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Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “American Dream” (1988)
American Dream/Got It Made/Name Of Love/Don’t Say Goodbye/This Old House/Night-time For The Generals/Shadowlands//Drivin’ Thunder/Clear Blue Skies/That Girl/Compass/Soldiers Of Peace/Feel Your Love/Night Song
Had CSNY released this – only the second four-way studio reunion of their whole career – in 1971 as expected instead of 1988 then the title would have meant something very different. Back then the ‘American Dream’ of liberty, equality and freedom for all seemed possible – a realistic goal after a decade of believing that was a certainty once the ‘adults’ retired or popped their clogs and the youth of the day took over. A pre-Watergate world where politicians could be trusted, drugs were a way of making you high, not putting you six feet under and music could change the world. Of all the groups we cover on this site, CSNY were the ones with the convictions, the charisma, the songs, the following and the burning desire to see it happen, but their own human frailties and differences got in the way and tragically, incredibly, amazingly, they never capitalised on the sea-change they represented come 1969-70, all that wonderful music and hope for the world lost in a sea of acrimony and jealousy. There were aborted attempts at getting back together in 1974 and 1976, but amazingly it took a full 18 years for CSNY to reunite properly – and by then however much hype there was behind a CSNY reunion the idea of an ‘American Dream’ was no longer a realisable prospect but a bad joke, an unrealistic ‘hippie dream’ that no one ever talked about out loud any more.
If you happen to miss out on all the music CSNY made solo, as duos and as trios in the missing years (and you shouldn’t – practically everything CSNY made in the 1970s is wonderful) and you went straight to this album from ‘Deja Vu’, it’s that cynical stance that would surprise you the most. CSNY were never hard-edged or cynical (or at least they weren’t till the mid 70s, when the third Crosby-Nash album and the one sole Stills-Young band album shows strains of wear and tear). ‘Deja Vu’ in fact, as we said on our review for the album years ago now, is one of the last albums to get away with genuinely believing the 60s philosophy that, if you wait long enough, ‘love is coming to us allllllllll’. By contrast most of ‘American Dream’ is very 1980s: a world of characters watching their backs, afraid of someone stealing something, where corrupt politicians do anything to get out of scandals, FBI officials wave the invisible strings of democracy and a world of capitalist producers pollute our planet. The title track of ‘American Dream’ – the first song on the record and the first CSNY song most people had heard in 18 years – is a case in point. Far from the future filled with peace and equality the hippies envisoned in 1970, this world is like the worst of the 1960s without the hope, full of money-grabbing politicians trying to hide their mistakes and frailties from money-grabbing paparazzi while everyone at home watches an old hero be shot down in flames and tut-tuts to themselves. CSNY simply don’t belong in this world. In fact in the promo music video that came with the song CSNY sit up in the clouds as ‘angels’, above the world they look down on in disgust (even if they do have a fun old time playing all the parts of the characters themselves – look out for Stills right at home as a millionaire businessman and Young doubling roles as a paparazzi photographer and a demented punk rocker!) The meaning surely is that CSNY are also a ‘dream’; all that hope and optimism just doesn’t have a place in the world in 1988 and the title of the record - though a reminder of everything CSNY once stood for is also now a reminder of what the world ended up like without them there to point out the world’s wrongs. The ‘American Dream’ here is a taunt, played hypnotically on a synthesiser-made pan pipe (surely the artificial polar opposite of the band’s very earthy and ‘real’ 60s/70s music) bleeping throughout the song like a mocking phantom that never came true and never will, like it’s walked in from a 1950s commercial: ‘American Dre-am, American Dre-ee-am’.
Also, Neil might not have meant it when he wrote the song, but the title track of this album is as much a message about CSNY as it is about crooked politicians and an unfair justice system. ‘Speculation and rumour’ had been ‘flying around’ the quartet for a long time: Crosby’s 18 month stint in prison for drugs, Stills’ less publicised similar difficulties which caused further tensions within the band and the whole Geffen-suing-Neil-Young saga (covered in more detail on all of our 1980s NY album reviews) were in danger of turning the quartet into a soap opera. In fact, this album only appeared at all because of Neil’s much-quoted remarks in the 1980s that he would only get together again with CSN ‘if Crosby cleaned up his act’. While it wasn’t the way he or we wanted it to be, Crosby’s 18 month prison stint for possession did at least leave the way clear for the band to record together again (even if Neil made sure it was on his own terms). As happened in 1970/71, once the band’s larger than life characters started over-shadowing their music, there was bound to be trouble. No wonder Neil sings the line ‘reporters going through your garbage like a pack of hounds’ with such relish – he may have less scandal to hide than the crooked politician in the song but that didn’t stop him feeling hard done by. While few fans I know actually like this record that much, the overwhelming relief I sensed at the time (and in the years since) is one of relief that it wasn’t worse (and that it arrived at all). CSNY had form of abandoning projects a few weeks or months down the line (we dedicated a whole top five to the CSN/Y albums that might have been’ in news and views 33) and the news wasn’t good: Crosby’s rehabilitation from prison had given him creativity and spark again, but it also drained him of much of his energy (the fact that he was penniless again on leaving prison and had sold most of his possessions for drugs before ending up there didn’t help). Disappointed reporters attending the sessions on Neil’s ranch expecting a CSNY renaissance said they were disappointed to see Crosby slumped on the couch ‘like a beached whale’ for much of the album and that far from the democracy of old the album seemed to be Young calling the shots with Nash as his lieutenant (Stills, too, had had a horrible but less publicised decade, with the breakup of his fourth marriage hitting him hard). The fact that the album was recorded at Neil’s place at all wasn’t a good omen: even Crazy Horse never had quite this amount of management before and the division of the album’s writing credits (four songs and two co-writes to Young; a mere two for Crosby) are a long way from the four-equal days of ‘Deja Vu’. Finally, the album recording sessions seemed to go on and on – never a good sign for any Neil Young watchers who know about his ‘first thought, best thought’ philosophy and hatred of re-takes. Just look at the copyright dates on most of these songs, dating back to 1987 - or 1986 in the case of ‘Nightsong’ (special case – see below) and ‘Clear Blue Skies’ (although, actually, the recording dates suggest that most of Nash’s songs were recorded last for some reason). To be fair, ‘American Dream’ ended up being a long album (more or less and hour) – the longest studio record to date in fact by CSN or CSNY to date and much of that tinkering came from the fact that it took a full year to decide who was going to release the record (CSN were on their lifelong label Atlantic, Young was at the end of his much-publicised difficulties with record label Geffen who’d sued him for making ‘uncharacteristic product’; thankfully Neil negotiated his second deal at Reprise in 1988 and they were much more amenable about him appearing with his old band mates).
