Expectations were high for Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s second album. Their 1969 debut album was acclaimed, and their appearance at Woodstock only increased their profile. The record company insisted that the trio add another member, after Stephen Stills had played most of the instruments on the debut. After considering Jimi Hendrix and Steve Winwood, the group added Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield band-mate, Neil Young. Drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves also played on the record and are credited on the cover.
After the unified, acoustic sound of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Déjà Vu is much more eclectic. Each of the band members contributed two songs, along with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ and the closing Stills/Young collaboration on ‘Everybody I Love You’. Déjà Vu reflects the personal circumstances of the members at the time – while Graham Nash celebrated domesticity with Joni Mitchell in ‘Our House’, David Crosby had lost his girlfriend Christine Hinton in a traffic accident and Stephen Stills had broken up with Judy Collins. Stills’ ‘4 + 20’ is bleak, while Crosby’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ is driven and paranoid.
With multiple songwriters, Déjà Vu already feels like a compilation, but there’s also a clear contrast between meticulous studio creations like ‘Carry On’ and ‘Déjà Vu’, and live-in-the-studio takes on ‘Helpless’, ‘Woodstock’, and ‘Almost Cut My Hair’. But the quality of the songs is so strong that the lack of continuity isn’t a problem. Déjà Vu is loaded with great tunes, even if it ends limply; ‘Everybody I Love You’ is little more than a platform for the group’s harmonies.
Déjà Vu was deservedly a commercial success – it’s sold more than any other album by any of the members. It took Crosby, Stills, and Nash a long time to follow up Déjà Vu – as well as the usual ego issues between band members, the group’s initial breakup was precipitated by Stills and Nash’s mutual romantic pursuit of Rita Coolidge, as documented in David Crosby’s ‘Cowboy Movie’.
By the time Crosby, Stills, and Nash recorded another studio album, 1977’s CSN, the hippie zeitgeist that they headlined was long past. CSN and 1982’s Daylight Again are enjoyable records, with great tracks like Crosby’s ‘Shadow Captain’, Nash’s ‘Cathedral’, and Stills’ ‘Southern Cross’, but don’t carry the same cultural impetus or consistent quality as their first two records together.
Accordingly, for most fans, the competition for Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s best album together is between the 1969 debut and 1970’s Déjà Vu. Crosby told Crawdaddy in 1974 that “There’s good art on Déjà Vu, but you can’t put it on and feel like it’s a sunny afternoon the way you can with Crosby, Stills, & Nash.” It’s a decision between the cohesive mood of Crosby, Stills, & Nash and the songwriting quality of Déjà Vu and I choose the latter.
Stills’ opener wasn’t a radio hit, but it’s a great mini-epic. Like much of the trio’s first album, Stills plays almost all of the instruments. The first part is driven by Stills’ urgent guitars. After a beautiful a capella breakdown, the ‘Questions’ section is recycled from a song that Stills wrote for Buffalo Springfield, topped off by keening harmonies and Stills’ wah-wah guitar. The rhythms of ‘Question’ have a Latin flavour – Stills assimilated Latin music as a military kid in Latin America.
Joni Mitchell didn’t make it to ‘Woodstock’, but wrote the song based on a TV news report. Mitchell’s version is spacious and haunting, based around electric piano and over-dubbed harmonies. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s version turns it into a rock song, with Neil Young playing lead guitar, Crosby on rhythm guitar, Stills on lead vocals and organ, and Nash on electric piano.
On the liner notes to his compilation Decade, Young recalls recording ‘Helpless’ in the early hours of the morning, when the other members were tired enough to play at the slow tempo Young desired. ‘Helpless’ is extremely simple, with a simple I-V-IV chord sequence throughout the entire song, but it’s beautiful when the harmonies arrive.
Do The Experts Agree?
Rolling Stone magazine gave Déjà Vu a mixed reception upon release. While reviewing Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, Langdon Winner wrote that: “To the 70 or 80 people who wrote to Rolling Stone in total rage that I could be anything but 100% delighted with Deja Vu, I will simply say: this record picks up where Deja Vu leaves off.”
Robert Christgau gave Déjà Vu a B- in his Consumer Guide.
Pierro Scaruffi babbles about “Crosby delivering three post-hippie manifestos (Almost Cut My Hair, Dejavu`, Shadow Captain*), and Nash indulging in his soulful beat (Teach Your Children, Our House).” He also writes that “with hindsight, Crosby Stills & Nash were one of the most overrated albums of all times, competing with the Beatles, Emerson Lake & Palmer and other marketing scoops of that calibre.”
*actually on 1977’s CSN.
Retrospect has been much kinder to Déjà Vu – on the ratings aggregation site Rate Your Music it’s ranked as the #16 album for 1970, and #352 overall. On Acclaimed Music it’s ranked as the #9 album for 1970, and #168 overall.
Déjà Vu is included in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.