Review: Tea for the Tillerman by Cats Stevens

Tea for the Tillerman album cover
Tea for the Tillerman album cover

Celebrated by Rolling Stone magazine among others as one of the greatest albums of all time, Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens is 50 years old this year. Cat Stevens has even recorded it as Tea for the Tillerman2. So is it any good?

Let’s start at the album cover. If you’d bought this in 1970, this what you’d experience first. As a former art student, he painted this himself, too which I suggest, good you took up music. Am I the only one who thinks it looks like the kind of thing that a children’s band would produce?

Anyway, on to the music.

Tea for the Tillerman on Spotify

Where Do The Children Play?

A subtle song about the harm we do to the environment. A slow burner in which Stevens gets angrier the longer the song goes on, as he moves from planes, cosmic trains, lorry loads, to skyscrapers cracking  the sky … all them leaving the question, where do the children play?

Hard Headed Woman

A bit more traditional here. He’s a man who needs a woman who love and understand hi, … cause  guess that’s the point of women, to love men and understand them?

Wild World

This is really not a nice song. A woman has dared to leave Mr Stevens, breaking his heart. But she should be careful cause the world out there is wild, and her childish smile won’t be enough to get by on without, presumably, a man like Mr Stevens to protect her.

The line, ‘I’ll always remember you like a child, girl,’ is just a bit disturbing. He loved her for she seemed like a child? Or he is accusing of being childish? I think it’s the later, but what’s she done wrong, except the jerk?

Sad Lisa

Possibly because he subsequently said that while the character of the song is called, he’s really singing about himself, the thoughts and emotions here feel deeper than the last couple of tracks. If you read this as Lisa being Cat Stevens and the singer being, well Cat Stevens, then this is a reasonable bit of melancholic schizophrenia.

Miles From Nowhere

A song that plods along. Maybe the worst on the album. The lyrics hint at someone searching for a bit of spirituality, which becomes significant in his later career.

Miles from nowhere
Not a soul in sight
Oh yeah, but it’s alright
I have my freedom
I can make my own rules
Oh yeah, the ones that I choose
Lord, my body has been a good friend
But I won’t need it when I reach the end

But I Might Die Tonight

A bit of a cliched track about not wanting to do what the man says, working hard, doing the same old job, cause what’s the point, I might does tonight.

Longer Boats

A more intriguing sound on this one. Bit of traditional folk song element to it, with the phrase ‘longer boats coming to win us’ have a slowed down sea shanty element.

The longer boats are presumably the Vikings, and they are invading and taking the key from our doors, which presumably means they have taken possession. He moves on to say that he doesn’t want god on his lawn, suggesting he’s against religious symbols.

Seems to be a message about not accepting the false gods of invaders

Into White

I believe this what many young men of the time may have called ‘hippy shit.’ This is just random words of nonsense no doubt inspired by the odd stimulant or two.

‘I built my house from barley rice
Green pepper walls and water ice

And everything emptying into white’

Well, yes, if you build a house from rice, a couple of pepper and ‘water ice’ (glad he made clear it wasn’t other types of ice), then a pool of white nothingness seems a likely result.

On the Road to Find Out

There have been a couple of songs about travelling, finding happiness already, but this is the one that works. Musically there’s the right sense of understatement mixed with moments of passion. It is slightly undermined by it’s discovery at the end that the answer lies within.

Still it’s a good tune, we’ll forgive it.

Father and Son

The highlight of the album, as the song takes place of a conversation between a father and the son who mis-understand each other. While ultimately a simple message that a child grows up and leaves home to go his own way, it’s executed well. Even survives a abominable version by Boyszone

Tea for the Tillerman

A throw away little track at the end, manages to mention ‘children’, ‘sin’ ‘Lord’ and ‘play,’ key repeated words of this album.

So what do we conclude? It’s hard to see why this is considered a classic. There are three strong songs and the rest is filler. What saves it all is Cat Stevens has a great voice, and there’s something magic in the production, it sounds good even then I don’t care for the song.

But if you’re going to listen to a classic album from 1970 from a singer-songwriter, Van Morrison’s Moondance is the one.

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