Dirty rock’n’roller-hippie narcissist. Rockabilly hepcat-techno troubadour. Folkie romantic-bluesy bad boy. Harmony supergroup sore thumb-beloved bandleader. Cultural analyst-grandfather of grunge. Neil Young has been all of these things and more in the course of an insanely prolific solo career. Though his output during the ’80s was particularly erratic, he has never stopped placing personal expression before commercial success or the need to accommodate expectations. As a result, through all his unpredictability, Young is never (well, hardly ever) boring, and that’s a state of grace few veteran musicians can claim. Holding to his lyrical axiom that it’s better to burn out than fade away, Young is one of the few oldtimers to make real peace with punk-rockers half his age, finding rejuvenation and comradeship in their fountain of wild youth. Virtually alone among his generation, Young has never given up an iota of his intensity or faltered in the ability and inclination to pulverize eardrums with furious energy. (If anything, he’s turned up.) Young’s reckless path demonstrates far less self-conscious orthodoxy than many underground bands. It’s almost miraculous that after several lifetimes of iconography for drippy love children and hardened country rockers, Neil Young became a hero to an alternative nation that hadn’t been born when he was first balladeering about rivers and roads.
The self-titled solo debut, released in the wake of Buffalo Springfield’s demise, explores a style he hasn’t tried since. Apart from “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” an awkward, overlong acoustic epic, the album features dense, heavily produced pop tunes, swathed in layers of overdubs. Though “The Loner,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” etc. now seem a bit overdone, their emotional urgency comes through loud and clear.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere marked the first of many radical shifts, turning to the raw, driving rock many feel still suits him best. Backed by Crazy Horse, who display the ratty fervor of punk years before the fact, he yowls and whines with exhilarating abandon, cranking out jagged, overwrought guitar solos like his life depends on it. The catchy “Cinnamon Girl” makes a good single, but the extended melodramas — “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River” — offer the biggest thrills.
Enjoying increased exposure after signing on with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Young achieved prominence as a solo artist on After the Gold Rush, a mixed-bag of noisy raveups (the infamous “Southern Man,” which inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”), brooding folk-pop (“Tell Me Why”) and sappy ballads (“Birds”). Harvest temporarily sealed his fate as a mainstream favorite, thanks to the lightweight countryfied chart-topper, “Heart of Gold.” The rest of the album ranges from a dreadful orchestral reverie (“A Man Needs a Maid”) to a tortured electric lament (“Words”). Both were later issued as a double-play cassette.
Obviously spooked by the tender trap of success, Young abandoned his perch at the top of the heap with Time Fades Away. A live album of all-new material, this sloppy, sometimes excruciatingly rough noisefest has the primal directness of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. From the title track to the aching ballad “Don’t Be Denied,” Young serves notice he will not grow old gracefully.
The restlessness continued with On the Beach. After the snappy leadoff track “Walk On,” Young offers edgy, dispirited tales of social decay (“Revolution Blues”), music-biz cynicism (“For the Turnstiles”) and other fun stuff. Often riveting, but a downer. Yet it’s a barrel of laughs compared to Tonight’s the Night, Young’s most hellish album ever. Featuring guitarist Nils Lofgren and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, it’s a chilling meditation on excess and death, recorded two years prior to its release. The ghostly title cut concerns the 1973 heroin death of a roadie; “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (to score drugs), an older track, is sung from the grave by onetime Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who overdosed in 1972. Young and crew sound drunk and exhausted throughout. Essential.
The gloom lifted with Zuma, a solid, floor-shaking return to gritty rock. Backed by Crazy Horse (now with Frank Sampedro on rhythm guitar), Young howls the down-home blues (“Don’t Cry No Tears”) and uncorks some of his most expressive guitar work since “Cowgirl in the Sand” (“Cortez the Killer”). Following a 1976 album with Stephen Stills, his concentration began to drift. There’s a precious honkytonk feel to many of the tracks on American Stars ‘n Bars (a collection of tracks recorded between ’74 and ’77 with various lineups), although “Like a Hurricane” is a classic guitar showcase and the fascinating, barely-in-tune ballad “Will to Love” finds Neil likening himself to a fish swimming upstream.