A relief maybe – ‘American Dream’ could certainly have been worse given that neither Crosby or Stills were really up to speed and Neil seems to have treated the quartet as a dumping ground for his more mellow, unfocussed acoustic songs of the period. At 14 songs and a whole hour, it at least tries to offer value for money and does contain many highlights: Crosby may still have been fighting for his life but you wouldn’t know that from his two wonderful contrasting songs: the redemption survival song ‘Compass’ (the first song he wrote in prison after a three-year drug-induced gap) and the wonderfully mocking ‘Nighttime For The Generals’, about the shadowy figures who really control the Government and media outlets. Stills, so often knocked for his ‘weaker’ songs on this album, turns up at least one gem in ‘Got It Made’ (a song quite unlike anything else in his back catalogue) and has a good go with ‘Night Song’, a track which perhaps struggles too hard to be ‘epic’. Nash adds the most atmospheric track in ‘Shadowlands’ (actually started as a solo song in 1987 and added to later by the others) and ‘Soldiers Of Peace’, the most CSN-ish song on the album with its call on the ‘war’ side to embrace ‘peace’ and the ‘peace’ movement to realise that some soldiers ended up in wars against their better wishes. Finally Neil adds the title track, one of his cleverest pop concoctions and CSNY make sense singing it, given their idealist imagery down the years. All of these songs are fine material, easily traceable back to their individual and collective past.
What this album is missing, though is teeth: the fight is there in the punchy rocker ‘Nighttime For The Generals’ and Stills tries hard to get his car song ‘Drivin’ Thunder’ to sound like a hard-edged 60s rock song (alas it ends up sounding like a hard-edged 60s rock sound played by an 80s band more used to programming than playing live). Everything else is soppy ballads or empty pop songs, to greater or lesser extent – the sort of thing every other half-decent band still around in 1988 could get away with, but CSNY were so much more than that. Just think about how great this album could have been if the ‘old’ CSNY had been transplanted to 1988 by time machine and shown the horrors of the age, the fact that the cold war was not only still around but getting hotter and that while troops might have left Vietnam and Korea, they were already hotting up for the Gulf War (the antics of Margaret Thatcher alone would have been enough to inspire a double-record concept album). As an example, listen to CSNY’s last released four-way song ‘Ohio’ (a classic single written, recorded and released within a fortnight of the death of four peaceful Vietnam protestors at a university shot on Nicon’s orders to the horror of the world) and ‘Night Song’ (the structurally similar last song on ‘American Dream’). While both songs make the same use of a crunching, nasty-ish sounding relentless riff and a taught, claustrophobic backing (which shows how well CSNY could still play together at times) the meaning is very different. ‘Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own!’ huffs and puffs Neil on ‘Ohio’ while Crosby lets loose with the spontaneous and natural cry ‘four....how?....why?...how many more?’ on the fade-out, a release of emotion still heart-breaking today; on ‘Night Song’ Stills hints at darker things in the world but is vague and edgy rather than pointed and direct and Crosby too ends this song with a howl – not of emotion, but of the rather pathetic sentiment ‘Yeah...why not keep on singing anyway?’ This last line on the album, for better or worse, sums up ‘American Dream’: no one believes in CSNY anymore, but they’re all still here so – why not keep on singing anyway?
One point worth raising is that if this album, long promised if Crosby were ever to get his act together, doesn’t give Cros much chance at rehabilitation. Crosby’s never been the most prolific of writers (the others, Stills especially, tend to dominate CSN/Y albums), but for once he had a whole heap of songs ready to go for the album (both ‘new’ ones written in prison and ‘old’ ones carried over from a rejected album of 1979, much of which ends up on 1989’s under-rated if very 1980s solo record ‘Oh Yes I Can!’) Crosby may have been under-par for much of the recording sessions, but he gives his all when he’s there (his two lead vocals are delightful) and given that this album only came about in the first place because of his return to health it would have been great to hear CSN/Y tackling his crop of anti-drug songs (‘The Monkey and the Under-dog’) or ‘Distances’, his gorgeous song about the ‘distances’ drugs (and other things) put between old friends. Young spent a lot of time talking about not wanting the band to get together ‘unless they’re all perfectly fit and setting good examples’ and notably decided the band wasn’t ready to tour for the same reasons. What a shame, then, that Crosby wasn’t given a chance to show off just how together he now was – even with the odd bad day – as his songwriting talent in particular was burning very brightly. Had the others had strong songs too I’d understand the decision to relegate him to two tracks more – but really songs like ‘That Girl’ ‘Clear Blue Skies’ and Name Of Love’ are filler, with nothing much to add to the record at all.
