David Crosby Molds Most Creatively Fulfilling Solo LP Yet On ‘Sky Trails’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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For a revered songwriter boasting a 50-year career and two spots in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, David Crosby hasn’t previously had a lot of songs to crow about — at least ones he’s written.

Crosby was initially best known as the rhythm guitar player in the Byrds who wrote the spellbindingly creepy “Triad,” which made free love sound like something from Dante’s Inferno. Then he walked out of the band over a refusal to participate in a Carole King cover; it was rumored that he was replaced by a horse on the ensuing album sleeve.

His own seventies tunes, released solo and in tandem with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, looked inward. While their songs were often outspoken and brash, his were dreamy and ethereal. They were hung on byzantine chord shapes that slouched toward jazz. Profoundly moved by a nautical experience he had when he was 11, he sang of sailing and schooners and Arthurian ladies.

And then… not much. Unfortunately, Croz has been more headline than headliner since the ‘70s. Drugs, guns and more drugs. A nine-month stint in Texas state prison. He was the guy who stopped a studio session over a broken crack pipe and who was arrested for firearm and cocaine possession after he crashed into a highway divider. But, miraculously, none of this unsavory behavior finished him off or even hardened his talents.

Crosby emerged in the 2010s creative, funny and in awe of music and his own survival. He resurrected his long-dormant solo career with the not-bad Croz (2014), but he seemed dogged by insecurity. “If this album bombed, I would be a broken spirit,” he admitted to Rolling Stone’s Stephen Rodrick. “It’s the best I can do.”

It wasn’t. Hooking up with jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy along with his keyboardist son James Raymond as his backing band, he went on to make his most beautiful solo album yet, the tender, acoustic Lighthouse (2016). And less than a year later, we have its follow-up, Sky Trails. At its best, it tops the dazzling heights of its predecessor.

While Lighthouse relied on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the playing on Trails is polyphonous and plummy. “My day isn’t complete if I don’t get Steely Dan in it,” Crosby recently told Rolling Stone, and it would seem the duo had a major influence on these harder, jazzier tunes. He still pulls back, especially on the shivering, celestial title track, co-written and sang in tandem with vocalist Becca Stevens — and by far the best tune here. Elsewhere, the meter-shifting “Sell Me a Diamond” cleverly flips shopping for jewelry into a metaphor for global tension (“Conflict-free sounds good to me,” muses Croz) and “Here It’s Almost Sunset” is lithe and low-key.

And then there’s “Amelia,” a cover from Joni Mitchell’s 41-year-old masterpiece of atmosphere, Hejira. The two songwriters briefly dated before she ended up with Graham Nash – in Nash’s memoir Wild Tales, he describes the potentially awkward situation as “the most civilized she’s-not-my-girlfriend-any-more-and-now-she’s-yours swaps that had ever taken place.” Regardless of that, Crosby’s appreciation for Mitchell’s work runs deep. “She’s better than I am and always has been,” he stated to NPR. He sings it straight, reverentially, accompanied by piano.

His version of Mitchell’s tune doesn’t necessarily define it, but it hardly matters. “I’m at the end of my life… I’ve got a little time left,” he stated in the same NPR piece, and the whole record carries that knowing vibe. On Sky Trails, Crosby seems to say “thank you” for the gift of music while hoping for a better world.

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