Thursday, May 27, 2010

American Dream (as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

The primary appeal for listeners when a band reunites after many years apart is not to hear where the musicians are now. Rather, it's a more nostalgic interest; the desire to relive past experiences. So I'm not really sure what CSNY were thinking when they reunited, not to make a throw-back folk-rock album, but a generic, overproduced, let's throw in too many horns and keyboards and process every single note in production to the point that all life is taken out of the music, 80's rock album. It's got the stink of Long May You Run's uncontroversial, unchallenging adult-contempo verve, but with fewer of that album's redeeming features. This is likely because, looking at the production credits, American Dream appears to be less CSNY and more The Stills-Young Band featuring Special Guest Graham Nash and a half-assed cameo by David Crosby.

I know I'm probably sounding like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, after professing amusement at Landing On Water's similarly overwrought production. To be fair to CSNY, they were probably aiming for Peter Gabriel-quality production, but the final result sounds more like Starship than anything else. Sometimes the over-tracked gloss smooths over the more risible elements of the album, in that some of my laughter was affectionate and not derisive. But the production also has the effect of highlighting the worst aspects of each musician: Young, the misguided experimenter; Stills, the soulless technician; Nash, the unashamed cornball; Crosby, the worthless, fat, piece of shit whose minimal contributions seem like a sure sign that his presence was commercially inspired rather than artistically.

The worst parts of American Dream are pretty dire. Stills' "Drivin' Thunder" is mindbogglingly stupid, Neil's "The Old House" is a ridiculously on-the-nose weepie ("This old house was built on dreams... and tomorrow morning a man from the bank is gonna come and take it all away"). The nadir is probably Crosby's obnoxiously maudlin, naval-gazing "Compass," detailing his history of substance abuse with lyrics like "I have flown the frantic flight of the bat-wing," and "I have seized death's door handle"; he manages to raise self-pity to the level of self-aggrandizement.

It's not all bad. Talent still abounds. C, S & N harmonize well together, and there are some catchy tunes and pretty melodies to be found. Stills can still rock and Nash can still write cheesy-but-effective ballads. I've been hard on Crosby in this post, but his other song, "Nighttime for the Generals," isn't half-bad.

On the Neil side of things, he supplies a few thoroughly acceptable songs (the playful title track, the pleasant ballads "Name of Love" and "Feel Your Love"), but no classics, either. And frankly, I think he has to shoulder most of the blame for the album's shortcomings; its his participation that makes this a reunion and not just another of the sporadically released CSN albums. He wrote or co-wrote and takes lead vocals on half the songs, and has his fingerprints all over the rest. That makes him the greatest contributor out of the quartet by far, and likely the mastermind of the whole project.

American Dream rarely rises above decent and frequently dips far below. I don't like to speculate too much about artists' motives when making an album, and maybe I'm being glib and unfair by saying this, but the feeling I get is that everyone left their "A" material at home, and went into the studio trying to score a commercial success by taking their well-known brand and giving it a deliberately inoffensive, mainstream sound. And then they all went back to making music they actually cared about.

Rating: C -


Shenan said...

Yeesh, character attack on David Crosby much? I think that's a bit needlessly harsh in paragraph 2 there.

And you were so excited when this came in the mail! Sorry it was a let-down. Hopefully Neil will kick it up a notch with whatever you're reviewing next.

Dan said...

When was I excited about this coming in the mail? I borrowed a copy of it from my dad.

Shenan said...

Oh...I thought you got it in the mail for some reason? Nevermind. Maybe it was something else you were excited about. Probably the vol. 1 Neil Archives.