Joni Mitchell stands on a windy street corner and waits for the signal to cross the street. From across the way, a man plays his clarinet — the melody catches Mitchell’s ear. This street musician is not like her, who rides in limousines and plays at high-end venues. Instead, he plays for free. Before Mitchell can interact with the man, the light turns green, and she’s whisked away, the moment lost in the transience of the city streets.
Fifty years later, Mitchell’s reflections on fame and loneliness last in their lyrical beauty, preserved in this widely celebrated song, “For Free.” Her understated musings aim directly at the heart of songwriting; they interrogate the desire to make music for music’s sake. Earlier this year, Lana Del Rey covered the song, and now David Crosby — a countercultural fixture and former member of the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — has built an album around it.
Released July 23, For Free is the culmination of a decadeslong career ranging from songwriting sessions in Laurel Canyon to Woodstock performances with Neil Young. Crosby clings to the deep vocals and introspective lyricism that brought about his early success, but his music is also entangled with an open acceptance of his own mortality. Even as Crosby looks toward the end, he continues to revel in the beauty of making music.
For Free starts with the soft piano and refined harmonies of “River Rise,” co-written and performed alongside Michael McDonald of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. “Time won’t slip away,” they sing over a gradually building electric guitar. The upbeat optimism smoothly flows into the introspective “I Think I,” in which Crosby reflects on his journey through life. “It’s so confusing, I keep losing my way,” he admits. For Free regularly reflects on the passage of time, and Crosby is the first one to admit that he’s made some mistakes along the way.
The album is strongest when Crosby transports listeners to colorful alternate worlds. “Rodriguez for a Night,” co-written by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, whisks the audience into a landscape of drugstore cowboys and deals with the devil. The sound is unequivocally Steely Dan, layered with hints of funk and jazz. “Shot at Me” starts with a quiet scene of drinking coffee before launching into a framed narrative about war in the Middle East. The country-infused accompaniment gives the track its bite as Crosby juxtaposes his relative comfort with the realities of war.
For Free is filled with bold sounds and collaborations with some of Crosby’s favorite artists, but the title track — his cover of Mitchell’s “For Free” — stands apart in its relative quiet. The song is carried by the blended harmonies of Crosby and Texan singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, and it is accompanied by only a piano. The cover stays true to the original in its elegant simplicity, but it is also imbued with a greater sense of urgency. Crosby and Jarosz experiment with the tempo of the track, their voices remaining in perfect sync as they do so.
But Crosby saves the most heartfelt song for last. “I Won’t Stay for Long,” written entirely by his son James Raymond, openly addresses the passage of time and the inevitability of death. “I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born,” Crosby sings over a stripped-down piano. Both father and son openly grapple with their own mortality, but instead of ruminating over it, they channel their fears into a beautiful ballad. If listeners walk away with one message, it is that life can end at any moment; the only thing we can do is spend time with the people and things we love.
Mitchell’s “For Free” has assumed a life of its own over the years, from Laurel Canyon to Lana Del Rey. But its reflections on fame and loneliness find a special place in the life and music of David Crosby. If For Free is any indication, the musician will not slow down in his old age. Instead, he will continue to commune with that mysterious spirit that compels one to write.
Contact Lauren Harvey at [email protected].