Monday, 30 October 2017
David Crosby “Sky Trails” (2017)
She’s Got To Be Somewhere/Sky Trails/Sell Me A Diamond/Before Tomorrow Falls On Love/Here It’s Almost Love/Capitol/ Amelia/Somebody Home/Curved Air/Home Free
‘Where is that brave new world we used to talk about and smile?’
Croz is back with his first new album for…eleven months. Eleven months?! I remember the days when it took eleven years between records, so it seems safe to say that Croz is on something on a creative role in old age. Never one to do things the ‘normal’ way round, he seems to be writing with the prolificness and passion of youth these days, with three albums in five years now putting all of his peers (except, obviously, Neil Young) to shame. But is being so prolific a good thing? I was looking forward to this album it sounded more like ‘my’ Croz than last year’s ‘Lighthouse’. A bigger band sound, less guest stars and songs co-written with David’s talented son James Raymond. Titbits handed to us from Croz’s twitter-feed sounded extraordinary: this was a set of songs that came out of nowhere, recorded for the most part before the paint had dried on the old ones with Croz working with some of his favourite people. Croz still sounds better than he has in decades, his gorgeous voice shining out above everything else here and he still has an ear for beauty and an eye for how ugly the world can be sometimes. That part of our old Croz is still very much intact and maybe even growing in stature as the years go by and the world gets worse and needs heroes like Croz to try to put things right. But if ‘Lighthouse’ had a problem it was that it all sounded the same as each other, whilst sounding nothing like anything Croz had ever quite given us before: slow, still, quiet meditative acoustic ballads that was closer to new age than anything else in the CSNY catalogue. This album has a similar problem in that it’s an album that sounds much the same as each other but sounds like nothing else Croz has ever given us before, making it hard to sink your musical teeth into.
What does it sound like? Well, in a way it’s the album many people were expecting Croz to give us in the 1980s before drugs stole his creativity away. Recorded with funky drumming, blarey horns and a very retro synth sound, it sounds like it could have been released in the mid-1980s with nobody batting an eyelid. It’s the Crosby equivalent of Stills’ ‘Right By You’ and Nash’s ‘Innocent Eyes’, a largely noisy record of sounds whizzing past your ear while sounding slicker than Grace Slick’s Starship on top of an oil slick. In short, it sounds not unlike Croz’s beloved 1980s band Steely Dan. In years to come this record will probably go down as a ‘tribute’ to deceased Steely Dan singer Walter Becker, who in one of those cosmic coincidences that seem to happen a lot on this site died the week before Croz released this record. We know, though, that Croz has had these songs ready to go for a year and these recordings all but finished for months now so a tribute seems unlikely. Even so, that’s what this record is: Croz the professional, with songs that everyone can identify with, set to a rigid time structure. Everything sounds as if it’s been squeezed into shape, with Croz’s jazzy stylings re-set into a backing that makes him sound more palatable and mainstream. In a sense this record is a ‘pair’ with ‘Lighthouse’, a largely acoustic raw album that saw Crosby doing the sort of things no other artist would dare do in free-form. Croz has never divided himself up this way before (this is more the sort of thing Neil would do) and it doesn’t always work. There’s a single great record in there between the two recent efforts, but ‘Lighthouse’ was the kind of record only a fan could love – and ‘Sky Trails’ feels a little bit too much like an album only the general public not used to how brilliantly unique Crosby can be. Occasionally that new sophisticated groove works: I rather like ‘Here It’s Almost Sunset’ which is so Croz-like and so un-Croz-like all at the same time, with its saxophone groove and frog-like synths where Croz is a city boy now, no longer meditating in a field. The album’s lone acoustic song, the title track, also really stands out as a stray raw diamond in a field of designer pearls. For the most part, though, this is Crosby’s most impersonal record (at least since his ‘covers’ set ‘A Thousand Roads’) and it feels as if we’re a bit removed from him for the most part.
