Friday, 4 July 2008
Stephen Stills "Stills" (1975) ('Core' Review #65, Revised Edition 2014)
Track Listing: Turn Back The Pages/ My Favourite Changes/ My Angel/ In The Way/ Love Story/ To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man// First Things First/ New Mama/ As I Come Of Age/ Shuffle Just As Bad/ Cold Cold World/ Myth Of Sysyphus (UK and US tracklisting)
Family, love, children, responsibilities – it’s all a long way from the political zealousy of ‘For What It’s Worth’ and the fleeting love birds of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’. But songwriters – the good ones anyway – have to write about what is going through their lives at any particular time and reflect it back to audiences experiencing the same thing. Whereas ‘Crosby Stills and Nash’ is the idealistic teenager trying to leave home early to see all the sights (after the strict parental years in the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Hollies respectively) and ‘Deja Vu’ is a slightly more hardened, world weary but still very young world view (with Manassas the mad uncle doing several tricks a second and – if you’re feeling cruel – ‘Lookin’ Forward’ as the weak and feeble great-grandparent repeating itself over and over), ‘Stills’ is the sound of the concerned parent: responsible and mature. CSNY fans out for world politics might need to steer clear of this album, where the closest thing to a political rant is a song about being alienated by your brothers and the only outside figure invoked across the LP is a Greek figure doomed to failure. But anyone who wants to hear Stills as a family man, experiencing the joys and sorrows of having roots in his life after a lifetime of pleading for exactly that will adore this LP, one of Stills’ most rounded, mature and thoughtful. Nash may have got there first with ‘Our House’ in 1970, but this is CSNY’s most domestic LP – a wise discussion of what it means to pass on values to others and create the calm peaceful childhood that is every babies’ birthright yet so few receive. Stills admits to the mistakes from his younger days but refuses to be held back by them with an album that’s (largely) upbeat, positive and resurgent. Would that Stills could experience such happiness all the time – while the songs are superb, the harmonies exceptional and the musicianship pristine it’s the proud warm glow in Stills’ voice that stays with you long after the needle has risen from the record.
Stills represents Captain Manyhands’ last great outpouring of inspiration (well, not by way of titles perhaps) and is pretty good all round considering it is mop-up job of CSNY leftovers, recent concert favourites and new songs dealing with Stills’ latest muse Veronica Sanson (a fellow songwriter who gets nearly as many songs on this album’s follow-up as her husband!) Like the marriage, this fruitful period was short-lived but very very important in an artistic sense, giving Stills a sense of stability rarely heard outside the Manassas albums and leads to a whole album’s worth of new-found maturity and reflection in this album’s lyrics, ridiculously varied musical textures even for a Stills LP and a rare snapshot of the guitarist as contented family man. Stills’ new wife and first-born son dominate the lyrics on this album and its lovely to hear this usually most tortured of artists at peace with himself and proud of the ways he seems to have changed. The timing of this album is all the more extraordinary given the problems that blighted Stills during 1973-4 (the failure of the first CSNY re-union which saw the four musicians grow even further apart and the disbanding of Manassas, the band that had seemed to promise the second birth of Stills’ creative powers) but shows Stills bouncing back with admirable courage, re-starting his solo career after a four year gap. Optimism is the key for this album, with Stills giving us several songs based around the theme of looking forward to future triumphs rather than back at past successes and with songs this strong pouring out of his musical veins, its little wonder that Stills feels so happy and contented for once.
After the first failed CSNY project (‘Human Highway’, which should have come out in 1974) and with Manassas effectively disbanded when the reunion call came, Stills was out on a limb, ending up a solo artists again for the first time since 1971 more out of default than because he had things he had to say alone. While we’ll never know what songs might have made up that missing CSNY album (which sits there like a black hole on the CSNY discography that can never be filled), Stills played many of these songs across the quartet’s 1974 tour, suggesting they’d have at least been in the running (the one Stills song that was recorded for the sessions, ‘See The Changes’, won’t see the light of day until ‘CSN’ in 1977). The year 1974 had been a year of real highs and lows as Stills got married, had his first child and played to the biggest crowds of his career alongside yet another career-ending fall-out and the discovery that being married wasn’t as much fun as being engaged. All of that edginess comes across in this LP, especially towards the end, although the biggest feeling when you hear this record is contentment: Stills has never sounded happier, this restless soul finally having roots to put down somewhere after years pursuing the hot-and-cold blowing Judy Collins and Rita Coolidge. At the age of 33, Stills has finally become not a wild rock star or a force to be reckoned with but a family man – and it’s a sound that suits him very well, with ‘Stills’ the most overlooked of his four truly classics albums (‘Stephen Stills’ ‘II’ and ‘Manassas’ being the others). We know it won’t last and Stills himself admits to seeing the storm clouds on the horizon on the timid ‘In The Way’, the brutal ‘Cold Cold World’ and the mournful ‘Myth Of Sisyphus’ (where Stills himself is the man doomed to repeat the same mistakes and finds himself rolling the same old rock up the same old mountain without end). But for a time there the questioning soul who wrote so many searching songs about love has finally found it and after so many years by his side, through his records, I can’t tell you how great it sounds.
