There’s an excellent live Nina Simone recording where the High Priestess of Soul tries to sing Judy Collins’ beautiful self-penned ode, “My Father”. Simone has to stop. She can’t finish the song. She felt alienated from the white middle-class concerns of Collins’ youth. Now Simone was a supremely talented musician who usually could handle folk, rock, and jazz with equal aplomb. But there was something about Collins’ song that troubled her so deeply that she could not continue singing without feeling false.
That makes sense. To hear Collins interpret a song whether self-penned or by another author, makes it sui generis. After all, she recorded Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” before the original songwriters and made the songs classics before the composers released their own versions. In some weird way, it was felt like they were covering her.
Collins has been prolifically performing and recording for more than 50 years, releasing more than a dozen discs in the 20th century alone, even getting a Grammy nomination earlier this year for Best Folk Album (with Ari Hest) for Silver Skies Blue. Stephen Stills is another story. He has performed and recorded erratically during the last 40 years. Stills has not created much music of merit since his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. In fact, his best album in the 21st century has been Just Roll Tape which consists of demo versions of songs he recorded back in 1968.
Let’s face it. Shit happens. We all get older. Stills is far from the only artist whose skills deteriorated over time. He was well-known for his party habits and wild life back in the day. The fact that they took their toll should surprise no one. But Stills was just so freaking good. His guitar playing was on par with peers like Jimi Hendrix, his writing as insightful, as his former bandmate Neil Young, his singing so sweet that when it blended with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Stills sounded like an angel. Many critics cite Stills as the artist who has declined the most because he was so damn good and fell so low.
Stills and Collins dated for two years back in the ’60s, but she rejected his marriage proposal, and he wrote one of his best compositions, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, in response. Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
But that was then; this is now. The two have joined forces and released a new album of duets and are headed on tour together. Now, does the world need another pair of baby boomers getting back together and invoking their glory days of old? Probably not. But that said, the album is a pleasant surprise. Collins is no longer the songbird of old who could hit the high notes like ringing a bell yet she maintains the ability to phrase lines with rich resonance. On the cut “River of Gold”, which Collins wrote explicitly for this album, she nostalgically recalls the past and declares “My memories will never grow old” in a youthful tone that suggests no matter what age we are, we never age in our mind.
While it might seem that Collins is using her reputation to redeem Stills, he acquits himself quite well on songs he wrote in the past such as “Judy” and “So Begins the Task”. The two also cover such great material as Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”, the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care”, Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe”, and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”. Their voices blend well, especially on the title song. The roughness of Stills’ leathery vocals meshes well with the Collins’ velvety crooning and fits the black humor of Cohen’s lyrics.
And in a purposely self-referential way, explicitly with tracks such as “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” and ““Everybody Knows” that deal with the present and the passing of time and the others which evoke this, Stills & Collins transcend wistfulness and melancholy into something deeper. It’s not quite desire, but a longing for desire. The new album provides a gauge where the boomers who first heard these musicians back in the ’60s can measure how far they have come and what has been lost. As Simone understood all those years ago, all art is personal. Whether Stills & Collins have moved on or are lost in the past is all in the mind of the listener.