My ‘real’ problem with this album is that it saw the quartet ‘rush’ into things to some extent. All four men wrote some of their best songs in 1989-90 which would have really made this album (just imagine a line-up with Crosby’s ‘Distances’ with CSN harmonies and a Young guitar solo, Stills’ reggae-ish ‘Got To Keep Open’ with Neil’s solos to bounce off, Nash’s ‘After The Dolphin’ with Young’s effects cupboard or an icy note-perfect harmonised version of Young’s ‘Hangin’ On A Limb? Fantastic!) Instead it sounds half-baked – and the public, naturally figuring that CSNY would have saved their best songs for the project (especially after a six year gap since the last CSN album) never bothered to listen to the trio without Young again. In actual fact I’d take both the trio’s 1989’s ‘Live It Up’ and 1994’s ‘After The Storm’ over this record any day; flawed as they both might be, at least they have ‘heart’ and ‘teeth’. Too much of ‘American Dream’ is simply ‘padding’, the aural equivalent of middle-aged spread and after such hype, such speculation about what a then-modern CSNY record might sound like and an 18 year gap, we somehow expected something better. After salivating at the prospect of an album as good as ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ and ‘Deja Vu’ – and months of speculation of what the album would sound like – the critics were pretty unanimous in declaring this album a turkey. Fans were a little kinder, but even most of them agreed this album was a bit of a step backwards after CSN’s ‘Daylight Again’ in 1982 (a Stills-Nash album in all but name). As the title track itself asks, ‘how could something so good go bad so fast?’
The other problem with this album is that it doesn’t really fit together. Most of the songs made for this record started off as ideas for solo albums (of the four only Neil had a regular solo album in this period and both Crosby and Stills had had albums rejected by their record labels in the past decade). ‘Deja Vu’ and especially the first CSN album work because they’re the sound of three very different writers with very different world views uniting for the same ends: peace, equality, love and a voice for the under-dog that doesn’t have one. By 1988 CSNY are all at very different stages of their lives: Crosby, reunited with longterm girlfriend Jan Dance, is awaiting his first child; Stills already has quite a brood from his various marriages but is carefree and single for much of 1988; Nash surprised many by only marrying late in life and his children are all at Primary school; Young, of course, is coping with his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy, and the 20-hour-a-day programme he and wife Pegi had tried out earlier in the decade must have still been playing on his mind. Notably, few of these songs look ‘outward’ at all to the changes in society as in the days of old (‘Generals’ ‘Soldiers of Peace’ and ‘American Dream’ itself) – instead this is a collection of songs by very different people at different stages in their life. By contrast, ‘Live It Up’ ‘After The Storm’ and the eventual follow-up CSNY album (1999’s ‘Looking Forward’) are much more outward looking affairs, spurred on by injustice and intolerance as much as regrets over past misdemeanours and worries and fears about current relationships.
Worse still, there’s comparatively little harmony singing across the album, something CSNY always did better than anyone else: of the 14 tracks only the backing chorus harmonies on ‘American Dream’, the warm glossy backing to ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’ and the achingly beautiful refrain to ‘Compass’ really sound like the band in full throttle. It’s always a danger reading too much into photographs if you weren’t there, but it’s worth a quick gander at the picture near the beginning of the CSN booklet: Crosby and Nash are in familiar territory, eyeing each other up, Stills is lost in his own world, dark glasses on, staring at the ceiling as he sings while Young looks dead right away from his companions in a chair, his gaze clearly showing he’d rather be anywhere else right now.
So what can you do with a record that was intended to demonstrate unity after years
away (but appears to have caused wider divisions at the time than anyone let on), which promises to update the old CSNY sound (but does so in a very toothless and then-modern digital way?) and which promised to beat all the past CSNY records and half-records according to all the hype (but which ended up as one of their weaker albums?) Well, if you’re a long term fan, whose followed this band through thick and thin, you treasure it because you never ever expected it to ever happen. You might not play it much, there might be only a handful of songs that really add to the CSNY evolving history and all that synthesised production might set your teeth on edge, then and now, but ‘American Dream’ is still a special present for so many reasons: not least because David Crosby really really shouldn’t still be here at all and in 1988 his escape from drug dependency seemed miraculous and because, at least three aborted CSNY reunions down the line, a four-way reunion seemed about as likely as the end of the cold war, freeing Nelson Mandela or getting a black man into the White House. Somehow all those things have come true in the 25 years since this album’s release, which proves that CSNY’s original message of hope and belief that life will get better was right after all; it’s just the one great loss of this record that they didn’t choose to regenerate that belief for a whole new age that really needed it back then.
As discussed, ‘American Dream’ is Neil at his bitterest, wondering where it all went wrong for the much-loved youthful invigorating politician in the song and, by association, with the youthful promised ‘hippie dream’. Had the song been released a few years later you’d have assumed it was about Bill Clinton and his fall from grace (although, quite honestly, the fact that he got impeached for telling a minor lie when Bush Jnr got away with two illegal wars shows massive gaping holes in the American legal system). Chances are if Neil was thinking of anyone specific at all then he probably meant TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who went from hero to zero very quickly after a lot of sex scandals in this period, although at the age of 53 (at the time of ‘American Dream’) he’s not exactly the great young hope of the world pictured in the song. Neil seems to vary whether he feels sorry for yet another victim with good ideas brought down by human error or whether he’s gleefully enjoying seeing another corrupt man fall. Overall, this is quite an unusual song for Neil, who takes another stab at 60s idealism but in a much nicer, less autobiographical sense than his acerbic ‘Hippie Dream’ (perhaps because that song, inspired by Crosby’s failing health, no longer applies). Neil turns his scathing humour into quite a poppy song (a little like the forthcoming ‘This Note’s For You’, which would also have made a fine CSNY song), with a striding beat and handclaps quite unlike anything he or CSNY have ever done before. The pan pipes, too, are an unusual touch, although as we were saying earlier they seem to be here more as an irritant, a mocking of the ‘old values’ as the pipes of peace are used to play what in essence sounds like a jingle. The strong melody isn’t quite matched by the lyric, despite a promising first verse and unusually for Neil features half-rhymes, not proper rhymes (eg on verse two the lines end with the words ‘house’ ‘hounds’ ‘find out’ and ‘you’re all washed up!’) The really unusual aspect of the lyric, though, is the religious imagery, the politician ‘reaching, out trying to get some help from above’ (even if, typically, Neil subverts this in the video by making the angels the rather less than angelic CSNY) – you’d expect the ‘old’ Neil to make some crack about religious help not working (see ‘Fontainebleau’ ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ ‘Song X’ etc). Again, Neil might also have had CSNY in mind for the catchy chorus: ‘don’t know where you went wrong, might have been when you were young and strong’ (CSNY were, after all, at their peak when they called it a day in 1970), the ‘American Dream’ reminding us of their heyday too. Overall, ‘American Dream’ is an odd song that sounds little like what fans would have been expecting, but it does its job by acknowledging that things have changed in the missing 18 years and by showing that the band still vaguely have their pulse on topics of the day. I’m not surprised it was something of a flop single though, albeit the hype around this release helping it do better in the charts than the more deserving recent CSN songs ‘Wasted On The Way’ and ‘Southern Cross’.
