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Opinion | David Crosby scales a new creative peak

At 77, David Crosby releases an album that is surprisingly sublime

David Crosby performing in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2006. Photo: Alamy
David Crosby performing in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2006. Photo: Alamy

Late last month David Crosby, 77, was in the news on not one but two occasions: First, when he slammed Ted Nugent, the American rock musician and pro-guns right wing activist who had ranted at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for never nominating him for induction; in response, Crosby (who has been inducted twice—once when he was with The Byrds and again when he was part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) tweeted: “That is really funny stuff… he’s not good enough and he never will be.... a hack player and no singer at all.... could not write a decent song if his life depended on it." And second, when the veteran folk-rocker, whose career began 54 years back when he joined The Byrds, released his seventh solo album, Here If You Listen.

With it Crosby joins a pantheon of folk rock legends who’ve released late-career albums recently: Joan Baez and Paul Simon, both also 77, released Whistle Down The Wind and In The Blue Light, respectively; and late last year, Crosby’s former bandmate, Stephen Stills, 73, collaborated with the singer Judy Collins, 79, to release Everybody Knows, an album that was financed by crowdfunding. Another of Crosby’s bandmates, Neil Young, 72, has been prolific too, regularly releasing new albums as well as old recordings that had previously remained unreleased.

Some of these late-career albums are excellent. Baez’s new one has her singing songs by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter and Anohni; and on his latest, Simon resurrects and re-records 10 of his songs that appeared in earlier albums but were not very well-known. Stills and Collins’ album is a mixed bag, though. Stills’ voice has not weathered his several decades-long wild lifestyle well and although Collins’ singing redeems their collaboration a bit, it’s not an album that you’d sorely miss if you didn’t listen to it.

In contrast, Crosby’s new album is a surprising gem. Surprising because Crosby’s battle with health and addiction issues is well known. Twenty-four years ago, he had a liver transplant (one that was paid for by Phil Collins, incidentally); he is heavily diabetic; and has struggled with long bouts of hepatitis. Yet, in the past four years, he has released four solo albums. On Here If You Listen, he collaborates with Michael League, frontman of the Brooklyn-based jazz-fusion band, Snarky Puppy, and singers Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. These musicians don’t just lend their voices and play instruments; it’s a genuine sort of collaboration with most of the songs on the album jointly written by Crosby and his collaborators.

If Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) was a band that became a part of your growing up as it did mine, the new Crosby album is an essential. CSNY was known for its exquisite vocal harmonies and while listening to Here If You Listen there are several moments when you can appear to be eerily transported back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the heydays of that legendary band. Ten of the 11 songs on Here If You Listen are original and, apparently, the musicians (who completed the recording in just a month) went to the studio with only two that were already written. The 11th is Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, a counter-culture anthem of the 1970s that CSNY covered and which in Crosby’s new version takes on a new relevance.

Crosby does ruminate on the inevitable in his new album. On Your Own Ride, he sings: Cause I been thinking about dying/ And how to do it well. Yet, unlike some of his earlier solo albums, the predominant tone of Here If You Listen is unexpectedly and refreshingly upbeat with songs appearing to celebrate life rather than be low and whiny. That could well be because the three younger collaborators (in their early 30s) inject large measures of joie de vivre into the music. Or it could be that Crosby in his twilight years really loves life. On Twitter, as @thedavidcrosby, he appears pretty active, engaged and invigorated, discussing with fans everything from his music, his guitars, and even politics. And, of course, there’s that broadside he delivered to Nugent.

Two songs in the album, 1964, and 1974, are previously composed demos that are fleshed out in the album, and the latter celebrates love and music: All of my love songs/ Send them out again/ Revel in music/ Let it take care of you. On Other Half Rule, there are references to Trump (whom he calls “Small Hands") and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (“Rocket Man"), and a call to men to move aside and let women rule the world. The ethereal vocal harmonies, finger-picked acoustic guitar riffs, and light touches of jazz make Here If You Listen a remarkable album that clearly demonstrates how it is possible for even a septuagenarian legend to find a new peak and conquer it. Aptly, the last song on the album is Crosby’s elevated rendering of Mitchell’s Woodstock. “Yes, we’ve got to get ourselves/ Back to the garden/ Yes, we’ve got to get ourselves/ Back to the garden". Magnificent.

The Lounge list

Five tracks from Crosby’s ‘Here If You Listen’

1. ‘1974’

2. ‘Your Own Ride’

3. ‘Other Half Rule’

4. ‘Vagrants Of Venice’

5. ‘Woodstock’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan

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