David Crosby 2021
Photo: Anna Webber / Courtesy of REK Room Media

David Crosby Reaches for Transcendence (and Groove) with ‘For Free’

As he approaches 80, David Crosby makes his best solo album, climaxing his late career with poignant lyrics, strong grooves, and jazz harmonies.

For Free
David Crosby
23 July 2021

Singer-songwriter David Crosby hails from the era that created that very hyphenate name for a musical artist. He was hanging out in Laurel Canyon when it was the epicenter of a brand of folk-rock creativity that still defines a glory period for American music. Crosby may have reached one apex by blending into a group as part of Crosby, Still & Nash (or Nash & Young). But over the last decade, he has emerged singularly as that era’s most urgent and beautiful senior practitioner. At a time when Joni Mitchell—the “Laurel Canyon” artist who Crosby reveres above all others—is no longer able to perform, Crosby is making his most gorgeous, crystalline music.

This renaissance started in earnest in 2016 with Lighthouse, a solo album on which Crosby collaborated with a group of younger musicians, including Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, jazz-tinged singer/writer Becca Stevens, and pianist/singer/writer Michelle Willis. Amidst their combined brilliance, Crosby seemed to tap into a fountain of youth, but one that allowed him to write lyrics that confronted his age and position in life with astonishing insight and honesty. And, wow, he was in startlingly superb voice—with his gentle and somewhat quirky tenor truly intact, vulnerable but bell-like, breathy at times but also capable of cutting through with a sense of personality.

Perhaps more amazing was that just a year later, Crosby released Sky Trails with an entirely different band and a different approach, incorporating saxophone, grooving drums, and thicker harmonies. Crosby’s tune “She’s Got to be Somewhere”, driven by a Fender Rhodes jam, bumping bass, and a slick horn chart, sounded like a lost Steely Dan track, and “Curved Air” drives forward like a classic CSN tune but with hipper harmonies. Crosby was in the habit of covering Joni tunes, so, of course, the one he chose was “Amelia”, from the master’s most daring and harmonically abstruse album, Hejira. In addition, Sky Trails was produced by Crosby’s son, James Raymond, a multi-instrumentalist who seemed to be lifting the music with another kind of youthful vigor, adding hip organ swirls and jazz piano fills.

2019’s Here If You Listen returned to the League/Stevens/Willis Lighthouse band and included tunes by the collaborators that deepened the sense that Crosby wanted to honor his interest in jazz-related sounds. And 2021 brings For Free, which consolidates all these terrific recent recordings. Raymond and much of the Sky Trails band are back, and we get the title track from Joni’s pen (from 1971’s “Ladies of the Canyon”). This time the Steely Dan-sounding tune actually has lyrics penned by the Dan’s Donald Fagen, but more of the session’s sound seems gently folky, although with melodies and chords that are so sly and hip that “folk” music is a misleading label.

The David Crosby of the 21st century is complicated, subtle, sublime. And this collection of ten beautiful tracks represents a new high point in Crosby’s career.

We hear the best of Crosby’s songwriting—a melodic touch that is truly his own, lately paired with interest in telling stories about approaching the end of life. And, wonderfully, they’re not all dark. “I Think I” is a surging investigation of the narrator discovering his purpose later in life. “I think I, I think I found my way” is the chorus. The guitars jangle and play hip melodic figures as Crosby’s harmonized vocals begin with the chorus. But it’s the verse that gets you: “There’s no instructions and no map, no secret way past the track / It’s so confusing, I keep losing my way”. But what lifts you isn’t just the words but the pulse, the layer of strings and drums, pushing us ahead.

His “Secret Dancer” is also about a kind of miracle, though also about the mystery of art. “The humans went and locked the door / And walked away the way humans do”, after which their creation (a sculpture? a story? a song?) “started dancing / Silently, gracefully, beautifully, slowly / In the dark.” “It’s a “holy thing,” Crosby sings. And, again, the ingredient that elevates this golem-like story toward the sublime is the music, including Crosby’s now delicate voice. Piano and acoustic guitar pulse over syncopated drums, the bass line descending like water sliding down a slick sheet of rock. Then Crosby sings a toggling figure that rises into the harmonized chorus. A mellow brass instrument plays a counterpoint interlude, then continues through the end. It’s a kind of simple complexity.

