I suppose it’s a minor miracle that Crosby is still writing, recording and performing music. Though it’s not like he can sit on his yacht and count all that money he made with Crosby, Still and Nash – there’s hardly any of the money left and he had to sell the yacht! A combination of hangers on, dishonest management and super sized substance abuse problems left him nearly broke. There was a much publicised spell in jail and a second conviction. Infamously he eventually needed a liver transplant but couldn’t afford it (Phil Colins paid).
Crosby is a true rock ‘n roll surivor. Keith Richards isn’t fit to tie his boot laces!
Apart from being the experimental edge of the Byrds and the social conscience of CSN he produced a striking, adventurous solo album in the early 70s. If I Could Only Remember My Name featured a Who’s Who of the 70s California scene – an indication of his pivotal role in that scene and the respect in which his peers held him.
Now in his seventies he has produced his first solo album in literally decades. He had no record deal and had to self-release the album. It is full of touches that will be familiar to CSN fans: Lots of harmonies, a bit of hippy philosophising, typical harmonically complex, jazzy chords and shifting time signatures. Which is playing to his strengths and staying in recognisable Crosby territory.
But it’s also a very contemporary record. There’s a lot of trademark Crosby here, but also bought fully up to date.
In the run up to this album’s release Crosby said that he was looking to challenge himself, to not make an easy, commercial record but to make the record he wanted to make. In fact by following his instincts Crosby actually took care of the other concerns too because this album has been by far his best seller for years. His voice is still in good shape – maybe a little less resonant than it once was, but he still has accuracy, a good range and strength across that range. The core performers here are Crosby (who plays very little guitar and concentrates on singing), producer, keyboard player and electronics whiz James Raymond and guitarist Marcus Eaton. Members of the Crosby, Stills and Nash touring band also appear. There are two notable guest appearances from guitarist Mark Knopfler and noted jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and both of them make a telling contribution on the track on which they each appear.
James Raymond’s work with synthesizers and samplers is impressive and is a large part of the sound of this album. He’s very good, not just as a player but as a sort of sonic magician, and sometimes deceptive. I was wondering who played those tasty pedal steel licks against Knopfler’s guitar on that opening track. Well it turns out to be a “virtual pedal steel” played by Raymond.
Elsewhere he uses guitar samples to play very convincing “guitar” parts on his samplers. He conjures up an exciting and novel sound from a synthesizer under the guitar solo at the end of “The Clearing” to propel that track to it’s conclusion. He makes very intelligent use of the technology and the musical effect is usually satisfying – even if you know it’s not the real instrument.
A striking aspect of the songs here is the absence of the anger and hippy paranoia that marked several songs he cut in his prime. There’s nothing here like “Long Time Gone” or “Almost Cut My Hair” or “What Are Their Names” (the last from the aforementioned first solo album). Instead we get the opening lines of “Time I Have
People do so many things that make me mad
But angry isn’t how I want to spend what time I have
He hasn’t – on the strength of these lyrics – abandoned all his 60s ideals, but there is a mellowing though perhaps not resignation.
In several cases the interest in the songs is harmonic rather than melodic. I was tempted to bracket the compositions on this album as the sort of new-agey thing that a lot of hot-shot acoustic players come out with or that rock musicians who have “grown up” and want to start fooling with jazz find themselves drawn too. These are not necessarily complements in my book. But there’s always been this side to Crosby, he walked down this musical road a long time ago, so it’s not like he’s embraced some popular ideal. Indeed he was busy with the jazzy chords and the harmonic intrigues before they became more common in rock circles.
And a lot of the time it WORKS, not least because of the strength and precision of the musical backing. A couple of tracks drag on repeated listens – EG “If She Called” (which is cut from the same cloth as “Guinevere”) and “Holding Onto Nothing” which is partly redeemed by a fine trumpet solo by Wynton Marsalis (the sort of playing that is all about the timing and spacing of notes rather than notes per second – and that is a complement in my book).
Overall it’s a strong record – and it’s typical without being too predictable or safe. Very nice sounding too with clarity and a good dynamic range that allows it some breathing room.
He shows that there’s life after fame and after giving up so many trappings of the hippy dream (City life and the depersonalisation it can bring seems to be one of the recurring themes of the record) he still has the drive and the ability to make a new record rather than just continue playing CSNY hits to well heeled baby boomer audiences hungry and willing to pay for nostalgia. Maybe it wasn’t all a fad, maybe some people really lived it and maybe there’s still a hope that the dream can come true.