With powerful rhythm-and-blues roots supporting the lyrics of a seeker, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone could be the strongest album Yusuf has released since his return to mainstream music in 2006. Yusuf neatly balances his seventies rock roots with his Islamic faith in a way that feels smooth and natural.
Yusuf’s high-profile conversion to Islam in the seventies was pegged as the primary reason for his nearly thirty-year hiatus from popular music. While 2006 saw the release of An Other Cup, and 2009 had Roadsinger, both albums felt like he was still seeking the right balance between his rock and religion. He has nailed that balance on Tell ‘Em I’m Gone.
Offering the social and political commentary of an outsider, the album begins with the lullaby, “I Was Born in Babylon”. Conflicted lyrics like “I used to serve the empire / On which the sun set never / Oooh, how the times have turned / We thought our white skins would save us / Then we got burned” provide insight into one of music’s most infamous spiritual minds. The sobriety of his lyrics may seem heavy, but they are beautifully offset by the finger-plucked guitar riffs of Richard Thompson (Pete Zorn, the Golden Palominos).
Tracks like “Dying to Live”, an Edgar Winter cover, and the original song, album-ender “Doors”, offer a gospel folksiness that resonates well with the questing lyricism that has become ubiquitous in Yusuf’s music. “Doors”‘ reliance on organ, piano, and soaring vocals lends itself well to its emotional capitulation, providing a thoroughly modern church singalong.
With the gritty “Gold Digger” and a rocked up rendition of “You Are My Sunshine”, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone provides a couple of potential singles that feel much more at home amongst the hits of Yusuf’s Cat Stevens days, albeit with a much more modern edge. “You Are My Sunshine” in particular infects the listeners’ memories of childhood singalongs with the rhythm-and-blues sensibilities of the current folk-rock moment, creating an anthem that is both morally clean yet ridden with pathos.
Though some listeners may not appreciate the religious parables and repurposed traditional folk songs, the lyrical perspective of Yusuf Islam’s original tracks and blues-infused melodies provide more than enough fuel for a few plays at least. As he says in “Doors”, “If you never venture out / You see nothing.” While Yusuf has enough spiritual advice to fill a Paulo Coelho novel, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone never feels preachy. The ultimate takeaway is one of an aging rock star finally finding balance between his past and his present.