Of all the groups ready for the rock & roll retirement home, 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 diehard 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.”
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. 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.
The album’s heart 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.