The three-disc, two-CD Decade makes a persuasive case for Young as one of the most consistently adventurous artists in rock. Besides all the “hits,” it includes a generous helping of strong previously unreleased stuff and presages the boxed-set explosion ten years later.
After pausing to tend his gentler side on Comes a Time, a largely forgettable outing with prominent harmony vocals from Nicolette Larson, Young got back in the groove with Rust Never Sleeps. Joined by Crazy Horse, he turns in some unusually strong ballads (“Thrasher,” “Powderfinger”) and rocks like the devil, especially on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” his enthusiastic response to punk. Live Rust is a career-spanning double live set that includes lethal versions of “Cortez the Killer,” “Like a Hurricane” and “Tonight’s the Night,” pushed over the edge by Crazy Horse’s blazing assault.
Young spent the 1980s ricocheting around his art like a pinball, trying on a sample sale of musical styles that didn’t always fit him. Hawks & Doves brings Young back to folk and country turf, offering a few incisive tunes amidst the throwaways. The jaunty title track looks askance at militarism and jingoism, a concern echoed in the acoustic “Captain Kennedy.” On Re*ac*tor, Young and Crazy Horse reach down deep to get that big nasty electric noise. The material isn’t consistent — nine minutes of the disposable “T-Bone” strains one’s patience — but “Shots,” “Southern Pacific” and others crackle with passion and hot licks.
Young then embarked on a series of genre exercises that seem more arbitrary than heartfelt. Trans presents electro-man, complete with synths, vocoders and songs about computers and future shock; the new version of his Buffalo Springfield classic “Mr. Soul” is particularly odd. Everybody’s Rockin’ salutes rockabilly with a lightweight, good-natured set of originals and oldies, including “Mystery Train” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” Then it was back up the country for Old Ways, down-home silliness highlighted by a campy cover of “The Wayward Wind” and guest shots by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Landing on Water suggests he’d been listening to the Cars, adding synths and artificial rhythms to standard rock-band sounds. Ill-considered garish production spoils some decent tunes.
Just when it seemed he’d completely lost his marbles, Young reunited with Crazy Horse for Life, a tough-edged album compromised by overblown production, and began his re-entry approach. Young later recapitulated his Geffen era with Lucky Thirteen, an adroit and effective selection wryly subtitled Excursions Into Alien Territory. Boiling down five years of experimentation (replacing several chapters with otherwise unissued or rare — like from a videodisc — live recordings and one unheard studio track, “Depression Blues”) makes for a brazenly eclectic compilation in which good ideas and bad ideas are clearly distinguished but treated with equal respect. If the electronic age still doesn’t suit Mr. Soul, this is at least a serious and largely successful attempt to extract the credible essence from Young’s sabbatical in space.
After circling around back for one more stylistic detour — the pointless set of big-band blues (co-billed with the Bluenotes) on This Note’s for You — Young was ready to strip down, plant his feet on terra firma and stop horsing around. Which immediately made the world a better place. He wanged out Eldorado, five live-in-the-studio numbers recorded in New York with a rhythm section dubbed the Restless and released only in Japan, as a waters-tester. That, and the carefully considered and deftly sequenced Freedom — the desire for it, not an expression of it — put an end to his era of itinerant exploration by reclaiming old domains, setting the stage for his astonishing rebirth. While not heavy with enduring Young standards, the hearty album (performed with a non-Crazy Horse rhythm section and such guests as Linda Ronstadt and Ben Keith) is bookended by two versions — short/acoustic and long/paint-peeling — of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” an anguished observation of homelessness, and contains strung-out balladry (“Too Far Gone”), a gentle invitation to the “Wrecking Ball,” a spooky acoustic saga of social strife (“Crime in the City”) and a harsh guitar-bass-drums reinterpretation of the Drifters’ “On Broadway.”
Leaving behind the topical concerns of Freedom and reuniting with Crazy Horse, Young offered additional encouragement on the more consistently personal and joyously simple Ragged Glory. The band thrashes away like there’s no tomorrow as Young yanks all sorts of exciting noises from his guitar on “Country Home,” “Love to Burn,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Over and Over” and other strong songs, some capably stretched to seven or ten minutes by the organic quartet’s instrumental enthusiasms. Although widely regarded as his best in a blue moon, the album isn’t perfect. A few tracks don’t work; the quartet’s offhand sloppiness occasionally seems forced. (Singing about “F*!#in’ Up” is a lot easier than doing it.) Still, Ragged Glory serves as a bracing reminder that Neil Young can shake the rafters with more heart than anybody.
