Monday, 8 May 2017
Graham Nash "Songs For Survivors" (2002)
Graham Nash "Songs For Survivors" (2002)
Dirty Little Secret/Blizzard Of Lies/Lost Another One/The Chelsea Hotel/I'll Be There For You/Nothing In The World/Where Love Lies Tonight/Pavanne/Liar's Nightmare/Come With Me
'I keep all my feelings high up on a shelf, thankyou for sharing - now, why are you here?'
'Songs For Survivors' tries so very hard to be a sequel to 'Songs For Beginners'. On first hearing it's maybe the most CSN-ish, certainly the most Nash-ish of all of Graham's works. Angry political rant? Check! Sweet schmaltzy songs about love? Double check? Optimistic bouncy pop songs? You betcha! Harmonies? Well, sort of. On first hearing this album is every bit as innocent and naive as 'Beginners', an album deliberately themed to make Nash seem like a young innocent abroad - which by and large he was, suddenly free of both the band and girlfriend that first lured him out to America. It's as sickly sweet as a lollipop, full of more bright and breezy pop tunes than any Nash album since the early Hollie days and exactly the sort of album you should be reaching out for on a sunny day. Only later do you spot the storm-clouds passing over the horizon and realise that, actually, 'Songs For Survivors' is an album with many secrets hiding in the bubblegum. That angry political rant? It's not the hippie utopian ideology that made CSN the go-to band for dreamers and idealists but instead it's a dark and nasty song about a racial lynching from nearly a hundred years ago that's been swept under the carpet and still gnaws away at Nash, at his idea of what human beings are and what they're capable of. Those love songs? They're warning songs, promising to be there despite a dark mad evil world, not the cause of rescue from it as per the old days. Those bouncy pop songs? They come in tribute to fallen heroes and dead musicians lost in the line of duty and subject matters don't come any darker than losing the ones you love. Oh and those harmonies? Never has Nash sounded so alone, competing rather than counterpointing in his usual way. Nash has survived alright and he's stayed as true to his 'real' self as he possibly can to do it - but once again, as happened in 1971, the world is suddenly a darker and scarier place than it had ever seemed up to that time.
Most reviewers weren't after subtlety from CSN in 2002 and this record got short shrift in the darker post 9/11 world , which is a shame - not because it's a bold daring masterpiece (it isn't) or a career high (compared to his glorious 1990s run Nash is on relatively flimsy form here) but because this record is really not the record everyone said it was at the time. Only repeated hearings have revealed what a dark and brooding record this is - and only recent actions, from a Nash stung at feeling he's been living on 'auto-pilot' and running away from his marriage with a girl half his age, have fully capitalised at the darkness in this album's icy heart, however warm the surroundings. Like 'Songs For Beginners' this is a record made by a man whose just lost something great (be it his band, his belief in his marriage or his faith in the hippie dream or all three) but the difference is this time Nash isn't waiting for the cavalry to arrive and fears that he won't be helped at all. His rock and roll heroes are dying out, his marriage is sinking, his band is gone (only Crosby turns up for a single harmony part - Stills and Young aren't here at all) and even in 2002 there are still cover-ups over terrible awful moments of American history the world wants everyone to forget. The return to the old title is surely deliberate, Nash even re-using the self-portrait in the mirror trick from thirty years ago (albeit with very different technology) for a portrait of the artist before and since - but an artist who in many ways feels very much the same and as lost and helpless as he ever was, however happy Nash's life had been during the points in between.
The centrepiece of this album is tucked away near the end on track nine, as if hoping we won't spot it. 'Liar's Nightmare' is the most daring of all of Nash's songs, surreal and desperate, a million light years away from his usual 'things are going to work themselves out' mantra. Inspired by a surreal experience when undergoing anaesthetic for a routine operation, Nash is frightened by just how much danger and fright is lurking in his subconscious, his evil side lurking behind all those sickly-sweet ballads he's famous for writing (two of which have just appeared on his most recent CD, the CSNY reunion 'Lookin' Forward' and are the most saccharine Nash songs ev-uh - how much better might that album have been with 'Liar's Nightmare' on there for darkness and depth?) Nash tries to run away but he can't, across eight powerful minutes full of meetings with Elvis, dead-end jobs, howling babies and being paralysed with fear. The song opening with a defiant cry of 'I really don't care!' and ending only when he realises that, actually, his problem is that he cares too much. The title suggests that all this time Nash has been 'lying' to us (or at least putting a brave face on his real feelings) and here, at last, lurking in the undergrowth and underbelly of his back catalogue, is the 'real' Nash. Legend has it Paul McCartney wrote his most famous breakthrough song 'Yesterday' from a full night's sleep and it couldn't have been more Macca-like if it was sung by a frog and featured Linda McCartney and Denny Laine harmonies. The closest thing in the CSN canon, created under a different kind of 'drug' to normal, couldn't be less like their natural style and is darker, angrier, more surreal and less straightforward than anything else any of the three of them will ever write (it's also Graham's most 'Neil Young' song, only Neil lives much more happily with the darker side of his self).
