Original released on LP Island ILPS 9135
(UK 1970, November 23)
"Mona Bone Jakon" only began Cat Stevens' comeback. Seven months later, he returned with this "Tea for the Tillerman", an album in the same chamber-group style, employing the same musicians and producer, but with a far more confident tone. "Mona Bone Jakon" had been full of references to death, but "Tea for the Tillerman" was not about dying; it was about living in the modern world while rejecting it in favor of spiritual fulfillment. It began with a statement of purpose, "Where Do the Children Play?," in which Stevens questioned the value of technology and progress. "Wild World" found the singer being dumped by a girl, but making the novel suggestion that she should stay with him because she was incapable of handling things without him. "Sad Lisa" might have been about the same girl after she tried and failed to make her way; now, she seemed depressed to the point of psychosis. The rest of the album veered between two themes: the conflict between the young and the old, and religion as an answer to life's questions. "Tea for the Tillerman" was the story of a young man's search for spiritual meaning in a soulless class society he found abhorrent. He hadn't yet reached his destination, but he was confident he was going in the right direction, traveling at his own, unhurried pace. The album's rejection of contemporary life and its yearning for something more struck a chord with listeners in an era in which traditional verities had been shaken. It didn't hurt, of course, that Stevens had lost none of his ability to craft a catchy pop melody; the album may have been full of angst, but it wasn't hard to sing along to. As a result, "Tea for the Tillerman" became a big seller and, for the second time in four years, its creator became a pop star. (William Ruhlmann in AllMusic)
London-born Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Steven Georgiou) had scored hits since the late 1960s, but with "Tea for the Tillerman", his fourth album, he became a global star. Previous LP "Mona Bone Jakon" (featuring hit single "Lady d'Arbanville") had seen Stevens emerge as one of a new breed of reflective singer-songwriters. For this album he preserved the same core of musicians (Alun Davis, guitar; Harvey Burns, drums; John Ryan, bass) and the producer, maintaining the uncluttered production of "Mona Bone Jakon". Apart from Stevens' ear for a great melody, what caught the listener's attention most was the sensibility of his lyrics and his readliness to address pressing issues of his time - notably the search for spiritual direction that underpins "But I Might Die Tonight" and "On the Way to Find Out". "Father and Son" was written at the heels of a massive explosion of youth culture, but the song is all the more poignant for the lack of recrimination between the eponymous pair. (The album's sleeve, painted by Stevens, picks up on the subject of youth and age.) The album's melodic appeal and gentle charm saw sales soar and it garnered a gold disc. Seven years later, Stevens became a Muslim, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and abandoned the music business to practice the spirituality yearned for in his songs. Since then, his work has rarely approached the tuneful simplicity of this much-loved album. (Liam Pieper in "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die")
Cat Stevens had already released one album in 1970, "Mona Bone Jakon" back in April, when "Tea for the Tillerman" arrived that November. And almost immediately, things changed for the 22-year-old London singer-songwriter born Steven Demetre Georgiou. And then they just didn’t stop. Stevens had been kicking around the British folk scene for quite some time, penning songs for other people and just trying to make a living when he started recording his fourth album in London during the summer of 1970. Nobody, not even Stevens, had any reason to believe that "Tea for the Tillerman" would sell any better than his other LPs ("Mona Bone Jakon" peaked at No. 164). But none of his other albums contained songs as uniformly great as those found on "Tea for the Tillerman", a career milestone and the album that finally helped break Stevens worldwide. It all started with “Wild World,” his first Top 40 single (which stopped just shy of the Top 10 at No. 11), and ended a little more than a year later, when the cult movie Harold and Maude used Stevens’ songs (including a handful from "Tea for the Tillerman") on its soundtrack. And it was all setup for his biggest success in 1971 with “Morning Has Broken” (which hit No. 6) and the album "Catch Bull at Four" (which hit No. 1, his only LP to do so).
But "Tea for the Tillerman" is the album that made Stevens a star, the one that introduced his voice (soft, quivering, delicate and raspy at points) and songwriting (sharp, moving, eminently hummable) to a larger audience. Prior to "Tillerman", he was best known as the guy who wrote “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” which R&B singer P.P. Arnold had a hit with; afterward, he became one of the most representative voices, faces and personalities of the ’70s’ folk movement. From the opening “Where Do the Children Play?” (an ecologically minded survey of the era’s deadliest threats) and “Hard Headed Woman” to “Wild World” and “Father and Son” (one of the most moving songs ever written about the divide between parents and children), the album is a soft-rock landmark - made primarily on acoustic instruments, including congas, double bass and violin - that’s as timeless as it is a part of its generation. After the album’s success, Stevens pretty much followed its template for most of the ’70s, until his career dried up at the end of the decade. The majestic arrangements, the driving force behind many of "Tea for the Tillerman"'s songs, almost sound neutered in later recordings. But here they shake things up, giving lift to everything around them. Stevens relied on them later; on "Tillerman", they were just another piece of the creative process that helped define the album and, in turn, helped define the artist. (Michael Gallucci)