Along with many other people, I had hoped that the addition of Neil Young to Crosby, Stills, and Nash would give their music the guts and substance which the first album lacked. Live performances of the group suggested that this had happened. Young’s voice, guitar, compositions and stage presence added elements of darkness and mystery to songs which had previously dripped a kind of saccharine sweetness. Unfortunately, little of this influence carried over into the recording sessions for Déjà Vu. Despite Young’s formidable job on many of the cuts, the basic sound hasn’t changed a whit. It’s still too sweet, too soothing, too perfect, and too good to be true.
Take for example all of side two. Here we have a splendid showcase of all the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young strong points — precision playing, glittering harmonies, a relaxed but forceful rhythm, and impeccable twelve-string guitars. But are there any truly first rate songs here? If there are, I don’t hear them. David Crosby’s “Deja Vu” has little or no tune and fails totally to capture the eerie feeling that accompanies a real deja vu experience. “Our House” by Graham Nash is a flyweight ditty with nothing to say and makes this clear through its simpering melody. Steve Stills’ “4+20” conjures up some quiet enigmas, but with such tepid questions at stake, who really cares? Neil Young’s “Country Girl” continues his tradition of massive production numbers which includes the masterful “Broken Arrow” and “Down By The River.” But compared to his earlier work, the piece is sadly undistinguished. In both this song and the next one, “Everybody I Love You,” Young’s voice is absorbed in the major key barbershop harmonizing of the other singers. C, S, N and Y could probably do the best version of “Sweet Adeline” in recorded history.
One’s disappointment with the album is heightened by the absurdity of its pretensions. The heralded leather cover turns out to be nothing more than crimpled cardboard. What a milestone — fake leatherette! The grainy portrait of the “Old West” characters on the cover looks less like Billy the Kid, the James Gang and Buffalo Bill than the waiting room for unemployed extras for Frontier Atmosphere Inc. “Now then, which of you desperados is next?” And, of course, the pretty gold leaf lettering turns out to be yellow Reynolds Wrap. Deja Vu would like to convince you that it has roots deep in the American soil. But a closer inspection reveals that its tap root is firmly implanted in the urban commercial asphalt.
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There is much on this album of real merit. “Helpless,” “Carry On” and “Teach Your Children” are excellent songs, well performed. But for me Crosby, Stills and Nash — plus or minus Neil Young — will probably remain the band that asks the question, “What can we do that would be really heavy?” And then answers, “How about something by Joni Mitchell?”