Wednesday, February 25, 2009

CSN 7: American Dream

By now Neil fans were used to one new album, more or less, per year. We thought we were getting a bonus when David Crosby stopped doing drugs and Neil made good on his assertion that then and only then would he do another CSNY album.
Nice of him, but he shouldn’t have. Really.
American Dream is a big step back from the strides Neil had made of late, and his presence and participation doesn’t seem to inspire the other three any. Nearly every track suffers from contemporary production, even Neil’s title track with its a silly synth flute line and sillier video. As bad as it is, it’s one of the better songs on the album. But it’s not as good as “This Old House”, which came out of the Farm Aid mindset and would probably have been received better had it come out in the context of his 1992 project, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. “Feel Your Love” isn’t horrible, but deserves better lyrics, and “Name Of Love” is just ordinary, with an ill-advised call-and-response motif.
Nash cries sad tears about the environment and its neglect by governments (“Shadowland”, “Clear Blue Skies”, the excruciating “Soldiers Of Peace”) except for “Don’t Say Goodbye”, which sees him alone at the piano with a lead guitar break from Stills. As for Crosby, he’s just glad to be alive. Per usual, he brought two songs to the table. “Nighttime For The Generals” is loud and angry, but not very convincing. The big focus, rather, was on “Compass”, where he directly addresses his struggles with addiction and subsequent imprisonment. It has the potential to be embarrassing, but the delivery and exquisite production make it succeed.
Stills doesn’t dominate the proceedings for once, letting his guitar do the talking when Neil’s isn’t. But he’s just as insufferable as ever, giving “Got It Made” and “That Girl” mushmouthed deliveries and yacht rock arrangements. “Drivin’ Thunder” is a collaboration in credits only with Neil, as is “Night Song”, which is the most welcome song here, as it’s the last one in a program over an hour long. (It would turn up again on Neil’s next album, but rewritten, and without Stills’ input on the track or the writing credits.)
If we really expected a miracle, we were only kidding ourselves. Basically Neil let them use his ranch and choose their own rhythm section, and thus American Dream ended up as the bare minimum. It’s clear his mind was elsewhere, and was a rare case of him actually making good on a promise to people who ultimately needed him more than he did them.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young American Dream (1988)—

1 comment:

  1. I, rather naively, thought that Neil Young rejoining the group and recording at his ranch would bring them back to its organic folk-rock roots instead of the boring L.A. soft rock of their most recent albums. I obviously wasn’t paying attention, since Neil’s albums immediately preceding these were “Life” and “Landing on Water”, which leaned heavily into the electronics, especially the latter.
    The production isn’t quite as heavy as that. Their biggest mistake was letting Joe Vitale participate in the songwriting and adding his cheeseball synths to most of the songs.
    Crosby was quickly dismissive in his book . A quote: “Stephen didn’t have the songs”. Right you were, Dave. He evidently was in such sad shape that he couldn’t write a single song by himself. The absolute low point is “That Girl”, which I couldn’t believe was a radio single. It’s a musical mess, brought down to the pit with Vitale’s help. The other three were co-written by Neil, but it was too late for him to save them. “Got it Made” has a plodding synth riff played by Vitale, a boring melody, and inscrutable lyrics, especially Neil’s sung bridge. “Drivin’ Thunder” is ruined by the inexplicable choices of echo of the lead vocal, loudly mixed hand clap (?) sounds, and HORRIBLY shrill backing vocals from Crosby and Nash. “Night Song” is the best of the four, but it’s still dull. Nash's sincerity doesn’t always translate into good songs. “Clear Blue Skies”, his only solo composition, is quite trite. Then, Vitale comes along to “help” him with the other three. “Don’t Say Goodbye” – what a hopeless dirge! It would have the opposite effect on any lover at whom he directed this little plea. Vietnam vets were apparently on Graham’s mind at that point since we get two songs on the topic. “Shadowlands” has that terrible, tacky “Asian” synth riff. That sort of thing was cute on Bowie’s “China Girl” but is irritating here, along with odd, sped up (?) vocals and overproduction. “Soldiers of Peace” was obviously meant to be anthemic but somehow manages to be overblown and trivial at the same time. Young’s songs seem out of place here, and they also seem like rejects from his solo albums. TWO songs with the word “love” in the titles along indicated right off the bat that he wasn’t bringing his A-list material to the game. “Name of Love” has “flower power” type lyrics that are almost as trivial as Nash’s. “Feel Your Love” is a very slight little tune with better words. The harmonies of the group add little to these tracks. “This Old House” is heartfelt, but too sentimental for me. There are way too many overdubs of vocals! That may be an odd thing to say about a CSNY song, but simpler would have been better. I disagree about the title track. I really like it, even if the production could have been a bit better (yes, lose Steve’s synth-fife). It was a surprise when I first heard it on the radio. It adds edge that is needed. It also adds sarcasm, which is contrary to the usual hearts-on-their-sleeves vibe of CSN.
    Finally, we get to Crosby. Unlike most people, I really like his songs. That comes from first hearing the songs live. The second time that I saw CSN was in 1986, in the acoustic trio for a political benefit.
    He told the story of “Compass” coming to him in prison, after he thought he’d never write a song again. Sure, the melody rambles, but that’s Crosby for you. The lyrics are meaningful. On the 1987 tour, Vitale added synths. In contract to the rest of the album, the keyboards enhance and color the sound. “Nighttime for the Generals” was also introduced on that tour. It was hot then, and it’s good on the album. Craig Doerge may had helped ruin “Soldiers of Peace”, but here he supplies a simple groove for the group to work around.
    I arrive at an even lower score than you did. I have to admit that this further supports your CSNY thesis. They arrived at their group chemistry purely by chance, but it was too fragile to sustain over a longer haul.