WRITTEN BY: Tim Shermer
If you feel like you’ve been here before, that’s because last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of the release of a timeless American record: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s Déjà vu. The trio of David Crosby (the Byrds), Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield), and British pop singer Graham Nash had cut their debut Crosby, Stills and Nash album the year before, demonstrating an undeniable sense for three-part harmony and producing sunshiny hits like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express”—but lacking a certain depth.
Enter Neil Young, Stills’s bandmate in Buffalo Springfield and Canadian transplant with an unmistakable grating voice and a near-mastery of the blues at the age of 24. After recruiting a rhythm section composed of Greg Reeves on bass and Dallas Taylor on drums, one of popular music’s first true supergroups began work on a post-Woodstock recording that marked the dawn of the Laurel Canyon renaissance.
Each songwriter brought their very essence to the table: folk songs that would become ‘70s canon from Mississippi to California (“Teach Your Children”), stoner dad anthems that have stood the test of time (“Almost Cut My Hair”), love songs in the vein of the Kinks (“Our House”), and epic soulful suites (“Country Girl…”). A fifth songwriter also makes an appearance: the final track on Side 1 is an upbeat bluesy cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” with Stills providing lead vocals and some of the strongest guitar work on the album.
In a 1974 interview, Crosby revealed that he was in the worst shape of his life during the Déjà vu sessions. His girlfriend had been killed in a car accident mere weeks before they went into the studio, but he insisted on going through with the recording process on schedule, during which he abused drugs of all persuasions and was quoted as saying there were some days when he “couldn’t function.” Still, his work on Déjà vu remains some of his sharpest writing and most profound vocal execution in a career that has gone deep into the 21st century.
“Almost Cut My Hair” was a generation-defining piece of songwriting that had sonic appeal across all swaths of fans and critics. At the time, outside of George Clinton and P-funk circles, it was unheard of for a song to be that damn soulful and also incorporate the kind of blistering improvised guitar that Stephen Stills was laying down. Interwoven with Young’s soaring arpeggiated part, an extended cut (no pun intended) culminated in a five-minute jam that falls in and out of double time. Belting out lyrics only he could have written, Crosby channeled his grief, longing, and a generous amount of cannabis into a definitive farewell to the ‘60s.
The psychedelia that permeates the album isn’t Airplanean or Dead-esque as much as it is the result of careful arrangement and meticulous studio manipulation (Stills is quoted as saying they spent 800 hours in the studio with Déjà vu’s ten songs). The best example of this is the title track, penned and sung by Crosby. The intro of the song can be felt in 3/4 and a 12/8 shuffle simultaneously, ultimately falling into the shuffle when the band joins in. A drifting, Jaco Pastorius-like bass part and choir-like background vocals push the boundaries of folk, rock, pop—whatever you’d like to call it. It’s visionary unmatched on any of the members’ previous recordings, and the easiest example of how this collaboration was far greater than the sum of its parts.Along with blurring the lines between genres in ways previously unimaginable and ushering in a bountiful decade of music accepted by mainstream and counterculture alike, Déjà vu represented a creative epiphany for all four of the minds behind it, each recording their own wildly popular solo-career-launching album in the wake of its March 1970 release. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners stand out as the most enduring: classics in their own right that draw from and expand on the ideas explored on Déjà vu while epitomizing the inventive spirit and intellectual clarity of the 1970s.
- Carry On
- Teach Your Children
- Almost Cut My Hair
- Deja Vu
- Our House
- 4 + 20
- Country Girl (Whiskey Boot Hill, Down Down Down, Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty))
- Everybody I Love You