(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Released on March 12th, 1970, Déjà Vu received instant accolades from many in the press, though – as was customary in those days – it took a few weeks for the critics to opine in print. And when they did? The applause resounded. For instance, on March 29th, no less than the L.A. Times’ well-respected Robert Hilburn ended a rave review with this: “While there are some weak spots, it is one of the best rock albums ever.” The Tampa Tribune’s Rory O’Connor proclaimed the same, writing that “[i}t has the same ‘touch of sky’ that, say, ‘Highway 61’ or “Beggars Banquet’ have.” And in the decades since, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 148 in its original 2003 “500 Greatest Albums“ list, nudged it up to No. 147 for the 2012 revamp…and then dropped it 73 slots to No. 220 in 2020.
Not all loved it, however. Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner questioned the songcraft found on Side 2: “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.” And John Morthland wrote that there was “something hollow about this music” in the 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide.
I have a mixed take on it, as well, part of which I chalk up to my age. I first heard it in full on Nov. 22, 1983, in a back-to-back bacchanal with Neil Young’s Comes a Time – I can say so with certainty thanks to my desk calendar. I was 18, I should mention, and a Neil fan. Unlike other albums of its era, Déjà Vu sounded anachronistic to me – fine nostalgia fodder for those of a certain age, but a faded snapshot of days long past for everyone else.
That opinion changed within a month thanks in large part to a stoney ride home with a friend in his boxy Renault one mid-December afternoon. “Southern Cross” sailed from the speakers and anchored in my soul – and, soon enough, Daylight Again entered my life. I soon began scouring for all things Crosby, Sills and Nash at a local used-records store I frequented. I gave Déjà Vu a second listen at some point and…wow. The Stephen Stills-written “Carry On,” which kicks off the LP, floored me. It’s essentially about forcing one’s self to move on in the aftermath of loss – romantic in this case but, really, it could be anything – with a “no pain, no gain” motif: “To sing the blues you’ve got to live the dues and carry on…”
Stills’ “4+20,” buried deep on Side 2, is another thing of genius: “A different kind of poverty now upsets me so/Night after night I walk the floor and I want to know/Why am I so alone?” It’s simple, direct and soulful, made even more powerful by his phrasing. He has a way of darkening his tone, of changing grey to black with a snap of the larynx, a feat few singers can match. It’s not a vocal trick; if anything, it’s a trickle from the soul.
David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” soon became another favorite. That first listen, it – and the album as a whole – creaked like a Woodstock caricature getting on in years, what with long hair (aka “freak flag”) representing rebellion. The second time, however, I heard it for what it actually is: a powerful statement about integrity. It’s a product of its time, to be sure, but also of all times.
Graham Nash’s well-meaning “Teach Your Children” has aged fairly well, though the use of “picks” instead of pick annoys me whenever I hear it. That said, in 1984 it made for a good soundtrack to a Mondale/Ferraro TV commercial.
As a whole, however, even in the thrush of my initial CSN obsession, I never heard it as a “great” album. In 2000, in the quick-hit CSN/Y discography on my old website, I summed it up as thus:
A very good, but not great, first outing by America’s answer to the Beatles. The highlights of the set: David Crosby’s powerful “Almost Cut My Hair,” which ranks with my fave songs of all time; and Neil’s “Helpless,” as moving a song as he’s ever written. Stills is in good form, too, with “Carry On” (tho’ the tag of “Questions” is, uh, questionable). His “4+20,” on the other hand, is haunting and strong. Nash’s “Our House” – well, I like the bit about “two cats in the yard,” but…I don’t know. The fact that it ended up in an underwear commercial sorta says it all, in my book. Though enjoyable, Nash’s “Teach Your Children” – a fun song to sing along to in concert – and the group’s radio-staple rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” both creak with age. And the less said about Neil’s “Country Girl” and the Neil/Stills collaboration “Everybody I Love You,” the better.
I don’t stand by all of those opinions these days, however – I’ve always vacillated about the “Questions” addendum to “Carry On,” as the stand-alone Buffalo Springfield track is flat-out terrific, but I’m in the “pro” camp again. And, of late, I’ve found myself enjoying “Everybody I Love You” despite not thinking it’s a great song – the Stills and Young guitar interplay is too good to pass up.
Yet, despite my misgivings, I still consider the album an essential work. Folks who discovered it in the halcyon days of yore will likely hear more than the actual music, while those of us who stumbled across it in the decades that followed will still find something of merit in its grooves. The dreams of youth, the loves and heartbreaks, the deaths of loved ones, are not the domain of any one generation, after all. We all, at one point in our lives, vow to carry on.
I’ll end with this: For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to the 50th anniversary edition of Déjà Vu. In addition to the original album, which has been remastered, it includes a bucketload of bonus material, including alternate takes and mixes, outtakes and demos, with many of the Crosby, Stills or Nash tunes winding up on their solo albums. Some are illuminating – Stills’ “Ivory Tower,” for instance, features the lyrics and licks for future songs; and his unreleased “Same Old Song” is a real treat. The lack of Neil Young-related outtakes will raise some eyebrows, I’m sure, but – given that he recorded apart from the others – isn’t a surprise. The “Birds” demo with Graham Nash is nice and the harmonica-version of “Helpless” is, in a word, sublime. But, at least for me and my ears, three discs of bonus material is one disc too many. For the fanatical among us, it may well be worth the investment; for the rest of us, however, listening via the streaming services is a far better option.