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Neil Young

+ {Neil Young with Crazy Horse} + {Neil Young & The Bluenotes}

Whether dabbling in psychedelic country-rock, contemporary folk-rock, bluesy hard-rock, rockabilly or indeed 80s electro, enigmatic singer-songwriter NEIL YOUNG encompasses everything a true artist or musician should be: ambitious, earnest and individual.
Born Neil Percival Young, November 12, 1945, in Toronto, Canada, his latter formative years were spent with his divorced mother in Winnipeg. Neil had cut his teeth in local garage instrumental outfit The Squires, who performed at coffeehouses and bars in the area; they also released one 45, `The Sultan’ for V Records in September ‘63.
The following year, YOUNG formed the Mynah Birds and joined forces with Ricky James Matthews (later to become Rick James), and although several tracks were cut, only one saw the light of day: `Mynah Bird Hop’ (for Columbia in Canada). The group signed to Motown (the first mixed-race act to do so), but were almost immediately dropped when the label found out that Ricky had dodged the draft.
Expanding his horizons beyond the Canadian border, YOUNG drove to America in his Pontiac hearse in early ‘66, where he teamed up with past acquaintance Stephen Stills, who helped him form BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD. Based in Los Angeles, this post-BYRDS quintet paved the way for other psych-orientated folk-rock acts, although their tenure as a group was cut short in 1968 when the talented lads found other outlets to pursue. Constant rivalry led to YOUNG departing for a solo venture after signing for a new label, Reprise, in spring ‘68.
Eponymous debut NEIL YOUNG (1968) {*7} – with arranger/producer Jack Nitzsche, then David Briggs – failed to generate much interest bar the loyal few. A fragile, acoustic affair, the album was a tentative start to YOUNG’s mercurial solo career, songs like the folky `The Old Laughing Lady’ and `The Loner’ hinting at the genius to come. The record was also a guinea-pig for Warners (then) new CSG recording process, a process which YOUNG later complained bitterly about when the resulting sound quality turned out poor.
EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE (1969) {*10}, however, was the sound of YOUNG in full control. Hooking up with a bunch of hard-bitten rockers going by the name of Crazy Horse, the record marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership that’s still going strong nigh on forty years later. With `Cinnamon Girl’, `Down By The River’ and `Cowgirl In The Sand’, this bruising musical synergy saw YOUNG scaling cathartic new heights, and the guitar interplay would become a template for the primal improvisation of his live work.
Although AFTER THE GOLD RUSH (1970) {*9} was partly recorded with Crazy Horse and featured the blistering `Southern Man’, most of the album was by turns melancholy, bittersweet and charming in the style of the gorgeous ballad, `Helpless’, that he’d contributed some months earlier to the CSN&Y album `Déjà Vu’. `Birds’ and `I Believe In You’ stand as two of the most poignant love songs of YOUNG’s career, while the title track (later a hit for Brit-folk a cappella-ists PRELUDE) was a compelling lament of surreal poetry, based on a script written by actor Dean Stockwell. The album gave Neil his breakthrough, going Top 10 in both America and Britain.
His solo 1972 single, `Heart Of Gold’, and parent album, HARVEST {*10}, made NEIL YOUNG a household name. Most of the tracks were recorded in Nashville with a band called the Stray Gators (Ben Keith, etc.); piano and production duties fell to the aforementioned producer Nitzsche. The hairy one’s biggest-selling album to date, the finely-crafted country-crooning of `Out On The Weekend’, the title track and the aforementioned single was the closest YOUNG ever came to MOR. The poignant `The Needle And The Damage Done’ (live here), `Alabama’, `Old Man’ (a Top 40 hit), `There’s A World’ and `A Man Needs A Maid’ fulfil his revised introspective approach, winning the day hands down in the process.
True to his contrary style, the next few years saw him trawling the depths of his psyche for some of the most uncompromising and uncommercial material of his career. After the fierce sonic assault of the live TIME FADES AWAY (1973) {*6} album, YOUNG went back into the studio with Crazy Horse to record a tribute to Danny Whitten, their sad-voiced singer who’d overdosed on heroin the previous year. The album itself bemused attending audiences expecting to fly with a “Harvest” of fave material from Neil’s recent back catalogue, or better, takes from his ill-advised, ill-conceived and ill-fated part-compilation {*4} OST, JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST (1972). Instead, the loyal were subjected to an emotional exorcism of the man’s musical demons courtesy of some blinding tunes such as `Don’t Be Denied’, `Yonder Stands The Sinner’ and `Last Dance’.
