David Crosby – For Free: Album Review

That late period renaissance just keeps on flowing from David Crosby, who turns 80 years old in a few weeks.

Release Date:  23rd July 2021

Label: BMG

Formats: CD / LP / Digital

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again.  David Crosby’s solo output has been like the proverbial wait for a bus – there was nothing for 44 years between his solo debut, the still classic If I Could Only Remember My Name and 2014’s comeback album, the wonderful Croz.  Since then, there’s been a veritable deluge of high-quality product from the man – most recently 2018’s Here if you Listen, and continuing now with For Free, the latest excellent offering in Crosby’s late-period renaissance.

Crosby turns 80 in just a few weeks’ time, but For Free shows gives no indication that any let-up in output or quality can be expected any time soon.  This burst of productivity is, without doubt, inspired by Crosby’s re-engagement with his estranged son, James Raymond.  James was offered for adoption shortly after his birth in 1962; father and son were reconciled in the 1990s and they’ve worked closely together ever since.  Crosby is keen to emphasise the emotional and musical effects of this reconciliation: “Can you imagine what it’s like to connect with your son and find out that he’s incredibly talented – a great composer, a great poet, and a really fine songwriter and musician all around?  We’re such great friends and we work so well together, and we’ll go to any length to create the highest-quality songs we can.”

And so they have.  James’s fingerprints are almost as strong and numerous as his father’s on this exquisite record; he’s handled the production duties, contributed some wonderful guitar, bass and keyboard work, and even takes compositional credits on a couple of the album’s strongest tracks.  And if such support wasn’t enough in itself, Crosby has also been able to draft in the services of a number of heavyweight collaborators, including Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (an old mate of Croz), multi-Grammy award-winning vocalist Sarah Jarosz, the multi-talented Michael McDonald and the newly rechristened Sky Trails Band – that bunch of musical exemplars including saxophonist Steve Tavaglione and drummer Steve DiStanislao who made such a wonderful job of backing Croz on the 2017 Sky Trails album.  He’s even managed to get Joan Baez to provide the portrait for album’s cover!

But the proof of the pudding is in the music and, on that score, For Free excels!  There’s lots of classic Crosby here to be enjoyed, and there’s a couple of extra-special treats.  The album kicks off with River Rise, a song that David co-wrote with James Raymond and Michael McDonald.  From the outset, it’s clear that David Crosby still has a great deal to offer in the vocal department; that soft, clear voice that just about everyone remembers from their CSN albums is still there, and it’s used to stunning effect on this uplifting opening track. 

On the mellow I Think I, Crosby reflects on his past life, the mistakes he’s made and the wrong turnings that he’s taken, before reassuring us that, at last, “I think I’ve found my way.”  I Think I is an early album highlight – a typical Crosby song, laced with pedal steel and some divine acoustic guitar soloing.  The jazzy The Other Side of Midnight is equally mellow, with soft percussion, scattered acoustic guitars and some beautiful vocal harmonizing.

Perhaps the album’s most welcome surprise and another of its true highlights is the Donald Fagen song, Rodriguez for a Night.  Written especially for the album, it’s a polished, funky song that offers a “Sharply detailed portrait of outlaws, angels and drugstore cowboys.”  The instrumentation, particularly the lead guitar and horn solos, is fantastic and, if it wasn’t for Crosby’s distinctive vocals, you would swear that you were listening to an undiscovered Steely Dan track.

The jazzy feel is retained on Secret Dancer, before things get markedly more soulful and sultry on the majestic Ships in the Night.  Crosby is, of course, an experienced sailor who undertook extensive explorations of America’s Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean coastal waters on his yacht, Mayan, and Ships in the Night is packed with sailing references such as furled sails and lighthouses.  It’s also packed with some delightful guitar fills.

David Crosby considers his long-time muse Joni Mitchell as “…The greatest living songwriter.”  Over the years, he has occasionally performed the album’s title track in concert and now, happily, he’s got around to recording it.  As Crosby notes:  “For Free is one of Joni’s simplest songs, and it’s one of my favourites because I love what it says about the spirit of music and what compels you to play.”  And, unsurprisingly, he does the song full justice here.  Accompanied just by piano and a very simple bassline, the song is elevated by a wonderful harmony vocal from David and Sarah Jarosz – it’s one of those songs that almost justifies the price of the album on its own.

After the awesome For Free, just about anything would be an anti-climax, but Croz brings us down slowly with Boxes – another slice of classic Crosby – and the folky Shot at Me, a song that evokes James Taylor with its fingerpicked guitar and a lyric that advises the listener to reflect and to “clean up” whilst there’s still time to do so.  The album ends on a real high, though, with the take on James Raymond’s I Won’t Stay Too Long, a deep, thoughtful piano ballad that is beautifully executed.  Crosby suggests that I Won’t Stay For Long is his favourite cut on the album:  “I’ve listened to it 100 times now and it still reaches out and grabs me, it’s so painfully beautiful.  I did end up putting a pretty stunning vocal on it, because it meant so much to me that I snag the hell out of it.  One thing James and I both believe is that songs are an art form and a treasure – so when a song comes along that’s as good as that one, we’ll just give it everything we’ve got.

So there you have it.  For Free is an album that certainly did (using Mr Crosby’s phrase) reach out ang grab me.  Why not let it do the same for you?

Listen to Rodriguez For a Night from David Crosby – a track from the album – below.

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