That's the most blatant example on this album but it's far from the only one. Usually a CSN political song ends with hope and gusto however bleak the contents. Remember 'Chicago' about the Chicago Seven bullied and mistreated in court for the simple crime of not agreeing with the exploitation of capitalism? It led into a reprise of the chorus that 'We Can Change The World, It's dying....to get better!' 'After The Dolphin' ends not with the expected sound effects of the massacre of a London pub early in World War Two but with jovial sounds, as if we've gone back in time and there's still a chance to save everybody. 'And So It Goes' puts the world right with the words 'music gets you high, everybody grows!', with the hope that somehow mankind will evolve out of his war-mongering, childish, injustice-bearing self. Here 'Dirty Little Secret' ends with a verse about how the American Government has covered up a racially motivated lynching that happened, not in the dim and distant past but as recently as 1921 (just two decades before Graham was born). Nobody fights it and the murder gets swept under the carpet - and nobody cares when it gets revealed under the 75 year secrets act either, the perpetrators long since dead and the family of the victim long since wiped out.
Usually Nash can count on his fellow singer-songwriters for inspiration and peace but 'The Chelsea Hotel' simply has his old comrades carrying on as normal, the world refusing to change whilst 'We've Lost Another One' moans about the loss of another valued member of the hippie clan, leaving a hole that the youngsters - too concerned with their own survival - aren't filling. Usually Nash turns to love, but by his standards his romantic songs on this album are very dodgy indeed (and quite unlike the pure love songs heard on next project 'Crosby*Nash' in 2005), being ambivalent at best. Generally speaking Nash doesn't need to ask his lover how she feels - it's obvious, good or bad. On 'Nothing In The World' he sounds oddly unsure, singing 'I can still feel it in my heart - the question is can you?' 'Where Love Lies Tonight' tries hard to be a typical Nash love song but even here the undercurrent is dark, Nash quoting from Neil's song about Grahan's split with Joni on the line 'Love can break your heart, I see it every day'. 'Pavanne', though a cover song, is a revealing choice and so unlike Nash's ideas of romance too - the title character is a cougar, preying on the narrator and doesn't care about love at all (Richard Thompson wrote the song for his wife to sing, months before asking for a divorce, if that gives you a clue). Only 'I'll Be There For You' (a song as much about the dangers faced by a couple as their love for each other) and the closing 'Come With Me' (which expressed love in fragmented, haiku-like form) go anywhere near the old Nash and two almost happy songs compared to eight sad ones is the lowest odds of any Nash project till now (even the 'Deja Vu' LP, recorded in trying circumstances, hoped that 'love was coming to us all'! Here by contrast love isn't coming to anyone and may be just a myth, an 'accident of faith' as Stills would put it and not 'magic' at all). We've had other dark songs from Graham before, but never without hope. Into the darkness soon we'll be sinking, you might say.
Why such darkness? There's nothing specific you can put a finger on really and Nash was his usual chirpy self in the few interviews he gave at the time. The closest I can find to a rant is being sad that his children are now old enough to leave home and that Graham is feeling 'empty nest syndrome' (a feeling shared with Stills and written out on their collaboration 'Wounded World' which duly appears on Stephen's next CD 'Man Alive!' in 2005). By this point Graham and Susan would be celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and there's no sign of cracks on his other records around this period (indeed cover song 'I Surrender' from the next album may be the definitive Nash love song of them all). CSNY had admittedly just split (again!) robbing the quartet of momentum and their last album had not gone down terribly well with fans and critics. 'There was a time we thought we were invincible, that we'd go on and on' sighs 'Lost Another One', before reprising the chorus from 'Wasted On The Way'. But, hey, that was par for the course by 2002 - Graham would have been shocked if Stephen had hung around for a second album in a row, never mind Neil! Plus the break was quite clean this time around, with no bust-ups in the studio, no arguments in the press and no rows over women (a first!) The clue might be from the anaesthetic lurking at the heart of 'Liar's Nightmare'. The 'Looking Forward' album was delayed a bit when Nash suffered two broken legs in a serious boating accident in September 1999. He was out with his wife and friends in a rowing boat they'd used several times before around the Nash family home in Hawaii when a freak wave raised the boat up on Graham's side, tipped him up and sent him crashing to the bottom. Though laughed off at the time (with Nash doing much promotional work for the album in plaster) the incident seems to have had a much bigger effect on him than anyone realised at the time. There's a moment in everyone's lives when they realise for the first time they aren't immortal - some of you, like me, will experience it through illness, others through accidents, others hopefully not until you go to meet your maker (while many of us felt the grip of fear when listening to The Spice Girls against our will). This accident may perhaps have been Nash's awakening - though his life was never in danger that's easy to say now and might not have seemed that way at the time - and it may have hit him then that all of his dreams about mankind finally getting it together in his lifetime weren't coming true after all (never ev-uh did I think I'd hear eternal optimist write a line like this album's 'nothing seems to get better - some things seem to get worse!')
