Review by: Jimm Derby
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G
This album was the fourth one released after Stevens’ “comeback” that started in 1970 with the Tea For the Tillerman, an album whose hit single “Wild World” served as a template for that album and its follow-up, Teaser and the Firecat: Acoustic-driven, folksy pop songs with questing, spiritual lyrics and gruff, passionate vocals. The hooks were not obvious, but the real magic was in the interplay of acoustic guitars, string bass, and gospel piano, with touches of Eastern and Mediterranean folk elements and melodies. With his 1972 record Catch Bull at Four he moved into a more ambitious modern sound, with synthesizers, drums, and bigger themes. The hit single from that album was Sitting, and as its title suggests, was a simpler, more meditative song than before, and songs like Angelsea and Can’t Keep It In evince a more overt spirituality that was permeating the music.
With Foreigner, Stevens continues with the keyboard-driven, broader sound, and makes his most ambitious track ever with the 18-minute title suite. Like most extended multi-part pieces, the lyrics are all over the place, and it drags a bit in spots, but it moves fairly quickly through the sections. The themes are mostly in the pastoral, gospel pop style, although my favorite was the last “heaven must have programmed you” section, which is a nice spritely piano pop riff repeated over and over. The opening lyrics “There are no words” seems a bit ironic; there are many words over the course of the suite, but the general gist seems to be that Cat is the foreigner, not in the social sense but spiritually, which is in tune with his general progression. He bemoans the vanity of wealth and the pop star lifestyle, and genuinely wants some kind of experience that will bring him home. Overall, I am impressed he attempted to put together a “magnum opus,” but the form doesn’t suit him, like his early cover paintings, his songs are snapshots, not panoramas or landscapes.
As for the other four tracks, “The Hurt” was a single and actually has a cool message that “I didn’t know about love until I was hurt,” but it has less spark than the big hits. “How Many Times” wonders about hygiene and shoe maintenance in the midst of habitual behavior, a bit slow and draggy. “Later” has one of his angriest vocals and has more of the mundane musings (“Maybe I’ll fold your clothes later!”) with gospel backup singers and driving piano. And the strange “100 I Dream” has a mystical feel with some liquid guitars and obscure lyrics.
This record is a bit of an oddball in his catalog. The others have colorful artwork, at least one hit single, catchy, enigmatic titles and seem to have more going on. The stark, monochromatic photo and minimalistic title belie the “faux-epic” feel within, and I had actually forgotten this record existed before doing this review. As such, it doesn’t stand with his best work, but it’s not a disappointment, either; I guess I’ll stick with my Greatest Hits and Tillerman as my go-to’s for now.