A big gun shoots and scores!
A new David Crosby album could never be anything other than an event. One of the great voices of American music who will always be associated with the Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, and of course, CSN&Y, there has often been a question over whether or not he can still deliver, now that he’s in his late seventies and with a history of past excess and ill health. This album is a testament to the fact that he can, most certainly, still deliver and with an aplomb that belies his years.
“For Free” is an album straight out of the top drawer and it really couldn’t have come from anyone else; this has David Crosby’s signature all over it and it’s glorious to hear. That voice is still there, relatively untouched by the years, that same yearning light tenor that is so reminiscent of such classic songs as ‘Wooden Ships’ and ‘Guinevere’. The big bonus is that the songwriting ability also seems to be fully intact; there are some very good songs on this album, starting with the opening track, ‘River Rise’, a co-write with his son, James Raymond, and Michael McDonald, who also contributes to the exquisite harmonies built around the chorus – it’s a very strong start to the album.
Crosby’s collaboration with his son really seems to be at the heart of his return to form as an artist. As many will know, they’ve been working together for some time and it seems to be a very productive relationship. James Raymond is a fine musician and a good producer and, on the evidence of this album, also an extremely competent songwriter and, of course, being blood relatives their voices match superbly on their harmony vocals. It also sounds like Raymond might be responsible for taking his father in a slightly jazzier direction. Raymond is on record as saying that Steely Dan were a big influence on him when he first started out as a musician and you can hear that influence on some of the tracks here. It’s most obvious on the excellent ‘Rodriguez For A Night’, a co-write between Raymond and Crosby along with Donald Fagen, but that slight hint of more Jazz oriented arrangement also shows up on tracks like ‘Ships in the Night’, a solo Crosby composition, and ‘Secret Dancer’, a Crosby/Raymond co-write. It’s all still rooted in that Laural Canyon sound that is so synonymous with Crosby but there is that hint of fusion that makes perfect sense given the way Crosby likes to phrase his songs and their delivery.
As ever, a Crosby album tends to sneak up on you and many of the tracks here are slow burners. Something like ‘Ships in the Night’ starts off being pleasant enough, without striking you as anything special, but you suddenly find you can’t stop listening to it and it has really embedded itself with you. Perhaps the big exception to this “slow creep” feel is the album’s title track, ‘For Free’. This is the Joni Mitchell song, also sometimes known as ‘He Played Real Good for Free’ and it’s clearly a song that resonates with Crosby – he first recorded this back in 1983 for the Crosby, Stills, and Nash album “Allies”. Here he’s joined by Sarah Jarosz, who contributes a truly beautiful harmony part, and they’re accompanied by a simple piano backing played, of course, by James Raymond. It’s a beautiful version of this great song and is the impact song of the album, grabbing you straight away and highlighting what a good vocalist Crosby has always been.
In many ways, this is James Raymond’s album as much as David Crosby’s, he has contributed so much to it and his sympathetic arrangements and production, along with his excellent musicianship, really helps to make this a very strong addition to Crosby’s canon of work; but it’s Crosby’s name on the cover and this album will rise or fall on his reputation. It deserves to do very well indeed because it is his best, most complete album in some years, certainly since “Croz” and it is a far more approachable album with more immediate appeal. There’s really not much you could criticise here; perhaps it has to be said that, apart from that slight nod to a jazzier sound, he’s not really breaking any new ground here and, if the last Crosby album you listened to in any depth was his first, “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, this new album would sit quite happily alongside that and they could be just a couple of years apart, instead of the fifty years that actually separates them. But Crosby has never been a prolific recorder as a solo artist, recording just eight studio albums under his own name in a career that spans some seven decades. That’s a shame, because he really does have a terrific voice and his songs are always interesting. At a time in life when other artists are losing the character of their voice and their creative output has started to fade, Crosby has shown with this album that age doesn’t affect everyone the same way and that creativity is not always the preserve of youth.
With this album, David Crosby is, most definitely, back on form and living up to his reputation as a great purveyor of Californian music. Now it will be interesting to see what he does next!