Tuesday, 30 October 2018
David Crosby and Friends "Here If You Listen" (2018)
David Crosby with Michael League, Becca Stevens and Micelle Willis “Here If You Listen” (2018)
Glory/Vagrants Of Venice/1974/Your Own Ride/Buddha On A Hill//I Am No Artist/1967/Balanced On A Pin/Other Half Rule/Janet/Woodstock
‘A consul is wisdom and it comes with age’
Well, this is up-to-date isn’t it AAA fans? After so many years of reviewing albums half a century old it’s a surprise to be writing about a record only a few days old – and to have the review out in our new patent-pending totally awesome new e-book ‘Change Partners’ in under a week! Had this review been written, say, back when our website started in 2008 I would have been shocked. David Crosby, of all people, stretching our timeline with a new album? What’s the gap between his solo albums normally – twenty years? Fifteen in a productive period? However Croz has come to dominate the CSNY catalogue in the last decade or so and is on something of a creative role, with this his fourth album in six years during which he’s actually made more albums of new material than even Neil Young! Who would have thought that back in the 1970s?
In many ways that extra spurt of creativity has been a mixed blessing. There’s an absolutely first-class album scattered across those three albums (‘Croz’ ‘Lighthouse’ ‘Sky Trails’) and Croz has deservedly won back many of the critics who mistakenly wrote him off decades ago. However to these ears each album sounded slightly empty, two or three tracks short of being the fully developed consistent record that Crosby needs to knock the musical world’s socks off. Each album had an excess of something: ‘Croz’ was very poppy and machiney, ‘Lighthouse’ very empty and blissed out and only on parts of the Steely Dan-ish‘Sky Trails’ did Crosby feel like he was truly firing on all cylinders. The good and I have to say rather astonishing news is that, against all odds, our CSN book and our collection of online articles ends on a high: though defensively titled ‘Here If You Listen’ is at last an album that goes somewhere new while satisfying much of his old fan-base. This album isn’t ‘too much’ of anything; instead it mixes the pop, the new age and the jazz of his recent offerings and gives us a bit of all three of them. It feels like a ‘full’ album at last, with most tracks coming with full tunes and lyrics that don’t just repeat themselves to death or fade out to nothing partway through.
The recording this album most reminds me of though isn’t any of the last three albums at all but a youtube oddity that was around for such a short time I would have put it down to one of those occasional AAA-related hallucinations I get sometimes after writing too many words (usually after writing about the weirdest Neil Young albums). Around 2010 Crosby got together with the a capella group ‘Venice’ to record a most haunting version of  ‘Guinevere’. The recording didn’t go down well with the few fans who heard it and who considered it too stately and slow and the song was pulled from youtube with such suspicious haste (without appearing on record) that I can only guess someone on one half of the project had second thoughts. However to my ears it was a revelation: Croz has such a purist voice that had his life and tastes worked out differently you can imagine him in some madrigal choir. In terms of Crosby’s own recordings it sounds most like the guest appearances Croz used to make on Art Garfunkel records, a world where that purity and austerity shared by the two singers comes up against a crazy world out to harm it (see ‘Breakaway’ and particularly ‘Watermark’). What with the collaborative, acoustic and confessional feel this record is a dead ringer for Art’s ‘Everything Waits To Be Noticed’, easily Garfunkel’s greatest achievement without Paul Simon being attached in there somewhere. It sounds not unlike the title track of  ‘Sky Trails’, in other words. However that’s just one element of the sound: like CPR but more so his new friends Michael League (of Snarky Puppy), Becca Stevens and new singer Michelle Willis (a Canadian singer-songwriter also linked with Snarky Poppy and best known for guesting with Iggy and the Stooges) all have a background in jazz. This of course suits Crosby who once used to channel John Coltrane and Miles Davis while in The Byrds and who tends to make even his simplest songs more interesting thanks to unusual, quirky guitar tunings. Oddly on past LPs, particularly ‘Croz’ and ‘Sky Trails’ this had the danger of coming out anti-jazz, with rigid and mechanical backing tracks of the sort you get from performers who don’t instinctively know each other yet but all reach for the safest cliché in tandem. Thankfully this team know each more now and don’t succumb to that problem on this album anywhere near as much. The other good thing is that what I feared was going to be a huge jazzathon has been tempered by some good old fashioned folk. All but two of the recordings here are acoustic, so no more Steely Danathon jamathons. There’s a sense, much like the first CSN album, that the whole band could have turned up on your doorstep and busked the entire record for you had you wanted them to. Having re-listened to ‘Croz’ again the other week I can’t tell you what a joy that is. Sticking all these three elements together (Madrigals, jazz and folk, with the occasional pop chorus for good measure) all adds up to a sound we’re not used to hearing from any of CSN before and which genuinely breaks new ground. The extremes of the atonal jazz is softened by the austere simplicity of the madrigals and of folk. The dullness and familiarity of the Madrigal is made more exciting by the jazz. The earnestness of the folk is made more playful by the jazz chords. It’s a fascinating hybrid, recalling the days of The Byrds when that band used to dabble in multiple genres all the time. Or indeed Joni Mitchell, David’s ‘discovery’ and one time girlfriend who he continues to reach out to in her ill health with a surprise revisitation of her song ‘Woodstock’ at the end of the album, forty-eight years after Crosby once sang a supporting harmony vocal to Stills’ lead.