Or maybe it's the outer world that's the problem (or maybe both?) We've already spoken a little about 9/11 in our 'Lookin' Forward' review where it felt like something nasty this way was going to blow. By the time of this album, the first CSNY-linked album to be released post-attack (and beating Neil's 'Let's Roll' from his 'Are You Passionate?' record by three months), the darkness has arrived in the form of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. The world - or the Western half of it which didn't have to live with this threat everyday thanks to American and British 'interventions' - lived in fear for a few years back then (and does now, though in a slightly different form with the shift now from Al Qaida to ghetto-ised marginalised Muslim converts who have little to lose in this life so hedge their bets and hope for the best in the afterlife). Though there's nothing on this record which is specific or direct (and Nash is usually direct) 'Survivors' very much feels like a record made in that immediate aftermath when the world was on slightly shakier ground. 'When the sky is falling and everything is on your mind' sings Nash on 'Blizzard Of Lies', a song about the 'sadness' and 'madness' of the world, 'excuses will be your friend'. This is an album about that tries to follow President Bush's calls for American citizens to act the way they always did and not to let the terrorists 'win', while secretly looking over your shoulder and wonder where the next attack might come from. The title of this record makes it clear - though perhaps not an album for the 'fallen' in the way that some other Nash songs might be, this is a record addressed to the 'survivors', the ones who have to make peace and come to terms with a changed world even when they don't want to. The worst of it seems to be, at least to me, that Nash can see both sides. After other attacks Nash was the first on the barricades trying to get justice. This time he's confused where justice lies: he feels for the Veterans sent in to sort out an unholy mess, but sympathises with the countries who felt that American bombing raids turned their land into a holy mess in the first place. This was the kind of war everyone lost - and like 'After The Dolphin' it was the innocent victims, the casualties going about their everyday business, who paid for it the most, not the politicians (Bush even blocked his children from serving in the army despite mass recruitment in low income areas). Lightness and hope might perhaps have been out of place.
Which is odd because none of the above would have been in my review had Alan's Album Archives been around at the time it came out. At first 'Songs For Survivors' was disappointing, a sappy record that felt like Nash's worst excesses. There are no real fast rock songs here (only 'Dirty Little Secret' comes close and that's in a dark and brooding 'how dare you!' kind of way), just ten ballads at slightly different speeds. The production, while a mega improvement on Nash's last album from sixteen years earlier (the synth-heavy 'Innocent Eyes') still feels a touch heavy-handed, slick and shallow to the point where it hides the often deep and dark songs within. Nash sings in an oddly dispassionate way which, to my ears now, sounds like the anaesthetic coating of Nash's own making he 'wears' to get him through the day in an ugly world when he's not having an operation - but on first hearing just makes this song sound like an anodyne, dispassionate affair (and Nash is, after all, as emotional a writer as they come, leading from his heart not his head like all of CSN). This is an album heavy on the power-pop choruses but surprisingly low on really expressive melodies, many of the songs here tending to hover in the air rather than flow or drill their way into your sub-consciousness. The presence of singer Sydney Forrest on many of the songs (best known for her work on film scores, usually for children - you can see where this is going!) robs the album of even the small amount of the darkness Nash adds with his suddenly deeper, huskier voice (she's a great vocalist I admire a lot by the way, just not a good fit for this album - had she been on 'Lookin' Forward' where the songs would have suited her better I'd have been quite happy). Even the lyrics, though the album's strongest trait when truly analysed and understood on multiple layers, on first hearing seem like the usual songs Nash always writes, with lots of references to 'love' 'hearts' and that old CSN favourite 'Carry On'. Only later do lines like 'it's such a dirty little secret' 'your soul feels black and blue' and 'I laugh at the cripples and cry at the clowns' poke their way through the surface schlmaltz.
