Monday, 20 March 2017
Stephen Stills "Man Alive!" (2005)
Stephen Stills "Man Alive!" (2005)
Ain't It Always?/Feed The People/Heart's Gate/Round The Bend/I Don't Get It/Around Us/Ole Man Trouble/Different Man/Piece Of Me/Wounded World/Drivin' Thunder/Acadienne/Spanish Suite
'My heart is in my song - but my song is blowing in the breeze...'
Fan imagination, including mine, went into hyperdrive when we heard this album was on its way. Stephen Stills' first solo album in fourteen years - and his first full length album of new works in nineteen - was for the CSN cognoscenti, if not the world in general, a major event. Stills had been so long away (you could fit all eight of his solo albums in the gap between the last two records) and the last signs we'd heard from him on CSN/Y albums were generally good, with Stills' contributions the best thing by a country mile on both 'After The Storm' and 'Lookin' Forward' (albums which were themselves eleven and five years old by now respectively). At long last, after a wait that lasted most of his adult days, Stills' homelife was now stable and secure leading to hopes of a reprise of the loved-up Stills we had in the Veronique Sanson days of the mid-1970s. What's more 'Captain Manyhands' should have been the perfect for an early 21st century scene best described as 'eclectic' and we wondered where Stills might go next: folk, blues, rock, pop, blues or most likely a little bit of everything - in the age of sampling Stills' playful blending of genres and timeless production style (disco and 1980s pop album aside) suddenly looked like time-travel. When fans heard that both Nash and Young were heavily involved with the album there was already talk of 'career high' and 'comeback of the century so far' mooted around even before we'd heard a note.
So the album itself was something of a shock. It's not that this album is bad in a way that 'Right By You' often was. Or misguided as 'Thoroughfare Gap' sometimes could be. Or as unfinished and low budget as 'Stills Alone' turned out. But even so 'Man Alive' felt slightly...lacking. Stills songs, even the bad ones, generally come in at least three dimensions, often more. Even if you don't like a song in one style there's probably another one that sounds completely different to love moments later. Though Stills' most recent albums had been a little more one-note of late, at least they were largely good one-notes, returning to acoustic folk ballads or exquisite torch ballads, the sort of things fans had long been asking for. Even at his worst it's hard to fault the commitment or passion in Stills' songs. But 'Man Alive' finds the musician healthy but his muse largely dead. There are no songs here that weren't better told in past songs and so many of them seemed to tell the same story: things are rubbish, I hate them. That would be forgivable if Stills had stretched himself like the days of old, but this album has a curiously lifeless feel, a soul album of all things but a soul album in a 'glossy backing with a female choir' kind of soul rather than an Otis Redding emotional soul. Perhaps because this album had such a long genesis, some of these songs stretching back decades, this CD also had a curiously 1980s feel about it - the last decade which most fans would have picked to return to by choice. Usually Stills albums are full of chances to learn and understand one of the most guarded yet strangely emotional and honest writers at work - but there's nothing from 'Man Alive' you particularly want to learn, with this easily the most guarded of one of the 1960s' most unguarded writers' career.
The exceptions to that are the two acoustic songs, usually the moments at which Stills opens up the most. But he was at pains to point out in interviews of the day that these two cover songs that made the album were pure fiction. Interviewers salivated at the thought that he and Young trading lines on 'Different Man' meant that the pair were trying to be adult and putting bygones behind them; Stills just muttered something about thinking this traditional folk number had a good tune. Similarly critics all picked the cover of Booker T Jones' 'Ole Man Trouble' as an album highlight, revelling in how well Stills was able to tap into his heartbroken, self-destructive number of old - for the singer he admitted it was all something of a distant memory and simply a song he'd already meant to get round to one day. The long and short of it is that there's no great confessional moment on 'Man Alive', no moment when you realise that Stills is singing directly to us in his desperate attempt to get the truth of what he feels across and no great revealing moment when it all clicks and no one else could ever offer us what Stills does so effortlessly. Instead of answering what a 21st century Stills album or an eclectic Stills album made after a gap might sound like, 'Man Alive' answers what a settled Stills album sounds like instead. Not a happy or contented album either (that's 1975's gorgeous 'Stills') but a Stills album from a quiet era in his life where nothing much seemed to be happening. That's our loss maybe, but Stills' gain as the one and only great thing about this album is hearing how 'normal' life has become for someone who once suffered such agonising rollercoaster highs and lows.