This creates a bigger sea-change in feel than you might think given that we’ve had elements of all these sounds in Crosby’s sound for a long time, if never done quite like this. The bitter fire of Croz’s usual writing has been tempered by the new arrangements into a calmer, more reflective feel that thinks its way through life rather than merely feeling it (by coincidence or otherwise, taking a break from writing this paragraph I see that Crosby has re-tweeted a statement saying more or less that, by the Dalai Lama). This isn’t the same Crosby of even a couple of years ago when he was angry at Nash (for remarks in autobiography ‘Wild Tales’), angry at the current crop of politicians, angry at the turn towards the right and away from democracy and ecology and everything the hippie movement once stood for, angry at the would-be musicians of the modern era who count their influence by the jewellery they can afford and the people they hang out with rather than the bands they are inspired to start. Crosby is, at last and against the odds, acting his age. Throughout the whole album he barely raises his voice above a whisper, doesn’t wail about the state of the world or whine for years gone by. Instead this is the sound of a man who has seen so much come and go he knows that the world will survive somehow, even if we are ‘balanced on a pin’ with everything fragile. This feels like an album made by an old philosopher up in the hills (Mount Tamalpais?) detached from the world and looking down on it. In many ways its like a magic spell – as long as we stay in Crosby’s world of rational, helpful loving we can keep the Earth safe and use this album as our meditative quiet space to get back in touch with what humanity should be all about. After puzzling this other I think I finally get why this album ends with the otherwise out of place bragging of ‘Woodstock’, for this album is about how each of us is stardust, ‘fuel for the fire’ of life that is a shared responsibility between all of us but which too many of us duck for those who talk louder, act bigger and pretend to know what they’re doing. We are all rockstars, it’s just that some of us haven’t found the right notes to play in life’s great symphony yet.
Crosby’s observational eye is put to good use on this album as he moves away from the personal to the universal. Instead of love songs or personal outrage this is a world where everyone is in a daze, confused as to the direction the world is suddenly turning in. Album highlight‘Vagrants Of Venice’ is, despite the specific title, more a song about how Croz and co see the same look of confusion and listlessness wherever he travels around the world. Everyone is getting by, trying to stay occupied, with one eye over their shoulder waiting to be uprooted and displanted all over again. ‘Buddha On A Hill’ is a rare Crosby song that tries to give answers, but notably they’re not his – the writer is, you sense, straining as much as everyone else for the tiny voice of sanity he feels must be out there somewhere if only the world would stop making noise and shut up and listen to it. ‘Ego is the fever’ runs ‘The Other Half Live’, the most obviously CSN song here, as Crosby longs for the good and the kind, the meek and the mild, to have a go at running the planet for a change over the greedy and the mad. ‘I Am No Artist’ starts off as a Crosby confessional: he has nothing burning to say, no solutions to give us, not even much hope to offer, but still he writes because it’s the only way he knows how to make sense of the world. Even that song, though, quickly changes into Crosby watching the world at large, realising that he isn’t actively part of the world so much as an observer of it, asking questions of how it was put together that other people are too busy to seek themselves. In context even old warhorse ‘Woodstock’, revisited in older sadder clobber, sounds like a guiding light to how great the world could be, if only we stop being mean to each other. This is no longer, though, a hippie dream for the baby boomers to ride; their time for dreaming is over as Crosby takes care to lay a paper trail for those who come after to pick up on if they care enough to steer the world away from madness. His music and wisdom is here if we listen, indeed.
‘I’ve been thinking about dying – and how to do it well’ is the line of the album that’s got fans talking (buried away at the end of ‘Your Own Ride’) but it’s a fleeting moment of the self in an album that’s more about watching the world go by and trying to understand how it works still, even all these years on from when Crosby first asked the question. Nevertheless that thought crops up a lot as Crosby watches his nearest and dearest fade from this life one by one (Joni’s illness seems to have hit him particularly hard). Balanced On A Pin’ is about fragility, of how easily the world gets set out of balance and how it matches Croz’s own sense of mortality as his thoughts drift, unwilling to turn these fleeting fears into anything concrete unless they take over. Even for a writer whose stared death in the face so so many times (particularly in the CPR era) it’s a brave, brittle song, doing the old Crosby tradition of putting the unsayable into words nobody else would ever dare speak. Only ‘Janet’ sounds as if it belongs to the ‘old’ Croz who was too busy to have time to listen quietly and reflect on his own mortality, one last gasp attempt to sum up what life was like when chasing women was what made him live. Now, as he faces death, it’s the quiet inner calmness that comes over him and gives this album a feeling of stillness that even the new agey ‘Sky Trails’ didn’t have.
