Top critical review
A Spectacular (disappointment) . . .
Reviewed in the United States on June 21, 2020
Following up any brilliant debut recording is a challenge, and certainly this was the case for the group's previous CS&N album. By any measure, that earlier recording (just one year before) was one of the most compelling releases in the folk/rock genre and was hugely influential. It literally took these young artists into superstardom . . .
Between the fans, the press, the record company (with 2 million dollars in pre-orders), and the tour promoters, there was immense pressure to produce something even better than their debut recording. With the band members experiencing an ending to romantic relationships (including a death), rampant drug use, and interpersonal rivalries, it's no wonder that only 3 out of 10 songs were recorded all together as a band. (True, individual band members recording their own songs in isolation occurred with several late Beatles recordings, though they had been together far longer than CSN&Y).
This supergroup was blessed with all the songwriting wizardry, vocal talent, and studio resources they needed to make an amazing followup recording. Going far beyond the modest CS&N line of guitars, bass, organ, and drum set, "Deja Vu" used a huge array of instruments — acoustic and electric guitars (including pedal steel), 5 different keyboards (Hammond & pipe organ, grand & electric piano, and harpsichord), vibraphone, harmonica, bass (electric & acoustic), percussion (tambourine & congas), and drum set. The vocal arrangements are even more expansive, intricate, and virtuosic than the CS&N work (listen to the opening vocals of the title track). There's an even wider style range that includes echos of country ("Teach Your Children"), gospel ("Helpless"), and jazz waltz rhythmic feels ("Country Girl" suite). "Deja Vu" also boasts not just one song in multiple tempos (like "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" from their debut LP), but three — "Carry On", "Deja Vu", and "Everybody I Love You". Finally, there's the remarkable mix of Bill Halverson that features moments like seamlessly melding Still's guitar solo into Reeves' bass solo at 3:06 of the title track.
Given all this effort, including Stills (the de facto band leader) spending over 800 hours on the recording, you'd expect this project to be absolutely stellar, right? In spite of the impeccable vocal performances, killer lock between the bassist and drummer, and great remastering job by Joe Gastwirt, it's still a very uneven and somewhat disappointing product.
Here are the bright moments:
* "Deja Vu"— Crosby's most daring and 3-dimensional song of the album, who had been listening to lots of modal jazz at the time from McCoy Tyner. (Check out the jazz influenced harmony in his CS&N ballad, "Guinnevere").
* "Carry On" —Stills’s more upbeat reworking of his earlier song "Questions" from the final “Buffalo Springfield” LP.
* "Teach Your Children" — Nash's powerful, yet understated protest song.
* "Our House" — Nash's well crafted and touching love song written for his then partner, Joni Mitchell.
* "Woodstock" — a significant remake of Joni Mitchell's ballad/anthem that incorporates tried-and-true hard rock arrangement tricks with great guitar solos and vocals. (Jimi Hendrix assisted with this version, too).
What about the other half of the record? Both of Young's contributions are significantly weaker (musically in "Helpless" and lyrically in the "Country Girl" suite) than what he just put out on his first solo album. Though Crosby's vocals on "Almost Cut My Hair" are passionate, the song feels more like music therapy vs. a fully conceived work of art. And though Stills’s "4 + 20" and "Everybody I Love You" are well written, both songs feel incomplete, begging for a fuller storyline.
From the very beginning, The Beatles had Sir George Martin to not only assist with their arrangements but also help to select the strongest songs. That's what a producer is for. Yet it appeared that no one — not the band's agent (David Geffen) or manager (Elliot Roberts) or record label head (Ahmet Ertegun) — bothered to step in and give badly needed feedback during the pre-production phase of "Deja Vu". This is why most of the reviews from the otherwise sympathetic pop music press at the time were very mixed.
Am I being overly harsh? Having grown up with and played this band's music in my youth, I have a strong feeling of nostalgia for this record and many of the progressive artists from that era. Yet even then, I felt that "Deja Vu" was significantly weaker than its predecessor, and with time it’s become clearer why. I feel that the fans (and the artists themselves) deserved more.