THE ONE AFTER THE BIG ONE: Crosby, Stills & Nash, CSN

Thursday, June 18, 2020
Crosby, Stills & Nash CSN Cover

The 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album DÉJÀ VU was a highwater mark for all involved in terms of sales and musical impact, but it was the tour supporting that record, as well as a 1974 reunion jaunt across North American stadiums, that sealed the quartet’s reputation and place in popular culture. For a bit of time there, perhaps only the Rolling Stones were a bigger force, but the Stones were a unit, unshakeable and unbreakable (with the pesky exception of the second guitarist position, a spot that transferred from Mick Taylor to Ronnie Wood in this period). CSNY were a collective of independent parts who benefitted from their solo and duo records, as those experiences resulted in gathered strength they brought back to the unit.

Young was (and still is) a mercurial sort, though, and by the time the other three were ready to join forces again on record, he was off on a separate path, leaving Crosby, Stills and Nash to return to their initial guise as a trio and move forward. On 1977’s CSN, they certainly did that, making a record with equal parts power and delicacy, and striking platinum as they did so.

What you notice from the first song on the album, the Davd Crosby-penned “Shadow Captain,” aside from the voices (that three-part harmony everyone had fallen in love with years before) is the production – a deep but polished sound that had become an accepted and expected aspect of singer-songwriter albums of the era (think Jackson Browne’s THE PRETENDER, or James Taylor’s JT, or even the Eagles’ HOTEL CALIFORNIA). That production runs throughout the record, and it gives a rich, contemporary sheen to all the songs, possibly none more so than on Graham Nash’s “Just a Song Before I Go,” the hit single from CSN, with its bell-clear acoustic guitars, its deep, resonant bass, and the electric piano that provides the song its main melodic thrust.

Stephen Stills’ “Dark Star” (not the Grateful Dead jam of the same name) is another highlight, propelled by Russ Kunkel’s conga work and Joe Vitale’s drums as much as Stills’ bittersweet lyrics and vocal. Stills’ “Fair Game” likewise benefits from the Latin lilt gained from a little extra percussion, while his “Run from Tears” is more of a straight-ahead rock tune, with some bluesy guitar work woven throughout. On the other end of the spectrum is Crosby’s “In My Dreams,” as gorgeous a ballad as one might expect on a CS&N album, and Nash’s majestic “Cold Rain,” on which a stately piano dances with the vocal harmonies in some sort of echoing cloud.

These are lovely moments on a lovely record. CSN proved Crosby, Stills & Nash deserved their elevated spot in pop music, selling more than four million copies and giving fans another classic platter to spin. Decades after the fact, it remains spin-worthy, not as an artifact, but as a pure listening pleasure.


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