Otherwise this is kinda Stills by numbers: there's the energetic opening pop number 'Ain't It Always?' that comes off as bland; the too-bad-to-be-a-charity-single 'Feed The People' which is almost a parody of CSN's hippie philosophy; the bland acoustic ballad 'Heart's Gate' which is a whole notch down even from 'Stills Alone'; demented rocker 'Round The Bend' (the only original song here that stabs at any autobiography, until it becomes another fictional song about a Vietnam Vet); cod white reggae on 'I Don't Get It'; cheery pop number 'Around Us'; fragmented blues 'Piece Of Me'; MOR soul 'Wounded World'; a remake of nobody's favourite CSN/Y moment 'Drivin' Thunder'; even flipping Zydecoe on 'Acadienne' and a needlessly ambitious 'Spanish Suite' that like the album as a whole promises much that never quite arrives. Stills is so busy ticking boxes about what he thinks people want to hear that he has no real time to offer up anything of himself on this album. The fragmentary sessions also means that there's never one 'house band' to get their teeth into these songs and offer any cohesion. Those that do play sound as if they're clock-watching or driven through one take too many, a booming bombast of old friends like Joe Vitale, Mike Finnigan and George 'Chocolate' Perry who all come from different periods of Stills' career and never quite gel when made to work together in the same room. Even Stills himself is largely quiet on this album, his guitar left in the box for half the record and prepared to lead from behind rather than from the front like the good ole days. Add in a sappy and dated production, that covers everything with an ugly surface sheen that screams shoulder pads and slickness and excess and the high expectation that surrounded this album and you have several reasons why 'Man Alive' might be Stills' weakest album - maybe the weakest of the CSN catalogue as a whole. Stills hasn't recorded another solo project since or indeed anything much besides his bit-part in spin-off band 'The Rides'. He doesn't sound as if he has anything much to say anymore, in stark contrast to the old days when Stills had so much to say fans often couldn't keep up with the rate at which albums seemed to be released.
However, no album is all bad and that goes doubly for CSN and there are moments - not whole songs but moments - when it all seems to be coming together. 'Spanish Suite' is at least eight minutes too long but the closing rousing finale is really gripping. 'I gave up on you!' spits Stills after toying with hiding his feelings in Spanish in the past tense for so long, 'It was the hardest thing I ever had to do!' Having been through all those other songs it wouldn't surprise me if there's an element of Judy Collins or Rita Coolidge or Veronique Sanson hiding in this song for one last time, a neat closing of the circle to a lifetime of watching Stills' relationships play out in song. 'Different Man' is a great song whether Stills means it or not and while his and Young's harmonies have always been a difficult pill to swallow without Crosby or Nash in the middle the two old friends and rivals bring out the best in each other here - would that the Stills-Young set 'Long May You Run' been half as good as this. 'Wounded World' is a clever idea that turned into a bad song, reflecting Stills' pain as he's abandoned not by a wife or mistress but by his teenage daughter going off to university and trying to live her own life, aware that he has to let her go but hating being apart all the same. 'Piece Of Me' at least tries to go back to old Stills with its haunted wounded bluesy feel, even if this is someone whose forgotten what it's like to have been hurt enough to write a song as deep as he used to. For the most part Stills sings brightly, far stronger than he ever did on 'Stills Alone' or 'Lookin' Forward' and he seems to be back in better health than he had been for a while (although admittedly I suspect some of these recordings might date back a wee while). The one moment that doesn't though, when his raw side slips, is fabulous and 'Ole Man Trouble' is a quite staggering reminder of just how deeply Stills used to feel, the old bluesman howling his way through Otis Redding's right-hand man Booker T Jones' pained howl of a song like a man possessed, rather than a man alive. Those are the moments that work best on this album - when Stills isn't simply surviving and waving, but drowning and while no fan would ever want to put him through the pain and misery of his younger years, he is one of those writers who writes best when his world is collapsing and everything is going wrong; on too much of this album he's making music for the sake of it rather than because he has anything burning to say.
Stills certainly outshines his guests, by and large, despite their names all mentioned on the sticker that came attached to the front of the CD (and which comes with some of the strongest superglue known to man alive or dead) and the 'special appearance' billing in the sleevenotes by nearly every song, even when the musicians can't be heard. Neil shines on 'Different Man' but barely turns up for the perfunctory solo on 'Round The Bend' which Stills could have played better himself. Graham Nash's fingerprints turn up across who swathes of the album but somehow none of them make much impact: his biggest collaboration is 'Wounded World', the first co-write between the pair since 'Turn Your Back On Love' back in 1982, but you wouldn't really know it from the low-mixed harmonies which lack the same sense of scale and wonder we usually have whenever two or more of CSNY get back together. I can't even hear him on 'Acadienne' despite the backing vocals credit, while I wish I couldn't hear him on 'Feed The People' where his cod-reggae lilt booms out above everyone else and makes a bad song worse. Even jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who'd have been the perfect instinctive soulful guest for any Stills project before this one, sounds awful and a little bit lost on the weird chord changes Stills asks him to play across 'Spanish Suite'. Frankly Stills could have performed the part a lot better himself. That goes double for the guitar solos (handed for the most part over to Young), the piano and organ work (handed over to Mike Finnigan), the bass (George Perry plays very simply, quite unlike his younger self), the drums (handed over to Joe Vitale on a migraine-inducing day) and especially the sea of backing vocals that swamp a good half of the album (featuring Finnigan again, Brooks Hunnicut, daughter Jennifer and seemingly anyone else within a hundred mile radius of the studio). The only truly magical musical moments on this album all come from Stills and then are fleeting in the extreme - the brief fiery solo on opener 'Ain't It Always?', the acoustic guitar on 'Different Man' and the angry electric guitar snarl on 'Drivin' Thunder' - the only aspect of this new arrangement that improves on the 1988 original. You'd have though, given the years spent crafting this album with only Stills always around and given that while his voice has faded down the years his playing might actually have been getting better, there'd be more actual Stills across this album. In the words of one of the album's more repetitive songs I don't get it, get it, get it.