Much has been made on this list about how prolific Stills was in the early 70s (he released one CSNY studio album, one CSNY live album, two solo LPs, two Manassas LPs - one a double set - and this third studio LP in just over under five years). That buzz of creativity is sowing it’s last seeds here, with this the last album that Stills worked on tirelessly through the night, sleeping at the studio in his quest for perfection. Unlike colleague Neil Young, who still fizzes as strongly today albeit not always with first-class songs, Stills slows down after this record for all sorts of reasons: slowing record sales, other distracting elements, lack of record company push. However I’d like to think it’s because he said everything he needed to on this record – that ‘Stills’ offers at least some of the answers that Stephen has been looking for ever since his days as a Buffalo and no longer needs to be on the go all the time, leaving it to younger hungrier men. That’s not to say the Stills albums to come after 1975 are terrible – some of his best songs are still to come if you’re reading these reviews in order – but the records tend to become less consistently excellent from now on, with more and more years passing between each one and more and more cover songs appearing on each one.
Even more staggering is the fact that this album, released hot on the heels of Manassas Down The Road, should have come out several months earlier, only for Stills to fall out with record company Atlantic and made the decision to keep this album in the vaults until finding the ‘highest bidder’. The move to CBS was pretty momentous for Stills – he had, after all, been signed up to Atlantic for all of his creative life – and the loss of mentor Ahmet Ertegun who, due to ill health, had severely cut down his list of clients seemed far from the vote of confidence Stills needed in this period (to add insult to injury Ertegun kept Neil Young and Joni Mitchell on his books for the rest of the 70s, clients who wouldn’t ever have met Ertegun if not for Stills – and mutual friend David Crosby in the latter’s case - and who were both selling far less records than the guitarist in this period). All I can say is its Atlantic’s loss – Stills’ CBS debut is right up there with his very best efforts ands remains one of the most sorely neglected CSNY albums of them all. Yes ‘Stephen Stills’ is more eclectic, ‘Stills II’ contains a handful of songs that are better than anything on this record and Manassas is jaw-droppingly ear-catching and varied, perhaps the single greatest record for Stills’ strengths as writer singer and guitarist - but ‘Stills’ is right up there too, with an older, wiser, surer head than before and full of some of the most hauntingly beautiful Stills ever wrote.
With Manassas now disbanded and his waning influence putting off many of the guests stars who filled up his earlier records, Stills is pretty much on his own here, albeit with a supportive band of session musicians like Manassas men Dallas Taylor and Fuzzy Samuels and some new names who would go on to play an even bigger role on future Stills and CSN LPs. Most notable is the presence of Donnie Dacus, who receives several co-writing credits and prominent vocal harmonies, a kind move from Stills to help a younger musician that he thought of at the time as a future star. On later records Dacus’ presence is obtrusive, taking up far too much of the slack as Stills prolific run of compositions comers gradually to an end, but here he offers the perfect ‘back up’ foil that Stills has always needed, playing the Richie Furay or the Chris Hillman role that made the best of the Buffalo Springfield and Manassas records so memorable. Stills is surrounding himself with a strong team for once, learning from the great little unit that Manassas had been, and sounds far happier than he had been with the warring egos that were CSNY throughout 1974 (and again later in 1976).