‘Got It Made’ is one of the album’s better tracks, possessing the same lopsided rhythm of many other Stills songs of the period (‘Got To Keep Open’ ‘Panama’ etc) that gives it a likeable feel. Stills seems to be addressing one of his many past loves in this song (usually its singer-songwriter Judy Collins, although Veronique Samson seems a better bit – perhaps it’s elements of both?), one who has gone on to bigger and better things without him there and he’s feeling a mixture of proud and jealous all at the same time. Some of these lyrics are deeply respectful and a return of the more feminist Stills that was there in the late 70s (‘You are the only one that I’ve ever seen do what you done done!’) while other lines are still in awe of her powerful figure (‘Don’t put me under your thumb!’) So far so unusual for Stills, but a short middle eight links this song straight back to the mid 70s and the ‘Stills’ period with the line ‘a hard set of changes for anyone else I know’; longterm Stills fans will be used to his metaphor of musical chords or ‘changes’ as a metaphor for sudden changes in life (see ‘My Favourite Changes’, a song when Stills first fell in love with Samson). Another middle eight seems to have come from a different song entirely, with a spooky electronically-treated Neil Young apparently talking about Stills’ restless desire to keep moving on all the time but in context sounds very like Neil talking about his own split from Stills and both CSNY and the Buffalo Springfield (‘When you came to save the world I caused your dreams to fade, I couldn’t do what you did and rained on your parade’). CSNY, of course, are famous for writing about each other so this dual-role verse may have been in Stills’ mind (it still sounds like it belongs in a completely different song, however). Strangely, too, Neil ends up adding all the guitar parts to the track while Stills sticks to keyboards and his solo doesn’t so much pounce as Stills’ work as soar and enjoy the scenery. Musically and lyrically this is a strong song, but the rather saccharine over-production and the diluted CSN harmonies (which sound nice on the first verse but don’t really unfurl and flower as they should) don’t do the song any favours. The song sounds much better as a basic no-frills rock and roll piano song, occasionally performed by the band in this period and best heard in a Stills-Nash version from 1986 (included in the CSN box of 1991).
‘Name Of Love’ is a rather drippy Neil Young song that like most of his last solo album ‘Life’ is rather catchy and perhaps a bit too simplistic but sounds rather detached and wooden on record. The production for this song packs a lot into the mix, including some nice sparring between Stills’ acoustic and Young’s electric guitars, but Neil and CSN are too obviously singing apart from each other and you can tell this song has been overdubbed layer by layer instead of working up organically. A shame, because musically there’s a nice song to be had here with a slow, lazy melody that’s rather pretty and some nice spaces for CSN’s harmonies. Lyrically, though, this is the old ‘make love not war’ slogan expanded for three minutes and doesn’t really go anywhere, with the lazy rhymes of ‘boy and girl’ for ‘around the world’ making yet another appearance in Young’s lexicon (see the song ‘Around The World’ from ‘Life’). That’s a shame because, for the opening verse at least, this song could have been quite special: Neil’s vocal is committed and burning with the kind of anger this album could have done with more, whilst CSN’s harmonies are as pretty as ever and the opening couplet (‘You who rule upon the land, have the future in your hands’) is possibly the single most CSNY-ish moment on the album, sounding naive, pretentious and oh so believable all at once. Still, though, the chorus is pretty unforgivable, simply repeating ‘can you do it in the name of love’ over and over, without any real reasons or arguments for turning to peace instead of war. Chances are most politicians hearing this simply thought ‘no!’, not that you can see many politicians listening to this album (Clinton, perhaps, when he wasn’t busy rocking out at Grateful Dead concerts). It’s a shame that Neil decided to keep his drippiest songs for the two CSNY reunions down the years (the other being ‘Looking Forward’), given that it’s their angry, electric moments that worked best as a foursome circa 1970. The special case of ‘Shadowland’ aside, this was the earliest song recorded for the album on February 25th 1988, which makes it quite a key song in the CSNY pantheon – the first the quartet had worked on together since 1976!
‘Don’t Say Goodbye’ is an even drippier ballad, though to be fair Nash had rather carved out a niche for himself writing ballads. This isn’t the best of them, but isn’t the worse either, with some nice moments such as Stills’ ghostly echo-laden answering harmony on the verses and Crosby’s straightforward harmony part on the chorus and a strong Stills guitar solo drenched in feedback that adds a bit of life to this slow piano song. Lyrically, this is clearly Nash’s song of doubts around the tenth anniversary of his marriage to wife Susan, perhaps having seen the ups and downs of his colleagues (Stills in particular). Realising that he’d do anything to avoid being alone for the rest of his life, Nash opens up his heart and admits in the best line in the song that although every relationship has its problems and ‘distances’ he hopes they’ll never be final (‘Even though you’ve started to, I hope you never leave me alone’). What this song badly needs is a little something extra to get it going, a middle eight or a sudden rush of adrenalin somewhere (alongside the guitar solo). Without enough going on to keep this song interesting, it quite quickly becomes boring even though it’s quite a sweet and heartfelt song. Note the fact that Neil is barely on this track (he’s credited with ‘additional piano’, though why Nash didn’t get to play it all is unknown) and the fact that Stills plays a ‘bass synth’ for possibly the only time in his career. This song was also the last but one recorded for the album and surprisingly late in the day too, on September 15th 1988 (the album was released on November 17th that year, which didn’t give the engineers and album designers much time).
