Thirty years ago, four L.A. guys spun out of three illustrious Sixties bands — the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies — and, with a name that sounded like a law firm, achieved sonic immortality. On 1970’s Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young restructured folk music to behave with the idiosyncratic freedom of the most stylish rock of the day, arranged with buckskin chorales that could move the heart like a George Jones song.
But Looking Forward, their first album since 1988’s American Dream, seems uninterested in perpetuating CSNY’s status as pop icons. With the exception of three Neil Young songs that Ben Keith produces with scrupulous attention to Young’s spidery vocals, the record pursues a happily tossed-off, first-take vibe. The liner notes, in fact, identify how many takes it took to record each song: “Faith in Me,” Stephen Stills’ and Joe Vitale’s slightly Caribbean-ish opener, was a Take One; “Out of Control,” a sublime Young ballad about emotional confusion, an atypical Take Seventeen.
Because Looking Forward shuns the studio calculation that often makes for great pop records, the album seems hesitant. With four strong presences, a certain schizophrenia usually pervades CSNY records; where David Crosby and Stills, for example, attempt political editorials and Graham Nash ponders comfort and contentment, Young concentrates on the obscure look in a woman’s eyes as she boards a secret plane to an unmapped country. But Forward features mysteriously few big harmonies to connect these different imaginations.
The result is that the listener must truly keep listening — in which case an album emerges. Highlights include “No Tears Left,” a Stills first-taker with a bluesy bounce and casually fancy arrangement; Nash’s “Someday Soon,” a calm yet spry ballad about optimism that is sweetness itself; “Queen of Them All,” Young’s embrace of the feminine, done in a goofy rock voice; and Crosby’s “Dream for Him,” a piece of rock jazziness that he beautifully controls with his billowy voice.
Then there’s the other sublime Young ballad, the title track. Young sings about something he can’t quite explain to a woman, something crucial about emotions and the speed at which they change. It’s an example of the easygoing drift of this often excellent yet muted album: “I’m not waiting for times to change,” Young sings. “I want to live like a free-roamin’ soul.” For Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, that’s looking forward.