Two songs on this record also memorably feature the only two performances by a new all-starr line up of a super-group: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Ringo! CSNY re-unions were few and far between in this period after their failed 1974 gathering, so the presence of Crosby and Nash on new recordings (rather than leftover tracks from the vaults) so soon after ‘Human Highway’ is quite a surprise. Even more surprising is that the lyric to the better of the two songs they take part in, As I Come Of Age, can be viewed as a rare apology from Stills, admitting his faults and his immaturity during their last aborted reunion and pledging to do better next time. So much has been written about the arguments between the fearsome foursome that its sometimes forgotten just how humble the trio could be on occasion (see Crosby’s tongue-in-cheek slab of self mockery Anything At All or Nash’s did-I-really-say-that? song of guilt Wounded Bird for more evidence). As I Come Of Age is Stills’ third in that trio and well may be the best of the three, lost in a ‘senseless rage’ caught up i the moment that’s passed now there are bigger things to think about. The presence of Ringo is less surprising, given that the two were close friends in the early 70s when Stills was fed up with America and moving to Britain and Ringo was fed up of Britain and moving to America (Stills even bought Ringo’s Beatle-era Surrey house in 1972 (Listen out too for Ringo’s unloved and under-rated 1981 LP Stop And Smell The Roses where he covers a particularly fine unreleased Stills song called You’ve Got A Nice Way which is a better song than almost anything else wrote in this decade. Stills had already worked with Ringo a great deal by this time – that’s his guitar-work on Ringo’s biggest and best single It Don’t Come Easy for instance - and the pair (with George Harrison) co-wrote two songs for Doris Troy’s eponymous debut album for the Beatles’ Apple label, a record where she also covers Stills’ rare Buffalo Springfield-era track Special Care (did Doris’ rather boring taste in album titles come from Stills as well, one wonders?!) The result, on this track at least is a perfect mixture of Beatlesy swinging goodtime pop and the darker, more edgy lyrics of CSNY in this period.
However this record isn’t about ‘Christopher and the Old Band’, it’s very much a record for hearth and family. ‘Love Story’, the loose telling of how Sanson and Stills got together (each one hurt and protesting they never wanted to be in a relationship again) is one of Stills’ best romantic compositions – not so much a song as one long outpouring of emotion that comes, line by line, almost in real time 9with the pay-off where the song’s lovers finally come together one of the composer’s most satisfying moments). ‘To Mama’ mentions Stills’ first-born by name, written both as loving tribute to son and moral message to sad: this is what you’ve waited so long for, there’s nothing in your life more important than this. It remains one of the better AAA songs about children, Stills wanting to be worthy of his child’s innocent and uncompromised faith in him. Even ‘My Favourite Changes’, a postmodernist song about the act of writing, is more about family – Stills taking us through some familiar sounding chords as he tells us what they remind him of and offering us asides about how ‘this one reminds me of my baby – it’s frightening how she trusts me so’ and how he lost his way ‘trying to live up to this thing I lucked into at 25’ (actually stills was 21 when ‘For What It’s Worth’ became a hit). Even the fact that Stills can’t think of ‘a clever rhyme for this song of mine’ because nothing rhymes with the title doesn’t seem to worry him – he’s where he should be, revelling in rather than reviling the pipes and slippers atmosphere he’s been putting off all these years (while still admitting ‘this music won’t let me go’ – Sanson be warned).
Other songs are more subtle about the family link and are more about wanting to be a better person. ‘Turn Back The Pages’ finds Stills disappointed first with himself then those around him (‘I thought I knew you – but I did not know myself!’ is a great opening to any album), offering himself a get out clause he doesn’t take (‘Life’s too short for repetitious changes!’) before vowing to do better next time in one of his best rousing choruses (think ‘Sit Yourself Down’, erm, standing up). ‘My Angel’, a sad ballad written probably after another rejection from Judy Collins circa 1967, is transformed into an upbeat soft-shoe shuffle rocker about Stills trying to get through ‘how deeply you touched me’. (In 1967 Stills sounded like he didn’t have a hope – in 1975 he’s relishing the challenge!) ‘First Things First’, Stills’ latest latin-based number, is a two minute bop about being content to live in the now and ignore ‘tomorrow’. That just leaves the Manassas leftover ‘Shuffle Just As Bad’ (a kind of early version of ‘Dark Star’, possibly here because it’s an early song for Veronique – we don’t know for sure but the timing is right) and the generous Neil Young cover ‘New Mama’.
