Graham Nash: Songs for Beginners

May 28, 1971 – Graham Nash: Songs for Beginners is released.
# Allmusic 4.5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Songs for Beginners is Graham Nash’s first solo album, released on this date in May 1971, and one of four high-profile albums released by each partner of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the wake of their chart-topping Déjà Vu album of 1970. It peaked at #15 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, and the single “Chicago” made it to #35 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Nash brought in an impressive group of guests to assist in the recording, including David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Dave Mason, David Lindley, Rita Coolidge and Neil Young (under his pseudonym Joe Yankee). The album featured the traits that Nash had come to be known for: a good sense of pop song construction, expressions of emotional sincerity, and fervent political activism. The Top 40 track, “Chicago,” concerned both the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the infamous trial of the Chicago Eight, articulating the outrage Nash felt concerning those proceedings. The topicality which suffuses the album would always remain central to Nash’s work: of the quartet, he and Crosby most directly professed sentiments aligned with those common to the Woodstock Nation. This similarity undoubtedly formed part of the foundation for their long-standing partnership even outside the parent group.
If you accept Graham Nash on his own terms, which is simply as a nice guy who somehow wound up a musician, then you probably find him to be an agreeable sort. Add a sharp ear for melody, a pleasant voice that tends to grow on you, and a surprisingly restrained and beautiful production, and you have a good sense of what Songs for Beginners is all about.
The material, with a few notable exceptions, doesn’t vary between any poles of great or terrible. Nash has the ability to write a decent and believable love song, and when he can avoid obvious cliches long enough to keep the choruses from sounding trite, he turns in the best moments on the album: “Simple Man,” spare and lovely, with the tail-end of “Wounded Bird” following close behind.
Not as successful as “Be Yourself,” whose title is explanatory, and “Man In The Mirror,” which contains an immortal line telling us how “All my hang-ups are down.” “Chicago,” which I assume is a Nash political move on the order of Neil Young’s excellent “Ohio,” is really the album’s low-point; somehow, the specter of Graham singing “We can change the world” at the gates of what Eldridge Cleaver fondly calls Babylon puts me completely on the floor. Saying much the same thing in at least a more tasteful way is the album opener, “Military Madness,” which is noteworthy if only to hear Nash intone “Mil-i-tree” and “Sol-i-tree” in that selfsame accent which lit-rally made the Hollies the success they were ‘way back when.
But if the songs themselves are mainly middle level, it’s what Nash has done with them that proves the racer’s edge on this album. Unlike most of his contemporaries in the Alexandrian Quartet axis, Graham’s tracks never seem cluttered, filled with drifting superstars who serve no apparent purpose except to provide good liner copy. Instead, each cut seems sparse, put together with a hand that knew just when and where to leave things out, and at times, this special kind of taste manages to change even the most innocuous of his material into something definitely pleasurable. While this may never be my favorite album, I’m not going to cringe whenever my upstairs neighbors put it on as part of their continuing CSN&Y festival. If you’re not with the one you love, then you might as well love the one you’re with. Or something like that. (RS 87)
~ LENNY KAYE (July 22, 1971)
All songs by Graham Nash, except where noted.
“Military Madness” – 2:50
“Better Days” – 3:47
“Wounded Bird” – 2:09
“I Used to Be a King” – 4:45
“Be Yourself” (Nash, Terry Reid) – 3:03
“Simple Man” – 2:05
“Man in the Mirror” – 2:47
“There’s Only One” – 3:55
“Sleep Song” – 2:57
“Chicago” – 2:55
“We Can Change the World” – 1:00


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