Monday, 13 February 2017
David Crosby "Thousand Roads" (1993)
David Crosby "Thousand Roads" (1993)
Hero/Too Young To Die/Old Soldier/Through Your Hands/Yvette In English//Thousand Roads/Columbus/Helpless Heart/Coverage/Natalie
'I'd give my last dime for coverage - but you will not cover me!'
In 1991, two years before this album's release, David Crosby turned fifty. This was as much of a surprise to him as it was to everybody else after years of living on the edge: while everybody in their 40s tends to imagine that they might get to this milestone one day in the far-distant future, for Croz he'd been in denial as recently as five years earlier when he spent his 45th birthday inside a Texas prison for drugs and unregistered weapon possession. He hadn't expected to make his 46th birthday and yet the five years had seen an explosion in creativity that would have socked his younger self, packed with comeback album 'Oh Yes I Can' in 1989, two CSN/Y reunions in 1988 and 1990 and a well received autobiography. After this burst, though, Croz's prolificness returned to normal as he'd spoken most of what was on his mind (with darker, more hidden things to come on the CPR records in another five years), but like many reformed addicts he didn't want to stop and think - because those are the moments when the demons shout the strongest. So, after the hard work of the past five years, comes the victory lap: an album that in many ways was harder work as it moved Crosby so far away from his comfort zone and in other ways was as simple as plugging the work by a number of people whose work Crosby wanted to promote. A covers album no less, some twenty years before CSN finally split (for the last time?) trying to record exactly the same idea.
For years Croz had been mockingly joking with fans that whenever there's a cover version of a CSN song it tends to be of a Nash pop nugget or a catchy Stills song and that few people ever covered his 'weird shit'. In some sort of twisted way 'Thousand Roads' sounds like a response to this, a seven-cover, three-original album that features Crosby as singer and interpreter more than it does as a creator. Croz naturally doesn't pick the obvious songs to cover, choosing instead for the most part complex, difficult songs by a number of obscure singer-songwriters (many of whom offer their support by playing along): the likes of Marc Cohn, Bonnie Hayes, John Hiatt, Noah Brazil and Stephen Bishop - only Jimmy Webb is a name often spotted on 'cover' records and even as dedicated a fan as Art Garfunkel hadn't discovered the hidden minor gem 'Too Young To Die' yet. Along the way Croz slots his songs in at the beginning and middle where, thanks to more lashings of production than ever before, his songs suddenly sound like the most rounded, catchy and commercial songs here. As much of an advert or a sampler as a fully-fledged record, 'Thousand Roads' feels like it exists as an invitation to future music-buyers to check out Crosby's solo product and keep both his legacy and income safe for the next few years of silence (broken only by the as-always unexpected reunion of CSN for 'After The Storm' the following year). In many ways it's the least distinctive or necessary album in the CSN canon: while Crosby sings like a Byrd still, not all these songs are worthy of his voice and the production makes even the songs that are worth the care and attention lavished to them sound like the sort of things any half-decent singer with a synth-heavy karaoke machine could have come up with. In a way it's the most 'Spice Girls' of CSN records, low on creativity, low on thinking and low on ideas.
