The baby-faced visage of the Woodstock-era rocker is now weathered by the years but in ways that enhance rather than mar his disarming handsomeness. The abundant hair—striking even amongst the long hippie troubadours of Laurel Canyon—is still plentiful, now a neatly coiffed shock of white. But to hear Graham Nash—the man his bandmates in Crosby, Stills, & Nash dubbed “razor throat” for his ability to cut through the mix with melodic wonder—still carry those notes on his latest album, Now, it is hard to fathom that the two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee is cruising into his ninth decade.
Now is Nash’s first studio album in seven years, and he claims in the advance press that it is “…the most personal one I have ever made”. He notes, “At this point in my life, that’s something to say.” Indeed, Now testifies that Graham Nash is not content to rest on his impressive resume, which stretches back some 60 years to the Hollies’ role in the British Invasion and then pivoted to the supergroup balladeers of the post-summer of love 1960s ethos, Crosby, Stills, & Nash (and sometimes Young). Indeed, the latter band has become so synonymous with supergroups and heart-wrenching harmony that the indie rock group boygenius recreated the original CSN couch cover photo with Phoebe Bridgers assuming Nash’s post on their initial EP missive.
Nash wants us to know he’s seen some things and learned some hard lessons over his 81 years. He is not content to just be a legacy act, but is seeking to contribute through his music the kind of resilience and wisdom that only can come with those accumulated decades, but is not automatic to just living through them.
This is seen most clearly in Now‘s opener, “Right Now”. It is a slow-building burner driven by a blues tempo that fuels the singer’s initial looking back at a point where the thought things had commenced—chances for love, recovery after failures, and meaningful persistence. It unfolds into hard-won defiance in the face of time and struggles, the moment when time folds into the present moment. His resilient defiance is echoed in a rising electric guitar whose intensity builds parallel to his declaration to keep pushing forward. It’s arguably the strongest song on the album and a spark of Nash’s continuing relevance.
“Right Now” is bookended on the album with a gentle, confessional ballad in “When It Comes to You”, where Graham Nash evokes the kind of self-awareness and longing that only arises in our most intimate relationships. Where the opener smoldered with a not-yet quenched intensity, Nash employs a gentle piano melody to express that, even given the length and depth of his journey to this point, we still have something to learn when our true selves are reflected in our beloved’s eyes. Graham ends the record with a prayer and a hope to be “free from doubt and free from fear”. Given the opening and the singer-songwriter’s journey, it’s a powerful closing note.
What lies between these two songs is a window into an artist who still has something to say. A fair number of tracks are contemporary reflections on the political milieu in which he is writing, much like “Chicago/We Can Change the World” and “Military Madness” were in his solo debut in the Vietnam era. There is a striking diversity and, at times, contradiction among them in terms of hopefulness and tone. “A Better Life” is a beautiful showcase for Nash’s still remarkable voice, and its optimism is buoyed by a mandolin and Wurlitzer-inflected tune whose buoyancy echoes the romantic idealism of CSNY’s “Our House”. It is a call to his peers and their children (Boomers and GenX) to “make it a better life” for those generations struggling most ardently with the dashed hopes of the late sixties. The appeal to peers avoids paternalism, but the aspirational optimism is a jarring juxtaposition to the current state of the world in which Nash sings and upon which he reflects. It would come across as tone-deaf if it were his only message to and about the times. It is not.
“Golden Idols” is a blues-tinged burner that zeroes in on the social and political atmosphere that fed the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol. Invoking the metaphor of the golden idol as an indicator of misplaced priorities, the song is freighted with platitudes (“I know they’re lying / ‘Cause their lips are moving”) and clunky phrasing (“When the MAGA tourists took the hill”). Similarly, “Stand Up” is a dad rock pep rally anthem that bathes in the sonic atmosphere of the shiny 1970s guitar rock bands like Boston or Foreigner, with the dramatically placed guitar solo building momentum for the cause. No deep analysis here, just a generic rallying cry.
In “Stars and Stripes”, we find Nash’s most complex and potent piece of critical social analysis on the album. It is a mournful dirge quietly laying bare the danger of naive American exceptionalism. There is no heavy-handed banality here nor denial masking as optimism. There is only weary resilience. Nash declares that his memory doesn’t encompass a time when the world did not seem to be on fire. It’s a gorgeous arrangement of instruments around his golden voice, reminiscent of some of his best work. The image of the “stars and stripes” waiving goodbye to all that’s true is a velvet-gloved knockout blow.
Interestingly, Nash includes all these diverse attempts to speak to the present moment. It’s an honest recognition that sometimes we are not always of one mind about our dilemmas. However, articulating our sentiments is a step toward the connections that ultimately heal our wounds.
These tracks are balanced with some gorgeous, affecting love songs where Nash’s songwriting skill merges with his beautiful vocals in captivating ways. “Love of Mine” is a lovely ode to the heartache we often cause and recognition of the gift of deep relationships, even as they end. It is almost a minimalist lullaby carried by his nylon string guitar accented by his harmonica playing. “It Feels Like Home” is a warm, inviting country-adjacent tune co-written decades ago with CSN drummer Joe Vitale. It is the kind of Cosmic American Music that emerged out of Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a warm ballad that poses the question of what “Our House” might have sounded like on Neil Young‘s Harvest.
There are some pieces of nostalgic reflection; a couple of musical anomalies in tone and style compared with the rest of the album. “I Watched It All Come Down” is a chamber string quartet-driven reflection on the messy excesses of the rock star life and the grind of the business side. A bit more jarring thematically is “Buddy’s Back”, a nostalgia-driven homage to Buddy Holly‘s initial and ongoing influence on Nash and the inspiration for his initial band, the Hollies. Despite Don McLean’s hyperbolic eulogy, the music didn’t die on the day Holly passed. Nash and his colleagues are testimony to that. However, I imagine it might be hard for some modern listeners to hear the Holly-inspired tune and identify the electric current Buddy Holly carried when he debuted on the scene. It strikes the listener as more of a B-side than a thread in the overall tapestry of the album.
Now might be a mixed bag of the elements that have shaped Graham Nash and been shaped by him in his over 60 years of performance. Not everything lands with equal force, but what does land reminds you of the treasure that Graham Nash has been and continues to be in the ongoing narrative of rock music. Now is a snapshot of the creative spark that refuses to be squelched at 81.