Many reviewers and more than a few fans think that Crosby must have changed his sound so drastically because of the musicians he hangs around with now. That clearly has something to do with it – Croz barely appears on the album’s bluesy musical sore thumb ‘Janet’ for instance and sounds badly out of place when he does. Croz has talked at length too about his different writing technique for this album, with all four writers in the same room for every song and throwing bits in (as opposed to CSNY who tended to re-shape songs their own way in their own time, usually Stills after everyone else had gone home). You can tell – this is a fluid album that feels as if it hasn’t quite set yet, where every song could have gone in a different way and where everyone involved is slightly holding their breath, waiting to see if their mass improvisation will result in something useable or cacophony. It is, in a way, the sort of thing Crosby-Nash were doing at their live peak, but on new songs rather than old ones. Somehow, despite their different ages and backgrounds and the fact that most of their work on the last two albums was dreadful, ‘The Lighthouse Band’ (as they’ve become known) sound so close together musically and spiritually that you couldn’t hold a piece of paper between their voices or ideas. Now, obviously there’s been more than a bit of overdubbing here – my cynical side knows that this recording technique is a trial and error that ends up with more discarded ideas than useable ones. And yet this album feels like everyone really is there in the same room at the same time doing more or less the same thing. The fact that this album was made in a month (though to keep costs down as much as inspiration) still hints I think as to how easily this project came together. Croz, after all, wasn’t expecting to make another record – this one just sort of arrived as a bonus off the back of ‘Sky Trails’, the title track setting the tone for a whole new way of writing that piqued his interest.
However as if to prove that Crosby has always been waiting to make music like this we also get the fascinating inclusion of two separate pieces of Crosby’s similar acoustic jazz recordings from aeons ago. Titled after their years of recording ‘1967’ and ‘1974’ as if to prove a point about how long this potential so7und has been dangling in the wind, neither extract has been bootlegged before to the best of my knowledge and both seem obvious candidates for ‘Voyage’’, the Crosby box set that rounded up no end of oddities like this. Unfortunately this backfires a little. Both pieces are nuggets of such pure Crosbyness with the spirit of the more adventurous moments of ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’, that they show up the faults of an album even as good as this one. Crosby doesn’t need anyone else to make music and his ba-ba-bas set to rhythmical structures that seem to be forever evolving and mutating somehow sound deeper than even the deepest set of lyrics on this album. After being starved of these sorts of songs we used to get regularly for so long ( ‘How Does It Shine?’ in 2005 was the last) it’s a welcome return for the pure instinctive musician Crosby is. Even though the older of the two is already more than half a century old (and dates back to the immediate aftermath of ‘Eight Miles High’ when Croz was still a twenty-six-year-old Byrd) they still sound timeless. Perhaps that’s why Croz and band choose to remake ‘1974’ as a postmodern song about second chances, of the need to write even when no one is listening as David addresses his subconscious.
So, if you’re here to pay for what you listen, what do you get for your money? On the downside Crosby still hasn’t written a single song as brilliant or as memorable as those in his old days (Lighthouse’s  ‘The Things We Do For Love’ is still the closest on that score). Much of this album sounds unfinished, as is often the way for albums that are improvised rather than carefully considered. The harmonies of Crosby’s new friends, while sublime more times than they are awful, don’t quite cut the mustard if you’ve been brought up on CSN and heard across a whole album doing much the same thing without many dynamic changes on first hearing this alb8um might well leave you feeling underwhelmed. This record is well worth pursuing with though: unlike the other entrants in Croz’s recent quartet this is an album that works almost all the way through (only ‘Janet’ letting the side down, as indeed her character does in the song) and is the best one-album mood piece in the CSN catalogue since CPR took flight twenty years ago. Though the new collaborators do sometimes take over when you just want to hear Crosby sing, David’s fingerprints are all over this album – from the oddball guitar tunings to the hummable melodies to the poignant lyrics about digging deep and fighting evil to that still pure voice that shines like a lighthouse, undimmed by the years even when singing about how they lie heavy on his shoulders. This isn’t quite the comeback album I’ve been longing for – it lacks variety and what with the old hummed songs and Joni cover tune needs an extra couple of moments of magic to become truly first class. However this album breaks such new ground and delivers exactly the sort of album the world needs right now in these troubled times and sounding like a genuine extension of Crosby’s catalogue while breaking new ground. Not bad for a musician who turned seventy-eight shortly after making it and proof that this creative roll is far from over. Though we write this at the end of our book – and in all honesty there will only be at most half a dozen more review to write at AAA speed before our deadlines for our books overtakes us – would that other records out there has a soupcon as much forward thinking and timelessness as this record does. Believe me Croz, more albums like this one and I will be here to listen whenever you have more to say because nobody tells the truth quite as beautifully or poignantly as you. An unexpectedly brilliant return to form.