Just as YOUNG was due to begin said studio recording, another of his friends, Bruce Berry (Stephen Stills’ guitar roadie), succumbed to smack. The morose, drunken confessionals that resulted from those sessions eventually appeared a couple of years later as the TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT (1975) {*10} album. Arguably YOUNG’s most essential release, this darkly personal chronicle of drug oblivion veered from the resigned melancholy of `Albuquerque’ to the detached, twisted country of `Tired Eyes’, while the visceral catharsis of `Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’ (an earlier live recording with a Whitten vocal) cranked up the guitars to match the unrelenting intensity level.
Following Warner Bros’ reluctance to release the album, YOUNG set about writing yet another batch of hazy confessionals upon his return from touring the said material. Deeply troubled by his increasing estrangement from actress Carrie Snodgress (with whom he’d had a son, Zeke), Neil shacked himself up in his new Malibu pad and penned ON THE BEACH (1974) {*9}. When every other rock star in L.A. was desperately trying to forget they’d ever hung out with Charles Manson, YOUNG wrote `Revolution Blues’ in response to the horrific Manson family killings. `Ambulance Blues’ was just as darkly compelling, and the album remains an obscure classic. After a brief, ill-starred reunion with CROSBY, STILLS & NASH, YOUNG came up with a set entitled `Homegrown’, which Warners (once again) deemed too downbeat to release. Instead, they relented and assented to the belated delivery of `Tonight’s…’.
Come 1975, YOUNG was back in the studio with Crazy Horse, who’d recently recruited Frank `Pancho’ Sampedro on guitar as a permanent replacement for Whitten. The resulting album, named after the L.A. beach, ZUMA (1975) {*8}, bore the first raw fruits of this new guitar partnership, the lucid imagery and meditative ruminations of `Cortez The Killer’ bringing the album to a darkly resonant climax, while `Don’t Cry No Tears’, `Danger Bird’ (never has he been more effectively squeaky) and `Stupid Girl’ found YOUNG more animated than he’d sounded for years.
Following a mediocre joint effort as The Stills-Young Band (`Long May You Run’) in 1976 and an aborted tour with his old sparring partner, Neil cut the hodgepodge AMERICAN STARS ‘N BARS (1977) {*6} album. A competent set of country rock, the record (with tracks dated as far back as ’74) featured one of his best-loved songs, an aching, soaring testament to the power of romantic obsession entitled `Like A Hurricane’ – in a word, classic.
With the autobiographical COMES A TIME (1978) {*8}, he reverted to “Harvest”-style mellow country, duetting lush harmonies with then girlfriend Nicolette Larson; check out `Lotta Love’, `Goin’ Back’, `Already One’, the title track and a cover of IAN TYSON’s `Four Strong Winds’. Towards the end of ‘78, Neil’s new love Pegi Morton, had given him his second child, Ben. Sadly, like his first son, Zeke, was also born with cerebral palsy; YOUNG subsequently founded the Bridge School for children with disabilities; his third child Amber Jean suffers from epilepsy as does Neil himself.
Back to his best for years, YOUNG’s more abrasive side couldn’t be suppressed for long and, rejuvenated by the energy of the punk explosion, he reunited with Crazy Horse once more for the RUST NEVER SLEEPS (1979) {*9} album. An electrifying set of passionate rockers and lean acoustic songs, it included such enduring live favourites as `My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ and `Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)’ – both name-checking Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten – and the wounded `Powderfinger’. The former was YOUNG’s own comment on the “live fast, die young” rock’n’roll school of thought (it came back to haunt him when Kurt Cobain quoted the song in his suicide note). LIVE RUST (1979) {*8} was the corrosive companion soundtrack album capturing Neil Young & Crazy Horse live in all their frayed magnificence. Follow-up HAWKS & DOVES (1980) {*5} found the man once again in a contemplative country mood on such ditties as `The Old Homestead’ (all 7 minutes of it) and the rocking `Union Man’. It was indeed time for a change, and with every artist in the 80s committing to a dour transitional period, YOUNG was no exception to the rule.