The album's other best moment really is all down to Stills and is the cover. Stills drew his own self-portrait despite not ever having been known as much of an artist before and it's perfect, capturing all of his brashness and shyness in one go (his chin - now surrounded by a goatee - thrusts forward, his eyebrows connect into a frown and his mouth purses in a picture of stubbornness, but his eyes are closed and his head is turned as if in withdrawal). Stills also gives himself a full head of hair, something that hasn't been seen for real since the start of his music career! The back cover features another Stills self-portrait, this time of his hands wrapped around a precious guitar, another great sketch with more life to it than most of the album to be honest. Given how hands-on Stills has always been about all aspects of his career it seems odd that he hasn't tried to draw his own front covers before this. Full marks to the record label Talking Elephant for letting Stills do this instead of simply forcing him into putting a pretty picture of himself on the cover or something. The all-white background is a new one for Stills too, though it reflects the 'snow' picture of his first album (no giraffes this time around though!)
There isn't really an album theme - another sign of how many years the songs for this project cover - but if there is there's one then it's of feeling helpless. 'Your ship of life never goes where you steer it' sighs Stills on 'Wounded World', a line that rather sums up this album of passive-aggressiveness. This might explain why Stills is so hands-off for most of this album, frustrated that he can't make headway and get life how he wants even after this many years - though never in any big outpouring of emotion type way. 'Ain't It Always' is one long moan about how hard it is to stay in love and how easy it is to fall out of it, 'Feed The People' is one long moan about how some people always have too much while others go without even the basic necessities of life, 'I Don't Get It' is one long moan wondering why a loved one is 'so uptight', 'Wounded World' is one long moan about why hurting and suffering is an inevitable part of life and 'Ole Man Trouble' is the father of all moans. You get the picture: this could so easily have been an all-blues album or an outpouring of confessional grief a la 'Stephen Stills II'. Only instead of his heart being an open secret, leaving him gifted and robbed all at once, Stills is looking at the world in a more general sense. It's all of us and the world in general that's at fault not just Stills and even the two songs that seem to infer that come from cover versions. We're all robbed and never quite gifted enough to put things right, which is true enough but kinda obvious: we all know the world's messed up for somebody who doesn't deserve it (unless you're a millionaire Conservative/Republican and if you are what are you doing reading a CSN review at this site of all places?) but there's no aching fire to put that right anymore, just a general description. In retrospect the most telling song is the most low-key, the quiet blues hidden away as track nine that's so short you barely notice it. 'You all want a piece of me!' nags Stills before pleading 'Can I be excused?' That open secret seems a curse not a blessing here and Stills does his best to ignore it - but in doing so he comes up with his most generic, pointless, wasted album along the way.
Overall, then, there isn't much reason to own 'Man Alive'. There is that improved voice I guess, a far better pair of Stills-Young duels than we ever got on CSNY albums or the S-Y LP, a rousing emotional minute to an epic that lasts eleven, the pretty but pretty understated 'Heart's Gate' and one haunting blues cover version that fits Stills to a (Booker) T. But there's little in the way of invention or imagination and it's sad to say that the biggest gap between albums by far in Stills' catalogue still comes out sounding as if it needed a lot more time and effort spent on it. This is a man alive, but not a man thriving, at least creatively and Stills sounds a little lost here, not heartbroken enough to reach his A-game like he did in his glory years between 1967-1972 or even his sense of deja vu in 1990-1994 yet not happy enough either to reach his other high of 1975, his one great year of stability. This is instead Stills wishing we would all go away and leave him in peace but somehow not quite able to shut the door to the studio for good either, going through the motions and waiting for inspiration that never quite strikes instead. Maybe he's not such a 'different man' after all, but sadly without 'fear and anger' having 'power' he doesn't sound quite what to do with his new way of looking at the wounded world either. Please say the otherwise fabulous Stills canon doesn't end here - there's clearly another great album in there somewhere...
