We gave it a B
Is it finally time to lump classic rock in with ragtime, big-band music, and Stephen Foster parlor songs — all once vital forms that were usurped by insurgent new genres? The pronounced signs of both a musical and generational shift have been in the air all summer: the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reunion tour that, for all its crowd-pleasing pep, felt like a re-creation of past glory days; the dominance of teen pop, which has no sonic ties to rock past; and the conquest of rap-metal, in which rockers use hip-hop, rather than country or blues, as their starting point. Despite an implied law in which any act that uses the word crow (Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows, the Black Crowes) is obligated to keep old-school values alive, the summer of ’99 may go down as the days the rock music died — or, at the very least, moved into a retirement home.
Of all the groups ready for that move, one would never seem more ripe than classic-rock founding fathers (or is that grandfathers?) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Instead, they carry on one more time on their reunion album, Looking Forward. Even die-hard fans have a right to be skeptical: Despite the enduring music they’ve made, the last time these eternal squabblers joined together was for 1988’s intermittently moving yet disjointed American Dream. In the years since, CSN minus Y have only grown wrinklier and chunkier (although — believe it or not, given its lack of impact — CSN’s 1994 After the Storm had flashes of their old writing and warbling skills). Adding to any diminished expectations, Looking Forward is something of a virtual-CSNY record. On portions of it, Young overdubbed his parts onto preexisting CSN tracks, while CSN added harmonies to recordings once intended for Young’s next solo album.
Maybe they sensed this was their last shot, but their resurrection on Looking Forward is nowhere near as embarrassing as it could have been, nor as desperately trendy as old-timer David Bowie’s attempts to get down with Web-loving kids. With voices now so deep that their trademark harmonies occasionally graze the floor, the quartet wear their respective roles like favorite old pairs of jeans: David Crosby the rabble-rouser, Stephen Stills the blustering bluesman, Graham Nash the compassionate craftsman, Neil Young the wistful maverick. And they’ve each written memorable songs to match. In ”Stand and Be Counted,” Crosby advocates some type of vague political action as if he’s still barking at a no-nukes rally, but this older, wiser update of ”Almost Cut My Hair” has genuine emotion and a replay of those dueling Stills-Young guitars. Stills’ ”Faith in Me” is one of his jocular bongo shuffles, while Nash’s ”Someday Soon” reminds you of his way with a simple, effective melody.
That said, even the most loyal fans are bound to wince during Nash’s ”Heartland,” which attempts to inspire the average folk but comes off as patronizing, and Stills’ talking blues ”Seen Enough,” with its bar-stool gripes against the Internet, cyberpunks, and TV anchors. (The song so recalls Bob Dylan’s ”Subterranean Homesick Blues” that Dylan was granted a cowriting credit.) It’s a good thing Stills’ sharp guitar playing has aged better than his attitude. The album’s heart, though, lies in Young’s handful of Western-saloon ballads. The title song, ”Slowpoke,” and ”Out of Control” are exquisite snapshots that recall Harvest Moon, and the autumnal feel of the lyrics (”Writing a song won’t take very long/Trying not to use the word ‘old”’) is only enhanced by CSN’s harmonies, which envelop his voice like melancholy ghosts. ”Once, high on a hill, there was a song/Nothing was wrong,” Young sings sweetly in ”Out of Control,” and his cohorts join in like a hippie barbershop quartet: ”That’s when tiiiime stood still.” It’s enough to make even a cynic misty.
Young’s lyric isn’t referring specifically to CSNY or his particular generation, but it may as well be. The optimistic title notwithstanding, Looking Forward feels elegiac: the coming together, for perhaps the last time, of men in their mid- to late-50s. More symbolically, albeit unintentionally, it’s also the sound of classic rock itself (as both a form and a liberal-minded outlook) riding off into the sunset. It was a great ride while it lasted. B