It's also one of the most under-rated of CSN records simply for being so different to the rest, for that's the point at which most reviewers give up, dismiss this album and move on to rave about the first CSN album or 'Déjà Vu' all over again. Let me reiterate: Crosby sings not like a bird but like a Byrd, his commercial instincts the strongest they've been since 1965 as he re-acts to a changing music world by deciding to out-pop the younger popsters around (it might have helped that this is the period when a young Drew Barrymore lived with David and Jan for a year, bringing teenage pop music back into the house again). We haven't heard this side of Crosby's art for years and it remains surprisingly undimmed despite years of re-inventing folk-rock with a dash of psychedelia, all wrapped up in weird jazz guitar tunings. That was what Crosby chose to do with his career when left to his own devices, but in a changing world where even Atlantic are set to drop him as a solo artist Crosby follows Stills (on 'Right By You') and Nash (on 'Innocent Eyes') by making an album that shows he can match anything his peers can throw at them. By and large 'Thousand Roads' is better than either record for its sheer listenability and lack of huge embarrassing mistakes, something that marred both 1980s albums (by contrast Stills' last album 'Alone' from 1991 is decidedly unproduced and anti-commercial, while Nash can't get a solo contract at all). For the most part Crosby's creative instincts are spot-on: all the cover songs beat the originals (by some considerable margin in a couple of cases) and the choice of songs all taken from the early 1980s (when Crosby was at his most drug-addled and then locked away) suggests that as well as keeping his career fresh for future purposes he was busy filling in the 'gaps' he missed from his recent past. New song 'Hero' also beat any single song from Crosby's post-prison songbook (perhaps equal with 'Arrows'), a very Crosby tale of a mixed-up world where the heroes lose and the villains win in an adult life very different to the one we were taught to respect as children. The fact that it's also hands down the catchiest song in his pantheon (perhaps because of Phil Collins' input) makes it sound less of a sore thumb on this album than any other Crosby original on a covers record would have been.
It helps, too, that there's a half-theme across this record of missed opportunities and a mis-spent youth. Though Crosby was only involved in three of the ten songs here, all of them were chosen by him - not recommended by producers and managers, as many covers albums tend to be (that may well be what scuppered the CSN covers project of 2012 for instance - although Nash trying to explain what The Rolling Stones' 'Ruby Tuesday' actually 'meant' to an increasingly cynical Stephen Stills seems to have been the turning point; for the record I've reviewed it and I don't blooming know what it means either!) Together with that recent 50th birthday and memories of 'ten years wasted in a blindfold' they find Croz in reflective mood. 'Too Young To Die' sighs that a 'so-called mis-spent youth...seems more worthwhile every single day' before turning into a generic car song. 'Old Soldier' finds the then-34 year old Marc Cohn audaciously complaining that 'youth is a treasure we waste when we're young'. 'Through Your Hands' is all about taking charge of life when you feel yourself drifting, an angel visiting a homeless man on a park bench to tell him to stop 'dreaming' and start 'doing'. 'Columbus' dreams of happier times when history was simple, that European explorers were heroes and their quests were romantic, not bloody and genocidal. There's even a mermaid thrown in for good measure. 'Coverage' actively tries to be young, a before-its-time song that dreams about being in the public eye years before social media but only finds loneliness - a very postmodern cover for an older star straining to be heard. 'Natalie' also starts the song at school, a beauty who bewitches the narrator all the way from his teens to the tragic moment he has to say goodbye to her, remembering all the happier golden times and realising that life is too short. If this album has a theme then it's one that life is too short, too precious, too wonderful to waste a second of. That's a lesson Crosby had found out the hard way and you feel that, in a way, he isn't even going to waste his precious middle-age writing songs about such subjects when so many songs exist already that people don't know.
The album's strongpoint is clearly Crosby's voice. Though the songs don't always give him anything to get his vocal teeth into, he somehow finds a way anyway. 'Columbus' drifts along beautifully mainly thanks to Crosby's wide-eyed awe, recalling his bigger 'nature' songs like 'Delta' and 'Lee Shore', though the song clearly isn't in the league of either. 'Old Soldier' is sung as if it's a wry cry from the heart, even if it turns out to be an even dumber song than 'Drive My Car'. 'Helpless Heart' is exquisite in Crosby's hands, sung with awkward shyness in a way we've not heard from Croz in a long time, thrashing the original in its haunting allure. Croz has a good go with 'Coverage' and 'Natalie' too, though neither are a natural fit for his style. Considering everything he'd put his voice through in the past decade and how badly some of his colleagues were beginning to go show strain in this period (poor Stills especially), it's rather amazing that he still manages to sound as sweet and warm as he does.