‘Glory’ is a brave place to start for any album. We’ve never much had a female sound on a CSN-related recording before – a few Stills duets with Brooks Hunnicut on a bootleg, Neil’s duets with Nicolette Larson and that’s about it. Here though Becca and Michelle dominate the sound from the first on a track that doesn’t obviously feature any Crosby hallmarks. Here the lyrics are as jazzy as the music, elliptical and opaque like a haiku stretched across a few extra syllables. The main theme of the song, though, is very Crosby. Most of life is hard and beyond your control, but the trick to making the most of life is to embrace those fleeting moments that are special and which give you hope to survive until the next ones come along. Crosby spends the first verse alone, trying to grab at the chances that slip through his hands like sand before passing the song over to Michelle for lines about being weathered by life while trying to protect your soft insides. Crosby isn’t one for declarations of love normally but the last few years of precious stability with wife Jan have changed that (again, who would have guessed back in the 1960s that his would be the longest lasting CSNY marriage or that such a lothario character would get married at all?) Here he vows, uniquely for CSNY, to be there for the one he loves and that if he can’t prevent them from suffering life’s meanness then he can at least protect them, promising to be a ‘suit of armour’ and a ‘witness’ to just how unique they are and how hard they try to make life work. The most affectionate moment is when Crosby drops his usual sweetness and explodes out of nowhere, howling to wife Jan that ‘you won’t lose me!’, even if across the rest of the album that’s a thought that crosses his mind a lot. Crosby has always been good at seeing things people usually ignore – the waitresses, the protestors, the war veterans who hate their job – and he’s often at his best singing the praises of ordinary people who are actually quite extraordinary. So it is again here, as he returns to the scene of  ‘Carry Me’ by taking everybody good and decent and lifting them above the hardships of the world. It’s a moving sentiment, but I must confess that this is the one song on the album where I would rather have heard Crosby alone. His writing and harmony voices are rather overshadowed by his three heavy friends and even the Michael League guitarwork doesn’t seem that compatible with his own for once. The song structure too is rather slow and ponderous, sucking you in slowly in a CPR rather than CSN sense, but there’s a good and moving song here if you’re prepared to dig for it. That’s especially true for the haunting rise and fall call of ‘Glory’ where Crosby is small and vulnerable, shouting out his pleas in the face of what sounds like the ebb and flow of the universe giving and then taking away at regular intervals.
‘Vagrants Of Venice’ is, at least this first week of release, the song from the album that’s most got to me. Surrounded as he is by the extra verses, nobody else but Crosby could have written this song which has his fingerprints all over it. It is, reportedly, a science-fiction song of what might happen to Venice in a hundred years after some ecological disaster – although it sounds more than that to me. I think I’m right in saying that even at CSNY’s peak Croz never travelled around the world as much as he does now – a necessity in many ways thanks to the lower money all musicians receive for their work in the modern world and the, err, wild lifestyle he once lived in the 1970s and 1980s. This gives him a fairly unique perspective: he’s travelled the world regularly across fifty years but more so lately. He’s used to seeing things now he would never have noticed back then when he was a rockstar: the refugees in every major town who aren’t just the people who could never get a living of every age but the victims of a recession that’s dug deeper than most, claiming the ‘book born’ who thought they could escape misery with an education. Venice, once one of the most romantic and glamorous spots round the world, now seems like everywhere else touched by this level of suffering, with ‘endless aiming’ from people desperate for a solution but unsure where to seek it. Crosby watches the people and the hopelessness of what they do, a woman on a rooftop whose garden seeds fall dead on the beaches a metaphor for all the good kind work he sees that’s just a drop of infinitesimal nothing compared to the great aching hunger he sees around him. This is a world where no one has time for arts or fineries in life, as he watches orphans gather round a burning antique painting that once would have been priceless but now without buyers is just another source of heat. ‘They have forgotten how music lived here’ Crosby sighs with real passion, a world where for the first time he feels as powerless as anyone else because music doesn’t have the same resonance anymore. The recession has now lasted so long he sees a whole generation used to it, accepting it as their lot forever. Everywhere Crosby sees a world struggling to get by, struggling to live from day to day and nowhere has escaped that nagging feeling of loss. The song quietens down for the line about how ‘its all very peaceful now’ and even on a record full of still calmness it stands out. However that’s not what Croz wants. He wants us to be angry, to be fighting, to be demanding better, to be using that energy he sees and which CSNY always built on - but CSNY aren’t here and nobody knows quite what to do with that feeling anymore. A lesser writer would have made this song a sobfest (it sounds very like the lyrics Phil Collins wrote for Croz to guest on in the 1990s), but Crosby watches it with as much of a dispassionate eye as he can, as much a helpless orderless victim as everyone else he sees. The song too isn’t slow so much as muted, with a very Stillsy bluesy riff that you sense is about to explode into anger but never actually does, the song rattling away to an awkward sudden stop mid-note. It’s a highly impressive song this one, a real composition for our times and all it lacks to be a first-rate masterpiece is an extra middle eight or change to something to make it really soar. Even so, my feeling that Nobody – not even Ray Davies – can match Crosby at his peak observing state remains and this is a truly impressive piece of work.
