Stephen Stills – Stills

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The title for Stephen Stills third solo album is hardly the most imaginative it must be said. Was it ego or a need to identify himself as a separate entity from folk-rock supergroup CSN (and sometimes Young)? Personally I couldn’t care less, so long as the music’s good. And on this record Stills managed to produce an LP that was not only artistically varied but emotional as well. Stills was his most domestically themed statement to date, concerned with his then recent marriage to Veronique Sanson and their child Christopher. Which means that we have plenty of love songs, though manic depressives don’t worry, there’s enough going on here for you to enjoy too.

Things get off to a big and boring start with “Turn Back the Pages”, a song on which Stills reflects on his past and struggles with his immediate future. “My Favourite Changes” is classic Stills, from the opening verse to the chorus, where he seems to be revelling in his new found domesticity. “My Angel” is like Manassas does disco, and utterly forgettable as a consequence, despite the quality playing throughout. Far better is “In the Way”, one of the most melancholic pieces of the album, and one where Stills combines blues and gospel to fine effect.

“Love Story” is one of those 1970’s numbers most young people today would rather slash their wrists than listen to, but for those of my generation, this song is pure gold. Apparently Stills spent a considerable amount of time perfecting the vocals, all of which are perfect by the way. One could only wish that Crosby and Nash were there as well. “To Mama from Christopher and the Old Man” is an uplifting tune, where Stills affirms his love for his wife and their new born child. Stills played all the instruments on this one, which makes the song all the more impressive for it.

Side two begins with the slow shuffle of “First Things First”, where, along with “As I Come of Age”, features David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Ringo Starr. The song itself is nothing all that remarkable, however the harmonies are exquisite (as one would expect), and take it somewhere special. Stills performs a cover of the as yet unreleased Neil Young song “New Mama”, and while Young’s original tends to traipse along in depressing fashion, Stephen’s own interpretation is far more inventive and enjoyable. The almost a Capella harmonies work wonders on the ears, while Stills’ guitar playing is excellent throughout. “As I Come of Age” had gone through various permutations since the late 1960’s, and finds Stills reflecting on his past and looking forward to the future, now that he is a husband and a father. An alternate recording was released on the CSN box set, offering an absorbing glimpse into the whole creative process. Personally I prefer the earlier CSN version, but that’s obviously a matter of opinion. “Shuffle Just As Bad” dates back to his days with Manassas, and in fact even sounds as though it could have been recorded with his former band (the rendition on Pieces is far superior by the way). The song itself has a laid-back bluesy vibe, with plenty of Hendrix inspired wah wah, revealing what a versatile and skilled guitarist Stills could be when he wanted to. “Cold Cold World” is all swirling organ at the beginning, before building toward a rousing climax. Lots of wah wah on this one, and some inspired playing by all involved – one of my favourite tracks of the album.

The record ends with “Myth of Sisyphus”, a song which is perhaps the most confessional of the LP, and a tune that was apparently a strong candidate for the aborted CSNY record meant for release in 1974. Here we have Stills using the familiar myth as a metaphor for himself, a man who seems doomed to continue making the same mistakes in life and yet has no idea why. I’m sure it wasn’t due to Stills having offended any God in particular, and being punished for naughty behaviour in return. It was just his own way of self-analysing what was going on inside his head, and questioning wherefore true love had til now alluded him (rule number one: stop hanging out with nutcases, because if you don’t, your heart is guaranteed to get broken).

This album would mark the beginning of Stills creative decline, where over the next few years, it appeared as if the well had truly run dry. Sure, he continued to write quality songs, but none of his future solo LPs were able to match the standard of this one. Which is a shame, as Stills was and remains an incredible talent. Then again, perhaps he’d said everything that he needed to say. Writers go through it, why not musicians also?