Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 21: Cat Stevens, "Wild World"

Artist: Cat Stevens
Song: "Wild World"
Album: Tea For The Tillerman
Year: 1970

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Throughout the long history of recorded music, one of the most consistent trends across all genres is that simple, honest, and straightforward music nearly always finds success.  While there is certainly a place for the overly-complex arrangements, there is something to be said for simple music, as it often conveys emotion and lyrics in a far more effective manner.  Clearly, when it comes to more basic musical arrangements, few genres show it better than that of folk music, and during the 1960's and 1970's, the genre flourished, with nearly every one of the greatest albums in the genres history coming out during that time period.  While there were countless artists releasing fantastic folk records at the time, a handful of them were able to cross over into pop success, and few were as endearing and memorable as the string of hits that came from the voice of Cat Stevens.  Arguably the most important British folk singer in history, the songs of Stevens remain essential parts of culture across the globe, and many of these songs have proved worthy of the notation of "timeless."  After finding moderate success with his first record, Stevens was sidelined for over a year as he battled tuberculosis, but as soon as he was able, he returned to recording and began reaffirming his place as one of the finest folk musicians in history.  All of his musical brilliance came together in the form of his 1970 record, Tea For The Tillerman, and one would be hard pressed to find a more defining song than his iconic single, "Wild World."

For this record, Stevens assembled the exact same group of backing musicians and producers that he used for his previous album, Mona Bone Jakon, and yet this time around, the overall mood is far more uplifting yet still "searching" than the first time the group was recorded.  The combination of acoustic guitar and keyboards that are featured on "Wild World" are without question one of the most perfect musical combinations ever captured on tape, and it gives the song a mood unlike any other.  The rolling melody from the keyboards, contrasted with the light, rhythmic guitar work serves as a shining example of the beauty of simplicity, and it also shows how much latitude there was within the traditional notion of what "was" folk music.  Even when the song reaches its chorus, the only additions to the music is a lone ride-cymbal, and yet the energy of the song lifts at this time.  The fact that Stevens is able to alter the mood so seamlessly without adding in additional instruments serves as a testament to his amazing musical talents.  Furthermore, the brief keyboard solo is also to the point and yet perfectly placed, as it gives a necessary break in the flow of the song.  The fact that this short solo is the only part of the song that is not the chorus or a verse almost gives the song a punk feel, as there is not a single "unnecessary" moment on the song, and it is all of these elements that makes "Wild World" such a superb musical achievement.

Playing in perfect compliment to his fantastic orchestrations, one would be hard pressed to find a more natural, yet completely captivating voice than that of Cat Stevens.  With an ability to work the entire vocal range, Stevens never sounds as if he is "pushing" his voice, and this gentle honesty makes his words all the more meaningful.  Yet "Wild World" is a perfect example of the idea of "looks can be deceiving," as on its exterior, the song seems like a beautiful, loving folk song.  However, if one digs even the slightest bit into the lyrics, one will find some of the most brash yet brilliantly penned words in history.  Overall, the song appears to be about a broken love, and the bittersweet, mixed feelings that the protagonist has towards his former flame.  While there is a not common emotion conveyed in the lines, "...and it's breakin' my heart you're leavin', baby, I'm grievin..." it is the rest of the song that perfectly captures the "other" feelings one has during such a breakup.  Stevens is rather unrelenting in his railing against his lost love, and few lines in history cut as sharply as when he sings, "'s hard to get by just upon a smile..."  The somewhat subtle assault continues on "Wild World," as Cat Stevens spins the brilliant couplet of, "...hope you have a lot of nice things to wear, but then a lot of nice things turn bad out there..."  While most artists are only able to convey one of the two main emotions of a breakup, Cat Stevens shows off his uncanny lyrical talents by presenting both simultaneously in fantastic fashion on "Wild World."

Though the list of important figures in folk music is rather lengthy, there is no arguing the fact that Cat Stevens belongs at the top with the other legends of the genre.  His ability to keep things simple and straightforward in a period in music where things were becoming overly complex, proved that he musical approach was one that was truly timeless.  While Stevens had many hits over his career, few have been covered as often in as wide a range of styles as "Wild World," and one can find versions from artists ranging from José Feliciano to Beth Orton to The Ventures to Maxi Priest.  The fact that many of these covers have been released in recent years proves its timeless quality, and yet the original version still reigns supreme and sounds just as fresh and relevant today as it did forty years ago.  Offering little more than his guitar, keyboard, and voice, Cat Stevens leaves plenty of room for emotion on "Wild World," and it is the sort of song to which nearly everyone can relate.  This ability to touch so many people across genres and generations is one of the trademarks of Stevens, as so many of his songs have shown this capacity.  Often lost behind the mellow mood of the music and lyrics, Stevens proves that he can be quite destructive with his pen, and one would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful song, with more brutal lyrics than one finds on Cat Stevens' 1970 classic, "Wild World."

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