I ought to like the sound of this record though as it’s what I was asking for across the last two CDs, the mainstream poppy ‘Croz’ and the new agey ‘Lighthouse’ and on paper it should be easily the best of the three. One of the best things Croz ever did was CPR, his band with guitarist Jeff Pevar and keyboardist son James Raymond. Both are back for this record (the first time for Jeff since 2001) and James even produced the record. That jazzy musical setting combined with personal lyrics theorising about all of life’s darker hues is exactly what I’ve longed for and this band is a talented one made up of many old faces. Even Becca Stevens, one of the weaker links on ‘Lighthouse’, has suddenly found out how to meld her voice with Croz’s and the results are fabulous on the title track. Croz always sounds great singing from the heart using big fat jazz chords and even returns to the writer who inspired him to this in the first place, Joni Mitchell, with a sweet cover of her song ‘Amelia’ (from her jazziest album ‘Hejira’ in 1976). But something sounds slightly lost: there’s no swing to this album’s jazz, no sense of experimentation, no sense of space, no sense of personality as most songs tend to come with the same intense bass-drum-synth feel to them. Instead this is very much the Steely Dan school of making music: write monotonous songs about an ever-changing world that sound rigid and unfeeling even when it’s all about being fragile and broken. The effect is seeing an old friend you know really well and who always told you the truth in their scruffy clothes dressed up in a tuxedo for a cocktail party – fun at first, frustrating when you want to chat deeply and personally and find they don’t have time to talk to you anymore because they’re schmoozing the young guys over there who still might actually buy records these days. You know why your friend has to do it, but you don’t like it all the same. Surely everyone would like your friend more if they were just themself? That’s the person you loved after all and it’s a bit late for them to change.
As with last year’s review, the parts of this record that work best are the ones that deal with the outside world. With this the first CSNY-related album released since Trump’s rise to power (as opposed to a few pot-shots taken during his campaigning) Croz feels more desperate and disillusioned than ever here. Time and time again across these lyrics he despairs not so much for the present but the steel iron door that’s now been bolted on the past: an idealist into his seventies, he still believed that the American hippie dream might happen, but not now with the greedy people firmly back in charge. Was it only nine years ago CSNY were playing happily at Obama’s inauguration? Now the band are in disarray and the country is worse, with Croz spending even more time than normal attacking the greedy powers-that-be on ‘Capitol’ (a re-write of ‘Night-time For The Generals’) and ‘Before Tomorrow Falls On Love’, a song that’s much more about Crosby’s baby boomer generation falling out of love with their lot in love than it is with his own love life (only ‘Somebody Home’ appears to be a love song for Jan – and then it’s a bit of a weird one at that). If ‘Lighthouse’ was a record of hope, where light still spread out from a beacon and tried to heal the world through meditation and deep thought and common sense, ‘Skytrails’ is an album where the world’s turned another stage into the darkness and left Croz worried for the future.
In a way though this album is Crosby’s response to Nash’s ‘Earth and Sky’ forty years on, split between the lure of the ‘sky’ (and unlimited horizons) and the safety of ‘home’. Notably another theme of this album is ‘home’, something that crops up in the title of two of the songs and the thoughts of many of the other lyrics. Croz has been a busy boy lately, touring more than ever with short bursts here and there as he struggles to pay the bills decades after all his money went on unpaid back taxes and a drug habit that makes Pete Doherty and Keith Richards look like amateurs. He’s spent far too many nights away from home, but it’s a home he wouldn’t have at all if he wasn’t out on the road all the hours he can and that dichotomy sounds as if it’s a major part of this album’s ‘feel’ too. We start with a character whose ‘lost’ and needs grounding (is it a return of Drew Barymore, my guess as the inspiration for ‘Lighthouse’s best song ‘The City’?), as she (and Crosby, sensing something of himself in her) sets off to see what life has to throw at her under the big empty sky of the city. Croz knows, though, that he only found his own personal salvation in a place he can call home and it shines out like a beacon across this record: a place to be yourself (even if, ironically, it’s accompanied by a backing that’s best described as anonymous). The best thing about this album is that it starts ‘far away’ from us and gradually grows closer as each track goes by: The character in that opening track is lost and searching. The narrator of the second, title track is in exile, wondering why ‘I was so careless with your heart’ and trying to move closer to home. ‘Sell Me A Diamond’ despairs over the music business and ‘Before Tomorrow Falls On Love’ despairs over the loss of hippie ideals. ‘Here It’s Almost Sunset’ despair over anything ever going right again, but loves the thought of suddenly being more creative in old age and having ideas shining brighter while everything else grows ‘darker’. ‘Capitol’ takes more pot-shots at greedy leaders but hopes to overthrow them one day. Joni’s ‘Amelia’ is about being lost and distracted by the wrong symbols in the sky when you should be turning home not looking for ‘false alarms’ of better futures. ‘Somebody Home’ is the joy of calling home when you’re away and on the road, the joy of knowing that your old life continues without you in absence. ‘Curved Air’ is a weird song celebrating being different that sounds like the most mainstream pop Croz has ever made, the sound of a one-off desperate for ‘solid ground’ to ‘earth’ him so he doesn’t fly away. And finally we end on ‘Home Free’, a track that finds the path between these two opposites. Only by being safe and protected by loved ones at home is Croz’s inspiration truly free to fly and it’s something he’s been looking for his whole life.