All of that means that 'Songs For Survivors' is a hard album to review. I don't feel the same emotional connection I do with Nash at his best, whether that be on 'Songs For Beginners' (ultimately a much more heartfelt and troubled, if still happier record than this one) or the best of 'Wild Tales' and 'Earth and Sky' or even Graham's recent contributions to the likes of 'Live It Up' or 'After The Storm' (maybe not 'Lookin' Forward...') However I like 'Survivors' more than most fans seem to: it's a daring, much maligned and misunderstood record that despite being dismissed for being the same old thing is actually about as far out of his comfort zone as Nash has ever walked (maybe the sequel from 2016 'This Path Tonight' has a point there too, an album that - literally - walks the walk, but this album talks the talk). In truth only 'Liar's Nightmare' would end up on a Nash best-of (and then only if you're feeling brave and have lots of space!), with 'Dirty Little Secret' the second-best song here by a country mile, but equally nothing here is bad - certainly not as bad as the country-rockers on 'Wild Tales' or the noisy 1980s pop cover songs on 'Innocent Eyes'. Don't go into this album expecting to fall in love with it - 'Survivors' isn't that kind of an album - but it is a record that feels as if it was meant to 'last', with more staying power than some of Nash's work and a combination of cosiness and daring that makes it one of his most ambitious works to date.
Strictly speaking the Tulsa Race Riots in Oklahoma started on May 31st 1921, but in every other sense Graham's song 'Dirty Little Secret' is spot-on. At the time the ex-slave community in this area was the richest in America and had almost-equal powers to their white neighbours. Tensions had been running high for a while before a 'trigger' for the violence - a suspected rapist from the neighbourhood who'd supposedly attacked and raped a white elevator operator (An image used by Graham here as a metaphor: 'On an elevator in the heart of town, somebody made somebody scream, Black and White going up and down...') There was no proof and even his biggest critics said he worked 'alone' but somehow the whole district was seen as 'evil' and was all but wiped out overnight. Some 6000 locals were arrested for nothing more than living near where the incident happened (which is so unfair on so many levels words just aren't enough...), 10,000 saw their houses so badly damaged that they were left homeless and at least nine people died in the resulting one-sided 'riots' (although some historians reckon it was more like a hundred dead). This wasn't ancient history from the American Revolution years either, but well within a century. So why don't you know about it? Because a shame-faced Government, which rather turned a whole blind-eye to the equal rights thing (and, so eye-witnesses said, got involved on the side of the 'whites', dropping sticks of dynamite to speed things up!), would rather you didn't. Graham, as an adopted American, had never fully heard the story about the biggest mass killings on American soil in the 20th century (on a scale similar to 9/11) until a study in 2001 finally decided that things went a bit wrong and maybe they'd better pay some reparations to any 'survivors' (that word again) right on the eve of this album. Like so many other injustices in the CSN universe this was a red rag to a bull. Graham had to write a song about it and 'Dirty Little Secret', while low on detail, is as big on emotion as you'd expect. On what's easily the album's most memorable song Graham just about keeps his feelings in check until the end when he enjoys one of his greatest ever rants on behalf of fellow Americans: 'All the walking wounded pay the price for living in the promised land!' As angry as we've heard Graham about individual incidents this is the closest he's yet come to reneging his American citizenship (to be fair British history ain't any better!) as Graham urges, belatedly for us all to 'take care of our neighbour' no matter who they are as our only way for surviving in this fragmented world. Though set seventy-nine years earlier, this song is clearly inspired by the then-recent events of 9/11 too, Graham summing up the mood of the world sighing along with the message CSN had been using for all those years: 'Why can't we all get along?' The album's best backing track makes good use of the twin guitar attack by Dean Parks and Steve Farris that can barely keep their feelings in check, plus a busy and menacing bass from Viktor Krauss that sounds like danger about to strike. The calm before the storm finally explodes in a chorus and Nash's brooding vocal fully takes charge in the second half, haranguing the town's media for spreading lies and rumour and stoking up fires instead of calling for peace (again not unlike 9/11). Only an occasionally clunky lyric ('Somebody lost a dream' instead of, you know, 'Somebody lost a house and a relative and all hope for a better future in the land that's meant to accept immigrants for what they are' which would have been closer to the truth) prevents this from being one of Nash's top tier songs. It's still pretty close though and much under-rated, getting the album off to an explosive start.
