First Impressions: For Free by David Crosby

Yesterday, after wrapping up the Jackson Browne piece, I clicked play on David Crosby’s new For Free album – and then played it again when I ran out to pick up dinner. I’m on my fifth spin as I begin this review, early Sunday morn. As a whole, it’s a solid set that works as an umlaut on his lengthy career, with several songs humming through the dawn like finely tuned dream machines. Produced by his son James Raymond, it includes contributions from Michael McDonald, Donald Fagen and Sarah Jarosz, though the real star is Crosby’s voice, which has lost little of its luster despite his advancing years.

The album opens with “River Rise,” which finds Crosby accompanied just by a piano at its start. “It’s late in California,” he sings. “The voices are speaking low/and the wheels line up/point the direction they wanna go…” A wind gusts through the song, in a sense, and brings with it a sonic shift some 30 seconds in, when Michael McDonald’s backing vocals kick in much as they did for Steely Dan back in the day. The overall result is in sync with the sophisticated rock of Mssrs. Fagen and Becker and not the thoughtful folk-rock he cultivated with erstwhile partners Stephen Stills and Graham Nash – or what he and Nash achieved with the Mighty Jitters.

That’s not a knock, per se, but for someone like me – who lost track of Crosby somewhere in the last decade and a half – it’s a bit of a shock. Gone are the freeform Crosby songs of yore and in their stead numbers like “Rodriguez for a Night,” which features lyrics by Donald Fagen and sounds like a long-lost Steely Dan track or – and I just thought of this – a jazz-inflected reboot of Crosby’s “Cowboy Movie” from If I Could Only Remember My Name.

Perhaps that’s why, to my ears, the best moments are the songs that conjure Crosby’s long-ago works – “Secret Dancer,” for instance, would have been at home on Wind on the Water, while “Ships in the Night” echoes CPR’s studio debut, where melodies flowed and the notes were allowed to breathe. To my ears, however, the album’s main highlight is the duet with Sarah Jarosz on Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” The arrangement is supple, sparse and powerful – or, as Diane just commented, “This is beautiful! Their voices are great together.”

The closing “I Won’t Stay for Long,” written by James Raymond, is near its equal, with lyrics that work as a benediction to Crosby’s well-lived, oft-troubled life. Horns smolder in the background and a piano lingers nearby, all while Crosby’s vocals fly close to the ground. Drums, guitar and bass eventually fade in, providing further support. It resonates in the soul in a way that, say, “Rodriguez for a Night” does not. 

Anyway, I’ll leave it with this thought: The polished, Steely Dan sheen that dominates the proceedings builds upon the sound Crosby first sculpted with CPR, but does so by adding more clutter. The best moments are those that strip away the veneer and allow the songs to breathe. Longtime fans should enjoy it between occasional grumbles, while most others will suffice by just downloading “For Free” and “I Won’t Stay for Long.”

The track list:

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