A stunned YOUNG began to clam up emotionally, with the result that much of his subsequent 80s work sounded confused and directionless. Matched up with Crazy Horse again, RE-AC-TOR (1981) {*5} drove home his need to rock’n’roll, while it also introduced the Synclavier to the mix. But for the freewheeling boogie swaggers of `Opera Star’ and its bookended counterpart `Shots’, this might well’ve been Frisbee’d into the bargain bins sooner. From the rawhide trucker-billy of `Southern Pacific’ to the cranky C&W of `Motor City’ or the 9-minute na-dir-ge `T-Bone’ (repeating “Got mashed potato…” to nauseating intensity), YOUNG’s career looked to be on the wane.
After the LP all but stiffed, Neil moved to Geffen Records, where he recorded TRANS (1983) {*5}, a transitional techno album that in part attempted to reflect his son’s communication problems. Using a vocoder, the singer succeeded in rendering the lyrics almost unintelligible and, while the album was almost universally panned, tracks like `Transformer Man’, `Computer Age’ and the KRAFTWERK-like `We R In Control’ (and the lengthy `Sample And Hold’) remain oddly affecting.
The remainder of his period at Geffen extended an all-time low in his career, both commercially and creatively, kicking off with the ill-advised foray into doo-wop rockabilly, EVERYBODY’S ROCKIN’ (1983) {*4}, and credited to Neil and the Shocking Pinks. Alongside several of his own takes on the genre, there was somehow space for old nuggets like `Rainin’ In My Heart’ (not the BUDDY HOLLY gem), `Bright Lights, Big City’, `Mystery Train’ and the cringe-worthy Bobby Freeman cut `Betty Lou’s Got A New Pair Of Shoes’.
One had to ask oneself what happened to the greats of rock in the self-indulgent, yuppies 80s. NEIL YOUNG was re-inventing himself time and time again, and the MOR/country-boy recording, OLD WAYS (1985) {*5} – rejected by his bosses in ’82! – was complete hokum to most of his loyal followers. As well as making embarrassing pro-Reagan statements in interviews, one could feel his passion on the likes of `Get Back To The Country’, the title track and a cover of Gogi Grant’s `The Wayward Wind’; listen out for WAYLON JENNINGS and WILLIE NELSON.
With only drummer Steve Jordan and co-producer Danny Kortchmar involved, the synth-sombre LANDING ON WATER (1986) {*3} was akin to Neil riding the rapids upstream without a paddle. Resurfacing a year with his Crazy Horse gang on LIFE {*6}, YOUNG’s return to the rock arena was welcomed with open arms. Although there was nothing to shout home about, at least there was some jingo-istic lyrics for his homeboys to sink their teeth into; examples `Mideast Vacation’, `Around The World’ and label-baiting `Prisoners Of Rock’n’Roll’. Testing his fans and the man to the limit, Neil was eventually sued by Geffen for making records that didn’t sound like NEIL YOUNG!
Taking up with Reprise Records again, the man was again accused of going backwards for inspiration; this time as Neil Young & The Bluenotes! THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU (1988) {*6} cut a bit of ice with some critics, but basically, R&B and the backing of a 6-piece horn section, together with the man’s croaky tones, were not a match made in blues heaven.
Somewhat back on track with 1989’s FREEDOM {*7} album, deep down one knew it was only a matter of time before hardened hero NEIL YOUNG would ride back into town. Bookended by two versions of the anthemic `Rockin’ In The Free World’ (his best of the 80s by far), this record took the half-acoustic/half-electric template of “Rust…” and even mixed in a re-vamped `On Broadway’, a staple made famous by The DRIFTERS. Neil’s politics had also shifted a little to the left; a time when he had the “freedom” to condemn anyone not fit enough to run his own bath, rather than his country, or indeed the world. Set against some nice country duets alongside LINDA RONSTADT (`The Ways Of Love’ and `Hangin’ On A Limb’), there was provocative power by way of `Don’t Cry’, `Eldorado’ and the “All Along The Watchtower”-like `Crime In The City’.