It’s hard to imagine that the basic track of ‘1974’ would have been recorded somewhere around the time of the aborted CSNY comeback ‘Human Highway’ and the mega tour where the quartet beat The Beatles’ nine year record by playing to the most people. The song is simple and humble, more like the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra Sessions bootleg of 1971 when a new song seemed to fall out of Crosby every time he picked up his acoustic guitar. The opening hummed verse was as far as Croz ever got back then and its very him – another writer (such as Nash) would have taken the bright breezy chords and made a pop hit out of it. Another writer (such as Stills) would have gone instead for the big bold bluesy chords the song develops into. Crosby uses his initial ideas a launchpad for a more complex song altogether, one whose chords second guess us all the way through, changing chord rhythm tempo and structure and running away in the distance, as if delighted at catching out our ears desperately trying to work out where it will go next. Personally I like my Crosby nuggets pure and I would have left it right there, but Crosby’s new pals help him finish it forty-four years later. The melody is a logical extension of where Crosby was going anyway, softening and simplifying the awkward changes without losing the essence of the song. The lyrics, though, are again unique in the Crosby canon, a postmodern treatise on why he sits down to write at all. ‘If you don’t like the story you’re in, pick up your pen and write it again!’ he tells us, before realising that he isn’t writing his own story so much as picking up on the voices he hears ‘crying in the street’, ignored and abandoned. Comparing his music to a seed, Crosby has it flying out of his pen beyond his control and out into the world, hopeful that it will land somewhere where people will recognise and identify with it (this verse is half of the reason the album is given the rather odd name it is). An odd finale has what is presumably Crosby’s subconscious (sounding awfully like Becca Stevens) telling him that even though people have longed stopped listening to him he ought to carry on anyway and write what he wished he had said when people were. What’s odd about this concept is that people listened in the 1960s and 1970s partly because Croz was part of a youthful generation offering a new alternative way of doing things that didn’t rely on greed or power, the single biggest reason why the 1960s music scene has continued to resonate across the ages. The year 1974 was arguably the last time that people looked to CSNY for answers, coming out in their millions to see their reunion tour that summer and the last time the music business treated their return as if it was a really big deal. It’s as if by writing this new lyric now to an unfinished song from then Crosby is trying to return to the last point in time where CSNY could conceivably, at a push, have made a difference to the world. It’s as if he’s going back in time to finish off a most promising song carelessly discarded and tick his younger self off for not paying enough attention. However good music lasts forever and Crosby’s ideas were always so far away from what everyone else in an era was doing that the tune remains as gloriously invigorating and exciting as it would have been at the time. While I’m not sure the new lyric quite works, the concept is fascinating and the original idea strong enough to be a winner no matter how late we finally got it.