Most Stills albums start with something magical. This one starts with a thud. 'Ain't It Always' is as subtle as paint-stripper and as charming as The Spice Girls. The song starts with the repetitive clunky chorus, which is a bad move as it has Mike Finnigan at his most Mike Finnigan-ish and features a curious clipped riff that has no room to breathe, not to mention Joe Vitale drumming that sounds like a fistfight. Like much of this album, though, there's a layer of promise waiting underneath all that. The verses are actually quite inventive when we finally get to them, like every other Stills song that's come before it but at high speed. Stills' narrator meets a girl, he falls for her (presumably in 'an accident of faith'), worries that its going too well and he's bound to lose her somewhere down the line - and by worrying that's what happens and she leaves him. 'How much it hurts, she left you flat - ain't it always?' is his agonised, painful cry. An analysis of self-destructive tendencies we'd been waiting for across several decades, its perhaps fitting that this great idea should be lost behind such an ugly sounding song. Age hasn't mellowed Stills' responses to love as he howls 'falling - it's a trap!', which together with his much more with-it than usual voice suggests that this song dates back at least to the dark times of the early 1990s rather than the time around the date of recording when Stills had finally found stability and happiness. Certainly his riveting but all too brief guitar solo suggests he was at the time of recording going through some kind of hell and it may well be the best ten seconds on the record - edgy, dark, paranoid, stubborn and hopeful all at once. However it's gone so soon and then we're back with that ugly mock-soulful organ riff, choppy guitar chords and boom boom boom drums. I've got a headache....
'Feed The People' is worse. A world peace song performed with a Caribbean lilt, its heart is in the right place in calling for more love around the world, but its head is completely wrong with the most arrogant and needlessly patronising lyrics in the CSN canon and its sound is the single most 1980s sound I've heard outside the 1980s. Once again there are some bright spots, just to tease us with how well this song could have gone. When performed live by CSNY on their 'Freedom Of Speech' tour the opening flurry of a capella harmonies was a thrilling moment (even if it still sounds rather dead here played by an anonymous studio band of backing singers, plus Nash) and the middle eight is a far better song, adding a touch of danger and mystery. I quite like the line about 'turning swords to plough-sheds' too, which says a lot in few words, while the dig at politicians trading in guns when they ought to be trading for food to keep their people safe is exactly what CSN ought to be doing with their old age. Otherwise, though, this sounds like a tourist from a rich country wondering why we have to have poor in poor countries, something that even Stills realises has maybe gone a tad far so he quickly backtracks with the line 'I mean no disrespect!' It's a bit late for that though: the music alone is patronising - the sort of twinkly 'gee isn't it hot?' reggae type number that's played without guts and is deeply unusual for Stills who usually grasps different styles from world cultures much quicker than this. Note how much worse his voice has suddenly got too - while the sleevenotes don't mention when this was recorded I'd bet my Crosby-Nash tour programme the backing track is an unfinished 1980s baby that Stills overdubbed sometime around the album's release in 2005.
Misguided, misappropriated and mismatched, this song is one of Stills' bigger career mistakes.
Thankfully the album gets better from hereon in. The biggest crime of 'Heart's Gate', for instance, is that it's not very memorable. This 'Stills Alone' style acoustic song also suffers badly from Stills' now croaky slurred voice and his acoustic playing is perfunctory rather than spectacular as it so usually is. However the younger Stills would have made a pretty decent song out of 'Heart's Gate', which ponders some nicely philosophical thoughts similar to 'Move Around'. Debating love for the umpteenth time, Stills wonders why each relationship always feels so different and why none of his friends have the same story about how they met. Love comes in many shapes and forms Stills says and 'none of us gets to choose', whilst it 'pays attention to trust in divine intervention', but no matter how sure you are that a relationship is meant to be nobody is immune to heartbreak. Stills is alone again, trying to count his blessings - there's a gorgeous sunset before him (is he back in CSNY's old haunt of Hawaii?) and 'the air feels like velvet', but it's all to no avail because he has no one to share the picture with. The second half of the song - was this an older one abandoned and revived and finished off for the album? - has Stills suddenly cutting to being with his soulmate. He was wrong to worry about being nervous and plucking up the courage to ask her out because she said a big fat 'yes' and instead he's kicking himself for not doing this sooner and letting his nerves get in his way. Sweetly Stills reflects on his younger self's worry with confusion and laughter - was he really that messed up? He knows what security is now, the couple have 'had a few years, worked out our fears' and had 'lots of laughter and tears and growing'. For all the struggles they've been through, though, Stills knows this time that this was the love that was meant to be and the one pre-destined to be waiting for him on Earth at the 'heart's gate' and not any of the Judy Collins, Veronique Sansons or Rita Coolidges he used to chase. Anyone whose followed Stills' career with any interest across his difficult younger years is allowed to let out an 'ahhhhhhh' at this point on what's easily the album's most sophisticated and impressive lyric. I just wish Stills had spent more time on the melody instead of apparently singing the first thing that came into his mind as without it this song gets somewhat lost amongst the noisier songs jostling for your attention on this album. I bet this song would sound pretty great with CSN harmonies too, just a little extra hint.