With Crazy Horse back in the frame, he cut RAGGED GLORY (1990) {*8}, a frenetic guitar mash-up that was staggering in its intensity for such an elder statesman of rock. Running in at over an hour, fans were in awe of the psychedelic power on stuff such as `Country Home’, `White Line’ (both re-hashed outtakes from the 70s), `F*!#in’ Up’, `Days That Used To Be’ and a rendition of Don & Dewey’s/The Premiers’ `Farmer John’. Leaving the best ‘til last (well, almost), the sonic meanderings on `Love And Only Love’ mirrored the complex 10-minute charges of `Love To Burn’ – also highlights from WELD (1991) {*8}, a live document of the subsequent tour, which saw YOUNG championed by the new “grunge” vanguard and revered once more by the indie/rock press as the epitome of guitar cool; one can also witness the axeman’s explosive take of DYLAN’s `Blowin’ In The Wind’. Influenced by SONIC YOUTH (who supported him for part of the tour), he even recorded a CD collage of feedback, “Arc”, available in a limited quantity as a bonus disc with the aforementioned concert double set.
His critical rebirth now complete, HARVEST MOON (1992) {*7} gave solo Neil his biggest commercial success since the 70s. A lilting, careworn set of country-folk, it was billed as a belated follow-up to 1972’s similarly-titled/themed masterpiece. As autumnal as the sleeve suggests, and recovering from a bout of tinnitus (brought on by his recent tour excesses), Neil reunited with old buddies Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham, while one could also hear the dulcet tones of LINDA RONSTADT, JAMES TAYLOR, Nicolette Larson and half-sister Astrid Young. Almost a perfect foil for Neil’s feedback forays, even the most metallic-friendly pundit could hardly object to smooth-FM gemstones such as `Unknown Legend’, `From Hank To Hendrix’, `You And Me’, the title track and the banjo-beaut `Old King’.
Of course, the MTV UNPLUGGED (1993) {*6} set was now obligatory, but rather than give the audience a predictable run through of acoustic numbers, he presented radically altered versions of old numbers like `Transformer Man’, `Long May You Run’, `Pochahontas’, `Like A Hurricane’ and another mouthy-mewl `The Old Laughing Lady’.
Neil Young & Crazy Horses’s SLEEPS WITH ANGELS (1994) {*6} was a downbeat elegy for KURT COBAIN, the grunge-meister having tragically taken his own life that April. Rather brooding and gloomy as one might expect, highlights streamed from both ends of the musical spectrum via shaky ballads `My Heart’, `Driveby’ and `Change Your Mind’ (all 14 minutes of it!) to punk-grunge dirge `Piece Of Crap’ and sonic group-penned cut `Blue Eden’.
MIRROR BALL (1995) {*5} was a misguided collaboration with another grunge giant, PEARL JAM; one thinks this too might’ve been aimed for prospective studio time with the NIRVANA man had he not died. But YOUNG and Vedder at least combined on one joint effort, `Peace And Love’, while religion, holy wars and abortion crop up in other tracks; he drops in name-checks for HENDRIX, LENNON and LED ZEPPELIN on hippiedom song, `Peace And Love’.
His next project, the soundtrack to Johnny Depp vehicle DEAD MAN (1996) {*5}, was interesting in some aspects, as it did find him time to create the most compelling – if oblique – film score of his career. Of course, Neil’s past forays into film work was hardly the stuff of legend; the aforementioned “Journey…” (1972) was hardly the most auspicious of celluloid starts; `Where The Buffalo Roam’ (1980), `Human Highway’ (under his alias Bernard Shakey) and others hardly saw daylight on the vinyl front. But nevertheless, he gets to grips with this abstract experiment, scraping and sawing at his strings amid desolate, distorted flurries of electric guitar. Save for the way he holds those melancholy notes, and despite the fact that the dialogue’s Indian mysticism is a context tailor-made for the Canadian, the album was often barely recognisable as a product of NEIL YOUNG. Save for some snatches of Neil’s ghostly pump organ, it’s also a determinedly minimalistic work, letting the spaces between the music do the talking rather than the music itself.
Back to the country, one could say (at least in the rollicking `Changing Highways’ track),
the Crazy Horse collaboration BROKEN ARROW (1996) {*5} slipped back to his “Old Ways”, albeit with feedback winning over C&W content. Retracing steps of the native Americans of the previous century, YOUNG prolongs with the theme a little too much on lengthy openers, `Big Time’, `Loose Change’ and `Slip Away’. And where the buffalo roamed for a live version of JIMMY REED’s `Baby What You Want Me To Do’ fitted in, well only the man himself could tell you.