‘This Old House’ is the ‘country’ side of Neil’s muse rearing its head again and whilst that can work in a CSN context (‘Helpless’ for instance), this song is so far down the traditional country road that CSN sound more like intruders into the song than the repossession men in the lyrics. That’s a shame because this is exactly the sort of thing the quartet should have been doing, like the title track a kind of microcosm of what’s gone wrong with the ‘American Dream’ while the four have ‘been away’, with houses that have been in people’s possession sometimes for generations taken back by banks after a few measly pennies. ‘The world’s gone mad’ is quite a CSNY slant on life and few scenarios are madder than this one, although you have to say this is terribly schmaltzy by Neil’s standards. His depiction of the perfect family, with the children sleeping upstairs, a lovely garden the wife works in ‘every day’ and the memories of the pair standing in the moonlight watching their house being built is more like a bad daytime TV soap opera (actually they’re all bad, I don’t know what that adjective is doing there). CSN sound great in their own right, but they don’t suit this bland bit of straightforward country which would have sounded a little too sombre and severe even on ‘Old Ways’ (Neil’s traditional country album of 1984). Dare I say it, they also sound a little bored (who can blame them?), with rumours that Neil was so keen on this song that he worked it and re-0worked it over and over till they were doing it in their sleep despite the fact that this song was never ever going to work (a kind of CSNY equivalent of The Beatles’ ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ on ‘Abbey Road’). It’s also terribly, terribly slow with Neil’s plodding bass leaps mimicking a ticking grandfather clock particularly off-putting, not to mention the fact that the song’s ugliest feature – it’s one-note chorus – is repeated a total three times in full by the song’s end, which is at least one too many (possibly three). Had Neil made a rock song or even a folky ballad about the credit crunch (you know, the last one, because you’d have thought from the media we’d never had one before, not that they were a natural side-effect of capitalism) this song could have been a powerful statement; instead it sounds like a poor song that really doesn’t belong here.
‘Night-time For The Generals’ is much better, a rocker that’s part demented frustration (Stills and Young’s duelling guitar solos, the former with inspiration credited to Stills’ old mate Jimi Hendrix) and part controlled directed anger. While much of this album tried hard to be contemporary and fails, this song really works, CSNY getting rid of most of the synths and artificial drums but keeping a swirl of keyboards and slap bass. Crosby excels himself with a nicely confident vocal (the first time most fans would have heard him sing after his release from prison, apart from a lucky few who got to see CSN in concert in 1987) and his vocal ranges from a sneer at the military commanders ‘thinking they’re God on a good day’ to despair as they ‘shoot blind lady liberty in the back of her head’. Crosby used to introduce this song with the line ‘a lot of my old songs got me into trouble...this one’s likely to do it again!’ and it’s certainly one of his braver pieces, taking no punches at the hypocrisy of a lot of rich and well connected brats getting together to moan about a country ‘with a weakness in its roots’. Great as Crosby’s vocal is, though, this is perhaps the greatest team effort of the album, with Stills Nash and Young (though surprisingly not Crosby) all playing guitars. Both bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Joe Vitale excel themselves too, clearly playing live with the rest of the band and enjoying it too. In our present era of Coalition era privilege we need songs like this one and it would make a welcome addition to C/S/N/Y setlists of the future too. Easily one of the best songs on the album and perfectly in keeping with CSN songs of the past, with the updated sound perfectly in keeping with the anger and passion of the song, rather than forced as the production often is elsewhere.
‘Shadowland’ is an interesting Nash song and another quite unlike anything else in his canon. Started as a solo effort in 1987, it was mainly built up by co-writer Joe Vitale, who plays all the instruments himself bar some fiery Neil Young guitar (Crosby pops up on the chorus but as far as I can tell Stills is entirely absent from this song – perhaps he felt a threat to his reputation as multi-instrumentalist nicknamed ‘Captain Manyhands’ by his colleagues?!) Musically ‘Shadowland’ tends to drift along pleasantly without really making an impact, but it’s the lyrics and especially the production that makes this one stand out. Sounding at times like a haiku, this is an impressionistic piece of writing about a nation forced into a war they never wanted that was later airbrushed from history. The opening verse (‘Behind a nation’s blind salute, behind ‘my country ‘tis of thee, behind the pain that won’t compute, erase the memory’) is particularly strong, poetically conjuring up a land of people more afraid of the powers in control than the foe they’re led to fight against their will. Later verses seem to step away from the specifics to show us the horrors of any war in any period: the leaders telling us ‘time and time again they only want a few good men’ before turning to another war when the last gets unprofitable; how history books record ten years of life-changing struggle as merely ‘one regret’ and mothers everywhere listening to the last breath of babies next door and thanking fate it wasn’t their child losing their life. Best line of the song: ‘we never saw the line we crossed, that took us into shadowland’: most the great conflicts of our civilisation happened not in one determined thrust but in a chaotic, stuttering manner. Ther question this song asks is at what point should the people interfere and take the power back from their corrupt rulers? When they come to power? When they make their first mistake? Or when the alternative is simply too much to bear? Nash is good at pulling on our heartstrings on songs like these, but again he sounds rather distant here – the oriental touch of the music leading to a pidgin English patois and the 80s production turning him into R2D2! To be fair, the production on this song is better than the majority of the record, conjuring up a peculiar, hypnotic, alluring world for which Vitale deserves much of the credit. The end result is certainly atmospheric and easily Nash’s best on the record, but it is at times confusing: is Shadowland a real place? Most of Nash’s non-love songs tend to be inspired by the work of someone else or visiting a new area (whether book, film, painting or holiday) and this song certainly seems to be specific, with the ‘my country tis of thee’ line suggesting its one of the many places America fought Russia during the cold war (then reaching another peak in 1986/87 when this song was recorded, remember). Some commentators even claim its a song inspired by the ‘Shadowlands’ biography of C S Lewis (which had been a successful TV movie in 1985, though not yet the blockbuster Anthony Hopkins film). If so, though, it’s hard to see where the lyrics would fit (although at a push the scenario of a wasted band of soldiers fighting a war they never wanted is quite similar to the last – and weirdest – of Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books ‘The Last Battle’ (lets see Hollywood make a film out of that, with its children-heroes all ending up being re-incarnated when they die!)
