David Crosby has always been a bit of a space case: Even when he was in the Byrds and then Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young), long before his drug intake skyrocketed and his run-ins with the law snowballed, his songs were the weirdest. Influenced by free jazz, the man behind the walrus mustache has always floated on fluctuating rhythms and cosmic poetry, and you can feel his inner meter following the gallop of dancing unicorns as far back as his 1967 Byrds soliloquy “Mind Gardens.” By the time he released his first solo album, 1971′s marquee star-packed but diffuse If I Could Only Remember My Name, Crosby was on the far fringes of freak folk decades before the micro-genre had a name.
Croz testifies to its creator’s jazz jones. Like his previous work with his late-’90s/early-’00s band CPR, Crosby fourth solo album in more than 40 years showcases his son, skilled pianist James Raymond, who steers the album in the winding direction of Hejira, the 1976 disc by his dad’s former paramour Joni Mitchell: Unfettered and self-released, Croz is similarly more jazz than rock, driven more by piano than guitar, and far more meditative than it is commercially minded.
Despite its glossy engineering, Croz downplays electric instrumentation. Dire Straights’ Mark Knopfler solos in his characteristic cool-but-detailed style on opening track “What’s Broken,” but aside from the atypically forceful climax of “The Clearing,” the rest of the guitars, typically played by Marcus Eaton, are mostly acoustic, as is Raymond’s piano. The three harmonize unexpectedly well; dig their CSNY-esque vocal flights on closing cut “Find a Heart,” a particularly liquid piece that also features session bassist superstar Leland Sklar.
But while the music ebbs and flows adroitly, Crosby’s poetry rattles and stumbles: The phrase “Cognitive dissonance” would trip the most assured crooner, and “Time I Have” points up the fact that the singer sometimes bites off more intellectually more than he can smoothly swallow artistically. For every winner — like the ethereal ballad “Holding on to Nothing,” which spotlights master jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — there’s a clunker on the level of “Dangerous Night,” a painfully earnest trip-hop-enabled inspirational ballad in which the singer ponders, “I try to write ‘Buddha,’ but it comes out ‘guns’/ I vote for peace and the blood still runs.” When its namesake strains to write pointed protest songs like his comrades did in days gone by, Croz proves that nowadays he’s better off forgoing deeper meaning and simply settling for misty moods.