusuf’s new album illustrates what is possible when the innocent mind of a child is put in charge of the direction of our world. The white sheet of our birth, while slowly scribbled on over time by cultural graffiti can still be cleared. Yusuf’s songs, while they can’t save the world, try to strip away the layers of misunderstanding to reveal simplistic beauty in song. His compositions offer a message and a gentle prompting of how things can work by practicing simple acts like love and peace. 

The 12 songs on the record act as individual vignettes as well as a thematic whole and harken back to the same sort of delicate songwriting analysis found during Yusuf’s earlier Cat Stevens days. King of a Land, begins with a vibrant image of a “Train on the Hill,” the peace train, idling for its journey of discovery. The backing is cinematic, a soaring bird’s eye view of a imaginary landscape. The optimistic harpsichords and vibrant horns take the fragile melody and turn it into a hopeful prelude to the collection. The train elicits the motion and emotions that transport us through the journey of the album. Ranging from lush to sparse, full band to acoustic troubadour, Yusuf, and longtime producer Paul Samwell-Smith build a sonic world from the bottom up using Yusuf’s deft imagery and melodically addictive chord progressions. 

We meet the young boy of the tale via the title track. The song is quintessential Cat Stevens. Every single piece of instrumentation in its proper place. The backing vocals optimistic and hopeful. The boy dreams of a better place for his people, laying on his back in a field. He stares into the deep blue and fixes all his and the world’s problems through faith. 

The album traces growth and chance through the circular riffing and strident guitar work of “Pagan Road.” In contrast to the innocence portrayed in the first songs, this track touches on the realities and temptations of growing up and away. Yusuf’s vocals have a dusty edge illustrating what he has lost on the pagan run.

“All Nights, All Day’s,” is an appealing and syncopated melody that straddles the fence line on a country border. The chorus is helplessly addictive and helps to deliver the darker themes of the song. 

Closing side one of the record,”Another Night in the Rain,” is a beautiful multifaceted track with cross referenced melody lines sung and played into a swirling collaborative of keyboards and acoustic guitar twinkling. I am instantly brought back to Cat Steven’s more experimental work on Numbers and Back to Earth.
The chorus features lofty Yusuf vocals that sound as they have been preserved like a rose petal between the pages of a book. 

The flip side of the record begins with the breezy finger picking of “Things.” This song and the following “Son of Mary,” recall the heady acoustic days of Mona Bone Jakon. While “Son of Mary” may be too pious for some, that shouldn’t factor into admiring the songs beauty. “Things,” sounds a bit like a lost Wilco song covering Cat Stevens. Which means it’s fantastic! 

Things pick up with the gospel-tinged reach of “Highness” which looks skyward and marches to a heavy beat and bubbling orchestral swells. “The Boy Who Knew How to Climb Walls,” is the moodiest song on the record reminiscent of “Ruins,” a Cat Steven’s song that explored similar themes. The growth of the character undertaken on the record reaches its nexus when the main character in the song finds his friend gone forever.

“How Good it Feels,” is intimate, the penultimate song of the collection. Yusuf’s vocals mic’d closely, his breath and nuance perfection. The song’s gentle recitation and reflection becomes an emotional horizon through is emotive orchestral movements. 

The closing song on the record, “Take the World Apart,” was released as a single, and sums up the journey of the record in a succinct message. A buoyant melody played over rhythmic handclaps support a delicious wordless melody line. The directive, do whatever you can to find your peace. Keep looking high and low, and you will find your place, and your heart. 

King of a Land traces a hero’s journey through song, Yusuf’s journey, and our own.
Some reviewers have a certain expectation for the record, but are missing the point entirely. This album is the documentation and culmination of Yusuf’s journey. It contains elements from his past, and future, all in collaboration for something uniquely now.

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