Counterbalance No. 146 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 'Déjà Vu'
I'll light the fire. You put the flowers in the vase that you bought today. Staring at the fire for hours and hours while I listen to you play the 146th most acclaimed album of all time. A stone hippie groove from 1970 is this week’s Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: I'm of two minds when it comes to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu. On the one hand, there is some top-notch song-writing and instrumentation on this record—just high-end, super slick, well-executed recording. On the other hand, I'm supremely annoyed every time Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all sing at the same time. It might just be a consequence of production, since all four prime movers acted as producers. I imagine that none of them wanted to turn down their own vocals even if they were just backing vocals. Maybe it’s just the way they sing those vocals. I'm not really sure.
Also, do you think David Crosby grew that mustache and then said to himself, "This is the single most important thing I have ever done. I will never shave it again"?
And for some unexplainable reason, I have a hankering for sausage.
What do you think, Klinger? This record is a doozy; it sits somewhere between the folk rock, flower power movement of the 1960s and the overly-stylized AOR rock of the 1970s and somehow manages to be a bridge between the both without ever being either. We could spend days talking about it or we could just go get some sausage.
Klinger: It sounds as though you may be of more than two minds here, Mendelsohn, (and thanks but I just had lunch). But I certainly understand where you are coming from to a certain extent. Yes, Déjà Vu seems hyper-slick, even as it strives for earthiness. It's also occasionally a bit self-satisfied, even as it strives for earnestness. And I agree with you that even as it attempts to sound like an album-long plea for hippie universality, there's still the sense that each singer-songwriter is doing that thing that vaudevillians used to do, where they'd sing the last note of the song with their arms outstretched and then one of the guys would stick his arms out in front of the other guys and then a different guy would do it and then we'd all have a good laugh? Remember that? Well anyway...
Every time I listen to Déjà Vu, I get the feeling that darn near every song here could be taken from a long-lost Broadway musical about the 1960s. Not Hair, but something very close to Hair. Maybe that would be the musical's tagline. But even as I'm picturing elaborately choreographed people wearing quasi-hippie garb and obvious long-hair wigs, I also find myself fairly regularly getting caught up in the songs. As many times as I hear their take on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" and find myself annoyed by their insistence that they are stars and they are golden, it's still got a pretty solid groove going on behind it.
Mendelsohn: I feel the same way, Klinger. It's a weird paradox where I find myself wishing someone else had made this record so I didn't have to listen to CSN&Y revel in their own awesomeness, but it is their combined awesomeness that makes this record so great. The groove on "Woodstock", the instrumental organ break down on "Carry On", and as much as I want to slap Crosby for wearing that silly mustache and writing a song about almost cutting his hair, "Almost Cut My Hair" is so salacious that halfway through I have forgotten what I was mad about.
This record is a strange mix between the Band's down-home rootsiness and Fleetwood Mac's over-produced pomposity and I'm not sure about the Not HairBut Something Very Close To Hairtagline. Hair was funky and continually winked at the audience in a knowing way even as it tackled semi-serious topics. I don't think this record could wink if it tried. It might blink awkwardly as it stared you down while singing seriously about almost getting a haircut.
Klinger: Oh man, on top of everything else now I gotta go listen to Hair again. But regarding Crosby and his shagginess: it is a little hard for us, here in 2013, to understand what exactly the big deal with long hair was in 1970. In Nixon's law-and-order America, hair length really was a factor in determining a fellow's general trustworthiness. So I reckon it was a much ballsier statement then than it sounds like today. (What could we even compare it to? "Almost Pulled My Pants Up Around My Waist", most likely.)
Mendelsohn: Do that. In fact, go digging through Galt MacDermot's back catalog. Good stuff in there. So much good stuff. Jazz and funk and weirdness abounds.
Klinger: Regardless, Déjà Vu's critical status may have a lot to do with the presence of the group's "and sometimes Y". Neil Young is, as the Great List has told us many times now, a critical hero, and his contribution to Déjà Vu cannot be undervalued. "Helpless", with its spare, elegant lyrics and its crystalline melody, are an absolute revelation. "Woodstock" and "Teach Your Children" may have been the Top-20 hits, but it's no surprise that "Helpless" has become the standard.
Mendelsohn: Young's contributions to this record set the stage for his solo career to blossom. His next project was After the Gold Rush and a few short years later came Harvest. We've already talked about three Young records so far into the Great List. Tonight's the Night is right around the corner and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is sitting just outside the Top 200. It took him a while but Young had racked up a solid five records in the upper reaches of the canon. That puts him with some pretty elite company. And maybe this is a question for a different discussion about Neil Young, but do you think his prolific, critically acclaimed output is resulting in vote splitting? Or is he just good enough but not what the critics consider to be great?
Klinger: We're going to have ample opportunity to discuss the vagaries of Neil Young's career in the coming weeks, but I do suspect that at least part of the issue you're addressing is that many first-wave critics viewed Young (and Crosby, Stills and Nash) as something of an upstart group interlopers. It is difficult to think that so many of the '70s icons we take as an article of faith were considered a steep drop from their '60s forebears, fair or not, but as we've learned from our discussions of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that was often the case.
Young got more of a pass than those guys, probably due in part to his own eccentricities and general perverseness. It is clear, too, that critics viewed Young's arrival in this supergroup as a much-needed shot of gravitas and rockish toughness to what many of them considered to be acoustic wimpery. Again, fair or not.
Mendelsohn: I think that's a fair assessment. Crosby, Stills & Nash was already a super group but their self-titled debut, while well received, doesn't have the critical cachet of Déjà Vu. The self-titled debut is on the list at 339—not bad but not exactly great either. It wasn't until Young came into the fold that the group hit its apex, making this rock super group that much more super.
Do you think this is going to be one of those records that hangs around on its own merits? It has a sound evocative of a certain time full of great melody and songwriting, but will it pass the test of time? Will the younger generations continue to look to it as a source of inspiration or will it fade slowly out of sight, bolstered only by its association to Neil Young?
Klinger: Aren't we already seeing younger groups looking to CSNY as some form of inspiration? Every so often I see some reference to some group's adaptation of the "Laurel Canyon sound" with its attendant harmonies and acoustic guitars and comfortable clothing and whatnot. Whether they're necessarily getting specific with this album might well be another story, but I think that this is a sort of a subgenre with its own cachet. I am, however, a little surprised you're not a little more enamored of this disc than you are. You've professed a proclivity for your poppier sounds, and you love it when Neil cranks up the guitars. So why do you think your reactions is as lukewarm as it is?
Mendelsohn: There are a couple of things that turn me off when playing this record and we've covered them pretty thoroughly. Mostly it's having to listen to CSN&Y sing all over each other. That's not harmony. You want harmony? Go listen to href="http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/145850-the-band/">the Band
href="http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/145850-the-band/">the Band. Those guys know how to do harmony. Plus, I'm not a big fan of the group's revisionist take on the 1960s. They come off like they are trying too hard.
I completely forgot about the so-called "Laurel Canyon sound". It was gaining traction a couple of years ago and then seemed to disappear just as fast, but I imagine that it's probably just another part of the cyclical tendency of music and sooner or later it will return, which wouldn't be terrible. For all my complaints, I can't really find fault with this record. It's what a super group's record should be—strong form start to finish. It’s solid and will fill you up just right—sort of like sausage.