In a way, though, the elephant in the room is that Crosby still ends up wasting so much of his precious time on a project that wasn't what fans wanted and which doesn't add anything much to the Crosby catalogue: gorgeous as his voice is, most fans still think of Crosby as a writer first and singer second. It's a difficult one for fans, especially of this band: we aren't enough in number to give CSN instant hits anymore even when we buy five copies of every album (two for the collection, two for safe-keeping and one for your Uruguayan pen-friend - everyone should have one!) Of course CSN have to appeal to outside audiences, many of whom wouldn't know good music if it was playing an acoustic guitar and singing in three-part harmony and they fell over it. But how far is too far? There are times on this album when Crosby sounds like every other generic hack who ever picked up a microphone: charmingly insincere, hitting all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, while a synth-heavy backing band appears to be piped in from an elevator down the recording studio hall. With Nash it was a problem, but those Hollie instincts saw him through - sort of, maybe. With Stills it was more of a problem, but then Stills has always been game to tackle anything - 'Right By You' feels in retrospect more like Captain Manyhands rolling his sleeves up and having a go at being 'commercial' in the same way Manassas played medleys of songs in twelve different styles before breakfast. But with Crosby the commercial instinct is more problematic: Crosby's always followed his muse wherever it takes him - and usually where that takes him is unchartered territory, where no one else would ever think to go. ' Thousand Roads' is the first album Crosby had a hand in since The Byrds' 'Mr Tambourine Man' debut twenty-eight years earlier that you could imagine any other act doing. 'I've never felt so much alive!' runs one of the lines on 'Too Young To Die'. It should be a valedictory moment. But this generic car song, which starts off well but hits the brakes really quickly, turns into a shlock fest of the first degree. Crosby has never sounded less alive - or inspired - on an album that seems designed to celebrate the very fact that he made an age he never expected to reach.
There are, at least, little nuggets that overcome their surroundings that really stand out, whether they sound like 'pure' Crosby or not. 'Hero' is what all songs with synths should sound like, treating the biggest cash-cow of the 1980s as a mere children's toy that takes us back in time to a day when the world was young and cosy and made sense, before Croz started asking 'what's happening?!?!?' The opening minute or so of 'Too Young To Die' - when you think it's going to be about life, not motors. The first half of 'Old Soldier' is beautiful, with a haunting Nash counter-harmony that's as perfect as any in their lengthy collaboration (in retrospect with everything that's happened recently Crosby's album credit to Nash 'for space and support in delicate balance' reads volumes, especially compared to some of the other credits, where Phil Ramone is 'a truly gifted professional' and where Phil Collins was 'so generous with his musicianship and time'). 'Through Your Hands' overcomes it's slightly unmemorable start with a loud shouted chorus that demands attention and really breaks through the slightly cosy production on this album. 'Thousand Roads' is half a good original, with the most typically questioning Crosby lyrics on the album, though it sounded better as a slow scary folk tune in concert than it does here as an uptempo blues. 'Columbus's is a nicely arranged bit of nothing, with Wix Wickens on loan from Paul McCartney's band playing most of the parts behind Croz. 'Helpless Heart', the song that stands out here for not fitting in with the rest of the album theme, somehow manages to overcome all the synths, syrupy strings and clichéd lyrics to truly pull at the heart strings. 'Coverage' is a noble attempt at something new that almost comes off. And 'Natalie' is one of those songs that changes with the wind - in the right mood it makes me want to cry; in the wrong mood it makes me feel like I'm about to be sick (and I've never said that about a Crosby recording before). It's an album of 'very nearlies' in other words, where most songs have something going for them but whose production trappings and the fact they're all lumped together means that only 'Hero' truly stands out for all the right reasons.
