We really do know better/And we do belong together." That pompous overstatement from the opening track of the new Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album, Looking Forward, demonstrates the perils of believing your own PR.
Stephen Stills lost his mind at least a decade ago and could do with taking the next millennium off from trying to write new songs. "Faith in Me," a Buffett-esque attempt at tropical jamboree, wouldn't make the cut on an Up With People project, but "kindness" was the buzzword on this reunion album, and the quartet quickly maxed out their quota in dealing with Stills. Stills gives new meaning to the term "tired," laboring his way through the rap-pattered, socially-conscious clichs of "Seen Enough," a Dylan-inspired indulgence that sounds like it's played two speeds below normal on the phonograph.
Neil Young has been the most consistent of these songwriters in the quarter-century since their last tour, and his contributions ground the album in wooden music, ironic, since the trio usually turns to Young for an electric edge. His title cut is pared down a bit from the rest of the overproduced album, giving way to acoustic guitar picking and subtle backing harmonies.
Young essentially admits that his songs are leftovers from his forthcoming solo album, but "Looking Forward" is a keeper with its introspective "Thinkin' about takin' chances and doubts/That still linger in the cold," fleshing out abstractions by attaching them to personal relationships rather than trying to fly them as universal truths.
Graham Nash's "Heartland" is the poster song for what ails the album. It's one of the best songs of the bunch, and when Nash performs it on solo acoustic guitar in concert, it sounds like it could be echoing out from 1971, a simple song that doesn't try to fancy up the core values at its center. The essence of the song gets lost, however, behind the typically overproduced approach resulting in larger-than-life vocals and a tapestry of layered sound when a simple chord would suffice.
David Crosby only offers two songs, but both show him in good form, especially with "Dream for Him," rekindling the adventuresome drifting of "Wooden Ships" with a complex, upbeat fresh take on his latest round of parenthood. Crosby stumbles when he's overly aware of his legacy for speaking for his generation. His lyrics are best when honing in on his own reactions rather than trying to wrap entire movements in a verse and chorus. "Sometimes I talk to myself in the early dawn/Before all the fragments of my dreams are gone" he confides in "Stand and Be Counted," and those are the conversations we want to hear.
The band stands in awe of their own legend, trying to re-create it anew in each song. In fact, they were always more of a four-way intersection than a vital, organic unit. The old fire was sparked by clashing egos and wills. Generations later, the four legends have too much respect for each other's work, backing off from some of the necessary honesty and waiting for a no that never comes.
CSNY was never about the harmonies. The quartet was about the individuals, the dynamic relationships and the rare energy that came at the intersection. It's comendable to insist on new material before launching a tour, but there's something to be said for letting the material come out of the collaborative relationships rather than trying to rekindle the mystique from a vacuum.
"Someday Soon," a late addition to the album, shows the early promise of Nash's creative response to the reunion. The gentle, hopeful song knows its limitations, recognizing that it's more than enough to feature Nash, Stills and Young on acoustic guitars behind lyrics about finding love and earning a rest. The other late addition, Young's "Queen of Them All," is the freshest track, an upbeat celebratory song well-suited to the foursome's talents, including Stills' new-found penchant for pounding percussion instruments. The album's closing cut, "Sanibel," is a rare recording of a song not written by a band member, proving that there is a sound out there for CSNY to fill, if only they didn't try so hard. When they accept that it's OK to be mellow, they find the groove, settling in to an appealing CSNY2K compliancy.