Stills nobly decided to record one of his colleague’s songs to keep him in the public eye after a difficult 1970s when ‘The Doom Trilogy’ and various problems meant his partner’s work was – unthinkable today – selling badly. ‘New Mama’ was then an unreleased song from the album ‘Tonight’s The Night’ recorded in 1973 as a eulogy for fallen friends like Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry (typically Neil changed his mind and the song was released after all a mere three weeks after Stills’ cover came out; while an old recording never had Stills and Young made such different records to each other than here). The song choice is interesting: while ‘New Mama’ is the most ‘CSN’-ish of that album’s songs (mainly thanks to the strong emphasis on harmony), this song’s ambiguity may have appealed directly to Stills. Neil’s original features the one character from ‘Tonight’ whose happy – but it’s a drug-fuelled artificial ‘dreamland’ happiness that ends as soon as the next hit dies off, sung by deliberately weak and feeble voices that fade away into uncomfortable darkness. Stills’ version is more upbeat and tougher, with a sensitive guitar lick that holds the song together (Neil’s barely features any guitar) and makes it clear that the characters will come through this. Stills’ hooks come at different points: ‘Throw them all away’ ‘New Mama’s got a sun in her eyes’, Stills has picked up all the positive elements of the song instead. The ending is the biggest change: instead of fading into silence Stills and harmony singer Donnie Dacus turn the song into one last burst of spirit and fire, singing ‘new-ew ma-ama’ (sounding not unlike ‘hold on’ at one point though it’s not in the lyric sheet) over and over like a mantra, willing it to hold on until help arrives (Stills, a keen listener to his colleagues’ albums, may have been thinking of Neil’s ‘Ambulance Blues’ from 1974, where ‘an ambulance can only go so fast’). The newly domesticated Stills is now the parent (as Neil sang ‘I Am A Child’)and seems to be trying to shake his old partner out of himself here, speaking to him through his own song, urging him on, telling him he’s needed. The difference between the two versions – equally intense, equally unforgiving, equally trapped but one with an escape route and an ending and the other only facing death – tells you all you need to know about the colleagues’ two states of mind in 1975. Thankfully Neil, too, will find domestic bliss soon (he marries wife Pegi in 1978, with his ‘Comes A Time’ album that year the closest thing in his canon to ‘Stills’).
Not that Stephen is immune to tears, even on his happiest album. My first draft of this review referred to a grand ‘pair’ of closing melancholic songs on the album, but in truth it’s a trilogy with ‘In The Way’ belonging to the sadder songs of side two. This mournful song finds all that hope turned inward, Stills unsuited and irrelevant to a domestic routine and more suited to solo life. One of his more revealing songs (at least, one of his most revealing songs not sung in Latin or given to Manassas member Chris Hillman!) it finds him branching out to recount a ‘life in prison, only yesterday’ (CSNY?) but is really about that awful feeling when you realise everyone else is comfortable and you’re not. Even one of this album’s typically uplifting middle eights swinging in suddenly from the major key (‘Then I saw the stranger...’) can’t hide the real tear-stains on this song. This is bettered, though, by ‘Cold Cold World’, a passionate blues-rocker about betrayal that compared to the rest of this album’s warm aural hug sounds like a shiver down the spine. Stills is alone, his timid voice the very image sound of hurt and angst, the song growing in stages from brooding sulk to full on anger (‘You might listen!’ the middle eight cries). While this song could be inspired by everything (or nothing) the fact that Stills sings ‘it’s a cold cold world when it’s a friend’ suggests that this is more likely to be about CSNY than his domestic arrangements. The 1974 sessions collapsed predictably: Neil left the sessions without warning, the trio tried to turn it into a three-way album but butted heads and got on each other’s nerves...the usual story. While CSN (without Y) were always impressively good at forgetting whatever the last argument was every time they felt the time to record was right, this song sounds like one time the fall-out was ‘real’ (compare to Nash’s bitter song about Stills from the last time CSNY fell out, 1972’s ‘Frozen Smiles’: ‘And if you carry on the way you did today all the music in my veins will turn to stone!’) These are both topped, though, by the astonishing ‘Myth Of Sisyphus in which Stills unravels in front o0f our eyes from the confident man who pledged ‘life’s too short’ on the album’s opening song into a ball of nerve endings (if you know the film of Punk Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ then the doll of pink will give you an idea). Stills can’t believe another love story has an unhappy ending and pours out his heart as only Stills can, ‘mad with heartache’ as his love ends up another ‘rolling stone’ rolled back to the beginning of the mountain. While I spend a lot of my time listening to CSN/Y albums wanting to give one or other (or all) a supportive hug, Stills never needs one more than here: he only had one last chance for happiness and he’s blown it, to the accompaniment of a gospel choir ticking him off.
The bad news, then, is that as hinted in this great trilogy, the happiness of most of the record isn’t to last: the very next album will find Stills on auto-pilot, unsure of what to say as the cracks forming at the end of this record fully turn into breaks in the relationship and, tired of writing about things going wrong, Stills will never quite regain his writing voice again. The good news is that Stills had already created one of the greatest ever albums about contentment and home life – and after a career searching for the goal discovered on this album it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. ‘Stills’ is, for the most part, a wonderfully warm LP from a writer who never knew how to give any less of himself into his art. A lot of care always seems to go into Stills’ early solo records including this one – handwritten sleeve notes on each song from Stills himself, proper credits for every musician, full lyrics; Stills seemed mighty proud of these works at the time and who could blame him when they’re as good as this? Sadly, CBS don’t seem to be as proud and this album is currently only available on CD as a pricey American export or with selected tracks only (not enough in my opinion) on a Stills compilation called Turn Back The Pages, named after the first track on this album. Shocking, the sooner this CD is back out on the shelves the better. (STOP PRESS: Hey, what do you know? It is out on CD now as a two-disc set with the two patchy follow-up albums ‘Illegal Stills’ and ‘Throughfare Gap’, ready for a whole new audience to enjoy. Well, in theory. I’ve tried to buy it three times now: twice from HMV – who gave me the wrong CD in the box twice over – and once from Amazon, who made a ‘mistake’ that it was in stock when it wasn’t, so for the moment I’m back listening to my beaten-up old vinyl copy. Now I know how Sisyphus feels...)