Safety used to come from being dangerous and different, but now it comes from being ‘normal’. That’s been the truly big division between CSNY in recent years, as the traditionally family-loving Nash and grounded Young both abandon their families of thirty years for younger women and the former hell-raisers Crosby and Stills settle down and enjoy the stability they never really had in their youth. Crosby, especially, has never enjoyed such security and the antics of Nash and Young seem crazy to him, just as his wayward days once seemed to them in younger life. Much of this album and ‘Lighthouse’ seem designed as a ‘message’ to his colleagues about the joys of family life and having someone whose loved you for decades and who has shared their life with you, good times and bad. Nash’s ‘This Path Tonight’ was about the sky, the sheer joy of the unknown and daring yourself instead of settling into a rut, be it lover or band. Nash’s ‘Beneath The Waves’ was about letting the good ship CSNY sink, no longer willing to put in the effort to keep it afloat and he saved most of his anger for Crosby, citing his rude emails in the wake of Nash’s autobiography ‘Wild Tales’ as the moment the quartet went sour. Crosby responds, so it seems, with ‘Sky Trails’ title track: a sweet olive branch of friendship, regretting hurting an old friend and wishing he could take back some of the ways he hurt him. And yet the sentiments behind them stand true: Croz knows better than anyone how it feels to stand in front of a window staring out at a blue sky and wondering how great the world outside his door can be. But he was wrong everytime he did it – the only real sanctity is home and ‘the dream fades’ the further you get from home as you stop wishing and start living. ‘You’re the one who feels like home to me’ Crosby sighs to his old musical partner, kicking himself for ‘being careless with your heart’ and writing a letter that never gets sent as he doesn’t know where his friend lives anymore now Nash has set off for a new life. It’s a sweet moment and the song from this album that will perhaps last the longest, extending the CSNY story-in-song by another track.
By and large, though, ‘Sky Trails’ feels too flimsy to last alongside the very best of Crosby’s work. The problem lies not with the songs as such – lyricwise this is by far the best of the trio of recent Croz works, sympathetic and thoughtful but in a much deeper way than the sometimes fake feel of the last two. Both the title track and ‘Here It’s Almost Sunset’ can sit alongside Lighthouse’s ‘The Things We Do For Love’ as evidence that Croz still has the power to move in a big way when the performances match the ideas. But Croz still struggles to write the melodies he used to in his youth, with too many of these songs sounding forgettable compared to the genius of yore. Worst still, the production of this album leaves a good half of it sounding unlistenable, a mess of pop, jazz and whatever the hell counts for modern music these days (a genre all on its own and so bad nobody’s given it a name yet: ‘anonyrock’ is what I call it, anonymous and forgettable in the extreme). Croz can do many things with his talent: epic choral pieces, stinging rock and roll, cautionary protest songs, beautiful ballads, self-deprecating humour and those special ‘what the hell is going on?!?’ poetic songs that only Croz can write. One thing he can’t do is sound like everybody else – and alas that’s exactly what he’s done here, with just a few passing hues of Crosby colour just to tease us with how good he can sound. Is this transaction the key to letting go? Sadly not, for the most part, as Crosby returns to many of the people who helped make his songs special in the past – and then tries to do something new that doesn’t really work. Far from trailblazing, this is alas Croz at his most ordinary and rather than the sky being the limit it’s another of those recent CSNY albums that’s too timid to do anything approaching what the band used to do without thinking. Still, that title track especially reveals how beautiful, pioneering and clever Croz can be at his best, so here’s hoping that the next album in the sequence has the hope of being the greatest of the lot.
