David Crosby occupies a paradoxical position in American music. He is simultaneously one of the most celebrated and one of the most underappreciated musicians of his gifted generation -- a generation that produced the timeless voices and visions of Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Neil Young, and many others. He is also one of the most quietly influential. By singing Dylan's early songs in the Byrds in crystalline harmony, Crosby gave the folksinger's career a significant boost. After hearing an unknown waif named Joni Mitchell sing in a club, he got her a recording contract that ensured her maximum creative freedom and produced her first record, launching her on her own intimitable career path. Crosby also turned the Beatles on to Ravi Shankar, and the world of pop music was never the same again. His music has been consistently fascinating, stretching the boundaries of pop, informed by jazz and world music as much as folk -- as Miles Davis knew when he recorded Crosby's sublime "Guinnevere" -- but as a result, his songs have never gotten the radio play of the tunes by his gifted bandmates in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. [Disclosure: I've been listening to Crosby's music since I was a teenager in 1970, and have had the pleasure of knowing him since the early 1990s.]
From the first bars of "What's Broken," it's obvious that two-time Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer Crosby is not resting on his Woodstock laurels for a second. This is one of the freshest, most innovative, and most vital albums of the year -- in no small part because Crosby forged an intimate musical collaboration with his brilliant son, James Raymond, whose keyboards and orchestral imagination turn these songs into cinematic landscapes that haunt your dreams. A poignant song about a drone bombing in the Middle East, "Morning Falling," is like nothing Crosby's ever done, with its heart-wrenching photographic lyrics, Arabic-inflected melody, and aching woodwinds by Steve Tavaglione. "Dangerous Night" is equally devastating, built on a set of chords by Raymond that has the majesty of Bruce Hornsby's most memorable melodies and a set of lyrics that render a clear picture of the troubles of humankind in the 21st Century while delivering a stirring message of consolation. On every track, Crosby and Raymond -- with the help of illustrious guests like Mark Knopfler and Wynton Marsalis, and a brilliant rhythm section -- stretch themselves, creating an album of folk/pop/electronic grandeur that manages to sound completely new and yet also like a classic David Crosby recording. When Crosby and guitarist/vocalist Marcus Eaton lay down a spread of luminous harmonies a minute into "What's Broken," you'll know you could be listening to no one else. There is darkness here -- check out the spare, desolate, sharply-drawn portrait of a young hooker in Amsterdam in "If She Called," sung solo with electric guitar -- but there is also redemption in "Radio" and "Find a Heart," two of the most upbeat and sparkling songs Crosby has ever recorded, tributes to the transformative power of love and compassion.
Crosby set a very high standard for himself with his first solo album recorded in 1970, "If I Could Only Remember My Name," but here he reaches that standard by coming at it from an unexpected angle, playing with the seasoned wisdom of age and the daring and ambition of youth, in the company of a band that deeply comprehends and extends his idiosyncratic vision. It's obviously a must-buy for his fans, but even for listeners who are only familiar with Crosby's moody contributions to CSNY, it's worth picking up as an exploration of new emotional and musical territory by one of the most fertile musical minds of our times.