'Blizzard Of Lies' feels like the album odd-one-out. Though the title suggests we're about to get another diatribe about media awareness in the wake of 9/11 this is actually a quiet calm, bouncy country-rock track in the old Nash tradition. The general gist of the song is that to each life a little rain must fall but that all you have to do is survive it and find a way to make things better until one day they are - a very Nash sentiment if ever there was one! By now Graham's been round the block a while and recognises the feelings he has when he hears of injustice and crazy Conservatives only caring about themselves - so instead of allowing the bad mood to sweep over him and his temperature rise, he stays away, calms down and tries to see the positive. Which is just as well because he's going to be doing that a lot from now on until the end of this book...Then again, Nash's final advice to all of us out there is basically to become agoraphobic, to never walk outside our house 'into a blizzard of lies', which doesn't seem quite right either. This breezy pop song feels very out of place on this album, more like a song from Graham's younger and more innocent days - and that goes double for the references to old CSNY songs such as the 'sea of sadness' (was Graham afraid Neil might have sued if he'd said 'Sea Of Madness'?!) , the 'sky falling' and running to a child's cry for help. The best thing about it is the unusual structure: the verses run AAA rather than AABB, which almost (but not quite) turns this song into a waltz.
'Lost Another One' starts off like a typical Nash track too. It's an upbeat oom-pah pop song with a slick contemporary production and a lyric that starts of upbeat, with the message that music will heal us all. Only as the verses progress Graham becomes grumpier, tired of forever having to reach out to art to solve a world problem caused by politics. He's running out of heroes to turn to when the world starts going mad, can't feel the pull from many of the younger generations to replace them and feels a little bit of his hope at a better future leave him every time he hears of some great musician lost in the news. This song seemed particularly pertinent in 2016 when we lost one every week it seemed at one point, but I've often wondered who exactly inspired this song (which was presumably written somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s since Graham's last full project). Elvis, Buddy, John Lennon, Steve Marriott, even Roy Orbison had all died much earlier while George Harrison, Johnny Cash and co were yet to go - in actual fact this was a brief golden time when we didn't lose many musicians at all. Against all odds all of The Hollies and CSNY are still alive at the time of writing (which is a miracle, truly, given how many other bands have been desecrated by time - contemporaries The Byrds, for instance, have lost six of their past band members by now - and how CSNY lived for much of their career). Nash feels fragile for maybe the first time (that boating accident haunting him again perhaps?) He thought his generation were 'invincible' once upon a time and sighing that far from the utopia he imagined in his old age that instead 'after all the heartache and the trouble we go out alone'. Nash imagines his old friends 'sailing to the distance, like a setting sun that had only just begun', angry with his 'Maker' (that he's last spoken to this directly on a Hollies track of the same name from 1967) for taking them before their good was truly done. This is a very CSN song: even as late as 2002 here's Graham imagining that music can change the world and only just realising that it might not. But then that's why we love them after all: it's that hope and belief in the power of music that makes CSN such a great band for fellow-thinking idealists - and also why, for all its natural Nash-by-numbers sound, this song of (temporary) defeat sounds so unsettling.
'Chelsea Hotel' is an intriguing song, another sad lament for...somebody. Sid Vicious once shot his girlfriend Nancy (allegedly) there, but Nash seems an unlikely candidate to be writing about punks a quarter century after the fact. Leonard Cohen once wrote a song with the same name about sleeping with Janis Joplin there one night (how did that work? She was so noisy and bouncy, he so quiet and sombre) - some people wrongly think she dies there too but it was actually The Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood (and if I know my Nash he'll have done his homework, plus Janis is one of the few female musical stars he didn't sleep with, as far as I know!) So instead my guess is it's another song for Joni Mitchell, perhaps a thirty-year-late reply to her own 'Chelsea Morning' (which was written around the time of their break-up and includes the chorus 'Oh won't you stay, we'll put on the day'). Graham's vision of the Chelsea Hotel is a place filled with art, paintings and poetry (both big things for Joni) 'holding memories of people who fell'. Nash has his old-man's head on again, worrying about what he and his generation will leave behind and realising that they are all 'carrying on searching for truth with perpetual youth that will fade'. This song is his statement to rage into the dying light and yet again the music goes somewhere completely different to the lyrics. This sounds like a typical peaceful serene Nash ballad, complete with schmaltzy string section and only the slow quiet anger in Nash's excellent vocal hints at his 'real' feelings. This is no longer a 'Chelsea Morning', full of opportunities but a 'Chelsea Night', with Nash surrounded by memories rather than new chances to live. 'We've all been here before' Nash concludes, recognising the feelings of disappointment and work unfinished is what every generation he admired before him felt too, their time up far too soon. The presence of a sweet Crosby harmony vocal makes this song sound even more like a reminder of old times, although it's not really a CSN style song, being too depressing and lost for that. Before you ask, I haven't a clue who the critic 'Raymond' is ('A lover of his art, a lover in his heart') - is this a fan? If so then it would be the first time any of CSN mention one in song. But it would make sense - Nash is trying to sum up his legacy here but feels too close to it, too upset to really see it for what it is and feels a failure for not making the difference he wanted to, 'the world passing us by in the blink of an eye'. But of course he did: CSN and their ilk may not have changed the world, but they dented what would have happened without them and sometimes that's enough. Even so this sweet and unusually sombre little song never really gets going, being one of many 21st century Nash understated ballads that never quite catches fire or stays long in the memory.