Let’s start our review of ‘She’s Got To Be Somewhere’ with the biggest talking point: a two-minute fade-out featuring horns, saxophones, a heavy drumbeat and cheery feel-good pop music. While the rest of the song is more Crosby-friendly, mainly thanks to those harmonies, this section comes as a shock. The most ‘Steely Dan’ moment of Croz’s most ‘Steely Dan’ record yet, it seems completely at odds with everything else Crosby has ever given us before – a tightened version of the free-flowing jazz that we’re used to hearing. There’s even a robotic vocoder voice intoning ‘she’s gotta be…’ that’s straight out the 1980s. There’s even, good grief, an actual singalong chorus. If the backing sounds nothing like Crosby, though, then the words are at least more ‘normal’ (i.e. weird). This is a coming of age song, Croz seemingly recounting the tale of the same girl last heard on ‘The City’ where the female character is ‘on a mission with a graphic twist’, young and hungry, desperate to make her mark on a big city so everyone knows her name. ‘Pack up the Eldorado’ she cries as she packs up her belongings to make her mark on the world and sets off for the ‘land of blue skies’ like a character from an ELO song. At this stage in her journey she’s much earlier on in her tale, still upbeat and positive, a million miles away from the traps waiting to catch her out. Unusually Croz is content to watch her progress without offering up any real warnings and this song doesn’t do his usual thing of worrying about the future so much as strut in a good-time-rock kind of a way (a ‘Steely Dan’ way if you will). Any fan expecting a similarly moody masterpiece to both predecessor ‘Lighthouse’ and Nash’s ‘This Path Tonight’, full of reconciliation and guilt, will be caught out: have we ever heard Crosby quite this happy? The result is a song that’s a nice attempt to navigate unchartered territory and it’s sure to appeal to the Steely-Dan end of Crosby’s fanbase. For me though is all too bright and lacks Crosby’s usual shading and original brilliance, being the sort of song anybody with a synth and a modicum of talent could come up with.
Title track ‘Sky Trails’ is much more like it. A moody tentative acoustic piece, it’s easily the highlight of the album and gives us – so I suspect – more of the ‘real’ Croz than we’ve had in a while. You wouldn’t know it from his interviews or his twitter feed, but there must be some part of Crosby that feels the pain of the sudden violent collapse of CSNY after nearly fifty years together or trying to get it together. Croz, of course, hasn’t told us what this song is about but it sounds like the hangover the morning after his temper got the better of him, worrying about whether he really has just lost his best friend by being rude to Nash. The clue is in the amount of nautical references, the latest in a long of CSN songs to do this and perhaps a reply to Nash’s own CSN-ending song ‘Beneath The Waves’, as Crosby tells us that he’s in ‘uncharted waters’ here, trying to apologise without wanting to take back anything he said because he still believes it to be true (Nash did rather use Crosby’s backstory to sell his own book, but it’s not as if Crosby’s own autobiography was any kinder!) Crosby knows he should be getting out of bed, but his heart is heavy and he’d rather not face the world, the ‘dream fading’ in more ways than just the one he was slumbering to. He wonders why he was so ‘careless’ with someone’s heart when they’ve been through so much together and they feel like ‘home’. Crosby is in need of home: he’s waking up in some unknown hotel room in some strange town and wonders where his old friend/partner is, realising that after a lifetime in each other’s pockets they no longer know where each other are anymore. The addition of Becca Stevens, sounding much more like Maia Sharp than her rather intrusive presence on ‘Lighthouse’, is a clever move, both because she sounds stunningly beautiful here on a song that really suits her style (like a younger Carole King but better) and because it puts distance between what this song is really about, turning it into a duet for two lovers. This won’t fool CSN fans though who’ll recognise both the lost, haunted feel of Crosby’s ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’ album of 1971 and the glorious scat-singing improvisations Crosby-Nash made a speciality. Crosby, though, sounds lost and uncertain without Nash alongside him and Becca sounds like a ghost. ‘Please tell me where I am!’ the song pleads, desperate for direction both out of this strange town and in life, recalling ‘Where Will I Be?’ in its spooky madness and muted howl of pain. An exquisite song, beautifully sung, this softer jazz lament gives Crosby much more scope for revealing his ‘real’ self than the rest of this rather over-produced album without being as boring as much of ‘Lighthouse’.