The name taken from a film documentary by Jim Jarmusch, live-concert double-disc YEAR OF THE HORSE (1997) {*5} was given short shrift by the press; the simple fact was that both had little to do with one another. And in truth, YOUNG’s records were far too inconsistent to warrant parting with hard earned cash.
The man’s long-awaited SILVER & GOLD (2000) {*5} went some way towards redressing the balance, although it wasn’t quite the dazzling return to form many had hoped for. Much of the album meandered along in a similar fashion to the trio of acoustic songs YOUNG had contributed to the previous year’s CSN&Y reunion set, `Looking Forward’. Bearing in mind that these tracks were by far the most memorable, it follows that S&G was an enjoyable enough listen without ever hitting those plateaus of inspiration integral to YOUNG’s best work; one can also feel slightly cheated when two of the best tracks on here (the title track and `Razor Love’) were from ‘82 and ’87 respectively.
With 2002’s ARE YOU PASSIONATE? {*5}, YOUNG extended his mid-90s touring relationship with BOOKER T & THE MG’s to the studio, cutting a straight-up Southern “soul-o” set. While this might’ve confounded his more rock-centric converts, it came as little surprise to long time fans who’ve learned to take YOUNG’s stylistic whims in their stride. Like VAN MORRISON, the ageing troubadour seemed more and more content to indulge lifelong passions than keep on top of his muse. The result was pleasant if unstartling; it all seemed a long way away from his feedback experimentation of the early 90s. Of the more interesting tracks, his post-9/11 number `Let’s Roll’ (the final words of heroic Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer) and the CRAZY HORSE-backed `Goin’ Home’ were obvious choices to fire up the passion.
More than a decade after “Weld”, YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE finally tried his hand at something more ambitious with GREENDALE (2003) {*6}, a bizarre quasi-concept, film song-cycle set which, if not exactly holding together as a narrative (the convoluted plot centres on a fictional American town of the title, and more specifically on the troubles of one of the community’s families) at least found the singer flexing his creative muscle for a change. The awkward equation of NEIL YOUNG (Bernard Shakey) + film-making has generally succeeded only in a straightforward live performance context. As an extended and often self-conscious series of grainy, lip-synching music videos knitted into a vague narrative, the project didn’t do much to alter that impression, even if its social protest was laudable and its ambition a kick up the backside for YOUNG’s floundering career. The “musical novel” of a soundtrack works a little better, but if it’s possible to roughly categorise the man’s albums into bluesy plodder, rocker and acoustic, this one leans a bit too heavily on the plod. YOUNG’s latter-day Crazy Horse outings haven’t been his best, but it’s Molina and Talbot who yet again set the meandering pace here. Their grizzled sponsor nods and noodles along like the sage Grandpa Green, recounting his backwater vignettes in a tone halfway between barroom anecdote and kitchen table confessional. It’s a tone he nails handsomely on `Bandit’, a whispered elegy for rootless, penniless artists everywhere, one with a ghost of YOUNG’s great 70s meditation on human desperation, `Tired Eyes’. And it’s hardly a coincidence that `Bandit’ is a slack-stringed acoustic ballad rather than a bluesy chugger. After the plangent `Falling From Above’, the only other time the music really rises above the concept is when YOUNG varies the texture with some pump organ on `Bringin’ Down Dinner’, and especially when his band accelerate into a semi-gallop on closing Earth Mother anthem, `Be The Rain’: the harmonies fly, YOUNG’s guitar heaves and writhes, and suddenly the years fall away like so much small-town gossip.
The biggest news in years was PRAIRIE WIND (2005) {*6}, touted as tracing a post-millennial arc through Harvest and Harvest Moon. Lyrically elegiac with a title track reprising the latter’s folksy picking and breeze-tousled female harmonies, the album in general was nevertheless just too diverse and Memphis Horn-brassy to function as a country-rock trilogy closer. In the likes of `Falling Off The Face Of The Earth’ and `This Old Guitar’, it did, however, feature some of YOUNG’s most wraith-like songwriting in years, refracting grief and mortality more convincingly than almost all of his peers. During its recording, the singer was in dire contemplation having suffered a brain aneurysm, possibly brought on by the death of his father. A document of the time was set in celluloid history by director Jonathan Demme for the concert flick, Heart Of Gold.
