David Crosby is making the most crystalline music of his career.
David Crosby, a critical third of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (or a quarter of CSN and Young, if you prefer), is 77 years old and making the most crystalline music of his career, and he’s making it in a great gush of beauty with musicians who are every bit his equal. Here If You Listen is a quiet masterpiece that arrives like a thing out of time—not nostalgia for Crosby’s past, not contemporary pop, just gorgeous music to move you.
Lighthouse from 2016 was produced by Michael League, the bass player and organizer of Snarky Puppy, the sort-of-jazz ensemble that plays every kind of music with a slick fizz and dazzle. League’s approach to Crosby’s music, however, had a lighter touch, though the album featured several Puppies: organist Cory Henry and pianist Bill Laurance, for example. The album managed to be a mature statement and revelation at once—august but fresh. Ultimately Croz took to the road with League and singer-songwriters Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. Last year, Crosby released Sky Trails, co-produced with his son, James Raymond, which was also top-notch but leavened with more jazz influence (saxophone, Fender Rhodes). The highlight was actually the title track, a more Lighthouse-esque tune, co-written and co-sung with Stevens, whose sensibility, solo work and innumerable collaborations with other artists embody the intersection of jazz sophistication and folk clarity.
And yet, 2018 brings the best Crosby album of this astonishing late-career run. Here If You Listen is just the Lighthouse band, unadorned and fully collaborative, all four members playing and singing on almost every song, the band setting up Crosby to perfect effect. Eight of the 11 tracks are credited to all four members as composers, and the lead vocals are often shared among the quartet. The result is a real album—a program of music that is unified in sound and purpose, a whole artistic statement by a small group that is truly working as a band.
If this drum-less ensemble sounds like it might be too stripped-down, the recording is almost orchestral in how it arrays its limited sounds, layering guitars, bass, keyboards, and vocals. It is simple but lush. It is beautiful but never to a fault.
“Your Own Ride,” for example, is built on a shimmering interplay between piano (the one appearance of a non-Lighthouse musician, Bill Laurance), acoustic, electric and billowing bass guitar and some ghostly synth tones that are so beautifully used that they sound completely organic. Often, Crosby’s voice sings in lush parallel with the instruments, but other moments feature all four voices singing utterly as one. The sonic whole is not merely greater than the sum of its parts: it is a new thing, a unified single sound that couldn’t be made by any other four people. Crosby, as we all recall, was part of band like this before.
“Your Own Ride” also stands out lyrically, a song sung to a child, grown and well on her way, a love song but also a song of advice and wisdom that dares to tell the harder truths of how life is full of fighting as well as love. In the song’s unforgettable bridge, Crosby sings, “I’ve been thinking about dying/ And how to do it well/ How to stand up and face it/ Or just lie where I fell/ It’s a matter of honor/ Having stood up in some light/ To spend my last hour clearing a path for your own ride/ You will ride with the owls at night/ Your own ride, I will be there beside you, child.” If this sounds like a resignation, then it’s also a kind of benediction, a blessing, a gentle and loving passing of a torch.
Most of Here If You Listen is more gently affirmative, even if it always has a heart-tugging poignancy. The opening track, “Glory,” begins as a travelogue, the tale of a solitary journey that is being supported from afar by an act of love: “In the blink of an eye/ In a moment of weakness/ I will be your armor/ I will be your witness/ You can’t lose, no you can’t lose me.” Stevens and Willis sing both solo and in duet on some of the verses, combining two ethereal voices into an eerie whole. At the tune’s close, Crosby sings alone with just electric piano and then guitar cushioning his still-delicately beautiful voice. You realize all at once that the recording has got you, gently, by the throat and heart.
Stevens’ “I Am No Artist” continues the lyrical references to journeys and flight, and the sense of how the music lifts is palpable. Stevens’ tunes rarely sound obvious, but neither are they artfully tricky, and this tune gorgeously blurs the lines between “verse” and “chorus,” becoming something much more like the art songs of Joni Mitchell, a comparison that Stevens is, by now, equally flattered by and tired of. But, of course, Crosby knows that kind of music well, and it is hardly a coincidence that the quartet ends the album with a new rendition of Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” with the four voices equally sharing the song and then coming together at various points such that the famous Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version is evoked but really forgotten. The Lighthouse band puts more blues in it, more feeling in it, more personality too, but the drive of the old “hit” is not there. “I Am No Artist” is a good title, but this is art music most assuredly.
Not that all the music here is airy and without groove. Willis’ “Janet” is driven by her funky Wurlitzer electric piano and lets the voices intersect with some snarl and bite. “Vagrants of Venice” is driven by a simple electric guitar lick that is not without a sense of rock, and the call-and-response in the vocal parts increases this kind of tension. “Buddha on a Hill” has a couple of good hooks: the opening guitar lick is the melodic center of the verse, and the chorus gives the album its title, with the phrase “Here if you listen” acting as another ear worm.
There are two tunes here rescued from Crosby’s past. “1967” is effectively an instrumental, with the voices singing wordlessly but wondrously, a memorable repeated core around which the singers create an ornate set of chimes and percussive patterns. “1974” also starts with a vocal line that scats along with a simple guitar line and then spins out as a pure melody. Here, however, words enter on the second chorus, developing into a complete statement.
Perhaps the best song on Here If You Listen is “Balanced on a Pin.” It may be ageist to suggest that there is something particularly miraculous about a delicate, idealistic love song being sung by a man nearing 80, but this poetic set of verses earns its sense of miracle. The narrator speaks to his lover, telling her that their story faces incredible obstacles, yes, but that it can happen with belief, with faith. The relationship is a “bubble, balanced on a pin” but “We can navigate/ Talk and navigate/ We can choose our fate/ It is not too late.” The music is simple, hopeful and embodies that critical lyric: It is not too late.
This late-career album from David Crosby proves that, indeed, it is not too late. Hope, love, wisdom and optimism are out there for anyone at any age. Crosby, wise and humble, found three young people who are clearly students of his style but who add so much brilliance on their own that he is remarkably remade. Does the whole album feel more like an elegy or a love affair? Both, as it’s never too late to fall in love with great music.