Things start out promisingly with that very song,  Turn Back The Pages, which finds Stills stripping away the past in favour of re-affirming his belief in the present. Featuring a slow and stately opening track washed through with a piano, a booming vocal choir, wah-wah guitar and some rather odd double tracking, Turn Back The Pages simply explodes out the speakers from the first. As if to re-cap his work up to the present, Stills gets all slow and moody on the verses where he reflects on his lost opportunities and his struggles to understand himself. He soon slips back into pop mode for the chorus, however, where he urges both himself and his audience to forget about the past and live in hope for the future, urging us to start over again (most fans assume this is a Stills song about the past given its title about looking back—actually its more about moving forward). Throwing in the odd surreal lyric along the way just to show how complex this most simple of songs really is (the contradictory line ‘life’s too short for repetitious changes’ for instance), this is Stills at his master-class best, giving us a deep and thoughtful navel-gazing verse and a singalong chorus that fit together so naturally it makes the two sides complement rather than diffuse each other. A quick, very Stills-ish guitar solo which darts around the track like an animal let loose from a cage is the icing on the cake.
However, if Turn Back The Pages is a typical Stills song – moaning about problems in the past and then overcoming them with optimism for the future –then it’s a delight to hear the Stills of  My Favourite Changes sounding old and contented, rather than young and slightly bitter. A wistful bit of nostalgia with a narrator reflecting how well his life has turned out despite the ups and downs of his early life, the track is based around the interesting idea that playing certain guitar chords reminds Stills of certain periods of his life, telling us about his memories of fellow musicians and his new wife and family along the way, with each riff tied to a particular period in time when Stills most used these chords. The song could be hackneyed in a lesser writer’s hands, but Stills is careful not to get too self-referential. In actual fact, Stills’ comment that these changes have ‘already been good for a number of songs ‘ is misleading: the tune sounds nothing like other songs in the Stills’ canon and its cyclical riff and lack of a real hook in favour of subtle harmonics is quite a brave step in a new direction. Most notably, this song features no real chorus – something that Stills had always excelled in up to this point (instead we get two very different sounding verses next to each other and a middle eight that sounds like a diluted version of both parts stuck together). The riff, however, is lovely, lowering its eyebrows down in thought in an onomatopoeic way of re-calling the past and rolling on just a little too far out of its narrator’s reach at times, leaving Stills’ vocal to gaspingly catch up with it as if his memory is running too fast for him to keep up with. This is one of those songs that might not sound like much to music lovers in general, but to those of us who’ve followed Stills through thick and (largely) thin, it’s great to hear this normally ‘tortured genius’ sounding so contented for once and his pay-off at the end (that, try as he might, he can’t finish this song because he can’t find a rhyme for ‘my favourite changes’) is nicely informal and surprisingly witty the first time you hear it
 My Angel really does reach back to the past, although this song is a little more ‘funky’ and riff-based than its writer’s normal style. An old Buffalo Springfield-era track that never got finished (you can hear it in its primitive ballad form on the Buffalo Springfield box-set, although so different are the two versions that you might not recognize it as the same song at first) this later arrangement came about because old friend and CSNY collaborator Dallas Taylor was showing off some new drum licks he’d just come up with and wondered if they could be fitted to a song. This second version of My Angel shows just how much Stills had developed as a songwriter in the last decade, turning what was a promising but rather dull and formulaic song about the perfect girlfriend into an exciting slice of bossa nova rock, with the narrator’s pumped up excitable energy matched by the ever-changing drum pattern which fit the lyrics really well. The bouncy backing harmonies are also nicely CSN-ish without sounding like a bad imitation, with Donnie Dacus’ high Nash-like part at its best on this track.
