Cat Stevens quietly retired from his career as a pop star after the release of 1978's Back to Earth to pursue a spiritual path. Stevens became a devout Muslim and adopted the name Yusuf Islam, quietly making spiritually oriented recordings but avoiding the mainstream, especially after the controversy that followed his comments about the fatwa declared against author Salman Rushdie in 1989. However, Yusuf has been quietly inching back into the public eye since he released the album An Other Cup in 2006 and set out on an extensive concert tour documented on the 2009 live disc Roadsinger. Released in 2014, Tell 'Em I'm Gone finds Yusuf in part paying homage to the blues and R&B sounds that inspired him as a young man while also looking back to the canny mixture of pop and folk that informed his best work of the '70s. For the most part, Tell 'Em I'm Gone works best when Yusuf follows the latter path; while he remains a committed and canny vocalist, Yusuf's voice has never boasted the force or grit of an R&B shouter, and he seems far more comfortable with the gentle fable of "Cat & the Dog Trap" or the parables of "I Was Raised in Babylon" than the Lead Belly-influenced title cut or the blues-shot reworkings of "You Are My Sunshine" and "Big Boss Man." Tell 'Em I'm Gone also seems curiously long on covers, especially since Yusuf has a great deal to say in his originals; "Editing Floor Blues" is an autobiographical piece that ponders the ebb and flow of fame (as well as the Rushdie controversy), "Gold Digger" rails against corruption in the South African mining trade, and "Doors" quietly but eloquently deals with his spiritual beliefs. Rick Rubin produced the bulk of the album (and brought in guests who include Richard Thompson, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Charlie Musselwhite), and while the dry, spare sound of the sessions works for the band, it doesn't always make the most of Yusuf's vocals, which could use a bit of sweetening. (It's worth noting that Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced Cat Stevens' best albums, was brought in to mix this material, perhaps in an effort to give it more of a vintage sound.) Tell 'Em I'm Gone confirms that Yusuf still has the talent and passion that made him a star as Cat Stevens, but the efforts to find a new sound for him don't quite work, and Rubin doesn't quite catch the light but emphatic touch of Yusuf's salad days; maybe a full reunion with Paul Samwell-Smith would be worthwhile for Yusuf's next album.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming
feat: Paul Samwell-Smith