'Round The Bend' is another of those songs that matches a fine lyric with a melody so generic it was pushing up daises when the blues was young. Stills writes a semi-autobiographical piece about his young Buffalo Springfield days. 'I was too young for where I'd been, trying to regain my innocence' spits Stills, struggling to cope with a difficult childhood as an adult who didn't have any role-models to help him act like one. The making of him is meeting an 'enigma...hard as Canadian ice' who can surely only be Neil, who urges Stills to calm down and care about living longer with the tip of the hat that his songs are 'classy', exactly the faith Stills needed at the time. Invited out to New York Stills sighs 'I couldn't find him so I headed West', cutting the story short with the lines 'well you know the rest!' (I was wondering how he was going to rhyme the line 'spotted a hearse with Ontario license plates!') Stills opens up further, adding that when the Buffalo Springfield finally hit the stage they found 'magic places' but were driven apart by 'hangers-on with four different faces' and once again his heart was too open and vulnerable to last the course. Throughout the song there's also a clever refrain at the end of each verse that great things are coming 'round the bend', that a band are about to meet in a traffic jam 'round the bend' and that finally, despite all that early promise, the Springfield drove each other 'round the bend!' This is a clever lyric, much more true to life and affectionate than Neil's surprisingly schmaltzy take on the saga (released as the song 'Buffalo Springfield Again' on 2000's 'Silver and Gold' CD), but it would have been better still had the music and arrangement been powerful enough to show why the members of this band were once talked about so often or held in such high esteem. It doesn't help either that Stills is guilty of fictionalising his past a little - he never did lose a friend in Vietnam and the 'real' story was that after a drug low one day he started having imaginary flashbacks of service over there (which Stills believed until someone pointed out that a show of the Springfield existed for the date he said he was over there). An intense experience all the same though, so it's a shame that the music for this one is same old, same old and enough to drive you round the bend!
'I Don't Get It!' is another very 1980s style recording, sounding like a long lost outtake from 'Live It Up!' with its synth Vitale drums and Finnigan keyboards. Why revive it now? I don't get it, get it, get it as the chorus runs, not that you can really follow the lyrics too well given that Stills sounds as if he hasn't put his teeth in and is drowned out by a choir of four female backing singers. Which is a shame because, again, the lyrics are better rather than the decidedly average mix of soul and reggae on the melody and the noisy backing would suggest. 'Maybe it's me' sighs Stills before spending a whole song wondering why his latest love has suddenly become distant from him and is pulling away without warning. 'We usually have so much fun, but now you up and change and run' complains Stills as he tries to read what his lover is trying to tell him and gets confused, finding the script 'too hard to swallow'. Stills ends the song deciding that this is surely about something bigger than just him but he's still cross his lover won't let him into her heart to help her - 'I know you're hurting, but I gotta sit here and watch you suffer!' he explodes. Sadly what should be a major revelation, on a par with the adulting of 'As I Come Of Age', becomes just another cue for a twee organ riff and more of those deeply insincere backing vocals. Had Stills recorded this when he was younger and with stronger vocals (preferably before the 1980s trappings came along) then this could have been a pretty nice number - but like so much of this album the potential is wasted under too many mistakes.
'Around Us' is the pop song none of Stills' fans were asking for. Though similar to 'Only Waiting For You', this song about finally being with your soulmate (good old Kristen again) is far inferior and just sounds like so many other twee pop songs, performed with yet more insincerity by the backing singers who rather take the song over from an actually pretty decent Stills lead (do these singers get trained to sound as uncommitted as possible?) The lyrics about being 'one heart beating' and Stills spending his time 'thinking of you' and other people being 'curious, probably jealous' may be some of the most one-dimensional Stills has ever written. Which is a shame because, this time, it's the melody that's worth a second listen with a nicely urgent five-note guitar riff and a kind of gentle relaxed sway that's unusual for the generally more uptight Stills (though the solo is so way out of Stills' usual zone its one of his weakest, bare and lifeless). The best part of the song is the middle eight which suddenly turns rhythmical and stomping, like soul suddenly switching in Motown, as Stills suddenly gets a fright that things are going too well and he pleads 'don't let them come between us baby!' However for once this is a Stills song happier to bask in the sunshine than spend its time with its head in the stormclouds and this at least makes for a change. You just wish Stills had kept this song to himself instead of inviting a faux soul band and a million backing singers in to chirp so unnecessarily beside him.
