In recent interviews, 79-year-old Dave Crosby has been as blunt in addressing mortality, calling it as any pretty aging hippie: “Man, I can have two weeks; I can have 10 years. He told shock-jock Howard Stern. That’s something he had to deal with after being dragged through health issues including diabetes, liver transplants and multiple heart attacks for good measure.
The icon who has given so much to music, including two band co-founders who are part of the fabric of American culture — The Birds and Crosby, Stills and Nash — has a fresh perspective. “It’s not how much time you have because we don’t really know,” he said. “It’s what you do with the time that you have. I’m really trying to spend it well. I’m so grateful for every day that I get and I want to make music out of it.” I try because I think the world needs music.”
The beauty behind this sentiment flows through “River Rise,” the sun-drenched debut for their seventh solo studio album, which begins with Crosby’s melodious, gentle vocals accompanied by plaintive piano. It is an intense and poignant love letter to his native California, reflecting his ‘see the day’ ethos. The track consistently builds on a grand soul healer as he sings, with true sacrifice, “Let the clock run out / Don’t care about it / Not today.”
Although she has covered very little ground in her six-decade career, from social and political issues to love and sorrow, this record remains one of her most beautiful and reflective works to date. ‘I Think I’ works with the feeling of feeling lost and coming from the other end: “There’s no directions / And there’s no map / There’s no secret path behind the trap / It’s so confusing I keep losing my way.” Anyone familiar with Crosby’s journey will understand the lyrics; He has spent a major part of his life battling drug and alcohol addiction.
Despite some of these troubling topics being addressed openly, there is incredible warmth and soul-searching bliss. The likes of ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ show an artist staying true to their initial vision at the highest level; The song has the signature complex finger picking style for which he is well known (and which old age is slowly fading away from him due to tendonitis in both hands).
As he has done throughout his career, Crosby relies on friends and loved ones for this treasure-filled album. The artwork is a drawing by Joan Baez and has enlisted her son, James Raymond, on production duties. Steely Dan’s Donald Fegan and Michael McDonald appear on the record, the latter’s writing glossing over “Rodriguez for a Night”, a catchy jam depicting outlaws, angels and drugstore cowboys. It’s very easy to watch it clear on a lazy pyramid stage in Glastonbury.
The most notable hint comes with the title track, a Joni Mitchell jewel Crosby has returned to several times over the years. While he isn’t currently on the best of 60s folk tale words, his respect for Michelle’s artistry and songwriting is paramount. “Jonnie is the greatest living singer-songwriter,” he said recently, “and ‘Free’ is one of his simplest.” The delicate piano ballad is a centerpiece of the record, a chance to take stock of Crosby’s vocals, which still sound young and unarmedly open.
Somehow with ‘I Won’t Stay For Long’ the record takes an even more poignant and heartbreaking turn. A tear-jerker of a finale, it is the unmistakable voice of a man nearing the end of his days, and while it was written by Raymond instead of Crosby, the singer gives each word a profound flair: “I’m standing on the porch / Like it’s the edge of a cliff / Beyond the grass and gravel / There’s a certain abyss.” It’s as scary as it is devastating before the track lets romantic optimism shine: “If I could remember the smell of your skin / Then I could live / I could breathe.”
Crosby is not alone in delivering some of his most dynamic, sparse and poetic music in later life – in fact he continues a rich tradition from Johnny Cash’s experiential and soulful “American IV” to Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” Huh. One who overcame death with humor and grace. Despite this record’s quirks and some challenging themes, Crosby isn’t always one to take life too seriously — after all, he spent the lockdown rating the combined rolling abilities of his fans on Twitter.
This surge of creativity and enthusiasm for music is something we can all be grateful for, and hopefully there’s more to come – he said there are plans for two more albums. If “For Free” proves to be a parting gift, it is, somehow, fitting, an album that could only be made after a life lived. And this is another shimmering victory from the great counterculture.
Release Date: July 23
Record Label: three Blind Mice