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CSNY’s Déjà Vu at 50

CSNY’s Déjà Vu at 50

Some albums take a while to sink in. It’s not like Layla or Exile on Main Street were ignored at first, but time passed before they got our full attention. A different situation awaited Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young when Déjà Vu dropped on March 11, 1970. It quickly shot up to the top of the charts, and it has now sold over eight million copies. Yet Déjà Vu had not been remastered in decades and quality vinyl pressings were unavailable—until now. Rhino has, on the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, released the biggest and most expansive Déjà Vu retrospective to date, adding 18 demos, 11 outtakes, and 9 alternate takes (most of which are previously unreleased) to the original album. Options include a 4-CD/1-LP box set, digital downloads, and streaming services. Also, neilyoungarchives.com offers high-resolution downloads and streaming. Purchase any version of the release at csny50.com or rhino.com and you’ll receive a high-res download version as well.

Or, if you want to go all in, purchase the 5-LP deluxe edition, which I’ve spent some quality time with lately. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen packaging that did a better job of complementing an original release than this box set, which, along with an exact replica of the original gatefold cover, contains three variations on that cover. The set also includes a 12″x12″ booklet with liner notes by Cameron Crowe and frame-worthy photographs in an envelope. Heck, even the shipping box looks stylish.

So why the fuss now, and why did Déjà Vu resonate with so many listeners initially? Partly because it captured the spirit of the times. The LP was bookended by songs that were as gushy and catchy as early Beatles singles, with lyrics like “Love is coming to us all” and “Everybody I love you” inspiring vocal harmonies that burst out of the speakers, and “Woodstock” shared the same collective euphoria. Déjà Vu isn’t all big picture bright-eyed optimism, however; in fact, much of it has an introspective and personal quality. Neil Young’s “Country Girl” describes a young woman who, while watching the summer pass, is “too young to leave”—in other words, she’s as trapped as the family Young describes in “Helpless.” In a song about his father, “4+20,” Stephen Stills sings, “He was tired of being poor/But he wasn’t into selling door to door”—and wonders if, although he’s rich and famous, he faces “a different kind of poverty.”

Other songs also focus on families. Graham Nash’s “Our House” celebrates a newfound domesticity, and his “Teach Your Children” looks at parents, children, and the generation gap. For listeners raised on a steady diet of adolescent angst, this adulting business was a change of pace, and here CSNY may have been a little ahead of the zeitgeist, as most of the 60s generation was just getting around to thinking about things like raising families and joining the working world. Unlike his father in “4+20,” Stephen Stills didn’t have to sell door to door, nor did David Crosby have to cut his hair (code words for “selling out”), but for listeners who weren’t rock stars these were becoming real-life issues. So there was the hippie dream and the real world, all in one album.

Musically Déjà Vu had so many strengths it would have been hard to make a bad album. If you like 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars playing rich, full-sounding chords in alternate tunings, Déjà Vu has those things in spades. And the acoustic guitars sound so good. Listening to the instrumental section that opens “Carry On” when the album begins, I’m still struck by how the acoustic guitars ring out over the other instruments; other acoustic highlights include the title track and “4+20.” Meanwhile, the electric guitars of Neil Young and Stephen Stills are the polar opposite of the acoustic work. On “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Woodstock,” and “Everybody I Love You,” it’s almost like Stills and Young are trying to out-nasty the other with their grungy guitar jabs. 

On the electric material, Neil Young clearly brought more of an edge to what was previously an acoustic-oriented band, and credit should also be given to the rhythm section. Drummer Dallas Taylor pounds the skins hard on Déjà Vu, creating a deep, earthy sound that is underscored by bassist Greg Reeves, who on “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Woodstock,” and “Everybody I Love You” adds a slightly funky feel that blends perfectly with Taylor’s soulful drumming. Confirming his reputation as a jack of all trades, Stephen Stills plays the supple bass lines on “Carry On.” On the title track, Stills’ bass solo is more than just notes; on a song that continues to find new thresholds, it once again takes the music to another level. And let’s not forget CSNY’s angelic harmonies, which is where, in Déjà Vu’s sonic tapestry, Graham Nash makes his main contribution. Clocking in at 2:21, “Everybody I Love You” charges ahead to its climax, but with such rich-sounding harmonies, we don’t need much of a build-up.