At last 'Ole Man Trouble' sounds like the 'real' Stills, even if it is in fact one of the album's covers and first appeared on a Joel Scott Hill record (goodness knows why author Booker T didn't keep it for one of the MG's albums and curse the fact he hadn't written it in fellow AAA member Otis Redding's lifetime because he'd have been perfect for it!) Stills probably learnt it thanks to two co-writers: Chris Etheridge, big friend of Manassas man Chris Hillman and an ex Flying Burrito Brother or drummer Johnny Barbata who'd once played with CSNY on their 1970 tour (before joining Jefferson Airplane). The song suits Stills to a tee and for once the strict upright backing contrasted with his own emotional maelstrom on the vocal is exactly what this album should be doing. Still starts off sad - there's a shadow that keeps following him around and making him sad and he can't shake it off no matter how much he tries. Little bit by little bit, though, parts of the 'old' Stills start peeking through as he realises just how angry and bitter he feels as yet another relationship dies a death prematurely. 'You know I worked hard for you!' he intones to 'Mr Charlie' (rockstar slang for cocaine) and moans at how much money and comfort he'd have by now if he hadn't wasted it all, finding his pockets emptied along with his mind. Calling out to God (a first on a Stills song) the guitarist pleads for 'somewhere to rest my lonely head' and dreams of a quick death to free him from his endless cycle of misery. In a couplet that could have been written by Stills himself, he also sighs that he's put too much of his life and heart into sings and now that no one seems to be singing them it feels like it's all been for nothing, his life and his worth 'blowing in the breeze'. The song reaches a mega-peak about two-thirds in as Mike Finnigan finally understands a Stills arrangement and pulses his way up the keys as Vitale gets noisy and Stills gets desperate, his wild wordless blues wailings lost in a sea of backing singers singing alongside him. Not the greatest thing Stills has ever done by any means, but for this album this recording is a quiet triumph and is easily the most committed Stills sounds across the whole album, a classy version of a classy song.
Almost as strong is the cover of traditional song 'Different Man'. Stephen and Neil sing it between them, bouncing lines and guitar lines off each other (that's clearly Stills taking charge on the right and Young playing catch-up on the left) and while this pair never sounded naturally singing together without a cushion of harmonies they still bring out the best in each other. The tune is a good one, Stills adding some very characteristic blues touches on the guitar parts while the arrangement is impressively bare and fragile to get the message across. And that message is basically 'As I Come Of Age' yet again, as Stills vows that he's getting younger in his old age and more contented now that 'pain and anger got no power over me'. You still doubt that statement, such is the quiver of pain in his voice at times, but it's good to hear Stills at least singing other people's words about moving on and trying to be a better person. The song doesn't shy away from despair though. The opening verse has the narrator digging a hole and jumping right in it, the second being loyal 'to a fault' to similarly loyal friends but finding that even so 'there ain't too much good we've done'. Clearly this CSNY-style message is crying out for CSNY style harmonies (a shame that Nash, underused on the rest of the album, isn't on this track - one he could really get his teeth into) and it's odd to hear a second Stills cover in a row reaching out to God (and asking for 'forgiveness' as a 'sinner'), but fans of the Stills-Young feud/competition/rivalry/friendship will find much to enjoy here as two old friends sing an old song about old ways before embracing the fact that they are now 'different men' and can find it inside themselves to put the past behind them. And so it has proved - while the C/N axis has been in trouble lately, the S/Y one still seems pretty healthy these days.
'Piece Of Me' suggests that Stills hasn't changed entirely however. A muted, acoustic piece of blues puffing, this song is the most sorry-for-itself in the Stills canon. In a reflection of his defensive interviews around the time of this album, Stills turns on his critics for thinking they know him and wanting 'a piece of me' without ever giving anything back (erm...hi Stephen! You know I love you really, right?...) and has rarely sounded sadder as this recording almost slinks its way across the speakers with a weary shrug. Stills likes mysteries and wants to preserve his and equates understanding his songs to staring at the wild blue yonder from afar, which is fair enough, but Stills always makes his insights so interesting it's hard to look away. Once again on this album the lyric is far stronger than the album. Stills comes out 'the shadows', cries down a 'wishing well' and waits for a sign - only to be given what people think he needs rather than what he actually does (no clue to what that might be, though). '#It's a hunger' he complains, though whether he means his need to write about himself or our need to speculate on it is ambiguous, while the last verse is a cop-out, Stills trying to dazzle us with how remarkable his 'guitar-phone' is (whatever that might be!), hoping that it will distract us from deeper questions. Me, though, I'm not fooled - there's a very dark and angry song in here that returns to the dilemma of 'Open Secret' with its cry of 'somebody tell me have I been gifted or robbed?' For now Stills feels robbed, but it's that gift of being open that allows him to write songs like this one. Perhaps the best original on the album, although sadly that's not saying much - you still wish this sad bluesy track would get a move on or throw a middle eight in there for variety's sake, while Stills seems to be struggling with a basic harmonica part his younger self would have knocked out in minutes without thinking.
