Singer/songwriter David Crosby has always been a magnetic character within the scope of popular music. His very first solo album, 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name boasted a host of big-name contributors with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Neil Young getting their hands dirty during the studio sessions. Now some fifty years later, Crosby is maintaining that same energy with his eighth solo endeavour, his fifth in seven years, 2021’s For Free.
It is often said that there is a direct correlation between the emotional potency of a song and the author’s engagement with the material, as well as their connection with and understanding of their own humanity and emotional state. As such, musicians can be a sensitive bunch, and navigating the creative process among groups of people with deep, passionate inclinations toward their own ideas can be a tricky situation to navigate. Perhaps the most applicable instances of these sorts of complications lie embedded within the complex history of the group for which Crosby’s artistry is perhaps most recognized, this of course being supergroup and folk-rock colossus Crosby, Stills & Nash. Tales of inner-band conflict have plagued the now-defunct group since their 1968 inception, and Crosby himself has never shied away from discussing his own ego and the negative impact that self-serving behaviour has had upon him personally and professionally over the course of his storied career.
However, For Free sees the self-proclaimed “world’s most opinionated man” seeking every available opportunity to shine the spotlight on his exceptional band of young collaborators whose ranks include, among others, Michelle Willis, Becca Stevens, Steve DiStanislao, and Crosby’s own son, the staggeringly proficient James Raymond who has been collaborating with his father since 1997. Raymond’s prints are all over this album in the form of song writing, arrangements, and programming, as well as a litany of layered piano and keyboard tones that provide an ideal foundation for the delivery of the stories within.
Musically, the album implements the classic elements that many listeners have come to expect from a David Crosby project: sparse acoustic guitars, angelic vocal harmonies, and percipient lyrics. However, Crosby and company are far from resting on their laurels for this batch of tunes. While For Free is, at its heart, a folk album, the fantastic production prevalent throughout brings about a pop sheen that makes the music extremely listenable. Coalesce these elements with a healthy dose of jazz interest and the resulting project is one that succeeds on multiple levels. This musicality is represented in tracks such as ‘I Think I,’ a mid-tempo rumination on how difficult it can be to understand what the correct choices in life actually are. This number dates back to at least May of 2019, as this writer can attest to having experienced a wonderful live rendition of the tune from the Sky Trails Band at that time. ‘The Other Side Of Midnight’ follows and sees Crosby coast on a deceptively effective rhythm track over ebbs and flows of harmonic tension that continually build before dissipating at the track’s climax, leaving the listener gazing over the metaphorical ledge.
The musical focus of the project centres on Crosby’s assembly of fresh-faced musical sharpshooters but, true to form, Crosby ensures there is no shortage of high-profile contributors on his eighth solo outing. This is readily apparently upon glancing the album’s covert art: a beautifully rendered portrait of the artist by none other than Joan Baez. Croz wastes no time making full use of his network of heavy hitters, kicking the track list off with a soulful duet featuring the iconic timbre of one Michael McDonald. The guests keep coming, with Sarah Jarosz taking the harmony on the title track: a sparse and haunting rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free,’ which Crosby first recorded with The Byrds for their self-titled 1973 reunion album. Standout track ‘Boxes’ comes next, and features a driving, yet understated groove courtesy of longtime Paul McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.
The most significant outside contribution, however, may be that of Steely Dan mastermind Donald Fagen. Crosby has taken little issue with sharing his affinity for the jazz rock giants in interviews and on social media, often referring to them as his favourite band. He even sat in with the group during a 2019 performance at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. When asked about the collaboration process for the song Crosby told Rolling Stone “I’ve been asking him for a couple of years. He gave us a set of words that are really wonderful”. ‘Rodriguez For A Night’ features characteristically vivid storytelling from Fagen who spins tales outlaws and downtrodden anti-heroes that would have felt right at home on one of Steely Dan’s classic seventies releases. The allegorical cherry on top comes in the form of a lead guitar contribution from Dean Parks, noted contributor to many of Steely Dan’s most successful albums.
The album’s closer ‘I Won’t Stay For Long’ sees Crosby taking a hard look at his own mortality, a theme that has become increasingly prevalent within his music in recent years. The cultural icon will be celebrating his 80th birthday in the coming weeks,and appears to have no misconceptions of the implications brought about with his progressing age (his health, music, and personal life are explored in extraordinary detail throughout the Cameron Crowe film, David Crosby: Remember My Name.) David Crosby’s creative renaissance would appear to be fuelled, at least in part, by the realization that his remaining time is limited. ‘I am at the end of my life and here’s what I’ve come to about it: it’s not how much time you’ve got, it’s what you do with the time that you have’ he explained during a June 2021 appearance on The Howard Stern Show. In recent years Crosby has been producing on a level at which that many artists half his age will never arrive. There is no way of knowing when the folk legend’s musical marathon will cease but should the quality of the work be maintained at the level it has for the past seven years, this listener’s fingers are crossed for at least another seven.
Artist’s website: https://davidcrosby.com/