Back to the Garden

David Crosby’s new connection

 

David Crosby insists that his latest LP, the touchingly titled Here If You Listen, isn’t a solo album.

If it was, it would be his fourth in just about as many years, a sign of renewed productivity after decades spent in or near the wilderness. Instead, he’s quick to credit his collaborators — Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis and Michael League — for offering their input. In truth, their names are considerably smaller on the album cover than his. Likewise, his is the only name on the album’s spine.

Consequently forgive the outside observer for sharing any skepticism.

The larger Crosby banner is understandable of course, especially when considering the fuller marketing potential. The only thing likely to supersede the impact of a Crosby solo effort would be that of a group release by a reformed Byrds or reunited Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, and according to Crosby himself, there’s little likelihood that either is ever going to happen. Indeed, he blames those near nil possibilities on the whims of others, specifically Roger McGuinn and Neil Young, respectively. That makes his willingness to share equal credit with three relative unknowns seem all the more magnanimous.

“I made a solo record two albums ago called Lighthouse, and I asked Michael League — the bass player, leader,and songwriter for Snarky Puppy — to produce the record for me,” Crosby explains when asked about how the new band came into being. “Michael brought in Becca and Michelle, who I love. That was a David Crosby record with him producing and them contributing to the songs. So this time, I went to them and said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to make another solo record. I want to make a group record that we can write together and sing together.’ And they said, ‘Are you sure?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I feel that there’s a real chemistry here and I want to follow up on it.’ So they jumped in with both feet, and the result was an explosive effort. They’re immensely talented people, and if you open up the door to them and make them feel welcome at the helm, they’re going to have a lot to say. I love these songs. I’m probably not the best judge, but to me, the record is a joy.”

Of course given his storied history, Crosby can never escape his past, both good and bad. And while he maintains that he never dwells on his past accomplishments (“I never listen to my old music,” he says), one can’t help but sense there’s some deja vu at play here. After all, Crosby famously penned the song with that same name, which famously became the title track for the first CSNY album. Along with a tender take om Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” which Crosby and company famously covered early on, two of the titles on the album — “1974” and “1967” — also reference decades gone by. Not that the lyrics elaborate — like most of the tracks, the sentiments they express are lofty and laborious to the point where they’re simply parceling out platitudes.

Take this couplet from “Your Own Ride,” a song Crosby claims he originally wrote for his eleven year-old son several years ago:



“Fear is the mind killer
The creator of rage
A calm soul is wisdom
And it comes with age.”

 

Likewise, the album find Crosby and company doling out wistful notions about how to reconcile the past and face the future. “I’ve been thinking about dying and how to do it well,” Crosby croons later on in that same song. Indeed, he is all too aware that at age 77, his productive years may be dwindling down quickly.

“People don’t like talking about that kind of stuff,” Crosby reflects. “But that’s part of our job–to talk about stuff everybody else is afraid to talk about.”

That might also explain at least one obvious contradiction. “No true desire burns within me now,” he allows on “I’m No Artist,” the most telling track on the album and, ironically, one of the few he had no hand in writing.

Even so, this Crosby and his colleagues have soaring sentiment they’re determined to express. The hushed harmonies and communal connection often recall Crosby’s 1971 solo debut, If Only I Could Remember My Name, arguably the best of all his individual outings. And while he’s obviously a mellower man now, there’s still remnants of his earlier outrage, as evidenced by “Other Half Rule,” which references “rocket men and little hands,” an all too obvious swipe at Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, referred to here as “two blind men” with “fat fingers on the trigger.” Echoes of “Ohio,” “Almost Cut My Hair” and “What Are Their Names” reappear, again as if on cue.

“We didn’t have any message or theme or anything,” Crosby declares. “We came in with a scrap or words, or a melody, or a set of changes and sat with each other, and started by saying, ‘What if we…’ and then bang , we were off and running. We went into a studio in Brooklyn and we wrote most of it there. We had two songs when we went in and eleven when we walked out. It was just an amazing experience.”

The song credits confirm the fact that the album was a genuine group effort. Aside from the remake of “Woodstock” and a song called “Janet,” easily the most barbed song of the set and one that Willis wrote entirely on her own, all the album’s offerings were written in tandem or in different combinations of  the four principals.

And that of course is cool with Crosby. “It’s a group effort,” Crosby emphasizes, obviously intent on putting the point across. “I think they’re immensely talented people.”

Given the bar set early on, they would absolutely have to be. At this point in his career, Crosby can’t afford to carry any dead weight. Here If You Listen is indeed here to be heard.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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