Only 'Yvette In English', a long awaited one-off collaboration between Croz and his long-time muse and friend Joni Mitchell, is truly something of a let-down. At first Croz asked for one of Joni's songs to cover, as his favourite songwriter, but she replied that she would rather write one. Sadly what could have been a great song if started as a partnership from the first, with two of the most distinctive writers of the era working together, instead became an exercise in Crosby sending a half-finished song written 'his' way over to Joni who would re-write it her way and then Croz re-wrote it back again. You somehow wonder why they bothered. To be fair many fans like it and it sounded a lot better in concert by either songwriter, but neither this recording nor Joni's even more over-produced version (on her 1994 album 'Turbulent Indigo') display any evidence of the jazz-fuelled risk-taking that both artists are known for. Somehow putting two very similar, very bright artists together led to them writing perhaps the blandest and least interesting song in both their canons. Hidden away on another Crosby solo record he might have gotten away with it, but here with only three original songs there's no place to hide songs like these. 'Thousand Roads' itself is also noticeably weaker than almost everything from 'Oh Yes I Can', with only 'Hero' a song that adds anything new to Crosby's oeuvre, which after a four year gap is a bit of a shame. And where is charming period B-side 'Fare Thee Well' which would have filled in at least one of these holes? An extra couple of songs of depth and warmth would have made all the difference.
Still, considering that this was billed as a 'covers' album first and foremost and the amount of questionable commercial choices taken (just check out the then-hip thermal image close-up of Crosby on the front cover - and the advert inside to buy a 'fine print' version of it, which I doubt many fans did somehow given that it must be one of the least flattering images of Croz ev-uh) it's not that bad. There were a thousand career paths Crosby could have taken in the early 1990s: this isn't one of the expected ones and it doesn't compare to such walks through the mountain as 'If I Could Only Remember My Name' before it or the CPR albums to come, simply because there's so little 'Croz' here. However, it's better than silence and at times it's nice to hear Crosby purely as a singer rather than doubling as a songwriter. With a different production, less noisy guest stars and a couple of deeper songs, original or otherwise, this could have been a strong contender. Instead it remains the least necessary to own of all the CSN albums, if only because it features less of CS or N than any of their other records.
'Hero' is the one out-and-out classic on the album, even if the production is more obtrusive here than elsewhere. Croz had become good friends with co-writer Phil Collins after the Genesis star got in touch during David's year in prison to say he was a fan and to wish him 'good luck' - as with many inmates, letters were the best means of keeping in touch with the outside world and I would bet that Crosby was a keen letter writer during his time inside. When Phil was working on his 'But Seriously...' mega-hit album in 1989 and wanted a higher harmony part for a pair of surprisingly political CSN-type songs he'd written Croz was the obvious friend to call ('That's Just The Way It Is', which is actually about the opposite and people's power to change society and 'Another Day In Paradise', a stark reminder of homelessness and third-world problems; both are amongst Phil's best songs). Crosby in turn asked for Collins' help on his covers record, the pair starting this song from scratch when Phil admitted he didn't have any spare songs (and marking one of the few times Croz ever worked with anyone else, S and N apart). The end result is a pretty good hybrid for both men's styles: it has Collins' big booming sinagalong tune and straightforward common time walking pace tempo (both common to songwriting but unusual for Croz), but a very Crosby set of words about the world being upside down and more unjust than it should be. In most stories the line between good and evil is easy: the hero always wins the maiden and he 'never had to wonder what was right or wrong - he just knew', something that appeals to his comic-book wife and the voracious reader who wants to feel safe and secure. In real life the narrator struggles to live by the same philosophy: he tried to be kind, he ends up hurting someone, while someone with bad intentions always seems to win. In a turbulent middle eight, that sounds like the main part of the song playing backwards in a mirror, the narrator then kills his maiden with his kiss. The lyric could have been basic and runs out of things to say before the end (when we get a straight repeat of the first part) but features some real Crosby nuggets along the way: there is no bright light surrounding the 'hero' just 'shadow and shade, black and white, the same as everyone else. Crosby then talks about 'my friend and I searching through the darkness to find the breaks in the sky', he and Phil looking for hope to offer the listener. Listen out too for the relish with which Crosby singing about how the villain 'should' go to jail, not the hero! Dismissed at the time as being a lightweight song, this is actually a pretty good attempt to fit what this album was meant to do: keep the essence of Crosby but make it tidier, prettier and more commercial than usual to get as many sales as possible. I'm surprised in retrospect this single didn't sell better: it has real crossover appeal without annoying audiences who want Crosby to sound like his old self too much. Only the sad fact that Phil's harmonies don't fit David's lead as well as David's harmonies once fitted Phil's and the slightly cloying, digital production landscape prevent this from being a late-period classic. It's also easily the best song Phil Collins ever had a hand in, his deft commercial touch given three-dimensional depth by Crosby's contribution.
