American Dream fades out on the line “Why not keep on singing anyway?” — and that lackadaisical slogan seems to sum up the spirit in which the first Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young studio album since 1970’s Déjà Vu was made. Despite pleasant melodies, the occasional interesting song and the signature harmonies, American Dream is, for the most part, a snoozefest.
The enervation at the heart of this album suggests that these four veterans found themselves washed up on the shore of the late Eighties and — after endless recombinations, solo forays and, in David Crosby’s case, imprisonment and brushes with death — determined to cast their lot together and see what happened. The regrouping has done none of them much good. Even Neil Young, the only member of this quartet to have made records worth discussing in the past decade, indulges his worst tendencies. His populist protests (the title track and “This Old House”) substitute, in varying degrees, sappiness, sentimentality and mean-spiritedness for conviction and insight, while his ballads (“Feel Your Love” and “Name of Love”) lapse into cliché and mere prettiness.
On a couple of tracks the group does manage to flash some muscle. “Drivin’ Thunder” — which amounts to Stills and Young’s version of “I Can’t Drive 55” — works up a galloping boogie beat, and Crosby’s “Nighttime for the Generals” inspires Stills and Young to shoot sparks on guitar. Stills’s jaunty “Got It Made” and Nash’s atmospheric “Shadowland” succeed on their own modest terms.
Unfortunately, American Dream‘s most cringe-inducing moment occurs at its point of greatest ambition. “Compass” — Crosby’s five-minute acoustic ballad of his struggle with addiction — is so strained in its effort to achieve poetry that it’s more likely to generate laughter than sympathy. Gnarled lines like “I have seized deaths door-handle/Like a fish out of water/Waiting for the mercy of the cat” argue the lingering effects of the drugs Crosby has so bravely kicked.
Coproduced by the band and Niko Bolas, American Dream is sonically lucid, though the synthesizers used to lend the album a contemporary sheen sound hokey and forced — even, oddly, a bit old-fashioned. Finally, however, the record’s main failing is its banality. Beyond right-minded generalities and lazy evocations of “love,” American Dream has nothing to say. At the end of the preachy, bombastic “Soldiers of Peace,” Nash and Young scream, “No more.” I second that emotion.