‘Drivin’ Thunder’ is, alas, one of the worst songs here, a brainless ‘driving’ song from Stills which has little to offer except a clever, curve-ball riff (not dissimilar to his classic ‘Black Queen’). CSNY seem to have been obsessed by ‘car’ songs for some reason with only Nash not succumbing down the years (Crosby’s ‘Drive My Car’ and a whole Neil Young concept album about an electric car ‘Fork In The Road’ – wait, on second thoughts, I respect you readers too much to send you to search for that awful album, come back!) – so much for hippie anti-capitalism values! The lyrics too are pretty poor and could have been written by any youngster loving the thrill of the road (it makes even the likes of ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ grown up!) There is one good line, though: ticked off for reckless driving by a judge, the narrator is told ‘your driving license ain’t no license to kill!’ To be fair this song could have worked; Stills is enjoying himself and while this isn’t the best guitar part he ever played he’s my favourite guitar player for a reason: no other player (even Neil) can match his power, energy, fluency, sparkle, heart or emotion when he plays. The trouble is there’s too much happening behind him: great as Vitale is on a song like ‘Shadowland’ he’s all too clumsy here, filling in spaces that don’t need to be filled and covering an arrangement that should be streamlined with noise and clutter. CNY aren’t too sure what to do in this song either, adding in some tentative harmonies that sound a bit too ‘pretty’ for such a deliberately ugly, grungy song – although Neil does add some nice gritty harmonies over the chorus. He also gets a co-credit for this song which mysteriously disappears by the time Stills re-cuts the song for his 2005 ‘Man Alive’ solo album; it’s hard to tell what he plays as it’s clearly Stills playing the guitar parts. For the record, that second recording isn’t really any better or worse than this one – it improves on it in the sense that Stills firmly has the floor without distraction and the harmonies fit the song better, but 17 years on Stills is slower and his voice has lost it’s sparkle, leading to a less energetic and spikier recording (which, here, is the whole point of the song). It’s nice to have a less than polished song on this sometimes over-produced album, but this isn’t the best rocker Stills has written, full of clichéd lyrics that are way beneath his talent.
Not that ‘Clear Blue Skies’ is much better. If you don’t happen to know this album (in which case I’m amazed you got this far to be honest!) then let’s play a game: if I tell you this is a typical Nash song with ecological overtones, see if you can write it for yourselves. Yep, you’re spot on (I can see into your head with my special powers, you know) – it even has the typical Nash chord progression on the line ‘find our fears amongst the tears’ which Nash first used as long ago as his first song (‘Little Lover’, a track from debut album ‘Stay With The Hollies’ in 1963). If you happen to own Nash’s rare 19790 album ‘Earth and Sky’ then this song sounds a lot like those ones – there’s nothing wrong with it, indeed it’s very pleasant, but stuck on an album with so many similar songs it can get very grating by the end. There’s even a clever lyrical reverse of ‘Teach Your Children’, Nash asking not what will we pass down to our children but whether our children will have a planet to live on at all. Had this song come out in, say, the 1960s (when ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ is widely considered to be the first ecological song) then it made have made an impact, but like so many of these songs about environmental destruction it’s a case of preaching to the converted: hopefully ass CSNY fans will agree that polluting fatcat corporations are wrong and something should be done, but we’re not the ones able to do anything major about it. On the plus side there are some lovely harmonies, particularly from Crosby (this is a very Crosby-Nash song actually, on which Stills and Young appear only through a couple of brief guitar bursts), a pleasant tune and a nicely urgent from Graham himself. But this album – and the subject matter - needs something a bit more intense than ‘pleasant’; light on the ear and regrettably forgettable ‘Clear Blue Skies’ doesn’t stay in the memory as long as a song about the doomed future of the human race by rights should.
‘That Girl’ is another frustratingly average song, presumably about Stills fourth marriage to model Pamela Jordan (no, not that Jordan!) during the album’s early sessions. The verse is catchy enough and it’s nice to hear Stills back to his bluesy roots, but his guitar-part reluctantly stays inside its case for most of the song and there’s a clumsy chorus rhyming ‘choose that girl’ ‘refuse that girl’ and ‘lose that girl’ in a direct steal from The Beatles’ ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ (the two even share the same walking pace rhythm). On the bright side, Neil’s new partners-in-crime ‘The Bluenotes’ aka ‘Ten Men Workin’ come out to play from the concurrent sessions for Neil’s album ‘This Note’s For You’ and they capture a lot of the flavour of the classic record ‘Stephen Stills II’ (where Stills was joined by ‘The Memphis Horns’). The trouble is that record was great because of it’s honesty and autobiography about Stills’ mixed feelings that year, which a couple of similar ‘pop’ songs aside couldn’t have been written by anyone else – ‘That Girl’ is simply empty pop fodder which could have been made by anyone (indeed, Stills sings a tone or so higher than normal here and ends up sounding more like Billy Joel than Stephen Stills). The one exciting bit of the track comes with the middle eight (see – we keep telling these bands to write them!), which moves the song up a key and features Nash counter-acting Stills’ typical enthusiasm with his own typical words of caution and reserve. Again, either by accident or design they also end up describing the tensions between these two different characters within the same band and their many clashes down the years (‘You and me we got to get it right, ‘cause this ain’t love at first sight!’) A strong percussive rhythm guitar part from Neil (which sounds remarkably like Pink Floyd’s ‘Run Like Hell’ at the start), a typically virtuoso guitar solo from Stills and – unusually – four part CSNY harmonies for perhaps only the fifth time on record still aren’t enough to rescue what is by Stills’ standards a very bland song, however.
