Yusaf Islam, Tell Them I’m Gone (Legacy, 2014)
Yusaf Islam divides Tell Them I’m Gone [TTIG] evenly between five original compositions and five covers. The latter include the title track — a slave chain gang song, also known as “Take This Hammer”; a standard from the 1930s, “You are My Sunshine”; and three songs of more recent vintage: “Big Boss Man” by Luther Dixon and Al Smith; Procol Harem’s “The Devil Came From Kansas”; and Edgar Winter’s “Dying to Live.” These covers come wrapped up in Yusaf originals: the opening and closing tracks, and three songs in the middle of the CD. Two of those, the fifth and sixth songs, “Editing Floor Blues” [EFB] and “Cat & the Dog Trap" [C&DT], are the heart of TTIG.
In the autobiographical EFB the singer tells his tale of a rise and fall from stardom, followed by an artistic rebirth and then a spiritual awakening. Steven Demetre Georgiou became the teenage pop sensation Cat Stevens, writing and recording songs like “Matthew and Son,” “Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut is the Deepest.” A nearly fatal brush with TB took him out of the spotlight but left him time to reflect and regroup. His second recording after returning to the world of music, Tea for the Tillerman, became a classic and with subsequent releases his standing in the music world was all but assured, that is, until he converted to Islam, changed his name, and was reported as calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. In EBF, Yusaf cries out against that characterization and the refusal of the press to set the record straight. The raging mood of EFB becomes reflective in C&DT, with Yusaf sounding a good deal like the popular Cat Stevens of the 1970s, as he bemoans the naiveté that allowed him to be trapped by the media.
TTIG opens with “I Was Raised in Babylon,” and ends with “Doors.” In the former, Yusaf sings of the death of civilizations — from Babylon to Great Britain — when they become divorced from the divine. In the latter, he affirms the perfection of God’s creation and sovereignty. The songs work well as bookends.
Notwithstanding the fact that Yusaf intends TTIG to pay homage to his musical roots, and the songs he covers tie into the CD’s theme — freedom, I think they make the whole less than the sum of its parts. Put another way, take away the cover songs — save for “Dying to Live” — but otherwise leave the sequencing as is, and the result would be stellar. In its present form TTIG falls short.