After several times through "American Dream" - the first studio album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young since "Deja Vu" 17 years ago - the distinct impression remains: The first one should have been called "American Dream" and this one should have been called "Deja Vu."
"American Dream" has that intangible feel of "already been," or in this case, "already heard." In reality you haven't, but when CSN&Y start meshing their voices and Stills and Young start intertwining their guitars, it feels familiar. It feels like an old friend come home. It feels good.Not that "American Dream" is a classic album. It's not. But it is better than all but a handful of albums released in 1988. And it's the best CSN&Y albums since, well, "Deja Vu" 17 years ago.
The quartet of David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young was one of the first genuine supergroups to come out of the 1960s protest movement. All stars in their own right (Stills & Young with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby with the Byrds and Nash with the Hollies), together they had a magical quality that made their music special.
"Deja Vu" could just be the best folk-rock album to come out of the 1970s, yet prior to "American Dream" they had only released one studio album, a double live album and a greatest hits compilation.
But Neil Young bolted for a solo career after "Deja Vu," and like Butch Cassidy and all the other larger-than-life legends, CSN&Y became more than they actually were. They became more than just the four young, idealistic musicians who, when they got together, had an unparalleled chemistry.
Crosby, Stills and Nash continued to write and tour as a trio noted for their exceptional three-part harmonies, but their careers were always haunted by the past. Is Neil Young going to join you on tour? Is Neil Young going to play on another album? You were so much better with Neil Young.
Now with "American Dream," the past has come home to roost. And as experience has taught us, with any reunion - particularly one after 17 years - the potential is there for a real nightmare. The fact that "American Dream" is not a nightmare is a testament to the natural chemistry when all four get together. Older and wiser now, the quartet proves there is some truth buried in all the myth.
It also reveals just how valuable Neil Young was and is to making it all work. As a CS&N trio on the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album (just before "Deja Vu"), Stills was the dominant creative force, despite strong contributions from Nash. The addition of Young for the "Deja Vu" album added the guitar fire that he and Stills had brought to Buffalo Springfield and brought a distinctive edge to the band's music.
When Young left, however, Graham Nash became the creative conscience that bound the trio. Nash, with songs like "Cathedral" and "Wind on the Water" was good, but he was no Neil Young. If it hadn't been for sporadic Stephen Stills hits like "Southern Cross," "Wasted on the Way" and "Just A Song Before I Go," the trio could have faded into obscurity.
With Neil Young back in the formula, the quartet sounds refreshed. Collectively, the 14 songs on "American Dream" are the most commercially accessible music any have done, individually or together, in a long, long time.
Young wrote or co-wrote six of the album's 14 songs, including "This Old House," the album's best. This folksy tune (it could be the poignant flip side of Nash's "Our House") finds Young singing about the family home threatened with foreclosure.
"This old house of ours is built on dreams, and a business man don't know what that means."
Young's tunes are wistful and personable, and when combined with the vocal harmonies of his mates, it makes for some tremendously enjoyable tunes - the most commercial music Young has written since "Comes A Time" in 1978.
Young's material may be the best ("Feel Your Love" and "Night Song" are particularly good), but Graham Nash also chips in two excellent cuts in "Soldiers of Peace" and "Clear Blue Skies."
And the rocker "Nighttime for the Generals" is David Crosby at his paranoid best. Crosby's "Compass" is an emotional and griping account of his return from cocaine addiction. Unfortunately, it lacks a tune.
Stephen Stills is strangely quiet on "American Dream." While he co-wrote some good tunes with Young, he seems strangely out of synch when it comes his turn to shine.
Like "Deja Vu," "American Dream" is more a sum of its individual efforts than it is a true collaborative effort (though it's much more collaborative than the one 17 years ago).
"American Dream" may not be the savior of pop music that die-hard CSN&Y fans had hoped for. But it's still a whole lot better than most.