'Too Young To Die' starts off so well. Over an 'In My Dream's style acoustic twirl (actually played by ex-Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon) David tells us that he recalls his so-called mis-spent youth with pride, his days of cruising down the road fast in his car meaning far much to him in adult life for the chance of being 'alive' than any of the lessons he should have been learning. From thereon in even a sweet Nash harmony part can't save this basic Jimmy Webb song which, in typical style, ends up rooted in place repeating the same riff over and over for nearly six full minutes while the lyrics talk about 'freedom' 'flying' and 'rule-breaking'. 'Life doesn't come with a warranty!' run the passionate lyrics as the narrator still believes in living fast and feeling alive, at any age, but the music sounds like an old man asleep in front of the fire in his slippers. After all, the whole song is built round the tagline 'too fast for comfort', performed at such a slow speed it sounds like dawdling. Things get better for the harmonious chorus ('sweet ol' racing car of mine...') and it's tagline that even now, in middle age, the narrator gets the same feeling of being invincible, 'too young to die', he once always had whenever he drives. However this is just a pair of headlights flashing in the night and even the slowed-down, simplified ending ('When I die I don't want to go to heaven, I just wanna drive my beautiful machine') is flat and lifeless, with even Crosby not managing to get through the layers of ickiness with the clichéd final words. The best you an say about this song is that at least it's catchier and more thought out than Crosby's own 'Drive My Car' from the album before, but it's still not a very good song and the lines about 'finding peace in losing control' also sound dangerous from someone who very nearly went to prison again for crashing his motorbike at speed into a fence that could have killed someone. Jimmy Webb's original came out just a few weeks before Crosby's on his 'Suspending Disbelief' album. Sung with a very Jeff Pevar-style guitar attack and arena-style drumming it's a more happy-go-lucky, aggressive take than Crosby's version and lacks even David's little bit of magic. Crosby guests on that version though, alongside JD Souther (who was once with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band - guess which one he was!) and Eagle Don Henley.
'Old Soldier' finds Crosby and Nash much more at home on a song by pal Marc Cohn (Crosby's favourite writer of 'this' generation, after always naming Joni for the 1960s and Jackson Browne for the 1970s). This slow piano song, with its unusual chord structure and curious time signature feels more like a Crosby song than any on the album - even his own - and would have made for a fine 'CCPR' collaboration. Though Cohn was a generation (sixteen years?) younger than Crosby, what most appealed was probably the reflective lyrics about having lived long and hard as an 'old soldier' looks back on a busy life and is invited to remember past triumphs. The song is realistic enough to recognise a generation 'not getting any younger' but recognises that old age isn't all one way, that 'you've still got that hunger burning in you now'. By and large CSN had stopped singing about 'their' generation somewhere around the early 1980s when they all began to learn their careers were in jeopardy and they'd be better off pretending to be young and trendy. So it's with some relief Crosby picks up the mantle again, if only briefly and via another writer. The song does lack a little something extra that CSN would surely have thrown in there however: it floats and it nods it's head in respect, but doesn't really do much more than that. There's no sense of raging injustice a la 'Long Time Gone', no passion as per 'Ohio' and no great message as heard on 'Carry On'. Instead it's a song that speaks about not quite retiring while once again heading for the pipe and slippers in musical terms. Still, it's a pretty tune and one of the best on the album, with Crosby and particularly Nash adding just the right sense of awe and grit. Cohn's version appeared on the 1992 various artists Olympic Games compilation 'Barcelona Gold', for reasons best known to the compilers and features much more Nash-style harmonica and a much gruffer vocal, though otherwise the arrangements are much the same.