‘Sell Me A Diamond’ gets on with the rest of this poppy album as if pretending nothing has happened and we haven’t just seen into Crosby’s soul. Instead he’s back attacking consumerist society and the idea of being sold something for ‘free’ when it really comes at a very high price. He’s promised a free diamond – sounds good right? The promise of beauty surely can never be dimmed. ‘Makes conflict free – sounds good to me’ is this song’s chilled-out ending, the closest this album gets to hippie utopia of old. But is that ‘conflict free’ as in ‘no conflict’ or is that ‘conflict is easier because you’ve been paid off?’ Crosby’s vocal is halfway pure and halfway mocking, while Jeff Pevar’s grungy solo could be either angry or passionate promotion. Crosby though hears the couple behind him arguing over one and realises how ugly it can be. A song that’s clearly inspired by Crosby’s struggling financial shape of the past twenty years (he’s still paying for his escapades in the 1980s and back taxes, living hand-to-mouth in contrast to many of his peers), this is a song about the value behind money and currency and the idea that we have greater gifts to give each other than money. The song then peels back to a wider idea of people always after a free lunch: Crosby’s given up reading the news because the promises of certain people will never be realised and he can see it’s all lies (there’s no mention of an orange baboon with tiny hands in The White House, but you sense that’s where Crosby is heading). As on ‘Camera’, Crosby is cheered by the sound of children laughing, pure joy that money could never match, though what this song really recalls is Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ where a busker plays his heart out for spare change, while a millionaire rockstar walks past worrying about their millions (as covered by Crosby in many concerts and The Byrds’ 1973 reunion album). Alas this promising song is, like much of this album, overcooked and the sense is that Crosby has dressed up in a shirt and tie to tell us about the horrors of capitalism. Everything is too clean for this sort of a song, too neat, too tidy: it needs a sense of raw power but even the guitar solo – the best thing about this song – feels tidied away in a box. Once again you get the feeling Croz has been listening to too many Steely Dan records instead of his own imagination.
‘Before Tomorrow Falls On Love’ is a song that surely sounds beautiful in concert where it’s given space to live and breathe, with its sighing intimate Crosby crooning vocal and exquisite big fat James Raymond jazz piano chords. The lyrics too are pretty gorgeous, a reflection not so much on the end of a love affair as a generation. The end of CSN seem to have hurt Crosby more in a ‘gee we were going to prove them wrong and change the world’ sense than a personal one, as here he laments lost opportunities on a song that recalls ‘Wasted On The Way’ and a dash of ‘Delta’. ‘Where’s that brave new world we used to talk about and smile?’ Crosby sighs. I’m also willing to bet my Crosby CDs that the line ‘an untidy kind of love…music to balance cold dark man’ is Crosby’s summary of what CSNY once stood for and it’s a pretty great summary I have to say. Alas, as if to prove how much Crosby has moved on from the ‘old days’ already this song is even less like CSNY than usual. It’s a slow jazz song, again far more in keeping with Steely Dan music than anything Crosby has ever done before. Even on an album that insists on doing that sort of thing quite a lot it seems a shame: this song should be cosy, intimate and moving, an emotional heartfelt confessional. Instead the ugly slap-bass and the smoky effect on the keyboards keeps getting in the way of the emotion and Crosby’s vocal isn’t one of his best, all too audibly take thirty or forty or something similar when he’s forgotten the emotion of what he’s meant to be singing. The result, tragically, isn’t as moving as it ought to be as Crosby waves time on CSN with more fondness than Nash (if, oddly, not as much as Young on ‘Walk Like A Giant’ from 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ – odd because Neil quit the band more than anyone). This is a moving song if you can read it rather than hear it though, as Crosby laments losing not just a chance to mean something to people but a ‘chance to battle this loneliness’ as he’s rather forced into being a solo act.