‘Your Own Ride’ is back to the cryptic end of Crosby’s canon, a set of his own lyrics put to music by Bill Lawrence, another member of Snarky Puppy. It’s a song about what makes us fly – and what makes us crash, written around ‘Crosby*Nash’ time for Crosby’s sense of his son Django growing up and experiencing memories of his own upbringing. Byrd Crosby built his own flight on truth and love, the ‘real’ things that though he can’t say make sense of life to him. Fear, though, plagues him ‘the creator of rage’ and only age and wisdom has allowed him to see how much it holds him back. I’m intrigued who ‘they’ are but Crosby says that people are always watching and can see all the choices we make, when we decide to stand up to evil and when we become that evil. This very CPR-ish philosophical tome isn’t quite in the first tier of Crosby classics and its tune is all too obviously written around a pre-existing lyric. However it very much has its moments, especially the loud middle eight which takes us by surprise when the album’s sweet arrangement and production values drop to just Crosby at full soar. This verse has him admitting what keeps him up at night and scares him the most: his death. While his peers retire and do farewell tours Crosby refuses to do things the easy way. He wants to stand up to his worries and tells us that it’s a ‘matter of honour’ that he should carry on the CSNY tradition of standing up to the bullies, even if with his dwindling audience the best he can hope for is to ‘clear a path’. While the rest of the song is a bit vague and wishy-washy by Crosby standards this last section of the song really leaps out at you for its bravery and commitment. It is, after all, oh so Crosby to go raging into the dying of the light while trying to make the most of everything he’s learned and do something his audience can be proud of. Though titled ‘Your Own Ride’ and the song from the album least like Crosby’s natural style this is, I sense, the most autobiographical Crosby piece on the album and it sounds like something that’s been on his mind for a long time.
‘Buddha On A Hill’ continues the new wave meditative feel of much of ‘Sky Trails’ as Crosby tries to get the world to shut up and listen to the wisdom and direction he feels is out there somewhere trying to be heard. He gets glimpses of it when he just stops and listens – from the ocean, from the sunlight, from love. It’s a fleeting thought that doesn’t care about gender, race or age and is open to everyone with a mind open enough to hear it, a whole alternate means of living our lives without people losing out to fund someone else’s greed. The song gets a bit weird in the middle (‘My love its hungry, hawks above circling’) but till then sounds very much in keeping with a long line of Crosby songs that stretch right back to The Byrds. In a sense this song is a more ‘normal’ version of ‘Mind Gardens’, with its hermit who lives out of the way and knows more of the world than we do – even the chiming Rickenbacker guitars for the first time in decades recall Roger McGuinn at his most freeform. This lyric is the other source of the album title and it is perhaps the most effective use of these four voice on the album. Crosby, now at full strength, doesn’t sound vulnerable at all as he holds his ground as the Buddha while his three friends intone that he’s ‘here if you listen, here if you listen’. The melody, meanwhile, is pure Crosby, hopping around the major keys like a pixie, dropping for an eerie minor key full of shadows and goblins, turning into intense rock akin to a wizard before blissing back out for the verses like a fairy of joy. The result is impressively psychedelic from someone who says he doesn’t really take drugs anymore and sounds like exactly the sort of thing young hippies thought their charges would be making in the 21st century with more technology available to them. Critical as I am of League’s guitar playing (hardly up to Jeff Pevar or David Lindley, never mind McGuinn or Stephen Stills) his brief bluesy solo is also spot on, full of mystery and wonder. The song started off as a riff with the chorus (‘Buddha on a hill…smiling’) was reportedly written by Crosby while still asleep and listening to the others working on the backing track away around him,  ‘Shadow Captain’ style, leaving them scrabbling for a pen to write them down. Another of the album’s success stories.
‘I Am No Artist’ protests Crosby next, though it appears that this is mostly a Becca Stevens song (well, it didn’t really sound like a Crosby title did it?!?) What this song really means, though, is that the narrator is not a ‘celebrity’ as its really a song about being the equal of everybody he sees, not someone on a pedestal up high separate and immune to the pressures of life. We have seen several hundred times over on this site now that being rich and famous isn’t what people think it is when people get there: Noel Gallagher especially spent five years of his creative life longing for it and twenty-five since wishing he had never had it. While it saves one lot of problems, it opens another. For Crosby, presented with the song as a nearly finished piece of music, it must have struck a chord. He lives a simple life, in a tiny cottage and a battered second-hand car which is all his past run-ins with the law and the IRS allow him. While other musicians hide behind a cult of silence he’s out there on twitter day after day answering the same old questions, sharing his secrets behind his same old struggles. This song is then right down his path –although some lines aren’t as relevant as others. We have seen elsewhere, especially on this album, how the need to create still burns within him so it seems odd to hear him start the song with the revelation that he has ‘no true desire’ to get off his chest anymore. The lines about being sad and lonely aren’t really very Crosby either, even if the line about the hill he passes being ‘scattered with leaves’ recalls  ‘Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)’. I suspect that Crosby had little to do with this song, although there’s one line that’s very him when a fan comes up and asks for wisdom – only for Crosby to instead ask to get wisdom from them because they seem much more clued up into what is going on! A jazzy set of chord changes again surprises us and catches us off guard, ever changing in a world that’s evolving at such a rapid rate that nobody truly has any insight into how it works. Though far from the best track on the album this is another highly thoughtful piece of music with much to say.