'I'll Be There For You' sports the best melody on the album, but even this song feels slightly under par somehow. This is also a hard song to listen to given what happened 'next' (well, fourteen years later) as Nash sings about how love 'makes no sense' but that he's made a commitment to be there for his wife Susan come what may: drowning waves, dark days, the works. For the most part this is another typical simple Nash ballad about love which does what every Nash song about love does: it tugs at the heart-strings and leaves you feeling warm and cosy, with a bright and breezy melody that you have to singalong to. But even here there are stormclouds: this is a couple who've clearly already weathered some difficulties together and there's a curious moment in the middle verse where Nash refers to 'how some people call us a family, others say we're just friends'. Is this song about someone else then? If so who? Could this be another song of healing to the CSNY family? (Nash had written quite a few and they had just got back together after all and 'family' 'sometimes' sounds about right). If so then that's even sadder, Nash promising to always be there for his colleagues about a decade and a half before he pulls up the drawbridge and claims he doesn't want to hold up the 'CSN mast' any longer (see 2016's 'Beneath The Waves'). Because this clearly isn't just a clever catchy pop song but a track delivered from the heart with tender love and care to someone and Nash sings another of his best vocals on the album, sadly drowned out by Sydney Forest (who does exactly what she's meant to do on a track like this, but somehow takes all the Nashness away as she does so). Another of those sadly frustrating album songs that could perhaps have been so much more!
'Nothing In The World' is clearly based around the same guitar riff as Nash's 1994 song 'Unequal Love' and even heads towards the same place of unrequited love, but the earlier vintage was a much more universal, superior song. Even so this is a nice one and perhaps another hint at the troubles in Graham's marriage to come, as he admits that a couple aren't in love anymore but still feels feelings and that 'there's nothing I wouldn't do for you!' Nash says that he can 'feel it in my heart' but wonders 'the question is can you?' It's odd to hear a writer so famous for his love songs write what's effectively a second anti-love song here, admitting that falling out of love leaves both halves' hearts feeling 'black and blue' and their souls 'battered'. Sensing his heart on fire (again see 'This Path Tonight' which recycles the image on the title track) Nash declares he 'better burn right through' because there's no hope left anymore. But this isn't a song for recriminations but one of peace and contentment, a truce declared between two people who know each other well - well enough to know they don't love each other anymore but also know each other better than anybody else. The strangely muted backing track sadly gets in the way of this song though, which drifts rather than soars and sadly isn't as memorable as the rest of the album.
That song also exists in stark contrast to 'Where Love Lies Tonight' where Nash celebrates having a lover who, for the first time in his life, loves 'all' of him - good and bad and indifferent. It's enough to coax a typically breezy straightforward melody, some extremely tacky faux soul backing and some more slightly unpalatable duet singing. Still, though, even this song comes with a darker twist than most love-lorn Nash ballads: 'Underneath a crushing weight, love flies away' runs the chorus. Another returns to 'I Used To Be A King' from 'Beginners' with the sigh 'How many times have I loved and lost? If only my heartaches could heal'. I don't know about you but if either of these sentiments were dropped in the middle of a love song to me, the writer would be getting a slap right about now. The two halves never quite come together, as if they were written as two entirely different songs that never got finished - and yet that's the main problem with this song anyway, it doesn't feel 'finished' even here. Only a terrific Dean Parks guitar growl, hinting at this being the calm before the storm, really catches the ear too - Nash is on auto-pilot and Matt Rollings' organ work feels as if it comes in "quotation marks" and isn't from the heart at all. A real oddball this song because, with only the smallest amount of tweaking, this could have been another Nash song.