'Through Your Hands' is the one song here that doesn't quite improve on the original by John Hiatt (it's from 1990 album 'Stolen Moments'). Crosby's version, unusually, is prettier and more commercial, with an added electric guitar riff and a bigger jump between the quiet and loud passages, whereas Hiatt more or less screams throughout. It's a good song, but not a great Crosby song as the often awkward metaphors ('Past the scientific darkness, past the fireflies that float') sometimes get stuck in his throat. Plus he sings with much more of a croak than the rest of the album (did he have a cold that day?) The one song here recommended by producer Don Was, on 'holiday' from working with The Rolling Stones, you can tell Crosby's heart isn't really in it. Still, the powerful punch of a nagging chorus that has an angel appear to urge the world to get on with living and speaks so eloquently even the narrator believes it ('What am I not doing? My voice cannot command! In time I will move mountains!') is memorable. The best part, though, is the un-credited guitar work: oddly for such well-documented sleevenotes there is no mention of who performs the blistering Stills-like solos (though Bernie Leadon is down for acoustic work again). Could it be Stills himself playing more simply than usual? Or is it old buddy Danny Kortchmar (whose work also sometimes sounds like Stills')? Unfortunately, given the point of the song, this is the track on the album that rather slips past your ears.
'Yvette In English' is just weird. I think I see where Crosby and Joni were heading: it's a romanticised version of their own first meeting in a club in California, only here we're in a cafe in Paris. A strong alluring female 'slips in sideways like a cat' speaking English so most people don't even notice her, but Crosby's narrator is smitten. He tells her that if he was a painter 'I'd paint her from toe to head' and enjoys basking over a cup of 'instant bliss', more interested in her than the beverage. However, like much of this album, this song doesn't 'sound' like a bright, brief, shining love affair. It sounds more like a dull day in front of the TV if anything, without either writer's usual quirks and just a boring flamenco guitar part thrown in to liven things up (and even that doesn't fit the decidedly French setting). This isn't love, or even lust, it's just a natter over coffee. It's not just the music either: the lyrics try too hard to be clever, with an ABAB rhyming scheme that flops more than it hits ('Reaching for words and drawing blanks...in a bistro on the left bank'). Where this song succeeds in summing up Yvette's contradictory character, nervy but focussed, why yet pen, giggly yet deadly serious. This song feels dangerous if you're paying close enough attention to it, with its sudden switches from exotica to pinging warning sounds from a synth, but it's not the journey of an innocent seduced it might have been and like many of the songs on this album doesn't really have much of an ending: after coffee she moved off and clicks away on her high heels, the narrator left none the wiser. To be honest nor are we.
'Thousand Roads' sounded promising in concert as a Dylanesque rule-breaking acoustic ballad (as seen in the CSN 'Acoustic Concert' of 1991). It's very Crosby in the way that it defies all natural songwriting logic while trying to answer a 'fistfull of questions' that no one on earth can solve, defying melody structure and gravity as the closest it can come to summing up an ever-changing life is the 'twist of an acrobat in the air, a twist to the knife'. Recorded for Crosby's most commercial record, however, all the interesting bits have been tidied away: though the song still talks about 'finding no patented path to set you free', it doesn't sound like a long list of questions, just a curious aggressive bluesy mood-piece that keeps threatening to blast into full-speed but never quite gets there. The lyrics still feature some great Crosbyisms, especially his pay-off that he doesn't have all the answers so we shouldn't listen to him as he walks down his life-path either ('Besides I wouldn't know where you wanted to go and it's probably not the same place as me!') and the reprise of the song 'Laughing' that finds him realising that humour is as close to understanding the world as he's going to get. But much of this song still sounds more like a man grasping with working out quite what he's trying to do - his bluesy cue for the Any Fairweather-Low solo ('talk to me!') taking on a new meaning in context. Crosby sounds lost - which is not all that common, he quite often sounds lost and doubly so in the CPR period or immediately after losing girlfriend Christine in 1970. But this is a different kind of 'lost', brushed off with awkward humour that doesn't quite work.
