The high (pitched, that is) three-part harmonies of Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Graham Nash is one of the iconic sounds from the golden decade between 1965 and 1975. Note to Gen Xers: I know you’d rather vote for the Velvet Underground, but don’t kid yourself — VU might take you back to the debauchery of your college days, or even high school, but CSN takes you back before you were even born. And don’t even get me started about CSNY. Already re-mastered and re-released in 1994, Rhino Records has shuttled forth their self-titled debut, and 1982’s Daylight Again again, this time with extended liner notes and four bonus tracks apiece. The latter work doesn’t come close to approaching the former for sheer essentiality, but if you’re growing weary of the strained freak-folk of today, both records shall be your salve.
Expatriates from the already legendary Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Hollies, came together to form what is probably the most natural supergroup of all time. And their debut had the shine — a flawless blend of folk, pop, lite-psychedelic, and just plain weirdness that prefigured the singer/songwriter boom to come for better or worse. “Wooden Ships”, written by Crosby, Stills and the Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner (it’s also featured on that band’s Volunteers, is still groovy after all of these years, a cryptic tale alluding to war, apocalypse, silver people, and purple berries. The vocals alternate between a Crosby/Stills dialogue, and harmonies including Nash. The goofiness of the exchange “Say, can I have some of your purple berries? / Yes, I’ve been eating them for six or seven weeks / Haven’t got sick once” is offset by the ensuing couplet “Horror grips us as we watch you die / All we can do is echo your anguished cries” and the focus of the instrumental passages. Nash’s “Lady of the Island” follows, as simple and direct as “Wooden Ships” is hazy and chaotic. The story is thus: man and woman do it by firelight until the sun goes up. Now, there are a million ways that a pretty little folk song could go wrong by that, and a million pretty little folk songs have, but “Lady of the Island” is appropriately delicate and in earnest. It stays remarkably away from the tried and trite, and its guitar and vocal arrangements are strange and evocative.
Over 35 years after the fact, the idiosyncrasy of CSN’s sound is what stands out the most when pulled out from under thick layers of nostalgia. Merging a wide range of influences from Eastern to country and Western, nothing sounded quite like them before, and with the exception of “Horse With No Name”, no one really has since. The epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is a wonder, maybe the shortest seven-minute song on record. Everyone you know can sing at least part of it, from “I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are” to “What have you got to lose”, or at least “Do-do-do-do-do / Do-do-do-do-do.” The song goes through several musical and lyrical transformations without wasting a second. And as mentioned earlier, it’s weird, starting out conversational “It’s getting to the point / Where I’m no fun anymore / I am sorry” and ending with the purple poetry of “Lacy lilting lyric / Losing love lamenting.” It’s folk music that doesn’t sound remotely like folk, and pop music that breaks all the rules to go skinny-dipping.
Fast-forward to 1982, and well, some things have changed, as a cursory glance at the artwork of Daylight Again shows. Earthy and disheveled has been replaced by slightly paunchy and quasi-mulleted (and one unfairly cute cat sitting on Crosby’s shoulder). Jabba the Hutt’s palace somehow made it to the cover, surrounded by neon blue ceiling lights masquerading as UFO’s. The opening track also betrays a certain temporal influence, with synthesizers and a guitar solo that can only be described as sizzlin’, to use the parlance of the times. All of this proves my theory that no one escaped the eighties unscathed or without a smidgen of bad judgment. But to be fair, Daylight Again is no Bowie/Jagger “Dancin’ in the Street” trainwreck. And it sure as hell ain’t Everybody’s Rockin’ either. Much of the record retains the best qualities of CSN, even if Crosby was largely absent from the proceedings, and many of the tracks were written with outside collaborators.
Nash’s “Wasted on the Way” features country fiddling by Wayne Goodwin, and apropos lyrics about growing old and “so much water moving underneath the bridge”, referencing the much publicized schisms between the band’s members over the years. Stills’ “Southern Cross” is another standout, albeit with a beefy ’80s-style big chorus, and Michael Finnegan playing something called a “CP-30”, which only serves to fertilize the already ripe Star Wars conspiracy theories surrounding the album. Crosby contributed “Delta”, an autumnal, piano-based harmony-fest whose only crimes are, again, doddering and over-the-top production moves. Paradoxically, although Daylight Again evokes its time and place as surely as its predecessors, it somehow evaded the timelessness of those earlier compositions and recordings. As Crosby put it himself, “For whatever reasons, I think you get very few records… which you can put on 20 years later and they still hold up. To this day, that first album comes on, and you don’t want to take it off or skip a tune. That’s the ultimate test.”
Both reissues feature extensive notes and credits written by the likes of Atlantic Records guru Ahmet Ertegun, David Wild, and David Fricke, that shed light on the origins and sessions of each. They’re also assigned four bonus tracks as a value incentive for fans who might already own a copy or two, as is the norm. As with the albums proper, the earlier tunes are of most interest. “Song With No Words” and a bare-bones demo of “Teach Your Children”, which would later appear on a Crosby solo album and Deja Vu respectively, take the cake.