What's so instantly striking about Crosby, Stills and Nash's CSN, their second group album in eight years, is that it sounds so much like the debut LP even though its makers are so vastly changed. Since CS&N, and later Y, were always at the vanguard of the conspicuous counterculture (always ready to hoist their tie-dyed freak flag at a moment's notice), their current reflection and hesitancy are especially interesting. And, because the music is so eerily familiar, the album communicates a kind of time warp (imagine if we knew in 1969 what we know now) that's compelling and troubling.
Those who have been put off in the past by Graham Nash's moralizing, David Crosby's precious intellectualizing and Stephen Stills' brash solipsism are going to be relieved to find all three musicians dramatically grown up — but not at all smug. Nearly all of the album's material is disconsolate — full of disillusionment and identity confusion — but it's honest and surprisingly humble.
Stephen Stills' songs are the first to strike you this way. Beyond the fact that they are songs, and not the amelodic ramblings he's churned out for the past four years, and that Crosby and Nash's harmonies leaven his slight harshness cleanly and purposefully, Stills' tunes are superbly focused. He apposes the success and failure of a relationship in "Dark Star" and "Run from Tears" without self-pity or pathos. And his "See the Changes," redolent of "Helplessly Hoping" and a lot less pretentious than its title might indicate, is one of CSN's key moments: "It ain't easy rearranging/And it gets harder as you get older."
Graham Nash's political attitudinizing has always struck me as quixotic, but here it's by turns more cosmic and more personal and a great deal more engaging. His "Cathedral" will undoubtedly be perceived by some as the album's centerpiece, and its sprawling dream-time grappling with religion and its powerful musical buildup are superficially impressive. But what CSN is about is the passage of time, and Nash deals with this brilliantly, albeit morosely, in his three other compositions. "Just a Song before I Go" evokes a short-lived relationship not by describing the feelings of the individuals, but by painting the moment of release, without tears. In "Cold Rain," an almost frighteningly dolorous song, he can't comprehend the purpose of the people he watches passing by. And in "Carried Away" he checks adulterous impulses when a couple drifts by "leaving me here." He's unable to seize the moment; it slips by: "Part of me is screaming to say/I want to be carried away."
David Crosby, who is generally less visible here than his partners, is certainly at no less of a loss. His "Shadow Captain," the album's first cut and the one which reminds us how well CS&N blend, struggles to understand "who guides this ship." Ordinarily Crosby is slightly cute about his confusion — he seems to get off on it — and he's that way in "In My Dreams," a song with lines such as "I'd like to see your face alone/I'm hoping there's someone home." But "Shadow Captain"'s conceit — traveling on a vessel guided by a hand whose purposes are incomprehensible — is spun out surely and poetically.
Though CSN's wistfully unhappy tone leaves its music a mite depressing, the fusion of talents is an extremely happy one. Stills' Latin rock breaks up Nash and Crosby's contemplative music without obtruding, and his voice adds a masculinity lacking in the pair's post-CS&N work. Indeed, Stills prevents Crosby and Nash from being cloying, and they restrain his usual stridency. They are not imitating their original sound — all have been through too long an evolution, musically and personally, to be the cute, absurdly optimistic vocal group that arose with the Sixties' slow downshift. They spawned a generation of imitators and admirers — America, Loggins and Messina, even the Grateful Dead for a time — and pretty much shaped the group approach to harmonies in the Seventies. In the end, though, as I think CSN proves, Crosby, Stills and Nash are not about a technique, but about the effect three people have on each other.