Looking backward on `Looking Forward'

Review: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young act their age on their newest release -- and the results are mixed.

October 26, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Let's be honest: You can't talk about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young without resorting to the G-word.

You know the one I mean.

"Geezer."

It's not nice, but it can't be helped. They are geezers. You know it. I know it. And judging from the sound of their reunion album, "Looking Forward" (Reprise 47436, arriving in stores today), they know it, too.

Not that there's anything wrong with acknowledging that you're not as youthful as you used to be. After all, 30 years have passed since Young officially became the caboose to Crosby, Stills & Nash, signing on in time to join them at the first Woodstock festival.

Heck, it's been more than a decade since the quartet's last reunion effort, 1988's "American Dream."

But there's a creakiness to "Looking Forward" that goes beyond the fact that these four 50-somethings are beginning to show their age. We expect the once-angelic harmonies to have lost some of their vigor, settling into a less-taxing lower register like the vocal equivalent of middle-aged spread.

What we don't expect is that the peace-and-love idealism of their early work would have evolved into the mix of crankiness and sentimentality that fills this album. Get them on current events, and they sound like the rock equivalent to "Grumpy Old Men."

Bring up little kids, on the other hand, and you'd think they all had "Ask me about my Grandkids" bumper-stickers on their guitar cases.

Here's David Crosby, sounding all warm and paternal in "Dream for Him" as he frets over explaining the world's evils to a young innocent. "I am uncomfortable lying to a child," he warbles, and we imagine his great walrus mustache quivering concernedly as he's forced to break the news to young Billy that politicians sometimes lie. "How are you going to handle it and still be their friend?" he asks, and we share his pain.

Then there's Steven Stills, grousing about all those snot-nosed punks running around on that Internet thing. "Fed-up killer geeks/Gigabyte meth freaks," he chants, taking his musical cues from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Of course, his version takes a much more leisurely pace than Dylan's famous rant, but that's OK. We don't want him to strain himself.

Meanwhile, Graham Nash is concerned about the crazy pace of this rush-rush society of ours. "It's time to take it slow/Time to take a rest," he sings in "Heartland." And it's easy to imagine the traffic backed up behind him, horns blaring angrily as he croons that it's "Time to leave the fast lane far behind." Just remember to flick off the turn signal, OK?

Even Neil Young seems obsessed with age, joking in the album's title tune about writing a song and "trying not to use the word `old.' " Unlike the others, he takes a hopeful view of the future, seeing only "good things happening to you and to me." But even this sounds less like youthful optimism than the determined cheer of someone who has decided that life's too short to sweat the small stuff.

Young's title tune is also the most vivid reminder of the sound that made CSNY matter in the first place. With the instrumental tracks mixed way down, the arrangement keeps its focus on the four-part vocal harmony, and for a moment, we're tempted not to use the word "old," either. Even though the song lacks the gentle uplift of first-generation CSNY hits like "Our House," there's enough warmth and sweetness to remind us of the group's glory days.

Unfortunately, Young's "Looking Forward" comes on the heels of Stills' album-opening "Faith in Me," a mock-Caribbean number about ditching the rat race for someplace warm and sunny. Basically, it's a Jimmy Buffett number, only with more harmony and less wit -- not an ideal introduction to the album. If only it had the energy of "No Tears Left," Stills' third contribution and the album's hardest-rocking number. Then again, who plays CSNY to rock out?

Leading with Stills does seem to fit the album's rotation scheme, though. For reasons best-known to them (and, no doubt, their managers), the songs run in a steady cycle -- one by Stills, one by Young, one by Crosby and one by Nash. With 12 tracks in all, that should work out to three songs each, but Nash runs out after one contribution, and Crosby after two. Unsurprisingly, Young picks up some of the slack by providing four songs, and the album ends with a cover tune, Denny Sarokin's maudlin, forgettable "Sanibel."

So don't call it a comeback. "Looking Forward" will mainly be of interest to those whose listening habits focus on looking backward. In that sense, this Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album is a reunion like any other -- an excuse for catching up with old friends, and hoping that they've aged just as much as you have.

Looking Forward

Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Label: Reprise 47436

Rating: **

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