Test of the Boomerang XI: Graham Nash, “Songs for Beginners”

Written by Music, Test of the Boomerang

On the bonus DVD included with the new reissue of Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners, there is a gallery of the artist’s photography. One of the photos is of an old car, trundling down a rural one-lane road towards foggy pines in the distance. The caption reads, “Neil (Young) going home to Broken Arrow Ranch, Northern California.”

I know the landscape where the photo was taken, in the rolling Santa Cruz Mountains, somewhere off of Skyline Boulevard, along the Pacific Ocean. Neil Young lives in Woodside, California, an affluent mountain town with Skyline as its main thoroughfare. A two-lane mountain road that I drove back and forth from the San Lorenzo Valley to work in San Francisco — and where I rolled my car in an icy morning frost. I was upside down and crawled out the passenger side door. I still have the ambulance bill hanging over my head. It’s an interesting personal footnote to what originally seemed a trivial bonus. The rest of the photo gallery features portraits of the likes of a jolly David Crosby, a pensive Stephen Stills, and a glowering Neil Young. But to the music: This album, Graham Nash’s first and, arguably, finest, sounds brilliant in its Rhino two-disc reissued form. The DVD features the album in 5.1 stereo, but the main disc sounds just as good.

For years, I only owned pieces of this album: “Better Days” on a mixtape; “Wounded Bird” on a CSNY compilation, and a few songs tacked onto a cassette copy of Deja Vu taken from a wonderfully scratchy and poppy vinyl platter. But this is so clean and sonically huge and rich, it sounds like it could have been recorded today by some hep up-and-coming navel-gazing alternafolk singer. Because the songs have retained their freshness and their accessibility: The political songs are still as relevant today, but it’s the personal politics that form this album’s core. Relationships. Relationships with lovers and ex-lovers, with friends, with bandmates. The album was written in the wake of his breakup with Joni Mitchell, and there’s a profound emotional urgency here that can be self-effacing but is never indulgent. And the instrumentation is just as emotive — the album features a slew of guests, including David Lindley, Rita Coolidge, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, David Crosby and Neil Young (under his own name as well as various pseudonyms).

I can’t say enough about how great this sounds; it’s an enormous improvement on the original out of print CD version. The symphonic backing on “Simple Man” sounds amazingly prominent and full. Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel absolutely sings; acoustic guitars are crisp; pianos resonate.

It’s very different from Stephen Still’s debut record or David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name. Songs for Beginners is introspective and at times downright minimalist, but it bears a humility and warmth not often found. It’s a beautiful and brilliant album that has finally received the sonic attention it’s always deserved.

Graham Nash – “Wounded Bird”

Graham Nash with David Crosby – “Simple Man”