‘The Laughing Apple’ is new take on well-worn territory

Enigmatic songwriter Yusuf / Cat Stevens returns after eight years with more of the same

ae-LaughingApple-CourtesyYusufCatStevens

When it comes to musicians whose peaks of fame were in the 1970s or 80s, there are generally three paths their 21st-century endeavors can take — a polarizing experiment with new styles of music, a foray into the mainstream or a continuation of past successes. With “The Laughing Apple,” Yusuf — formerly known as Cat Stevens — moves decisively down the third route, following up 2009’s “Roadsinger” with an album reminiscent of his early works. It’s easy to get confused — yet somehow, this latest effort avoids feeling stale, despite Yusuf’s use of both his previous producer and former guitarist Alun Davies.

The first cut on the album, “Blackness of the Night,” starts with a 15-second introduction that sounds more like classic Sufjan Stevens than Cat Stevens, with woodwinds and a light harpsichord accompanied by woodwinds. After such a light intro, the song swiftly shifts into a more morose sound than the rest of the album, with a chorus ending in the line “For this bad, bad world, he is going to die / He’s alone and there is no one by his side.” For an artist who has made his name on lighthearted folk, choosing such a dark album-opener is a surprising stylistic choice. 

In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, Stevens explained that he “wrote [the song] in a way, in anger against the world, about what I thought were the injustices that were going on [in the 1960s].” The song aged, and Stevens finally found the right time to release it. 

After the more solemn opener, he returns to his happy-go-lucky lyrical style on top of sparsely adorned instrumentals. Over the course of songs like “Grandsons” — a reflection on seeing his grandsons grow in his old age — and “You Can Do (Whatever)!” — an inspirational anthem summed up by its title — Stevens proves that he can write refreshing music without deviating from the style that made him so famous.

While his signature style is present throughout the album, Stevens’ new material does possess something that is not as prevalent in his previous music — overt biblical overtones. Biblical themes certainly are not present in every song, but Stevens scatters them freely across “The Laughing Apple.” This is most evident in the pair of songs “Mary and the Little Lamb” and “See What Love Did To Me,” the latter containing imagery of fire and floods along with the line “See what God did for me / He made me see life, flowery.” 

Stevens’ lyrics have always been centered around nature and the Earth, but this latest album is quite possibly the largest incorporation of religious themes yet. Because Stevens’ lyrical focus has always ran parallel to religion and the Bible, his foray into strictly biblical songs doesn’t feel too overpowering — rather, it’s a welcome development in Stevens’ soothing catalog. 

Nearing the end of the album, Stevens mostly abandons his incorporation of religion and turns to another issue occupying his mind. For an artist nearing 69-years-old, it’s only natural to start considering his age and inevitable passing. The album’s penultimate tune, “Don’t Blame Them,” is a pretty straightforward preaching of love and acceptance as he nears old age, with a particularly beautiful message — “Understand the world you hate / Love will moderate.” 

It serves as a nice lead-in into an unambiguous closer, titled “I’m So Sleepy.” This final track explores his growing acceptance of death and his own exhaustion, with an opening line of “I’m so sleepy, yeah / I could lay my head on a piece of lead / And imagine it was a springy bed.” 

Stevens has never dabbled in the abstract or subtleties, and this album’s closer is no different — he’s hopeful while still being resigned to his fate. Nonetheless, the album as a whole is a worthwhile addition to his catalog. His brand of unmistakable, thoughtful-yet-silly lyrics somehow remains fresh and interesting on “The Laughing Apple,” and that is a laudable achievement in itself.

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