‘1967’ started life as a series of chords taped somewhere around the Byrds’ ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ period that Croz had forgotten about. Asked to dig out some tapes by his new friends for the album, the others were struck were by how well this improvised piece of music seemed to fit with the new music they were making and they changed very little to it except the harmonies that arrive near the end. Sounding not unlike  ‘Kids and Dogs’ crossed with  ‘Tamalpais High’ with the riff from  ‘Dancer’ thrown in, it is about as Crosby as you can get. I’m amazed that, with all the CSN/Y box sets and rarities collections out there, not to mention the amount of Crosby solo albums that needed extending down the years, that its creator never dug this tape out again. Though we don’t know how many tapes of improvising Croz has, this is certainly the earliest dated of that pure instinctive jazz-folk blend he does so well, scat-singing over chords that couldn’t be written by anyone else, a full four years before his earliest examples of the genre started cropping up on ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’. Crosby scat singalongs can be roughly divided in half between expressing pure joy and pure misery; this is one from the former half, full of sunshiney sweetness and a delight in being alive. Though I could have done without the modern overdubs at the end that just get messy and don’t seem to fit at all (they sound like ‘what are you fighting for?’ and ‘expression’), this second go at someone else finishing Crosby’s tapes (after Nash and Young took on  ‘Music Is Love’) suggests that even after his death we might still be getting little nuggets of delightful music like this. Far too good to leave in the vaults for fifty years.
After all ‘Balanced On A Pin’ is yet more revealing discussions about just how feeble Crosby is feeling at seventy-eight. Though unlike ‘Your Own Ride’ he never mentions his own death directly, that’s what Crosby says he was trying to convey with this song of delicacy and doubt as he imagines himself a bubble about to burst on a pin at any time. A lovely mournful guitar lick is the best on the album and fittingly Croz performs most of this song about feeling helpless alone. Crosby starts getting feisty, telling us that we all have choice about the lives we ‘navigate’ and how they turn out – but not the ending, which isn’t chosen by us. Reflecting CPR style on what he’s learnt in this life Crosby tells us that he mostly remembers ‘love stories’ and that ‘I love love’. Returning to the theme of flight that crops up in this album (has he been re-listening to The Byrds?) Crosby tells us not to be afraid to fly – that while we don’t know when the landing will come or if we will crash, the flight is worth it. He feels that life gets tougher at the end, that ‘the connection all comes apart’ as he prepares for the next world instead of living in this one, but Croz still holds his nerve, this lovely song recalling lots of past acoustic classics about feeling lost and helpless, from  ‘Homeward Through The Haze’ to  ‘Where Will I Be?’, the music the perfect summary of a rootless restless soul searching for a resolution on a chord that never arrives and instead keeps bouncing the song back into the air. When the ending does come, ending in a cascading round of ringing Michael League guitar notes, it’s less triumphant than exhausted, collapsing gratefully on the chord that will finally offer rest. My guess too is that Crosby has been paying close attention to his old partner, with this song his own more personal weary take on Nash’s triumphant  ‘Encore’. It’s a worrying song for fans who have grown up with Crosby through thick and thin to hear, but an important and courageous song for all of that, drizzled with just the right amount of mischief and mystery.
CSNY are, to their detractors, the very definition of male chauvinism. The groupies on tour, the casual way they walk off with each other’s lovers, the agonising love songs wondering why their beloved others just won’t do what they’re told. For many Crosby is the worst, songs like Byrds refugee  ‘Triad’ wondering aloud why man and woman should choose one partner their whole lives when they can have more. ‘Other Half Rule’ started out as League’s song and he duly sings the first verse, but Crosby has been quite adamant about how much of this timely feminist lyric he wrote. Promoting the album he talked about how this song was about wanting to get rid of the male patriarchal society and hand everything over to the women, the ‘other half’ of the globe who even with all the many great societal changes of the 20th century and beyond still have barely a foot in the door of power and politics. After talking about how women in power tend to be closer to his way of thinking, with an emphasis on education and environment Crosby chuckled, ‘after all, they could hardly do a worse job than us could they?’ This song is, alas, slightly hackneyed, the boys starting off singing until the girls take over while the lyrics are what CSNY detractors claim all their music represents, sloganeering without really understanding. Nevertheless, even this relative ‘failure’ has some terrific moments. The sighing melody which starts off so sweet and ends up so sinister, with a hazy crazy guitar riff that’s quite angry and catches you off guard. The sad lamenting guitar riff which sighs over the top of a particularly macho part below it (which in CSNY days would surely have been played by Stills) is the perfect accompaniment for the lyrics about one half of the world following while despairing. The manic ending where just as you think the song is spent it suddenly explodes into fury, a wild cascade of jazz voices all haunting each other in the darkness, offering suggestions that no one else hears. The very ominous threatening tone of the song works really well, rescuing a song that lyrically runs out of things to say before the end of the opening verse. This is, too, a very timely song for the #metoo generation and it makes perfect sense that, whatever his wayward past, its Crosby who realises the weight of the movement long before most of his male peers.
