When you listen to “For Free” for the first time, you only pay attention to this voice. Given the wounds of the past, the years of drug abuse he paid for with fragile health, and the bitter discord with his former bandmates Stills, Nash and Young, it’s a surprise that David Crosby has been able to preserve so well this voice, schooled by countless harmony vocals, that has accompanied so many of us for decades.
“For Free” is Crosby’s fifth studio album in a decade. The LA-born artist has never been this prolific his whole life, not even with the legendary supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The wonderful textures, the dense and floating harmonies on “For Free” are all the more reminiscent of his great deeds with CSNY. Longing and warmth run like a thread through this surprisingly positive album, which reflects all the influences of his career – from the folk-rock beginnings to the slick West Coast sound, of which he is one of the forefathers.
Together with his son, the multi-instrumentalist and producer James Raymond, Crosby worked on “For Free” during the lockdown in his son’s garage in LA. The album is thus also a father and son collaboration that brought the two even closer together as musicians and artists.
Crosby relies on familiar personnel for the musical accompaniment. He had already worked with many of the musicians on 2017’s “Sky Trails” album, including saxophonist Steve Tavaglione and drummer Steve DiStanislao. Although much of the album contains the intricate textures and complex grooves characteristic of the “Sky Trails” band’s sound, the album’s title comes from Crosby’s beautifully sparse cover of a Joni Mitchell classic. Originally released on her 1970 album “Ladies Of The Canyon”, “For Free” has been in Crosby’s live repertoire for almost as long.
“Joni is the greatest living singer/songwriter, and ‘For Free’ is one of her easiest songs,” says Crosby, who is joined by multi-Grammy Award-winning artist Sarah Jarosz on the track. “It’s one of my favourite songs because I love what it says about the spirit of music and what compels you to play it.” True to the original version, “For Free” unfolds in a delicate piano-based arrangement, with Jarosz and Crosby’s voices channelling awe and sadness to captivating effect. Over all, the women in Crosby’s life: the remarkable cover artwork is by another former lover, none other than folk legend Joan Baez.
The album opens with “River Rise”: a song co-written by Crosby with Raymond and Michael McDonald, who also contributes backing vocals – a dream pairing in Californian music history, if you will. However, the song, which has turned out somewhat conventional, cannot completely fulfil the high expectations associated with this collaboration.
The Donald Fagen contribution is quite different: “Rodriguez For A Night” was written by Fagen especially for the album. Crosby, who has been an ardent admirer of Steely Dan since the 70s, was more than excited about the collaboration. The song is a sharply detailed portrait of outlaws, angels and drugstore cowboys that combines Fagen’s unattained storytelling with Crosby’s warm, commanding vocal presence to create a glorious clash of worlds – clearly a highlight of the album.
For the final track on “For Free”, Crosby chose a piece written exclusively by Raymond, the gently devastating “I Won’t Stay for Long”. Inspired by Marcel Camus’ 1959 film “Black Orpheus” – a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and his attempt to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead – the song focuses on an exquisite vocal performance from Crosby, who brings a whole world of emotion out of each finely crafted lyric (e.g. “I’m facing the squall line/Of a thousand year storm/I don’t know if I’m dying/Or about to be born”). Definitely one of the most touching moments of “For Free”.
Crosby may have gone most of his way as a man and a musician, but “For Free” doesn’t sound at all like a farewell, but rather like the next stage of an artist’s life, once again in full bloom in the face of the looming sunset.
Photo: Anna Webber