Revinylization #18: Déjà Vu all over again

The central question behind Déjà Vu was “How do you top a classic?” The eponymous debut album by Crosby, Stills & Nash was a case of magic musical synergy meeting the perfect moment. It peaked at #6 on the Billboard 200, won the Grammy for Best New Artist, and opened the door for the trio’s legendary performance at Woodstock.

As the group hurried toward a second album, they made the risky decision to alter their chemistry by recruiting a fourth member and a rock’n’roll rhythm section. Stephen Stills talked to John Sebastian and Steve Winwood, both enjoying success at the time. He was turned down twice. Atlantic Records President Ahmet Ertegun recommended Neil Young, Stills’s erstwhile Buffalo Springfield bandmate. Remembering Young’s three exits from (and returns to) that band, Stills required a whole evening of convincing by Ertegun and CSN comanager David Geffen. Then Stills had to convince Crosby and Nash to open up the creative process to a brilliant, mercurial loner. “Juggling four bottles of nitroglycerin is fine … until you drop one,” Crosby said. Surprisingly, the group came together.

Even more surprisingly, their volatile creative alchemy survived near-constant tragedy and upheaval to create arguably the best second album ever and the best-selling work of four very successful careers. Released in 1970, Déjà Vu sold more than 8 million copies, and that was before this reissue.

For the album’s golden anniversary (stalled by pandemic production and supply-chain delays), Rhino offers a 4-CD, 1-LP deluxe box and a 3500-copy, limited-edition, 5-LP box with download codes for additional HD content. Both boxes contain the same tracks; the CD/LP box is reviewed here. (Hey, it’s what they sent.)

Crosby, Stills & Nash was a last ray of hippie sunshine as the ’60s wound down. Déjà Vu is a darker affair. The group dynamic with Young was never as comfortable as the trio, and each group member faced turmoil. Nash broke up with his girlfriend, Joni Mitchell, the band’s unofficial muse. Stills’s relationship with Judy Collins ended. Most traumatic was the death in a car accident of Crosby’s girlfriend, Christine Hinton, which sent Crosby spiraling into depression, substance abuse, and erratic behavior in the studio. “He was never the same,” Nash said, quoted in the booklet. “A large part of him died that day.”

Young lost patience with the CSN method of working countless hours in a Sisyphean quest for “perfect takes.” True to his loner personality, he recorded most of “Country Girl” on his own but reluctantly endured a session polishing his “Helpless” that began in the afternoon and lasted until 4 the next morning.

Despite a production method that Stills described as “pulling teeth,” a classic album emerged. From the opening chords of “Carry On,” panned hard left, through the fast fade-out of “Everybody I Love You,” the album is memorable in song, lyric, and sound. Each member put their stamp on it, and then there are those harmonies. At Wally Heider’s studios, Bill Halverson engineered a detailed and exciting sound that ages well and holds attention.

Produced by photographer and band archivist Joel Bernstein, along with Rhino’s Patrick Milligan, the anniversary box includes 29 previously unreleased demos, out-takes, and alternate versions. The box cover is from textured leatherette, similar to the original gatefold jacket. Inside is an illustrated 12″ × 12″ booklet with an essay by Cameron Crowe and Bernstein.

The first CD is the original album, sourced from the original tapes. Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering used a light hand at the mastering console and kept the original dynamics and tonal qualities. It’s superior to the two prior issues on 5″ shiny plastic: It’s not so much that they were stereotypically bad CDs (although the 1994 reissue, made at the dawn of the awful Loudness Wars, is somewhat dynamics-crunched); it’s that this version is a really good demonstration of how good a CD can sound. Spin it on a top-grade player or through a good DAC and behold the state of the studio-recording art in late 1969.

Disc 2 is demos of some album tracks and other songs the group members developed during the sessions. Included is a demo of Young’s “Birds,” with Nash accompanying, and a home recording of Nash’s “Our House” with then-girlfriend Mitchell singing along.

Disc 3, out-takes, is mainly Stills tunes worked up to full arrangements but rejected for the album. It also includes an early version of Crosby’s “Laughing,” which appeared the next year on his solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby’s “The Lee Shore” is presented here with original 1969 vocals. The song, with new vocals, was included on the group’s 1991 box-set anthology.

The fourth CD is the most interesting of the extras: an alternate version of the album, including early mixes, rejected takes, and different vocal tracks. It shows some of the many ideas tried for each song and demonstrates what good ears and hit-maker instincts the group members had for final takes. The bonus material is engaging, but what they released on the album was the very best they had to offer.

For Revinylization, it’s the LP that matters most. Bellman handled the cutting, from the original analog tapes. Pressed by Optimal in Germany, the LP is very quiet and, while the sound is darker than the 1970 platter, it has a firm, timeless quality that aptly displays the care taken in the original album’s production. A fine issue.

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