‘Compass’, however, is the single greatest moment on the record. Written by Crosby in prison, pleading with the guards to give him a scrap of paper and a pen while the thoughts came to him in a flash, it was the first song he’d written in three years (most likely since similar classic ‘Delta’ around 1982). Years of heavy living, a catalogue of drugs bust, Crosby’s decision to carry an unlicensed weapon around in the wake of John Lennon’s murder and a string of drug-induced car and motorbike accidents had seen the unthinkable happen in 1984 and Crosby had been sentenced to five years in prison (ending up serving about 18 months of that sentence; falling asleep in the dock and loudly snoring probably didn’t help his cause). During his time inside Crosby beat drugs the hard way, through abstinence, and must have felt like the end was finally in sight, shut away on a horrendous de-toxification programme separated from his loved ones (the few still speaking to him that is). Crosby, though, always was the fighter and miraculously rallied, surfacing back into life drug-free painfully slowly. Crosby will write many songs about his life-changing imprisonment but few are as great or as moving as this first, which like Crosby seeks to regain strength and purpose only by tiny, painful steps. As the songs lyrics have it, like a compass seeking North, Crosby survived against all odds, silencing all his critics and all his inner doubts. Telling us that he’s ‘wasted ten years in a blind-fold’ (and worryingly adding that he might not live another ten – thankfully Cros is still going strong 25 years on from this song) Crosby recalls in a series of metaphors what it was like to feel that lost for so long and being powerless to do anything about it: ‘travelling bedevilled mirrors in a fly-crawl’, ‘flown the frantic flight of the bat-wing’ and ‘a fish out of the water waiting for the mercy of the cat’. Slow and ponderous the music might be, but it serves it’s purpose well, protectively enveloping the lone singer in a graceful and stately robe of nobility. Crosby could have saved this song from his second solo album of 1989 (already being mooted at this time), but I’m very pleased he chose to leave this as a CSNY song as his old comrades do him proud. Neil’s harmonica playing – not heard on his albums for a long time – is a superb ghostly accompaniment to the opening beautiful instrumental (very like his guitar playing on Buffalo Springfield song ‘Everydays’, incidentally, a kind of hummed feedback drone), while Joe Vitale’s keyboard washes add just enough colour. It’s those harmonies on the song proper though that make the hairs on the back of your neck rise up – Stills, especially, has rarely sounded better and dare I say it, this is the single best example of CSN harmonies past 1977. Simply superb – ‘Compass’ remains one of Crosby’s greatest achievements and one of CSNY’s best songs as a quartet, emotional but intelligent, difficult to live but easy to connect to. Sadly Crosby never seems to have played this song live – perhaps it would have been too emotional (his voice nearly cracks in the first chorus as it is). I only have one problem with this recording and that’s the way it ends so suddenly, merely fading out on the second chorus to get trounced on by the opening chords of...
‘Soldiers Of Peace’ is the very last recording made for the album (on September 16th 1988), although it’s actually the third version of the song (chronologically speaking). The first, vaguely intended for a solo album that never happened, has never been officially released (though it does the rounds on bootlegs and was once aired in part on an American radio interview) sounding a little pompous and a little tentative. The second version, recut by CSNY early in 1988, ended up on the CSN box set (released 1991) is nice, but a little under-rehearsed (Neil clearly doesn’t know the song very well yet and treats his guitar solo more as a run through the chord changes than any real attempt at soaring). That said, in many ways this second version is better than the one that made the record: extra bursts of synthesisers and a multi-dubbed chorus does threaten to sink the song a bit (although at least the strings have been thrown away from the box set version and the synth riff at the beginning is rather catchy). All this hard work seems curious for a song that by Nash’s high standards is routine. The melody is quite a strong one in the verses, but the chorus tries so hard for rabble-rousing togetherness and repeats the trick so many times over that the listener is more likely to get bored than join in. Lyrically this song is a re-write of Nash’s ‘Oh! Camil (The Winter Soldier)’ off his ‘Wild Tales’ solo album (see news and views issue 75), reminding the world that not all soldiers are murderers – some went into war with the right intentions and campaigned for peace when they found they’d been led astray by their Government, but it’s less personal and a lot less engaging. You feel as if you know the real ‘Camil’ by the end of that song, abandoned on his return to Vietnam as a disabled veteran unable to return to normal life, but the soldiers of peace in this song are rather anonymous. The subject matter is clearly close to Nash’s heart and he puts in a strong performance once again and his argument that the really brave and courageous soldiers should listen to one of their own whose seen the truth about what they’re doing is a valid one. It’s just that here, inside a sea of artificial synthesisers and a song that seems deliberately constructed to be a ‘torch’ song (you can almost hear a sea of firelighters being turned on in a darkened stadium in the last chorus), with a particularly cringeworthy tagline of ‘no more!’, all the heart seems to have been stripped out of the song. CSNY clearly weren’t happy with this one, re-recording it at the last minute in almost the same manner – had they been less close to it they might have seen that the problem came from the production not the song (Neil clearly wasn’t passing his ‘less is more’ mantra on to the others just yet). That said, Young is as ‘wrong’ here as the others, turning in a hopelessly OTT guitar solo that wanders in and out of the track rather than driving the message home (perhaps Stills should have done this part, as barely-controlled anger is much more his thing – instead he gets stuck with a barely audible acoustic guitar part). Neil does at least re-use the ‘No More!’ refrain for his vastly superior song of the same name, released in 1989 on his next solo album ‘Freedom’ (one of our AAA core albums!)