Apart from the two downbeat closers at the end of the record, the next track  In The Way is the only real slab of melancholia on the album and fits the author’s oft-quoted but actually barely fulfilled idea of himself as a ‘bluesman’, only this time in a far more polished and commercial way than on his other solo albums. Contrasting Stills’ own world-weary vocal, dubbed low in the mix, with the booming chorus harmony, Stills starts off trying to analyse his situation of being left behind by the A-list crowd who used to hang out with him, before going off onto an imaginary background of being in prison (‘twas only yesterday’) and pointing the finger at fair-weather friends (‘Who will be your witness? Somebody you don’t pay’ he ad libs over the fade). A great piano lick and another classy Stills guitar solo that balances hidden anger and reflective sorrow highlight this song, which makes his feelings of hurt at being ‘dropped’ by fellow musicians and celebrities sound all the more convincing: Stills’ music has rarely been better.
 Love Story is the customary epic on the album, a thrilling orchestral tale with more gorgeous harmonies that drift through the song without ever quite pinning the melody line down. Indeed, despite the laidback tempo of much of the song, the tune is just as restless as the two lovers in the song, determined to search round ‘just one more corner’ for the perfect match, however much the melody hints that it is going to come to a proper full stop anytime soon. Stills’ vocal – according to his own sleeve-notes, he spent more time perfecting the voices on this track than any other in his career up to that point – is cautiously romantic, making it clear that his latest narrator has been burned so many times that he thinks he doesn’t care about love anymore and yet he gets excited at the prospect of a new romance despite himself. Obviously written with new love Veronica Sanson in mind, these words are some of Stills’ best, returning to the half-alliterative style of Helplessly Hoping and echoing that song’s stumbling, lolloping gait as the narrator hops from one foot to another trying to make a decision over whether to risk being burned again. After sweetly meandering for two minutes or so, Stills then suddenly takes a U-turn, jazzing up the track no end as he finally tries to make a move before finding himself so tongue-tied and nervous that he lets his girl get away from him (with the lovely line ’I let myself get in my way’). The sudden thrill of hearing the up-to-now lazy chorus sing their hearts out before the busy track falls away into squirming silence is one of the best moments in Stills’ solo canon, unexpected and moving as the narrator quietly picks himself up and decides what to do. The song ends on a poignant note as the narrator, hurrying to the station where he has just left his girl, finally blurts out his intentions rather better the second time around and finds that the object of his affections has also had enough of ‘endings’ in her relationship and wants ‘a beginning’ instead. The song then ends suddenly mid-line, the romance hanging in the air, leaving a ‘to be continued’ sign hanging over the track. An unusual and impressive attempt at trying a ‘story’ song for a change, this is Stills at his best and one of the album’s definitive highlights.
The hidden optimism that lurks throughout this record is most obvious in side closer  To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man, another charming family piece about Stills’ love for his new-found family and how he’s determined to behave like a grown-up now that he has a son to care for (‘I don’t think I could go on if I let him down’). The genesis of the song is pretty incredible too – according to the sleeve-notes, workaholic Stills came home from an all-night session for this album to find his son just waking up. Full of love for his new born son and - with inspiration still flowing through his head - Stills made up the song on the spot and beetled back to the studio to record it just hours later, completing the song just 12 hours after getting that first idea! The fresh enthusiasm of the song is easily traceable in Stills’ vocal, an incredible triumph for somebody who had gone that many hours without sleep. The backing track is also pretty much the last of an impressive run of multi-tracked masterpieces, with Stills playing almost all the instruments here and providing all the backing vocals himself. Stills’ lyric is also delightful, actually revealing more to us about the author than either the wife or child named in the title, especially the passage that tells us that now Stills really has found someone to believe in him, why even he’s beginning to believe in himself too. A catchy, poppy hook-laden composition that packs a lot into its two minutes, this song is a testament to its author’s creativity and another of this album’s unsung highlights. Sadly Stills and his new partner never did quite manage the commitment they both speak of here - the marriage ended circa 1978 - but Stills wasn’t to know that when he sang these words and his vocals are among his most heartfelt. At least Christopher inherited some of his father’s musical genes – he’s become a fine singer-songwriter himself in the past decade and appears to have sold just as many actually copies of his debut album than his dad managed with his last solo release (he’s become something of a regular guitarist on modern-day CSN/Y records too, which are becoming a real family affair what with the presence of Crosby’s son James Raymond, Nash’s wife Susan and Young’s sister Astrid).
Side two kicks off with a slow shuffle called  First Things First which – along with As I Come Of Age – features that unique supergroup referred to earlier:
Stills, Nash and Ringo. Unsurprisingly both songs come out sounding very
Beatlesy and would have fitted nicely on A Hard Day’s Night and Abbey Road
respectively, echoing early Merseybeat and the Beats’ later more polished
sounds. Catchy and forward-looking as it is, First Things First is never
properly developed as a song and is perhaps one of the weaker offerings here,
with the song not sure where to develop after the promising shuffle opening
that makes the most of its guesting drummer. CSN, on the other hand, sound a
little ropey here on a song not really suited to harmonies (the listener jolts
a bit when the full CSN attack suddenly kicks in instead of them sighing
wistfully as with most of their guest appearances). The riff, however, is a
good one, leaping between major and minor keys as the narrator looks towards
the future or moans about the past respectively.