The album’s real weakest link though comes near the end with ‘Janet’. This is a Michelle Willis song she was working on for her solo album when she played it to Crosby and he begged to use it on this album, calling it one of the best songs on the record. I’m really not at all sure I agree – this song’s sultry badass sound is completely at odds musically and thematically with the rest of the album and the sudden switch to pure jazz after nearly a whole album of skirting around it loosely feels like falling into a trap and using Spice Girls music right at the point when the credits were rolling after a soundtrack of Beatles. Things get worse because this song makes no sense, its central line of ‘Janet, what you gonna do with it?’ odd, especially as the verses are almost stupidly simple (‘Oh Janet, she took your man’). Michelle still hasn’t admitted, even to her co-singers, what this song is really about – and unlike some of Crosby’s more esoteric material it’s just not interesting enough as a song to bother with. Admittedly the recording rescues the song somewhat: its obvious, after most of an album of note perfect singing, that the band are letting down their hair and having fun and Crosby’s Stillsian gospel whoops might not fit but are a lot of fun. However this song should have stayed a Michelle Willis solo track or ended up as a B-side, as it has precious little to do with Crosby and nothing to do with the rest of this album. ‘Janet’ is also, if you hadn’t already noticed, one of the hardest names to rhyme with in the English language. Oddly the band don’t even do the obvious here (‘planet’).
The album ends with a re-make of  Woodstock, partly here as a kind ex-boyfriend trying his best to keep Joni’s music in the limelight after her illness took her out of the public eye and partly because this was the CSNY re-arrangement that everybody went nuts for on tour. You can kind of see why: Joni’s writing is much more in keeping with this band’s style than most of Croz’s past music and it’s fun to hear him shrugging off the 4/4 rock changes Stills added for the ‘Déjà vu’ album back in 1970. Crosby has of course never sung the lead p[art on tape before, just the harmony, so it’s rather a shame that he hands so much of the song over to the others to sing, even if their four-part harmonies are indeed pretty electrifying when they all sing together and Becca rather steals the show on the second verse. However, strong as this remake is, in context this song makes me unbearably sad. What was once a moment of triumph for a whole generation, written by Joni in envy at having not been allowed by her manager to play the festival (he’d double-booked her with Dick Cavett’s chat show a day later), has now become a song of loss and how far we’ve fallen. This song, more than any other in the book, represents the hippie dream, the idea that we are all made up of cosmic atoms and can shape our own destiny, pulling together to go back to Eden. On this album though the world is a mess and everything has gone wrong, the hippie spirit long since dormant and waiting to be resurrected. The timid way this song is sung, even the acoustic setting (actually more traditional to Joni’s original) sounding as if Crosby now doubts himself and all he stood for ever coming true. The difference between the two versions is that in 1970 CSNY lived and breathed this song and in 2018 it is a distant memory, a history lesson, left here in the vain hope that it will encourage future ages to finish off the job the band themselves tried so hard to do. If this is the last song any of CSN release (and hopefully it won’t be, what with Crosby’s creative roll and Nash’s 2016 renaissance) then it’s a sad way to bow out, a tombstone for what the band were aiming for – on an album that more than ever comes with evidence of how far short CSNY came.
It is, however, not their fault. CSNY always tried their hardest and if friction and disagreements got in the way then that’s what happens when four opinionated people who all want the best for the world and each other get together then, hey, I’d rather that than a generation of boy-bands being told to say the same thing in every interview. Yes we lost some music along the way and – who knows – maybe we lost the hippie dream along with them because the world only changed for the worse when they slipped from grace somewhere around the late 1970s. However, each one of them has always continued to stay true to the music their whole lives through and Crosby, especially, still has so much of the same groundbreaking rule-breaking spirit that kept him going all those decades. Musicians at 78 aren’t meant to albums like this one, with a whole new band, a whole new sound and the same old tireless search for a better life in a world that sucks but could easily work so well for all of us. Crosby remains the musician, more than perhaps any other, that I look up to to tell me the truth and he has never let me down – yes there have been a few ropey albums here and there, but I knew this album was coming one day, I just knew. No this record isn’t perfect, it runs out of steam badly near the end, needs a rocker in there to shake things up and the plain white album cover with hideous neon lettering gives ‘Live It Up’ new competition as the worst album cover in this book. However this is another important album of a sort that only Crosby could give us and it is his best work for ever such a long time (1998?), almost getting it right all the way up to the end. Glory indeed. We are here and listening Croz – and those who aren’t are missing out.
A reminder that 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To CSNY' will be available in ebook form on Thursday!