‘Feel Your Love’ is the final Young song on the album and it’s another drippy acoustic song, very similar to the ones he’ll write for CSN on their next album ‘Looking Forward’. On the plus side, it’s great to hear CSNY back to acoustic again (even if the tempo is a bit of a plod) and there’s lots of empty space for some typically gorgeous harmonies in the background (where Crosby especially stands out). On the negative side, Neil writes these sort of things in his sleep and he had – literally – another 25 songs in the 1987-88 period alone that were better than this. CSN, while beautiful, are mixed terribly far back into the background and Neil’s keening tenor – easily his weakest on this album – is pushed way forward. The effect is like having the Spice Girls sing upfront while Diana Ross and the Supremes add a couple of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. The lyrics, too, are pretty puerile for one of the world’s top songwriters (especially one right at the beginning of a golden patch that will last until the mid-1990s), although there is at least a nice moment on the second verse when Neil – clearly thinking of the reunion – admits to taking stock on his life ‘thinking of our old friends, counting enemies’. Many of Neil’s songs in this period deal with mother nature and this one is quite repetitive about it, the characters in the song waiting for the sun to rise and yearning for an end to the night. Listen out too for a mention of a ‘mansion on a hill’ – this will become the title of a song on Neil’s 1990 ‘Ragged Glory’ album and may in fact be about the same one, an idealised portrait of Neil’s American ranch with the family he always wanted by his side. Not completely awful, then, but far from inspired and a bit of inspiration wouldn’t go amiss on this album about now.
The record closes with ‘Night Song’, a Stills composition first released on the sound track of a New Twilight Zone episode would you believe (Stills’ mates the Grateful Dead had re-recorded the title theme for the new series in 1985, though I wouldn’t bother seeking the box set out just for that, it barely lasts a few seconds – that said everyone should at least the black-and-white Twilight Zone series which is the best science-fiction not to feature a certain timelord). In the series the ghost of a man who committed suicide after being spurned by his lover comes back to visit her when she plays one of his demos on her programme on a local radio station, saving her life when she’s about to be run over. ‘Night Song’ is the one she plays (although there’s a second, untitled and unreleased Stills song later on in the programme too) and you can see why the producers used it: the music is Stills at his most menacing, with turbulent key changes in the manner of ‘Witching Hour’ and ‘Guardian Angel’. The lyrics, though, don’t really go to the same place – they vaguely talk about the horrors of being alone at night after a longterm relationship ends, but falls short of saying anything really revealing or striking (as the old Stills would have done). The song also has a confusing chorus line of ‘why not keep on singing anyway?’ which doesn’t seem to fit (it sounds more as if it’s there as an ‘anthem’ for CSNY on their reunion. Unfortunately the answer on most of this album is why keep on singing at all with nothing to say?) Young also mysteriously gets a co-credit for this song again, even though it doesn’t sound all that different to the two-year-old version from the Twilight Zone soundtrack from what I can hear (actually the original sounded better, without the wobbly harmonies, superfluous guitars or Crosby’s hoarse yells of the chorus, as discussed a poor substitute for the from-the-heart outpouring of grief on ‘Ohio’ which it so closely resembles). ‘American Dream’ has been a bit heavy going, especially on the second half, and badly needs a strong song and performance on which to end – while one of the better songs on the album (if only for the melody and the hint of danger missing from so many of the other compositions here), this isn’t the powerful ending the album needs. Interestingly, Nash appears to be missing entirely from this supposedly ‘unified’ performance, although chances are Crosby and Young simply overdubbed their parts over Stills’ 1986 original anyway.
Overall, then, ‘American Dream’ is as battered and worn a dream as you have ever seen. At times the old fire is there and indeed on many occasions this album is far better than it’s rather woeful reputation with fans and especially critics would have you believe (Crosby is on top form, for instance, despite getting just the two songs to his name while Stills is far from the washed-up has-been he’s always portrayed on this album – his songs are way better than anything his more respected partner Neil Young brings to the table, except perhaps the acerbic title track). Had this album been released by most other bands of the same vintage I’d have been applauding it for offering up something new (in the then-contemporary production) and the occasional brave stabs at targets that deserve them. But this is CSNY we’re talking about, the band that touched subjects no one else would touch, that made politicians if not quite quake in their boots then at least look over their shoulders and which were braver than brave, sticking up for those who had no voice long after the point when most bands notice there’s people without a voice at all. We really expected more than this, not least because of Crosby’s much-discussed rehabilitation (which turned out to be wonderfully true) and the 18 year silence in between (at least for all four men together). Every single CSN/Y reunion up to this one had turned out to be special. From hereon in, CSN/Y only seem to get together when they can’t get a record deal separately. As far as I’m concerned much of their best music is still ahead of them at this point in the 1990s (‘Live It Up’ and ‘After The Storm’ might be patchy, but at their best they’re as inventive, melodic, intelligent and courageous as they were on their first few albums), so I don’t buy the current thinking that CSN/Y stopped being relevant the minute ‘Deja Vu’ came out. The few times CSN still get together these days they’re still the best and most important band around. But they’ve made us sit through some pretty awful albums along the way. ‘American Dream’ isn’t the worst of them either – ‘Compass’ and ‘Nighttime For The Generals’ alone give this album at least two stars singlehandedly, with a few minor gems like ‘American Dream’ ‘Got It Made’ and ‘Shadowland’ along the way. But, like the American Dream itself, CSNY aren’t what they once were on this record and for the most part they are only pale shadows of themselves. Had the quartet spent more time on the songs, less time on the productions and added a couple more Crosby songs (whilst deleting, say, ‘That Girl’ ‘Clear Blue Skies’ and ‘This Old House’) then this album might have been the start of a whole new era, ushering in the 1990s with the optimism that once bloomed at the end of the 1960s (not least with the fall of the Berlin Wall along the way – CSN were there for that too, performing a benefit as the walls tumbled around them). Alas, though, it was not to be – and ‘American Dream’ is something of a footnote in the band’s career, the album you buy when you’re done buying all the others.