Music Reviews: Box Sets Celebrate Cat Stevens’s ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ and ‘Tea for the Tillerman’

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Folk-pop singer/songwriter Cat Stevens famously walked away from the music business in 1978, but that wasn’t his first career turning point. (Nor was it his last; he has returned to making records in recent years.) The British artist—born Steven Georgiou and known as Yusuf Islam since his conversion to the Muslim faith—achieved some success in his home country in the mid 1960s, partly as the writer of “Here Comes My Baby,” a hit for the Tremeloes, and the great “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” which charted in England for P.P. Arnold (and later produced major hits for Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow). Stevens also had a few hits of his own, including his debut album, Matthew & Son, and its title cut, which reached number two on the U.K. singles chart.

But things went downhill from there, with subsequent singles and a second album selling relatively poorly. To make matters worse, tuberculosis sidelined Stevens for months. When he recovered, he decided it was time to make a fresh start with more personal material. Moving to a new record label, he released his third and fourth LPs, Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman, within four months of each other in 1970. Both albums have recently been reissued in 50th anniversary “super deluxe” editions.

These box sets, which weigh in at about seven pounds each, leave no stone unturned. Mona Bone Jakon packs in two and a half hours of music on four CDs, one with a 2020 remaster, one with a 2020 remix, one with home and studio demos, and one with 15 live performances—and that’s not all: the set also features a Blu-ray with the 2020 master and mix in hi-def audio, plus a promo video and video from eight TV performances. 

In addition, the box offers an LP and 12-inch EP, both on audiophile-quality vinyl, that contain the 2020 mix and some of the fourth CD’s concert tracks. You also get memorabilia—including frameable artwork, a poster, and a tour sticker—plus an oversized 100-page hardcover book that features new liner notes, track annotations, lyrics, photos, period newspaper articles, and more. 

The Tea for the Tillerman box is even more massive, with nearly four hours of music on five CDs. Like the other reissue, it devotes two of its discs to 2020 remasters and remixes and a third to live performances, in this case including a seven-track set from the Troubadour in L.A. and 13 more numbers from assorted concerts and radio broadcasts. There’s also a disk with demos, alternate versions, and bonus tracks. In addition, the set features Tea for the Tillerman 2, Stevens’s remake of the original album, which first appeared last year. 

Rounding out the package are the same kinds of extras that the other box includes: a Blu-ray with hi-def audio versions of the 2020 remaster and remix as well as a promo video and video of 14 TV and studio performances; an LP and an EP, both on audiophile-quality vinyl, with the 2020 mix and some of the concert material; a 96-page hardcover book with a newly written foreword by the artist, as well as photos, track notes, and more; and memorabilia such as artwork and a poster from the Troubadour gig.

Needless to say, box sets hefty enough to double as doorstops do not come cheap and are intended for serious fans. If you fit that description, though, you’ll find lots to like here, especially in the Tea for the Tillerman box.

That’s not to say that Mona Bone Jakon isn’t noteworthy. This record—a commercial flop in the U.S. though it included a U.K. hit single (“Lady D’Arbanville”)—first introduced the introspective, folk- and blues-based version of Cat Stevens, the one that would fully flower on Tea for the Tillerman and several subsequent albums. It includes “Pop Star,” in which we hear early hints of how uncomfortable Stevens was becoming with fame; “Trouble,” which alludes to his struggle with tuberculosis; and such lilting standouts as “Katmandu” (with flute by Peter Gabriel), “Fill My Eyes,” and the strings-spiced “Lilywhite,” none of which would have seemed out of place on Tea for the Tillerman

The Blu-ray videos get a bit redundant, with four performances of “Lady D’Arbanville” and three of “Maybe You’re Right.” But the concert material embraces some good stuff, including versions of Tea for the Tillerman’s “Father and Son” and “Where Do the Children Play?”

The reissue of that album—a top 10 hit in the U.S.—is even better than the Mona Bone Jakon box. Paul Samwell-Smith produced both original records, and they feature the same core band; but the material on Tea for the Tillerman is more consistently compelling, and the performances sound more self-assured and make better use of Stevens’s distinctive voice.

Though the whole album works, it scores home runs with its first four tracks: “Where Do the Children Play?” a still-relevant number about ecology and an overly technological world; and “Hard Headed Woman,” “Wild World” (Stevens’s first U.S. hit single), and “Sad Lisa,” all of which address romantic relationships. Granted, some of the lyrics range from simplistic to silly and some of the rhymes seem strained but there’s no denying the melodic beauty of much of this music.

Many of Tea for the Tillerman’s box-set bonuses are noteworthy, starting with the 2020 rerecording, on which Stevens (again working with producer Samwell-Smith) reimagines his material for the 21st century. Not all of these often dramatically different versions fully succeed, but several—including a jazzy “Wild World” and a dreamy “Where Do the Children Play?”—are well worth hearing. Also excellent are the concert videos, which include versions of most of the songs from the original album.

Casual fans should stick to the 1970 releases—or perhaps even just to the single-disc Very Best of Cat Stevens. But if your favorite-albums list includes the original Mona Bone Jakon and/or Tea for the Tillerman, it’s time for an upgrade.

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