'Pavanne' too is an astonishing choice of cover song. Not because it's bad - indeed Richard and Linda Thompson are my most recent 'find', dear readers, and though I discovered them too late for this website are first in the queue if these articles are ever popular enough to get more editions (I might need a long rest first, mind you!) Nash is perfect to sing their songs too: slightly downbeat, slightly sour, slightly folky but with a harder edge and full of poetic symbolism that comes from a writer giving his wife his songs to sing about their own marriage - why, it's like the Nash-Joni Mitchell years all over again! Had Nash gone for the obvious (the beautiful 'Dimming Of The Day', as best sung by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, which almost 'Our House' in reverse, a love lasting while a home doesn't) or the brave (the suicidal 'The End Of The Rainbow', surely the bitterest, grumpiest song ever written and which makes Neil Young sound like a cutie-pie by comparison) then I'd have been all for it. But this is 'Pavanne', one of the most controversial of all the Thompson twins' songs. By this point in time (1978) the couple hate each other's guts and it's only a matter of time till the divorce comes through. So Richard mocks his wife, getting her to sing a song about a 'cold steel woman' as 'elegant as ice' who breaks hearts for nothing more than 'the pleasure'. This is, by the way, about as far from the real Linda (sensitive supportive soul) as it's possible to get - and about as far away from Nash's image as it's possible to find too. Joni, Amy Gossage, Susan, even first wife Rose Eccles - all of these were sweethearts who wouldn't harm a fly unless cornered (only Rita Coolidge comes close to the sdescription and she was way too subtle to be a 'Pavanne'). So why is Nash singing it? And why, if he wanted to 'break out of his image' has he re-moulded this slightly sinister, brooding anger track (which he's already proved he can pull off with 'Dirty Little Secret') into another pretty Nash singalong? Sydney Forest is back again and her sweetener harmonies shows why Richard chose never to sing along with his wife on their recording (in fact they didn't sing together often at all) - this is a track that should be as cold as the steel in Pavanne's eyes. It's not a place for harmony and given that till 2002 Nash has been all about harmony in every sense of the word that's a sea-change right there. It's a case of beautiful song delivered by a talented singer that's sadly a total failure because Nash isn't singing what this song is trying to say and Thompson never expected this song to be performed by someone so known for his peace and love 'healing' qualities. Instead he and Forest sound like the narrator of the song, trapped trance-like 'in some slow courtly dance' leading to their doom - which is an image that sums up this quietly troubled album rather well.
The album highlight is the one track here that's truly brave and breaks new ground instead of just staring out the window and wanting to walk there (a theme picked up on 'This Path Tonight' when Graham's finally brave enough to take that step into the unknown). 'Liar's Nightmare' is surely the product of more than just a surreal dream under the anaesthetic one night. It sounds the culmination of all of this album's hidden ghosts and impulses breaking through to the point were Graham can no longer ignore them anymore. He's lived his life trying to be nice to people and believing in the power of human beings to make a better future for themselves - now, with his sixtieth birthday months away, he's given up hope. Suddenly everything he's been living was a 'lie' and he's faced with a dark angry monster he's been trying to keep hidden for all these years, lost in a topsy-turvy world where nothing makes sense anymore (that's rather like the 'sand' that takes his foundations crumbling to the floor in 'I Used To Be A King'). So Nash gives in to his evil self, laughing at cripples, crying at comedians (perhaps because he feels their need to 'cover up' - we're back to the old repeated Hollies imagery of clowns painting their make-up on upside down again), Nash realising that he's been suppressing his real self for years. Nash has been 'pretending' to keep us fans and maybe his family 'happy', keeping his 'real' feelings 'left high on a shelf' where he can't reach them. The only passage that sounds like 'our' Nash is the political rant near the end ('We pay all our taxes but we don't know what for!', while Nash stares at politicians on the TV and hears something quite different to what they actually say). A surreal verse has him shaking with nerves as he prepares to meet Elvis, but is instead sidetracked by making plastic records and 'living a lie' - he got into the music business for all the right reasons but fears that he's lost, a failure who never got to change the world in the image he wanted. Nash has, till now, been a champion of hippie ideals long after everyone else's died and our greatest light in the darkness but here he extinguishes that light, telling us that now his 'body is broken and my spirit is dead'.
