Ask anyone with a bare minimum of awareness of the band about Buffalo Springfield and they’ll probably be able to identify it as the performer of the classic 1966 song “For What It’s Worth” – thanks in large part to its repeated (if not incessant) use as a sonic wallpaper for films and documentaries about the Vietnam War and the protest movement that opposed it. Those better versed in the arcana of late 1960s and early 1970s rock might tell you that the band’s roster contained luminaries like Neil Young and Stephen Stills, as well as Jim Messina before his latter-day partnership with Kenny Loggins. Still others would inform you that the band derived its name from a steamroller manufacturing company.
These recollections sell Buffalo Springfield far too short, however viewing the band as a mere prelude to the greater and more worthy artistic ambitions of its members (Stills and especially Young in particular) or as part of the soundtrack to a historical era that recedes further and further into the mists of our collective memory with each passing year. But as the band’s penultimate album – 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Again – makes abundantly clear, Buffalo Springfield deserves much closer consideration in its own right than it now receives.
Again starts off with Neil Young’s hard-charging “Mr. Soul.” Distorted guitars open the number and recur at regular intervals throughout, punctuating the steady baseline and drumbeat that drive the song forward. Young’s lyrics tell the tale of a rock star’s jaundiced perspective on his own fame, where “the thought that I caught in my head” becomes “the event of the season.” Throughout the course of the song, a fickle public presses the protagonist to conform to their own visions of rock stardom – and the narrator wonders if “In a while will the smile on my face/Turn to plaster?”
After a brief detour into country with “A Child’s Claim To Fame,” Again turns to a pair of pensive songs: “Everydays” and “Expecting to Fly,” written and performed by Stills and Young respectively. The former sees Stills layering an introspective lyrical portrait of ennui over a minimalist arrangement marked by the peal of an occasional distorted electric guitar and constant background tinkling of jazz-inflected piano. Young’s “Expecting to Fly” likewise stands out for its haunting and ethereal account of a failed romantic relationship. His evocative lyrics – the narrator’s formerly significant other “stood on the edge of a feather/Expecting to fly” while he himself “tried so hard to stand/As I stumbled and fell to the ground” – float through an otherworldly and deceptively sparse soundscape.
But it’s the exquisite “Bluebird” that almost single-handedly stakes Again’s claim to greatness and easily stands as the band’s single best song. Written by Stills, the final track on the album’s first side launches with a quick and searing Neil Young electric guitar solo. Stills then tears into the vocals with a fierce urgency:
Listen to my bluebird laugh
She can’t tell you why
Deep within her heart, you see
She knows only crying, just crying
An extraordinary acoustic guitar solo from Stills ushers in the transition from the frenetic, psychedelic rock of the song’s first two minutes to its quieter, folk-inspired conclusion – a coda complete with delicate banjo picking.
It’s a kaleidoscopic arrangement that’s beautifully complemented by the vivid and melancholy imagery of Stills’ lyrics. He tells the tale of the titular bluebird, an outwardly happy but inwardly depressed young woman chronically longing for the object of her affection. She’s got “all those blues/Must be a thousand hues” – but at the same time she’s caught the narrator’s eye, who sits “mesmerized/By the depth of her eyes” that reveal “She got soul.” But once the song shifts to its folk-influenced back half, Stills makes clear that its subject is “going to fly away” since her “Sadness is her own” and “Give herself a bath of tears/And go home.”
Side two of the album can’t compare with side one, quality songs like “Hung Upside Down,” “Sad Memory,” and “Good Time Boy” notwithstanding. But Again closes strong, with the low-key anxiety of Stills’ “Rock and Roll Woman” and Young’s “Broken Arrow.” A solid and straightforward rock number with a songwriting contribution (and alleged backing vocals) from David Crosby, “Rock and Roll Woman” features an infectious acoustic guitar riff and backing vocal harmonies punctuated by a bridge marked by a distorted electric guitar trading licks with a pulsating Hammond B3 organ.
On “Broken Arrow,” Young returns to the theme of alienation that kicked the album off on “Mr. Soul.” That’s apparent from the live sample of the record’s opening track that opens the song, as well as the first verse’s impressionistic sketch of the unrequited enthusiasm of rock fans who camp out in the rain just to catch a glimpse of their musical heroes as they leave a concert venue. Young’s lyrics become more abstract and brooding as the song proceeds, with breaks following verses filled respectively by a baseball organ, snare drum, and clarinet. The heartbeat that closes out the suite provides a fitting end to the album as a whole.
Why give Buffalo Springfield Again a listen? “Bluebird” alone is worth the price of admission, but as a record Again provides eloquent testimony to the songwriting talents of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. At turns pensive and propulsive with a strong streak of melancholy, Again takes the listener on a cruise through the psychedelic ether of the late 1960s rock world – and proves that Buffalo Springfield deserves greater renown as a musical force in its own right.