‘Here It’s Almost Sunset’ finally finds a way of making the Crosby/Steely Dan groove work. Perhaps taking note of his ‘missing years’ in his drugs haze of the 1980s, Crosby retreats there for this song about worrying that he’s running out of time and his desperation to say things before it is too late. Crosby’s urgency, though, hits the laidback backing head on and it’s the contrast between the two that makes this song one of the best on the album: Crosby wants to rally with the desperation of his youth but he’s too content and cosy to fight out the way he once would. ‘For better or for worse’ he’s chosen a quieter, humbler domestic life and can’t do what he used to do ‘and yet the music play’s me…setting me free’, Crosby pausing on that last word to make it sound as if it’s the most glorious thing that’s ever happened to him. Suddenly a ghostly choir of voices arrive from nowhere, the one production gimmick on this album that’s really effective, lifting the song above its obstinate earth-bound groove. I’m less keen on the squeaky saxophone which is a step into Steely Dan territory too far for these ears and Crosby’s vocal is still too laidback – he really needs to be the only thing on this song pushing forward, rushing on, desperate to say things. There is, though, much to love about this song as Crosby tells us again how ‘dark’ it is ‘stumbling’ around his career on his own without his colleagues and sighing ‘it’s probably all my fault’. There’s a neat allusion to one of his most popular Byrds songs ‘Tribal Gathering’ too as he struggles to ‘reach the rest of my tribe’ and finds himself cut off from them all. Crosby figures that they are too old for this and should know better, staring out from yet another hotel window and figuring that he’s running out of time to say everything on his mind. And yet the sun – the creativity – is pouring through him ‘brighter’ than ever, even while the rest of the world gets ‘darker’ and ‘blinder’. Crosby cleverly depicts his solo album as ‘crying out loud’ where nobody really listens the way they would if he was still a member of CSN, but as if to prove the point this lightly jazzy song is exactly the sort of thing he could never really have done with the trio, even if the prettier moments of it recalls ‘Arrows’ from 1990’s ‘Live It Up’ LP.
‘Capitol’ is, perhaps, the most traditionally Crosby-like song on the album. He starts the song in awe at the bankers’ ‘temples’, the white marble, the ‘geometric patterns covering the floor’ and the flags that fly from the walls. But it’s all for show, to impress, to make the people who work there think they are above everyone as ‘patriotic souls’ see the spectacle and assume the world powers are better than them. But they’re not, they’re worse, filling their pockets with people’s money and refusing to listen when people complain about their abuse of power. Once more Crosby wonders ‘what are their names?’ as he asks ‘What do they feel?’ when they fleece our money and ‘what do they say?’ when the cameras are ‘turned off’. The title is particularly clever: this is the capital of the banking world, based on capitol and designed to show off what people have versus the people who don’t, even though it’s all paid or with tax-payer’s money anyway. There’s a great daring middle eight as the will of the people is ‘completely ignored’, the rich only fielding their own candidates in elections and laughing when the votes for anyone else ‘aren’t counted’, exactly what happened in our UK elections of 2010 and 2016. Alas, though, this is another of this album’s songs that reads better as a lyric than it is to listen to and the tune seems to have followed along later – quite a lot later. This is another of the most Steely Danified moments of the album, which sadly means it’s all a bit emotionless and a chance for the backing band to do weird and unsuitable things with synths, artificial drums and yet more squealing saxophones. I’m, err, not a fan – and isn’t making a song like this sound like a spectacle rather than allowing it the space it needs to be one rather missing the point of the whole song? This sounds like the sort of thing a yuppie would have been listening to in the 1980s and yet I’m not convinced that this is intended in any ironic sense. Musicwise this is easily the worst moment on the album – thank goodness, then, for a touch of that old Crosby bravery in the lyrics.