'Wounded World' returns to 'Feed The People's bombast as it studies a modern-day life that seems to be blooming miserable (an unusual song, actually, for the immediate pre-credit crunch days when things were relatively settled 9/11 aside). Stills sings in the first person but later revealed he and Nash wrote it together on a CSN tour-bus after finding that they both had children leaving home and would be returning to an emptier nest one things were over. The first 'family' Stills song since 'To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man', however, is an odd response and more like Cat Stevens' song of warning 'Wild World' than a 'good luck' message. 'Like a ship at sea, your life goes where you steer it' sings Stills in the closest he gets to being kind, although even this line is clearly nonsense - did Stills really steer any of those courses he set sail for in his youth? I think not! Stills, with Nash's support, tells his youngster (Jennifer? She'd be the closest in age) that sometimes he'll 'hurt', feel like 'giving up' and might be abandoned and feel 'all alone' (plus weirdly that 'you used you like a drug'). At least there's some belated cheer near the end when Stills praises his offspring for managing to stay so upbeat and innocent in a 'cynical' age, something dad considers a 'miracle', but this only makes him worry more: he sees so much of himself in her/him and he knows how badly he took to life alone when he left home to become a singer before he was ready. Sadly what comes over most from this ugly song isn't parental worry or pride but one of fear and paranoia - this isn't a world that's black and white, it's just black and Stills (plus Nash) sounds as if they're manipulating their children to stay at home for selfish reasons. That's a little unfair, as is the fact that this father-daughter/son time is unbalanced by first Nash's less than fitting harmony vocal and then another whole great choir again. The melody, too, doesn't do much except chug along. One thing the blues ain't is pretty I suppose (well, that and funny) but it's a shame this song couldn't have had just a little dash more colour or I'm in danger of never leaving my door again.
You all know 'Drivin' Thunder' if you're a fan enough to be reading an obscure review of an obscure album on an obscure site in an obscure corner of the internet, but in case you don't its the song about cars that added way too much heavy metal to the CSNY reunion album 'American Dream'. Though its actually more in Crosby's taste (see the similar 'Drive My Car' from 1989's 'Oh Yes I Can!'), it was Young who re-arranged the song for the album and got a co-credit for his troubles though in truth he didn't do much except 'simplify' it, as only Neil can. Here's Stills' go at his own song, possibly one recorded before the CSNY one if the 1980s stylistics are anything to go by, but with the Young co-credit reinstated. Sorry to say the 1988 version was superior and even that was pretty weak. This is a dumb song by Stills' standards, revelling in going fast and hanging out with a crowd without much care for the danger and with the inevitable result that at the last corner Stills manages to 'wingshot and win this race' from the expected leader. This version lacks the dangerous guitar riff of the 1988 version and swaps it for an irritating single note squeal that keeps interrupting the action after every line or so, while the less-than-vital Vitale drums aren't so much thunder as lightning, jumping about nosily at random so that you're never quite sure where anything will land. Only a Stills guitar solo, played solo and less aggressively than the 1988 take, offers any real excitement. There is, by the way, still a good song to be had here if only Stills would re-arrange it a third way, adding more doubt to the outcome and making a dangerous sport sound a little less safe. Heard like this, though, it's a car crash and not worthy of the Stills name.
'Acadienne' though is easily the album's weakest song. In his time Stills has paid tribute to just about every branch of Northern/Southern/Latin America there is but here he slips in one more with a tribute to the 'Acadians', the French settlers who came to Nova Scotia and surrounding Canadian areas and were wiped out when the English arrived and accused them of helping the French. In recent years DNA tracing and more open-ness about different cultures (till Trump got into power anyway) has led to more and more Americans and Canadians embracing this aspect of their family tree and people have begun digging up their traditional music. Stills, of course, just has to have a go and the Cajun-style should be right down his alley (think Buddy Holly's 'Brown-Eyed Handsome Man' which kicked off a mini-craze for the style in the late 1950s). Unfortunately the closest any of his band can find to 'real' 'Acadian' music is an accordion, which Mike Finnigan plays in the same noisy way he does his organ, while the rest of the band carry on as normal and pretend they're having a hootenanny. The result was never going to work in a zillion years played like that but falls even flatter than expected, with nobody paying attention or caring enough to go the extra mile needed to make this song swing. As for the lyrics, goodness knows what's going on - one minute we're mixing with 'Spanish grass and Cyprus leaves', the next we're driving with Stills in his Cadillac, the next we're running wild with 'gators and snakes' and then somehow we're meant to sympathise with a 'father' who has 'wanderlust' and recalls the times before he started a family and grew roots. 'The life you get is the life I want' concludes Stills, but whether that's as the privileged rock-star who never gets to make any music for fun anymore, the family man who never gets to go interesting places or the locals who don't want to spend their days wrestling with crocodiles all their lives is never explained. Perhaps everyone in this song is jealous of each other and that's what this song is all about? It would have been nice to have had a clue though. Really this is just an excuse to mess around in a new style, but it's not one that suits Stills (who in years gone by suited everything) or Nash, who sounds even less suitable here than on 'Wounded World'.