There are no such worries about [169a] As I Come Of Age however – the lyrical admissions of guilt and determination to do better in the future represents the highwatermark of Stills’ maturer side and CSN sound far more like themselves on a song much more suited to their style. Stills again refers to ‘changes’, equating musical key changes with the major changes in his life and reflecting that by the time he dies he hopes he will have ‘sorted them out’ and found peace. Stills almost seems to be asking forgiveness on this record, telling us that in the past that he ‘acted like a schoolboy’ in a ‘senseless’ rage but has found stability now. Whilst most of Stills’ songs could only have been written by Stills and Stills alone, this one of a handful in his career which are so wide in their scope and so universal in their theme that they really deserved to become standards, especially given this song fits the archive ‘catchy but deep’ criteria so well. How CBS missed a trick by never putting this song out as a single is beyond me (especially given the fuss they could have made over CSN and Ringo working together), but even hidden away near the end of the record this song shines out loud and clear, even among the other fine tracks around it. An alternate version of this song can be found on the CSN box-set – this time recorded as a true CSN collaboration rather than just Stills-with-guests – and is perhaps slightly better than even this version, with the whole song taken at a slightly slower pace. Whichever version you hear, this is impressive stuff.
 New Mama is the first in a long line of unusual Neil Young cover versions sprinkled across Stills’ later-period solo albums. This was a seemingly unnecessarily kind gesture to plug Stephen’s former partner when Neil’s reputation was at its lowest, courtesy of some dark audience-baiting but rough-hewn gems of albums like Time Fades Away and On The Beach. Somehow you can’t ever imagine Neil ever returning the gesture, despite his gestures of friendship to his former partner down the years! (CSN’s re-action to Neil’s ‘dark’ period has long been dismissed as some sort of snobbery, not least because of the oft-used out of context but actually jesting quote from Crosby in 1974 to Young on stage that ‘you shouldn’t play any of your weird dark numbers because you’ve got so many other better ones’, a sermon pounced on by many a Beach or a Tonight’s The Night fan to show how CSN lost their way in the name of commerciality and shallowness. In fact, all three band members often defended Neil in print in this period (it was not until the 1977 three-way reunion that you begin to see break in their four-way wall of solidarity, with Crosby now doubting if Neil had the stamina for their pain-staking vocals and that he hoped their complexity would ‘shock him into doing better than he has been’). Crosby and Nash even ended their differences with Neil following the 1970 split by flying out to help the guitarist through the end of his so-called ‘doom tour’ of 1973, a series of shows hit hard by the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten during rehearsals and musician strikes over pay differences, despite the fact that both men were nursing wounds of their own (Crosby had lost his mother to cancer or more specifically to euthanasia, with lethal drug administered by Crosby himself when his mother pleaded with doctors to let her die; Nash was also mourning the loss of his girlfriend who had been murdered by her own brother. The idea of CSNY as a musical soap-opera starts here). Typically Neil, he released a warts-and-all soundtrack of the concert (the aforementioned Time Fades Away) where you can hear Crosby and Nash at their most painfully off-key. Stills, meanwhile, provided his old partner with a songwriting royalty by including a Neil Young track on three of his LPs (New Mama on this one, a surprisingly poppy version of The Loner on Illegal Stills and a painfully slow version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart on 1984’s Right By You) at a time when Neil’s album sales were the weakest out of the four (temporarily, anyway—Neil’s sales eclipsed his colleagues’ in the 1970-72 period and will do again somewhere around the mid to late 70s). Unlike Stills’ other plodding Young covers, the thrilling electric arrangement of New Mama (see Tonight’s The Night, coming up next on the list!) actually improves on the original, giving the song depth without sacrificing its spooky weariness and adding a strong guitar hook to the original’s near-a capella harmonies. Poor Stills must have thought he’d managed a coup of some sort when he brought the song out – it was then two years old and had been abandoned with the rest of the Tonight’s The Night sessions, taped in 1973. In July 1975 it looked as if he original version of this song would never come out at all - Neil being Neil, though, he changed his mind abruptly and - unluckily for Stills - Neil’s own version came out just weeks after Stephen’s. (The story goes that guests at a Neil Young party preferred his old material to his new songs and persuaded him to put them out instead. Alternatively, of course, perhaps Neil heard his old partner’s rocking version of New Mama and decided to dig his old tape out again?)
