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THE FIRST TIME around, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young represented the highest possibilities of the communal spirit of the late '60s, proof that common effort could produce the most delightful of songs sung with the sweetest of harmonies.

The intervening 19 years have shown just how fragile that spirit was in the face of superstar egotism, epic drug abuse and abject carelessness. Where the initial CSN&Y union raised hopes, the latest one inspired doubts. Could they sing in tune? Would this simply be another Neil Young theme project?

Make no mistake about it, Young is the crucial ingredient in the CSN&Y reunion album, American Dream (Atlantic 81888-1). His four songs and the two he co-wrote with Stills are pretty much the best of the 14 tracks on this generous get-together -- and with those great harmonies behind him, he sounds better than he has lately. Without him, it would be a solid session. With him, it's spectacular.

Young contributes two top-notch topical tunes -- the stirring accusation of the high and mighty (Gary Hart, perhaps) in the leadoff title track and the wistful invocation of hard times on the farm in his solo "This Old House" -- and a pair of his best love ballads. Add the explosive Stills-Young "Drivin' Thunder" and the haunted final "Night Song" and they could fill out the rest of the record with wood shavings. It would still be OK.

Young's command is evident right from the start of that title song. After all, they recorded a lot of this on his ranch. His guitar stings like it used to. His whining voice rings out. But then up rises that marvelous harmony blend, its old vigor miraculously renewed. At that moment, the doubts vanish. Best of all, nearly 60 minutes of delight lie ahead.

Stills is nearly as sharp as Young. He contributes first-rate examples of two of his song specialties -- a lifestyle comment in "Got It Made" and a romantic proposition in "That Girl" -- and duels madly with Young's guitar on half a dozen others.

Crosby is represented by only two numbers, but both of them are blockbusters. The confessional "Compass," done almost solo, matches his mournful voice with his acoustic guitar, retracing his early folk style as he regrets his lost years. By contrast, "Nighttime For the Generals" is the harshest rocker on the album, its indictment of warlords driven by a vicious Stills guitar solo which the liner notes say is "inspired by James Marshall Hendrix."

Nash, the most clear-minded and consistent of the bunch, fills in the rest with his breezy pop-flavored compositions (two of his songs were the last to be recorded). In retrospect, he provides welcome relief from the intensity of the other guys.

The sum of it is not merely an exercise in nostalgia, but rather a return of vintage talents into the musical mainstream of the moment. Older and wiser, they've staged the comeback of the year. With luck, the reunion will last longer than the original.

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