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David Crosby – ‘For Free’ review: countercultural icon faces mortality with grace

In recent interviews, 79-year-old Dave Crosby has been blunt when addressing mortality,  putting it as any gracefully ageing hippy might: “Man, I could have two weeks; I could have 10 years,” he told shock-jock Howard Stern. It’s something he’s had to come to terms with, having pulled through health issues including diabetes, a liver transplant and multiple heart attacks for good measure.

The icon who has given so much to music, including co-founding two bands who form part of the fabric of American culture – The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash – has a refreshing outlook. “It’s not how much time you’ve got because we really don’t know,” he went on to say. “It’s what you do with the time that you have. I’m trying to really spend it well. I’m very grateful for each day that I get and I try to do it making music because I think the world needs music.”

The beauty behind this sentiment courses through ‘River Rise’, the sun-soaked opener to his seventh solo studio album, which begins with Crosby’s sweet, gentle vocal atop plaintive piano. It’s a pensive and poignant love letter to his native California, capturing his ‘seize the day’ ethos. The track steadily builds into a grand soul healer as he sings, with true abandon, “Let the clock run out / Don’t care about it / Not today.”

Though there’s little ground he hasn’t covered in his six-decade career so far, from societal and political issues to love and grief, this record is among his most beautiful and reflective works yet. ‘I Think I’ toils with a sensation of feeling lost and coming through the other end: “There’s no instructions / And no map / No secret way past the trap / It’s so confusing I keep losing my way.” The lyrics will make sense to anyone familiar with Crosby’s journey; he’s spent a hefty chunk of his life battling drug and alcohol addiction.

Despite his candidly addressing some of these harrowing topics, there’s incredible warmth and soul-searching joy throughout. The likes of ‘The Other Side Of Midnight’ show an artist at the highest level staying true to his early vision; the song features the signature intricate finger picking style he’s well-recognised for (and which old age is slowly taking from him due to tendonitis in both hands).

As he has throughout his career, Crosby leans on friends and loved ones for this treasure-packed album. The artwork is a portrait painted by Joan Baez and he’s enlisted his son James Raymond on production duties. Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald appear on the record, the latter’s writing shining brightly on ‘Rodriguez For A Night’, a swaggering jam depicting outlaws, angels and drugstore cowboys. It’s all too easy to see it clearing heads on a lazy Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.

The most notable nod comes with the title track, a Joni Mitchell jewel Crosby’s returned to many times over the years. While he isn’t currently on the best of terms with the folk legend he dated in the ’60s, his respect for Mitchell’s artistry and songwriting remains paramount. “Joni’s the greatest living singer-songwriter,” he recently said, “and ‘For Free’ is one of her simplest.” The fragile piano ballad is very much a centrepiece of the record, a chance to take stock of Crosby’s vocal, which still sounds youthful and disarmingly open.

Somehow the record takes an even more moving and heartbreaking turn with ‘I Won’t Stay For Long’. A tear-jerker of a finale, it’s the unmistakable sound of a man nearing the end of his days, and while it was written by Raymond rather than Crosby, the singer gives each word profound magnitude: “I’m standing on the porch / Like it’s the edge of a cliff / Beyond the grass and gravel / Lies a certain abyss.” It’s as haunting as it is devastating before the track allows romantic optimism shine through: “If I could just remember the smell of your skin / Then I could live / I could breathe.” 

Crosby isn’t alone in delivering some of his most moving, sparse and poetic music in later life – in-fact he’s upholding a rich tradition, from Johnny Cash’s weathered and soulful ‘American IV’ to Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’, which broached death with humour and grace. Despite all he’s been through and some of the challenging themes on this record, Crosby isn’t always one to take life too seriously – he did, after all, spend lockdown rating his fans’ joint rolling abilities on Twitter.

This surge of creativity and zest for music is something we can all be grateful for, and hopefully there’s more to come – he’s said there are two more albums planned. If ‘For Free’ does prove a parting gift, it’s as fitting as any, an album that can only be made after a life lived. And it’s another glimmering triumph from the counterculture great.

Details

Release date: July 23

Record label: Three Blind Mice

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