All that just leaves a rather downbeat end to side two to go. [143b] Shuffle Just As Bad is a poor excuse for a song that doesn’t really move off it’s one-note guitar groove, sounding more like the one-idea-groove songs of Stills’ later career than the largely inspired tracks on this album. A particularly growly vocal does its best to remind us of Stills’ past bluesy successes, but unlike In The Way the sudden return to an old style is unfocussed and a bit too lazy for its own good. The lyrics about looking for one-night stands also suggests that this is an earlier song revived for these sessions, given the adoring pictures of family life Stills has painted on the rest of the LP.
The thrilling  Cold Cold World does its best to up the ante with its sudden swirling bursts of anger and on many Stills albums it would be the highlight, building piece by piece into a thrilling climax of angst. However, this song sounds decidedly out of place on this largely upbeat and hopeful record, a sad reminder of times past when Stills’ unfocussed anger and misplaced energy often brought about his own downfall. Some commentators have seen this song as another possible example of Stills’ recent jibes at CSNY (perhaps the ‘friends’ he accuses of betrayal during the song – maybe he was feeling a bit left out by the recent Crosby-Nash union and Neil Young’s unannounced abandoning of the latest CSNY reunion the year before, or possibly this is yet another coded reference to Nash’s liaisons with Stills’ brief partner Rita Cootlidge). However, to me it sounds more like a jibe at Stills’ previous defender and Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun, a figure who had stuck by Stephen throughout his whole career up to this point, signing Buffalo Springfield to Atlantic’s subsidiary label ATCO on the strength of Stills’ songs and encouraging him to add his old partner Neil to strengthen the CSN sound. Stills has never commented personally, but he must have felt betrayed when Ertegun decided to stick by Young and drop Stills from his books, especially given that Neil wouldn’t have had his break at all if it wasn’t for Stills. Whatever its origins, this is another of those songs on this record that sounds almost unbearably open and honest, with Stills channeling his anger through his expressive vocals and fiery guitar-work, both treading the thin line between hurt and defiance. The thrilling climax, with just about every non-CSNY or Buffalo Springfield associate of Stills’ long career joining in on the growling chorus, comes out of nowhere to overpower the song and build it to the highly memorable crescendo of self-pity that Stills has been keeping at bay for much of the album.
Stills then beetles back into the soothing piano chords of  Myth Of Sysyphus, sounding like he is returning for an encore after the highly charged rabble rousingly false ending of the last track. Sisyphus is perhaps the most significant song on the album, a relic of CSNY’s 1974 concert tours where - unusually for the quartet’s new songs in this period - it reportedly blew the other musician’s solo spots off the stage. This song was surely also a strong candidate for the aborted CSNY record due for release that year, although annoyingly the group don’t seem to have stayed together long enough to have attempted recording it (tapes do exist for these sessions: Crosby’s Homeward Through The Haze and a first run through Stills’ See The Changes can be heard on the CSN box-set; also apparently taped but unheard were versions of Nash’s Prison Song and Young’s Human Highway, a song intended to be the album’s title track, plus Young’s Through My Sails, the only recording to get a contemporary release as the final track on Young’s Zuma album). A shame because, with its quiet piano backing and large spaces for glorious harmony vocals, this would have made for a truly great CSNY song. The take we have is still pretty good however, with Stills’ wrecking crew doing a good job at replicating those harmonies and the rare chance to hear Stills play keyboards unaided shows off just what a fine multi-instrumentalist he is, managing to make melancholia sound positively glorious. Sysyphus’ tale of a man making the same mistakes in relationships over and over (its based on the famous legend of a man made to roll a stone down from a cave for eternity after insulting a God, although the more common spelling of the poor victim is Sisiphus) is also very Stills-ish, finding the narrator angry and confused over why his attempts at romance have come to nothing yet again despite his best efforts.
Howestrange that the two biggest downers on the album should be stuck together at the end of this largely upbeat record. However, these few tracks aside, what you remember most about Stills is its sunny disposition and – like the album’s close cousin George Harrison (see album review no 74) – it is delightful to hear, even if we know that this period of time was only a brief sojourn of happiness in a largely troubled life. Who said artists could only write great material when they are suffering? (Well, Lennon actually, but that was meant to be a rhetorical question!) Stills poured his heart out into this album, determined to re-establish himself solo after CSNY fell apart yet again in ’74. Sadly the world just ignored Stills and - heartbroken and fed-up - its creator ended up making all the old mistakes that he promised he never would in the lyrics of this album and has rarely matched this album’s warmth and talent in even individual songs in the years since. Sad, but Stills shouldn’t worry – the talent on display in every note, bar, phrase and guitar lick of this album is more than most musicians manage in a life-time anyway.