Engineer Bill Halverson deserves credit for capturing such vibrant sound on the original recording. Mastered by Chris Bellman and cut using the original master tape, Rhino’s 180-gram Déjà Vu platter boasts a black noise floor and stands out for its clarity and presence. Instead of grainy harmonies and a muddled rhythm section, you hear every detail cleanly articulated by a band that’s firing on all cylinders. For someone who grew up with this record, it’s been nice to hear it with fresh ears.

There’s a reason I tallied up some of the musical qualities that make Déjà Vu a memorable record. If those things appeal to you, you should look into the alternate takes, outtakes, and demos on the new box set. In some aspects the extra cuts actually deliver more of the above than the original LP—including acoustic guitar performances in stripped-down settings. Stills’ alternate take of “4+20” is on par with the original. Young is the master of downer folk, and his demo of “Birds” and his early sketch of “Helpless” are guaranteed to bring you down. (Don’t worry, though—it’s only castles burning.) The tracks featuring David Crosby playing acoustic guitar are a treat, and I’m especially smitten by both renditions of “Laughing,” which ended up being the best song on his first solo album, 1971’s If Only I Could Remember My Name. “The Lee Shore” reminds us that, when Crosby was in peak form, no one else sounded like him. And on an alternate take of “Our House,” Nash is accompanied by Joni Mitchell, the former paramour who inspired the song.

The deluxe edition reminds us that Stills was the workhorse in the band, both as a multi-instrumentalist and as a songwriter, and the extra material is heavily weighted toward Stills. When he locks into a groove with the rhythm section on “I’ll Be There,” “Ivory Tower,” “Everybody I Love You,” and “Same Old Song,” there’s a looseness to the performances that suggests they’re still feeling their way through the song, and there’s something appealing about those takes. And when Nash covers Terry Reid’s “Horses Through a Rainstorm,” the mixture of angelic harmonies and a rock-solid groove is infectious.

Occasionally, bands have released LPs consisting of leftovers from a previous album. While listening to this deluxe edition, I tried to imagine a follow-up album coming out after the public had a chance to digest Déjà Vu. I pretended it was 1972 and the group had asked me to dig through the tapes and make an entire album from what got left out a couple years earlier. That imaginary record is now a playlist on Qobuz, and I called my imaginary album CSNY: Empty and Free. Take a listen to get a feel for some of the outtakes, alternate takes, and demos on this ambitious project.

Tags: CSNY MUSIC ROCK

By Jeff Wilson

This will take some explaining, but I can connect the dots between pawing through LPs at a headshop called Elysian Fields in Des Moines, Iowa, as a seventh grader, and becoming the Music Editor for The Absolute Sound. At that starting point—around 1970/71—Elysian Fields had more LPs than any other store in Des Moines. Staring at all the colorful covers was both tantalizing and frustrating. I had no idea who most of the artists were, because radio played only a fraction of what was current. To figure out what was going on, I realized that I needed to build a record collection—and as anyone who’s visited me since high school can testify, I succeeded. Record collecting was still in my blood when, starting in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati Public Library book sale suddenly had an Elysian Fields quantity of LPs from people who’d switched to CDs. That’s where I met fellow record hawk Mark Lehman, who preceded me as music editor of TAS. Mark introduced me to Jonathan Valin, whose 1993 detective novel The Music Lovers depicts the battles between record hawks at library sales. That the private eye in the book, Harry Stoner, would stumble upon a corpse or two while unraveling the mystery behind the disappearance of some rare Living Stereo platters made perfect sense to me. After all, record collecting is serious business. Mark knew my journalistic experience included concert reviews for The Cincinnati Enquirer and several long, sprawling feature articles in the online version of Crawdaddy. When he became TAS music editor in 2008, he contacted me about writing for the magazine. I came on board shortly after the latest set of obituaries had been written for vinyl—and, as fate had it, right when the LP started to make yet another unexpected comeback. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling to document all the record companies pressing vinyl. Small outfits were popping up world-wide, and many were audiophile-oriented, plus already existing record companies began embracing the format again. Trying to keep track of everything made me feel, again, like that overwhelmed seventh grader in Elysian Fields, and as Music Editor I’ve found that keeping my finger on the pulse of the music world also requires considerable detective work. I’ve never had a favorite genre, but when it comes time to sit down and do some quality listening, for me nothing beats a well-recorded small-group jazz recording on vinyl. If a stereo can give me warmth and intimacy, tonal accuracy, clear imaging, crisp-sounding cymbals, and deep, woody-sounding bass, then I’m a happy camper.

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