‘Amelia’ came as a shock for me when I first heard it as it’s so different for Crosby, an image and metaphor filled song with a real haunting emotional power. And then I realised: it’s a sweet but rather forgettable Joni Mitchell song from 1976 that was rather lost in the middle of ‘Hejira’. Crosby here proves that he’s retained all his old arranging skills, slowing the song down and making it even sadder with the addition of pedal steel guitar, while James Raymond captures Joni’s piano style perfectly. Alas though his lyric is again a little wide of the mark on a song that’s clearly here as a tribute to Crosby’s one-time muse, who so very nearly died last year and her hermit-like existence since (‘I wish that she was here tonight, it’s so hard to obey her sad request of me to kindly stay away’). The song makes much play over a ‘false alarm’, that a couple seem to be drifting apart forever but are really only going their separate ways for a while, until Amelia Earhart, feminist icon and aviator, disappears forever in mysterious circumstances without really meaning to. When Joni wrote it she probably saw much of herself in the pilot who trod new ground every time she got in a plane and who risked her life frequently, but lost her life not at a moment when she was being reckless but when she was happily married and had more to lose. Joni, who knew heartbreak so well, was always seeing red flags that things would go wrong (not least with Nash) but instead married her boyfriend Larry Steele in 1982. In context you can see why Crosby chose this song to cover: it’s an extra little dig at Nash, a reminder of how ‘Our House’ wasn’t quite as perfect as it once seemed and a huge hug for Joni, incommunicado since her brain aneurysm as he celebrates the fact that she didn’t die, that against the odds her illness was a ‘false alarm’ however weakened she may be. Sung with tenderness, if not much power, Crosby has fun on a song so far out of his usual comfort zone and the sky setting, as Earhart looks to the skies with brilliance of what lies next, seems to have inspired much of his own writing across this album. It’s a big improvement on ‘Yvette In English’, if not up to ‘For Free’ or ‘Urge For Going’, the other Mitchell cover songs Crosby has performed over the years.
Far from the skies, though, Crosby is turning to thoughts of domestic bliss at the end of this album and near the end of his life. ‘Somebody Home’ starts where ‘She’s Got To Be Somewhere’ and ‘The City’ left off. The idealistic young girl is being pursued by wolves who want to sleep with her and are only pretending to help her get to the top. But suddenly, on verse two, this song changes. Crosby is no longer a malicious monster but genuinely cares for the model he meets, sensing a kindred spirit and a sense of ‘home’ in his wayward confusing life. Is this, then, the story of his meeting with Jan who was indeed a model when they first met? Suddenly Crosby is shy: far from assuming that he can get something out of furthering her career, he wonders how somebody so brilliant could possibly be interested in someone as useless as him? There’s a sudden rush of beauty from the best horn arrangement on the album (something Steely Dan could never match) as this odd beginning swells into love. Crosby hears her speak for the first time and he now knows that she’s ‘home’. Crosby, suddenly subdued and unsure of himself, then plucks up the courage to speak to her and ask her out…at which point the song sadly slides away, the haunting notes of the magic spell cast on him hanging in the air as the song disappears suddenly. That’s a shame because it’s just getting good: for much of the song Crosby is over-singing, becoming a jazz crooner and though it makes for a nice change on this album there’s not much happening here until near the end. Even so this is easily one of the better album tracks, with a real heart and soul about it and a sense that this song is ‘real’ in a way many of the others aren’t.
‘Curved Air’, by contrast, is the album’s weakest track. Crosby again defers to the Steely Dan jazz stylings in his head, even though they sound rigid and repetitive on an oddball song that should be dancing to its own tune in true Crosby fashion. A flamenco guitar part by Pevar sounds not unlike one of Stills’ Spanish-songs but alas whilst Stills always used the different style to speak even more from the heart than normal, Crosby is playing around with music in a postmodernist sense. ‘This is too strange to be serious, too rocky to be flat…I got no time for that!’ he snaps, before calling himself, hopefully jokily, ‘moderate and white’. Crosby again looks for ‘solid ground’ to bring him down to earth, realising that his imagination lets him fly away and far over the heads of other people sometimes. On this album, divided between songs of loss at losing what went before and the safety and comfort of home, it sounds like a song about both: Crosby lacks the earthy grounding and commercial appeal Stills and Nash once leant to his work and too often ends up writing songs like this one that are bizarre, like a Kratfwerk robot doing a flamenco dance while on fire and trying to stamp the flames out with a flute. On the other, it’s a tribute to how comfortable and safe he feels at this stage in his career, with his family all around him and the sense that he can come home and feel safe enough to fly in these brave waters. Unfortunately this song left me behind, with a [particularly irritating backing that repeats one synth note like a morse code and whose big instrumental finale battle between a guitar and piano is a pale shadow of what used to appear on CPR albums twenty years ago. Crosby’s writing the first thing that comes into his head to see where it takes him – and unfortunately it’s nowhere terribly musical, while the poor performance and production make what could have been an exciting song fall flat.