No sooner had fans digested its subtleties, than YOUNG was back with a bullet: the splenetic LIVING WITH WAR (2006) {*7} ranked as his most aggravated volte-face since Rust trailed Comes A Time. Recorded inside a two-week burst of indignation and wrapped in the starkest packaging of his career, the album was the most overt anti-Bush statement yet conceived by any artist. Burning with the conviction that this was a record that had to be made by someone sooner or later, its torrent of distorted guitar and Mount Rushmore choruses was one part `Ohio’, one part Weld (check the blistering, mariachi-seared `Shock And Awe’), and one part the small town/big problems of “Greendale”, as subtle as a jackboot but aflame with the privilege of believing that the concept of protest/redemption song was still viable: `Flags Of Freedom’ made no bones about its “Chimes Of Freedom” inspiration, even mentioning DYLAN by name. The song titles told their own story; YOUNG – like most of the rest of the world – was still reeling from Bush’s re-election, but `Let’s Impeach The President’ was the boldest move by any American (naturalised or not) artist to confront him directly.
Mysteriously dubbed as a sequel to a shelved set from 1977, most of which turned up as re-recordings on subsequent sets anyway, CHROME DREAMS II (2007) {*6} took only the autumnal passion from its so-called predecessor of thirty years ago. Maybe Neil just liked the thought of a concept album, but anyhoos, no-one could deny there was some gripping stuff here, namely `Ordinary People’ (all 18 minutes of it!), `Dirty Old Man’ and another expansive work-out, `No Hidden Path’.
FORK IN THE ROAD (2009) {*6} continued YOUNG’s solo journey, a journey that highlighted and empathised the need for the automobile – indeed, the once-thriving American car industry; he’d once drove a hearse from Toronto to L.A. and has since customised a ’59 Lincoln Continental which he test-drove all the way to Washington. With the recession now in full force, and with Barack Obama in place to sort it out (evangelist Neil was in full campaign mode here), this “freewheeling” record was befitting to the cause, the most poignant three being `Just Singing A Song’, `Fuel Line’ and the title track.
With only his trusty Les Paul and his inimitable singing vox, Neil – with ambient producer DANIEL LANOIS on hand – delivered his first real solo album, LE NOISE (2010) {*6}. Autobiographical and therefore retrospective, the record delivers no classics, but a reflection of times gone and times present, albeit rather bruised and battered. Opening with the fuzzy `Walk With Me’, the set unravels with each listening into one his most sprawling and dramatic pieces for some time, the best stemming from `Love And War’ and `Hitchhiker’.
Now comfortable and into his mid-60s twilight years, it was no surprise when YOUNG the songwriter became YOUNG the traditional cover artist – according to his next take on folk culture, AMERICANA (2012) {*4}. Nine years since his previous CRAZY HORSE venture, their excavation into old-timey territory, was, for many pundits, a big mistake. Ripping up the hymn sheet and presenting each dirge with a grungy rock mix (‘cept for the doo-wop embarrassment of `Get A Job’), Neil, Frank, Billy and Ralph even cross the Atlantic for a recital of British national anthem, `God Save The Queen’. While one could make exceptions for their sing-a-long take of WOODY GUTHRIE’s `This Is Your Land’ (which featured the chorus of STEPHEN STILLS and Pegi Young) and BILLY EDD WHEELER’s `High Flyin’ Bird’, the shock and awe of `Clementine’, `Tom Dula’, et al, begged the question – why?
As always though, Neil seemed to right the/his wrongs in one fell swoop; making up for his previous misgivings with another appropriately-titled CRAZY HORSE collaboration, PSYCHEDELIC PILL (2012) {*7}. A double CD/triple LP and delivered only four months after its flawed predecessor, fans of their 70s-period grinding could easily associate with epic songs (each over 16 minutes) in `Driftin’ Back’ (clocking in at 27 minutes!), `Ramada Inn’ and `Walk Like A Giant’. One thing that it proved was that rustic Neil never sleeps.