What's more, we're on our own: in a devastating verse worthy of Neil Young we get told 'The dream has been shattered, the flags have been burned, you better make up your minds about whatever you've learned!' The effect is like our favourite teacher having a nervous breakdown and figuring that he's have been better off teaching us like everyone else, with the stick and not the carrot. Fearing a breakdown, Nash goes to an AA meeting for recovering addicts (like an AAA meeting, but with less music and jokes about The Spice Girls) and pours out his heart and soul - only to find everyone in the room doesn't care, asking him 'why are you here?' Nash doesn't know anymore - he became a musician to tell the truth and in his desire to keep us hopeful he's lost his way, calling himself a 'liar' and going to see a doctor - who disappears and leaves him looking at the only person who can help, himself (a 'Man in The Mirror', literally given the cover of this and the 'Beginners' album). Only at the end do we get 'our' Nash back again, as he turns on the self of eight minutes early who claimed 'I really don't care!' by admitting that, actually, he does - which is why he pretended to us all this time. It's hard not to feel for him as he pleads with us not to desert him, a songwriter asking his fans to keep him hopeful the way we once did for him, and asking shyly 'I have poured out my heart to you and I hope you don't mind'. We don't, well I don't, as 'Liar's Nightmare' is a stunning tour de force that adds more layers to Nash as a writer than his past twenty years of songwriting combined. Even the backing is great considering this is such a long song: unless you get to know it really really well you don't know when the end is coming, as Nash seems to recover, pull himself out of this trance and 'act 'normal' for a verse or two before a false dawn and a reprise of the same short riff sucks him back into the darkness. You can't second-guess this song or where it goes next, from creepy realism to surreal metaphor and that's kind of the point: life is dark, unpredictable and often bleak and it sometimes takes our cheeriest, lightest and most reliable songwriters to truly show us that. Nash could easily have 'ducked' this song, sweetened it up or put it on a shelf, but he didn't - it's a brave cry for help from someone so usually in control, an elongated epic from someone known for writing compact short songs and daringly bold from a writer who'd become laughed at for too long for being set in his ways. In short, it's a masterpiece - not made for musical hearing perhaps but easily the most courageous song Nash has written in decades and picking up several hundred points for bravery alone.
The album should perhaps end there but instead we get one last cloying Nash dose of sentimentality with extra spoonfuls of sugar. 'Come With Me' works in the sense that again it stretches Nash's palette a little: this is a song reduced to the basics, even dispensing with the 'conjunction' words like 'and' or 'so' to get the message across at its most primal (a little like 'I Got A Rock' but way better!) Nash imagines two lovers fated to meet, two lines leading their own lives until they magically intersect, their open arms entwining around each other physically while their souls (and maybe their DNA) circle each other, two becoming one. To ram the point home a vaguely futuristic organ then joins musically with a retro banjo, as if two separate instruments and styles have somehow found their way back together too. Once more it's tough to hear Nash, so soon to walk out on this life, promising to 'go on and on' with his wife this way - especially given that Sydney Forest sounds not unlike Susan Nash herself. But at the time at least this song sounds heartfelt and is in many ways the most beautiful song on the album with a typically warm melody that wraps it's way around the sentiment like a scarf. Unfortunately, following hot on the heels of 'Liar's Nightmare' it sounds like a false promise and too little too late, whilst of all the sickly sweet Nash recordings out there this one probably contains more treacle than any other. It's an uneasy mix to be honest.
Overall, then, 'Songs For Survivors' is a braver album than it'[s ever given credit for, concerned with honesty (even when it makes Nash look bad), fading love (even when it makes Nash look bad), death (even when it makes Nash feel bad) and tattered unfulfilled reputations (which make CSNY and their contemporaries look bad). Still, though, there's perhaps too much sugar to make this a comfortable listen and this album is at it's best when it's at its bravest, written not for old-timer fans to hear new variations on what Nash has given us before or with half an ear on the contemporary market but when Nash sings from the heart. The brooding anger of 'Dirty Little Secret' and the confusion and panic of 'Liar's Nightmare' hints at just how heartfelt parts of this album are and how great Nash could still be when he tried to connect with his audience - but too much of the rest of the album finds him detached, singing on auto-pilot and creating songs he figures no one will hear anywhere except his loyal few. That's a shame because Nash still had so much more to give - certainly far too much for him to have a fourteen year break between albums, broken only by archive releases and one single Crosby*Nash collaboration) and a follow-up album looking at the darker, more dangerous path hinted at in this album is clearly the way to go, however many years and how many life changes later it took, with 'This Path Tonight' finally making good on this album's promise. The result is an album that only a fan could love but, more than that, only a fan would perhaps have the patience to understand, not recommended for general hearing - and yet full of some classic, courageous dark yet somehow still strangely uplifting moments that only a CSN fan could truly appreciate.