'Columbus' is nautical but nice, a sea-faring song that sounds on first hearing to be at one with the many schooner-filled songs in Crosby's back pages. But usually when Crosby sings about the sea he does so with a metaphor: a life-force that's bigger than him or any one human, pulling him on or nature getting on with stuff oblivious to his hurt and confused human feelings. Here it's just the backdrop to a Noah Brazil song about which I can't seem to find anything: nobody knows who the writer is, nobody else seems to have recorded the song and the only online references I can find all refer back to this album. Like 'Hero', it's a song about wanting to believe in an easy and safe world. The narrator, a whaler, has to stay safely behind his prey and likens it to his life back on 'land' too - if he gets too close to a woman they risk hurting each other; stay too far apart he gets lonely. So, in a line that's very Crosby, when things 'get twisted and crazy and crowded' he sits by the fire and remembers when he used to have a hero in Columbus, exploring new worlds and navigating them all down so other people could follow. Of course here, in the 21st century, Columbus seems like one of the biggest jerks of all time. He stole from natives he often killed, encouraged others to follow in his footsteps pillaging and gave most of his riches not to the people who'd prosper from them but the Royalty who already had more gold than sense in the hope it might give him a bit more 'power'. Columbus in reality is exactly the person no one should be dreaming of as a role model - but that's not the point, it's the romantic heroic idea before it became dashed that's the point of the song. Until the moment he set foot on another land Columbus was a hero and this is a song about needing heroes and people to believe in, on an album largely about needing heroes as well. A yearning middle eight reminds us that 'the tide ebbs and flows' but our heroes never should: they have to stay heroic and bright and bold and wonderful or what is the point of having them and what is the point of trying to act like them? In the best marriage of music and words on the whole album this song slowly sleepwalks by, it's not-quite-real air suiting a song that follows a cormorant dive into the water in 'our' world and wonders about the mermaids he meets on the way down. This is romantic, lurid, escapist fare but born from a world that's often too scary.
Crosby discovered 'Helpless Heart' after Phil Collins took it with him to the 'Hero' sessions and told him he'd sound good singing it (Phil performed it too during his 1995 tour). He does, even though it's not the natural sort of Crosby song at all, being a schmaltzy romantic ballad that sounds like so many other out there. It even comes with the same tempo throughout, no weird chord changes and no real surprises from first note to last. Crosby sounds suitably loved-up and works well as the scared and anxious lover wondering how to tell his loved one that he's fallen madly and helplessly in love with her. He feels a 'thread' tying him to his beloved and a 'dream deep inside my head' that compels him on, but still he can't quite believe that he's been sitting still in his flat for a month trying to pluck up the courage to tell her. He thinks he's being stupid and gives way to a sudden rush of emotion in the chorus and promises his devotion before realising that actually he's strong - most people would have given up or gone mad or found someone easier to get to know by now. Simple as this song is, sickly as it is (with a romanticised string arrangement that doesn't deserve to be here) and as ill-fitting as it's naked emotion is compared to the other album songs spoken in metaphor, it may well be the best cover song here. You can hear the author's original on his 1986 album 'Strange Moon' but it lacks Crosby's soul and feel.
'Coverage' is the biggest venture into something new, however. Bonnie Hayes recorded the very 1980s original for her album 'Good Clean Fun' in 1982 and it's a quirky song about demanding attention played in the short-term-memory-span music of the day. This being a very 1990s album (with the drums lower in the mix and other instruments along with the synth) this arrangement doesn't work quite so well and Crosby tries gamely but sounds a little lost in a world clearly not built for him (Kipp Lennon, of Crosby favourites Venice who guests on many of the songs here, sounds much more at home and steals the show). Crosby probably picked the song because in many ways it's his album manifesto: He wants to be noticed! He wants to be heard! He wants to be 'covered', even. But, he sighs to an uncaring world, 'you will not cover me'. The verses look in more detail at why the narrator feels so aggrieved, because there are more chances than ever for young talent: the TV, the radio (if this was a modern cover you could throw in a whole middle eight about social media right here), but even though the narrator keeps the TV on all night so it can 'whisper' to them he still hears nothing he can connect with and nobody talking directly to him. The final verse tells us why things failed: 'dream traffic', too much hoping and not enough playing (which fits the themes around why this album was made), while by the time the song came out it was too late: it 'blew the demographic' which had moved on to something else. By both pleading to be heard and mocking himself to trying to fit in with a new musical movement he doesn't believe in, Crosby just about gets away with this very different sort of a song, built around a catchy but impersonal 'Human league' style riff played by Bonnie herself.