Then again, Neil Y’s fixation with clocking up time-travel miles back in time was certainly in question on 2014’s covers set, A LETTER HOME {*5}. Promoting his and JACK WHITE/Third Man Records’ recently-purchased Voice-O-Graph booth, a fairground contraption that dated back to 1947, he almost captured an era before the creation of songs such as the crackly-rooted ditties he “down-dated” here. Sounding like actor Bruce Dern with plums firmly planted in both cheeks, Neil turned up the treble and got all OTT sentimental on the likes of DYLAN’s `Girl From The North Country’, BERT JANSCH’s `Needle Of Death’ (some would say the forerunner to `Needle And The Damage Done’), GORDON LIGHTFOOT’s `Early Morning Rain’ (and `If You Could Read My Mind’), plus WILLIE NELSON’s `On The Road Again’ (and `Crazy’). Experimental period-piece for the most part or just brazen beyond belief, YOUNG addressed the set to his mother, who might’ve been proud of her boy had he thought of the concept before the Arcadian fairs left town in the 70s. One pondered to think of Neil’s subsequent status had he ventured thus.
The good news was that Neil should claw back support for his 92-piece, orchestral-laden/big band follow-up, STORYTONE (2014) {*6} – the name of the world’s first practical electric piano from 1939! This event coincided with his divorce to wife of 36 years, Pegi, and the publication of his second book, A Memoir Of Life & Cars. The album itself dealt with Earthly ecological subject matter (fracking, for one, on `Who’s Gonna Stand Up?’), but all too often the set slides into swampy rock flourishes (as in `I Want To Drive My Car’), that would’ve given it needed cohesion and, dare one say it, oomph. Some diehards might disagree, but without his “Crazy Horses” pumping up the volume at his side, an ageing YOUNG looks to be heading for a LADY GAGA-land croon collaboration – Tony Bennett style; the big band blues of `Say Hello To Chicago’ a prime example. Driving home sentiment and back-porch idealisms, Neil croaks up a creaky alley without a paddle on `When I Watch You Sleeping’, `All Those Dreams’ and `Plastic Flowers’. Now go straight to press play for Harvest and After The Gold Rush.
When NEIL YOUNG has a bee in his bonnet, one can be sure as eggs is eggs (and better boiled) that the man from the mountain will sing about it – even dedicate a particular album on the subject. Augmented by his new stray cats, Promise Of The Real: i.e. guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson (sons of WILLIE NELSON), bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony Logerfo and percussionist Tato Melgar, THE MONSANTO YEARS (2015) {*8} was a concept rallying for additional Farm Aid and railing against the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) agribusiness of the Missouri-based company. An advocate to curtail the seed and its blatant monopoly of the agricultural market, YOUNG takes no prisoners as he reels off song after bitter song that attack the machine; `Big Box’ (anti Walmart) and the whistling `Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop’ (anti Starbucks) are additional gripes. Generally played in a melodic grunge, sing-a-long manner, `A New Day For Love’ and the sarcastic `People Want To Hear About Love’, beckon people to take heed that our planet is dying. If YOUNG was “Rockin’ In The Free World” back in the day, the freewheeling and rocking `Workin’ Man’ was his song to dish the dirt or blow a sandstorm up in the faces of corporate America, while `Monsanto Years’ speaks volumes for a singer-songwriter who we should make President – if he ever retires!
As an addendum to this Promise Of The Real-addled period, the obligatory live-in-concert double-set document, EARTH (2016) {*7}, integrated several older classics from Ragged Glory and After The Gold Rush among the fresher “Monsanto” cuts. Incorporating the sounds of nature (from farm animals, wildlife and insects) and an atmosphere of streetlife (car horns et al), the country-rock agenda was never far from the acoustic “ark-welding” of `Vampire Blues’, `Human Highway’ and a 28-minute encore finale of `Love And Only Love’.
Pursuing a similar eco-warrior path that stirred up “The Monsanto Years”, a stubborn, solo-billed NEIL YOUNG – with light, acoustic company a la drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell – pitched in with PEACE TRAIL {*7}. Recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-la Studios, the work-horse artist pinned his heart to the hills on the simplistic and shaky, `Indian Givers’, `Can’t Stop Workin’’ and the opening title track. Poignant of the day, but with a sense of injustices from time immemorial, the contrasting `John Oaks’ and `Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders’ played to anyone with a post-election conscious: the indigenous, the farmers, the hippy dreamers et al.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS May2012-Dec2016

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