'Spanish Suite' tries hard to be an ambitious closing finale to the record. A little too hard to be honest - like a lot of other foreign-language ten minute AAA suites (such as Cat Stevens' 'Foreigner') it's an exercise that seems to be more about breaking the listener and their patience than truly adding to what we know about the author. There is, at least, some superb moments of pure Stills in here as yet again he looks back on a relationship that went wrong and tries to force himself to break away. We've seen on here in the past how the 'real' Stills is often buried on his foreign-language Spanish and French songs, rightly guessing that most of his fans won't understand or be willing to go the extra mile to work out what he's saying so he can be truly honest and open with us. Here, though, he offers us the English translation as soon as he's sung the Spanish as if to draw our attention to it. The lyrics are clearly heartfelt though, more so than most of this album and quite painful and real even if - as I suspect - the subject of them dates back to at least Rita Coolidge (maybe with bits of Judy Collins in there too given that this lengthy formless poem resembles 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' more than anything else in his canon). 'Goodbye and good luck' his once loved one sings from her pedestal, 'I am not interested - your love is worth nothing'. Stills is crushed but obstinate enough to try again anyway, figuring that love is meant to be a 'trial' where some win and some lose, only to lose again. Finally Stills 'gets' it, that there is 'no more me and you' and wonders how long it will take him to forget her - forever? In the two minutes of this song that stop sleepwalking and suddenly matter this fragmentary song suddenly grows into a full band performance. 'I gave up on you' Stills snaps, over and over, a sentence he never thought he'd ever hear himself say. This is, after all, a lover who promised to do anything and go anywhere for his loved ones and meant it too and Stills is still in shock unable to believe he's saying it. But for once it's not a lover walking out on him, he's giving up on her ;finished with the chase' and he's in shock, spinning the sentences out over and over past their natural breaking point in a flurry of words as if, even now, he's adamant that he needs to get everything right and expresses just how hard this decision was to make. 'I have nothing left to lose, even though I know you'll never really face yourself or put your trust in someone else that's just the same as asking all of us to turn away and just give up on you'. That, as they say, is a sentence! Unfortunately it's not the end of the song, as it should be, but the excuse for five minutes of some of the worst jamming session noodling on record (a decidedly non-super session if you will). Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock takes over but his jazzy chords are a world away from Stills' style and he doesn't seem to have been given much direction except to make a lot of noise and Stills' much more interesting flamenco style guitar doesn't get much of a look in alongside. To be honest it's all quite boring and no substitute for the 'doo doo doo' ending to 'Suite: Judy'. The song chills and you half-expect a verse reprise to stamp the song's authority back in the peak of the chorus, but no - this song just drifts away which is disappointing after that adrenalin rush. The middle, then, is great and back to the ambition and themes of old - but it's a great two minute song sitting at the heart of an eleven minute track you won't be able to stomach too many times unless you really like weak jazz or really really really like Stills' 'latin' songs (of which this is, sadly, the weakest).
Not that I'm giving up on Stills or anything. The middle of this CD is pretty decent and had this album been made for the LP-length days when a few of the weaker songs from the beginning and end had been kicked out it would have been just about up to standard. But even with a few moments that catch the ear, the good moments are rather swamped by everything this album gets wrong - every bland song (the melodies being a particular disappointment across this record for someone of Stills' standards), every repetitive 1980s arrangement and every lifeless performance just sucks the life out of this record before it's even had a chance to get going. This isn't the sound of a 'man alive' - well not up to the standards that a Stills album is generally so amazingly, remarkably, full-bloodedly alive. Instead this is another 'marking time' album like 'Stills Alone', albeit one made over a longer period of time and with more actual songs on it this time. There's an inside-sleeve picture that goes with this album that's obviously meant to be clever and cool, Stills playing his guitar in a Hawaiian shirt (Stills that is, not the guitar - his neck's not that big!) on a fast-speed camera that's all blurry. Instead of looking energetic and powerful, though, it just looks like an old man waving his arms around for a bit for no reason. That's the problem with this album, which spends too long concentrating on the daft speedboats of 'Right By You' and trying to make Stills look trendy instead of concentrating on what this album does get right - the wiser, cooler head, the occasional heartfelt autobiographical lyric the younger Stills wasn't yet grown enough to be writing and the passionate delivery on the pair of cover songs. This album tries so hard in so many ways, while in others it doesn't try anywhere near enough, being by far the lowest moment in Stills' solo canon. That said, though, I'd like to hear any other career lowpoints with the power of the performance heard on 'Ole Man Trouble' 'Different Man', the lyrics of 'Heart's Gate' 'Round The Bend' or 'Piece Of Me' or the sudden moment everything works in the middle of 'Spanish Suite'. Giving up on you? Hardly - this album still has enough to gets fans excited about for a future Stills album being as great as we know it can be as long as Stills ditches the production, bandmates and bland melodies.