The album ends with weepathon 'Natalie' by Stephen Bishop, who also wrote songs for Art Garfunkel and Hollie Allan Clarke. 'Natalie' is about the pick of them, sounding more sincere and heartfelt than most Bishop ballads which tend to go for the heartstrings by appealing to the lowest common denominator. This song about future hopes being dashed by cruel life events sounds as if it at least started as a 'real life' song, with the narrator falling in love with a girl at a schooldesk and growing up with her, still every bit as much in love. What he doesn't count on is that she grows up and leaves him behind and no longer wants to carry out their shared dreams: their bike-ride to China, their 'sailing away on a bottle-top'. She grows up and becomes an adult and has no time for his make-believe and it breaks his heart. He compares the first time he says 'I love you' to his sweetheart on a crowded carousel when he returns from the school holidays, to the last when she 'goes wild', with the hint that she takes an overdose of drugs (perhaps the part of the song that appealed most to Crosby). The narrator is left, stunned, wondering how his beautiful naive innocent little girl could ever have changed and distanced herself from him. He speaks to her picture, he calls out her name and talks to the walls but she won't hear - the first time we hear that middle eight we think it's because they've split, but by the second time we know that it's because she died. That's a clever and sweet little lyric and I'd have bet my numbered fine art print of the ugly album cover (if I'd bought one!) that Bishop had someone real in mind when he wrote this song, even if the ending might be made up (I'm willing to bet she really was named 'Natalie' as well, given that it's an impossible song for a songwriter to rhyme - sensibly Bishop doesn't try). It's the music and arrangement (Bishop's nicely arranged but badly sung acoustic version didn't come out until 2003's 'The Demo Album', which might be how Crosby first heard it) I have problems with, which are so sickly sweet I feel like a trip to the dentist every time I play it. Crosby is usually sharper than this, with sugary backing vocals (by Kipp and Bishop himself), a howling guitar part in the middle and twinkling synths even if his shocked vocal gets this song about loss exactly right. His extended ending, in which repeats slowly 'that was the last time I said I loved you to Natalie' to let it sink in, is beautiful and haunting, taking as long as he possibly can so that he doesn't have to move on with his life just yet. In other words, it's a draw: much as I want to laugh at this song and see all the major problems with it, something about it always makes me want to cry, first time or last time hearing this recording.
Overall, then, 'Thousand Roads' is an odd little record. It lacks Crosby's usual distinctive style and is about as unrevealing as any covers album will ever be - particularly from a writer so used to pouring out his heart in song. This album is a shot at the big time that failed, a commodity designed to sell even though it's often marketable, in the same way that it's this ugliest looking, most generically sleeved Crosby album that comes with the limited edition print. But it also has heart, occasionally, good songs some of the time and just enough heartfelt Crosby lead vocals to keep the song together. It's always interesting to hear what a singer's favourite songs of the moment are, especially when they're obscure, and while few of them are substitutes for Croz's own and aren't necessarily the ones I and many other fans would have chosen for him to sing most of them do share either an album theme or a structure that are very Crosbyish. There are a thousand ways that 'Thousand Roads' could have been made - you can probably think of a few yourselves and you might get lost if you try - some of them no doubt sounded much better, but many probably sounded worse. Losing might be better, but victory is sweet, old soldier or not. Crosby sadly won't be back with a full-blown (non-CPR/CSN) album until 2012, but at least it's a work that will feature less cover songs.