The album ends rather sweetly though on ‘Home Free’. While Nash’s album ended with his own death as he finally leaves the stage imagining applause, Crosby stays closer to home, taking a bath, ignored by everyone and counting his blessings. Crosby feels so safe ‘like a baby in a blanket with nothing to fear’. All he has to do today is ‘boil some coffee on a worn-out stove’, chat to his family and bash around on a guitar. He really did choose the right path: he got the family he wanted, the career he desired, he did it all. ‘Maybe I’ll never leave here at all’ he sighs, as he compares himself to a ‘tree with no leaves’, his branches having already born all the fruit they needed to in order to satisfy his younger self’s drive and hunger. Everything Crosby did, the heights he reached, the things he saw, were all leading to this point where he had a wife he loved and a home that’s perfect, well nearly. The song is the second most Crosby-like on the album, as it doesn’t so much run repetitively like the rest of the album as swell, dancing on the spot between two notes, a merry sweet dance that in lesser hands would be boring but on this song about counting your blessings however small is perfectly suited. After all those decades of being a thorn in the side of the establishment, of pushing back the musical envelope, of writing some of the most daring and controversial songs of the 20th century, Crosby has found true contentment from the simple pleasures of home, perhaps the final ‘answer’ to the troubled question of his youth on ‘Where Will I Be?’, a similar song all round chord-wise if very different in feel. Instead of worrying about the future though, this song answers with the idea that Crosby is destined to be here, where it’s safe and he can feel happy and content.
The end result, then, is an album that works best on the three quiet intimate songs where the ‘real’ Crosby peeks through, the home-bird enjoying pottering round at home and answering mad fans on twitter as well as this late-career renaissance. ‘Sky Trails’ works far better when it stays closer to home, doing the sort of things Crosby always did but perhaps with an older and wiser head. It doesn’t work that well at all when reaching for the skies and trying to make Crosby into the new commercial Steely Dan figure of the 20-teens that it really didn’t need or ask for. I would have liked more Crosby and fewer guest stars across this album, more of a feeling of the warmth and beauty of a CPR record than the ugly pop of ‘Croz’ and if there’s one decade I wish Crosby hadn’t returned to then it’s the 1980s, the lynchpin of the sound of this record that already sounds horrifically dated as I write this on the week of release (I can’t wait for music to move on from its current 1980s synth obsession into something better – the 1990s would do, or better still the 1960s are due to come round again). But then I suspect the whole point of this album is to break new ground rather than appeal to curmudgeonly old-timers like me: ‘Lighthouse’ was the album that gave the world the Crosby it was asking for (even if it gave us a little too much, with so many acoustic songs that sounded the same); by releasing it Croz sounds freer to make this album how he wanted it, with a big band and a sound he’d never tried before but clearly admires (though for the life of me I can’t think why: at times the pompous professional rigid empty feel of ‘Steely Dan’ sounds as far away from pure CSN, so free loose nimble and gloriously full, as you can get). Neither record quite makes the grade, though there’s a quite brilliant one nestling there somewhere, especially if you throw the best of 2014’s ‘Croz’ into the pot as well. Crosby has proved for a third time in a row now that he can surprise us by giving us what we least expect, while giving us just enough Crosbyness to prove what an amazing album he could deliver if he stuck to his strengths and how talented he still is. I think I’ve said this on the last two albums reviews now, but maybe the next one will be the one that proves Crosby’s genius is undimmed – this album isn’t it by any means, but I still have hope that the next one is really truly it this time.