Yusuf Islam's (formerly Cat Stevens) previous recording, 2006's An Other Cup was a mostly enjoyable lighter weight -- and yes, sometimes preachy -- extension of the latter albums in his previous incarnation. An Other Cup captured the more stretched melodic frames of albums such as Foreigner, Buddha and the Chocolate Box, and even Back to Earth. The compositional sense here, on the far more satisfying Roadsinger, is much more direct, laid-back, earthy, and yet elegant. And while it definitely points forward, Roadsinger looks back to excellent recordings such as Catch Bull at Four and Teaser and the Firecat: on the intro to "Be What You Must" he even quotes "Sitting"! The voice here is immediately recognizable as that of the man who gave us so many beautiful, direct songs about living, searching, observing, and waiting. It has been deepened a bit by age, but somehow that adds to its quality. Certainly most, if not quite all, of these songs deal with spiritual themes, and yes, they discuss how one can be happy and whole by embracing a spiritual way of life, but the manner in which they do so is gentle, more attraction that promotion, and the compositions themselves stand up to the past while furthering a musical vision that is at the heart of who this artist always was. The songs are low intensity, mostly hummable, and always rooted in the strumming or fingerpicking of an acoustic guitar even as strings, electric guitars, wispy percussion, and sometimes horns wind their way in without digging as deeply into the pop-conscious productions of An Other Cup. The set was co-produced with Martin Terefe, who has also worked with Martha Wainwright and James Morrison.
The album fits like a glove onto Stevens' former identity, with some songs as gloriously rich and beautiful as anything he's ever written. With its lithe string arrangement and guitar work by Yogi Lonich, the title track asks a central question: "...Where do you go/When the world turns dark/And the light of the truth is blown out/And all the roads are blocked..." "Dream On" is a gauzy, small wonder of a track with a gorgeous saxophone part that stands as an accompaniment to the repetitive vocal. "All Kinds of Roses" is a hymn to tolerance despite one's own beliefs; its metaphors are artfully layered. The opener, "Welcome Home," feels like Stevens never exited the stage -- though we all know he did for nearly three decades -- with its strummed acoustic and that opening baritone offering ever so gently the lines "On the path, all seekers this way...carried down to the marketplace/No one knew my face/Then a stranger sang, with a voice like the wind/Then the hills began to sing, 'welcome in.'" "Shamsia," the disc closer, is a haunting piano and string instrumental dedicated to a young Afghan girl who defied the Taliban and attended school even though she was blinded as punishment. Even the cover, with its peace sign-bearing VW microbus standing in a square with Islam playing and singing under a street lamp, signifies that this is a return, and that the two paths he kept separate for so long, that of a pilgrim and that of an artist and traveling musician, have merged on one all-embracing road. Roadsinger is an utterly solid catalog entry under either his adopted spiritual name or his former one. Longtime fans will not be disappointed, and the rest of us should take note, too, because this kind of songcraft is seldom come by anymore. [The 2009 edition included a bonus CD.]