If Crosby is thought of as a folk-rocker emphasizing the mellow, it’s notable that “For Free” is generous with its groove-driven material. “Boxes” has a throbbing backbeat and stinging blues guitar that plays around its edges. It is another song about getting old, sure. But it’s another story about getting wise across time: “All I’m saying / Nothing less than trying will do / All I know Is that time will tell / Time’s a box / Time might show that there’s love in these boxes.” The blended sound of the band and some hip harmonies give away, once again, that Crosby’s favorite band is Steely Dan. His storytelling isn’t as wry or cynical, perhaps, but the jazz shimmer of his musical sensibility is not un-Dan-ish.

And it is directly Steely on “Rodriguez for a Night”, with the Donald Fagen-penned lyrics and music by Crosby and Raymond that mimics post-Aja Dan to the point of including strutting jazz horns parts a bridge that takes the song into dazzling harmonic territory. The narrator is one of those Fagen cynics—a guy who lost his dream girl to a slick outlaw with “effortless charisma and a clever way with the world”. He confesses that even later in life, he would still “curse the light / Yes, I would sell my soul to be Rodriguez for a night.”

The other collaborative effort is even better and more mutual. “River Rise” is a seemingly obvious partnership with songwriter and singer Michael McDonald, driven by a piano chiming in a web of very McDonald-ish suspended chords. Appropriately, it begins the album as a late-era meditation on California, a land where the “cold is hanging on now” but “the heat will be here soon”. Change (climate or otherwise) is coming, but Crosby’s and McDonald’s layers of vocals blend in resilience: “Not gonna wash away / Let the waters come down / Turn around into a fortress / Let the river rise / Open up the sky / Time won’t slip away / Let the clock run out / Don’t care about it, not today.

The music itself surges too, but with the optimism (“I start to believe always one more try”), a couple of older guys will need to continue feeling that their California dreams are viable. But, inevitably, the clock looms. On the bridge, Crosby admits, “Coming in too fast / For an easy landing / It’s out of my heart / It’s out of my head / It’s out of my hands.” Listeners, undoubtedly, will also put their fears or cares on hold for a bit longer when the hook of a pop song is this tasty and irresistible.

The two most sublime songs on For Free were not written by Crosby at all. The title track is this recording’s Joni Mitchell cover, but the first one Crosby has done that rivals the original. This story of a musician listening to another musician on the street who is “playing real good, for free” is kept minimal: just piano, Crosby’s voice, and a second voice from Sarah Jarosz. They sing together as perfectly as it is possible to sing together—slightly rubbing against each other to create touches of fuzzy friction, brief solo passages leaking out, the counterpoint both surprising and sublimely gorgeous. And it seems like the perfect song to cover—being about the way one singer hears another and gently fawns.

It is the album’s final track, though, that is ideal. Written by Raymond, it seems like the perfect vehicle for his dad, staring down 80 years of age. It’s not about death but a monologue by a man who is “standing on the porch like it’s the edge of a cliff / Beyond the grass and gravel lies a certain abyss / And I don’t think I will try it today.” Instead, he wants to “be with you today”. The long-form chorus is breathtaking and poignant. “I won’t stay for long,” Crosby sings. He exists in “a sliver of air between the water and the ice”, hearing an “abandoned song” that “echoes through this well I’ve fallen in”. The delicate accompaniment of the first verse and chorus gives way to a propulsive drumbeat on the second verse. It’s a song about leaving but wishing to stay. It’s a song about asking for the last slice of personal connection before someone turns away to spare the one he loves.

For Free ends, and you really want “I Won’t Stay for Long” to be the last, perfect song of a storied career. It’s sad and beautiful, kind and aching. Knowing that the son rather than the father wrote it—but sung with astonishing conviction by its ideal narrator—makes it all riveting.

David Crosby, that irresponsible stoner, that California ’60/’70s icon, has reached a moment that sounds a whole lot like enlightenment. But it is a higher consciousness that comes with a groove, with silvan harmonies and urban jazz dissonances. It’s fun as well as sentimental. And that voice, now exposed a bit by age but strangely strong and capable of holding the spotlight: it is telling stories that make you feel things. Therefore, let’s hope for more after all.

RATING 8 / 10