At 79-going-on-80 and 72, respectively, David Crosby and Jackson Browne — two lyrical lions of the ’60s-into-’70s singer-songwriter movement — have faced more than their share of demons and angels battling on their shoulders. Lives lived to the fullest for the better and the worse, activist causes driven and dropped, both men are now creating age-conscious but not-so-elegiac songs and releasing their most potent, reflective and even imaginative work in decades with this weekend’s release of Crosby’s “For Free” and Browne’s “Downhill From Everywhere.”
From Frank Sinatra’s croonings on the autumn of his years to Leonard Cohen’s holy musings toward aging out and moving on, the art of growing old is its own aesthetic, a soul-searching subgenre where staring into an abyss is its own reward. But here Crosby and Browne’s unblinking stares are wide-eyed and almost fresh-faced, in their fashion.
For Crosby’s part, he and he co-producer son, James Raymond, shuffle the deck on his soulful, folksy usual, exalt his still-gorgeous vocals above sea level, poke their heads into jazzy chord changes, and lift the singer’s beloved harmonies and plain spoken soliloquies to a higher plane. To accomplish this, Crosby starts “For Free” with a “River Run” filled with his patented Byrds-ian jangle, a handful of smart platitudes and a strong, harmony-filled melody reminiscent of CSN’s “Southern Cross,” today sung in a clear, clean voice sounding younger than his days by a third.
Crosby expands that low-soaring harmonic sound into country-jazz territory with “I Think I,” and litters that lyrical minefield with a mix of smart-aleck charm and handsomely burnished clichés about fine lives forged with no manuals (“There’s no instructions / And no map / No secret way past the trap / It’s so confusing I keep losing my way”). While “The Other Side of Midnight” maintains a jazz complexity, a stop-start framework and a blast of the intricate signature finger-picking for which he’s known, “Rodriguez for a Night” finds jazz-bo Crosby in the Steely Dan-ish territory of Fender Rhodes, silver polished brass and bluesy guitar runs. Donald Fagen co-wrote the noir-lion-in-winter hummer with Crosby, and fills his aging outlaw paean with references to “getting too old to chase the dream.” But, funnily enough, both men sound as if they’re just getting started, with fresh funk to steer them. (For the record, the brass breaks running through the R&B-ish ballad “Secret Dancer” and the salty halt and wiry jet-fueled imagery of “Ships in the Night” both sound inspired by Fagen, in yet another case of teaching an old dog new and quirky tricks without taking him too far from his mien.
The album has a lone truly elegiac moment in the heartbreaking finale, “I Won’t Stay for Long,” written by Raymond, allowing his father a pensive, studied take on each phrase (“I’m standing on the porch / Like it’s the edge of a cliff / Beyond the grass and gravel / Lies a certain abyss”). But prior to that, there is another cover, “For Free,” the album’s title track, penned by his one-time paramour, Joni Mitchell. Sung in harmony with the effervescent Sarah Jarosz, the title track is one of the most open and most seductive vocals of his career, and one of the most glorious renderings of Mitchell’s songs in memory.
Ultimately, that is the best thing about Crosby’s “For Free”: that it’s not trying to be anything but a portrait of an angelic singer, an anthemic songwriter and an impressive interpreter now, and in the moment, without a shred of pretense.
Browne’s album is allso without pretense, but with more gusto and smart lyrical interplay than anything he’s mustered in the last 20 years (how many pop songs you know use the word, Anthropocene?). He maintains his long search for things “to test my mettle / To keep my options open,” as stated on the blunt, bluesy “Still Looking for Something.”
Working with Elvis Costello band stalwarts Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, Browne focuses on tighter, more detailed portraits of himself and his subjects, rather than the bigger, broader lyrical social programs/protest of his past songs, in cuts lke the crisply rocking (but dumbly named) “My Cleveland Heart” and the spiritually romantic “Minutes to Downtown.” The latter track is one of Browne’s best, matching a cosmopolitan melody with a lyrical display of Raymond Carver-like allegories — and a sense of love and hate for L.A. “The years I’ve seen that fell between my date of birth and yours / Fade before the altered shore of a river changing course… Minutes to downtown, minutes to the Coast Highway / Forever on this freeway dreaming of my getaway / Don’t know how I’m still in L.A.”
The only song that bests “Minutes to Downtown” is the title track, a tight, Stones-ish rocker with a clipped, tight-lipped Browne performance that blossoms, by its multiple choruses, into a soulful multi-voiced opera that peeks through the slopes of vineyards, silver screens, Senate floors, Columbine and God’s golden shores, until the ravaged oceans are brought into question. “Do you think of the ocean as yours?… We don’t really know, because we don’t really see.”
Some of Browne’s lyrical whole-earth concerns seem to be ladled on thickly and by rote, just as some of his instrumental rock-outs can on occasion feel faceless (weird, considering that Bill Frisell, co-guitarist Greg Leisz and CSNY bassist Bob Glaub are part of the album’s core band). Beyond the quick bland asides, Browne sounds invigorated as he hasn’t since the ’80s.
What has given Browne fresh life as a songwriter — and as a newly passionate vocalist – may be the activist causes that befall us every day, the sort that made him write the dry but dramatic “Until Justice is Real.” More than anything, though, Browne sounds as If he’s fallen in love with music all over again. And maybe even with the sound of his own voice and what he can do with it. The highs that make David Crosby into an angel and the high-plains, plaintive wail of Jackson Browne make two vocalists In their unexpected prime ageless.