Which is exactly what he did in the early ’91 tour (utterly upstaged opening act: Sonic Youth) documented on the two CDs of Weld. Moving on up from the intensity of Live Rust, Young and Crazy Horse planted a flag in previously uncharted worlds of ear-cleaning guitar distortion and stomping rock furiosity. The set list draws solidly (and productively) from Ragged Glory but repeats numbers from the previous concert record (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Cortez the Killer,” “Powderfinger” and “Tonight’s the Night”) and borrows Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” for a haunting answer to Hendrix’s Woodstock address. Stunning in its sheer sensual energy and gripping in its improvised facility, Weld is a high water mark of live albums, a purgatory colonic that somehow captures everything unique and magical in Young’s artistry. The same recording project produced Arc, an amazing piece of audio detritus fully deserving of a place next to Lou Reed’s classic patience-tester, Metal Machine Music. Editing together 35 seamless minutes of introductions, guitar crashes, vocal fragments, feedback, drum windups, crescendos and climaxes, the aging veteran demonstrates his sonic youth by creating a sustained abstract buildup from the concerts’ release; nothing much happens, but the atmospheric tension of this druggy adventure is awesome.
With all that excitement out of his system, Young settled down to make Harvest Moon, a sublimely gentle and romantic country sequel to his 1972 chart-topper, Harvest. He rounded up alumni of that album (James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, the rhythm section of Kenny Buttrey and Tim Drummond, steel guitarist/vocalist Ben Keith); there’s even an orchestral number (“Such a Woman”) to recall the London Symphony’s role on “A Man Needs a Maid.” Lovely, affecting and as warm as a family reunion, Harvest Moon — which, it must be said, drags at times — puts some of Young’s finest melodies to typically remarkable lyrics. In “Unknown Legend,” he makes note of “The chrome and steel she rides/Collidin’ with the very air she breathes.” “Dreamin’ Man” contains the acute observation that “I can’t tell when I’m not being real.” Whether ruing the death of a dog (“Old King”) in a hick voice or describing himself in the third person (“You and Me”) in a wavery falsetto, Young succumbs fully to his transcendent artistry: whether he rocks the house or whispers to the walls, he never lacks the necessary tools to convey what’s in his heart. Using the long-gone archetype of the late-’60s singer/songwriter, Young manages to both update and honor his — and others’ — past.
The irony of getting “unplugged” was evidently not lost on Young when he sat down to tape a formal acoustic program for MTV. Proffering simple ground-zero rearrangements that make it sound as if he whipped up the fourteen songs that afternoon, Young uses the opportunity to register an alternate career sampler, dredging up obscurities like “Transformer Man” (from Trans), “Pocahontas” (from Rust Never Sleeps) and his first album’s “Old Laughing Lady.” Amid such poignant standards as “Helpless,” “Like a Hurricane,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul,” Young charts a course that is neither easy, obvious nor arbitrary. If Unplugged is too close to his stylistic base to be an eye-opener, it is nonetheless a substantial original effort that isn’t just for insatiable fans.
As mercurial as Young’s muse is, Crazy Horse has always proven equal to every twist in his road; on the enigmatic and strange-sounding Sleeps With Angels, the foursome modulate comfortably from wispy plaints (“My Heart,” “Driveby” and “Western Hero”) to the ominously noisy title track and the snorting consumer outrage of “Piece of Crap.” The dynamic key is the album’s softly firm center: “Prime of Life” and “Change Your Mind,” an emotional fifteen-minute opus in which Young pleads the case for love as crucial life support. Under the album’s mournful shroud of death, the song can be taken as part of a vague and oblique commentary (guilt?) on the death of Kurt Cobain (who quoted Young’s burn out/fade away advice in his suicide note). Though uninviting at first, Sleeps With Angels rewards patience and attention. More than any album in Young’s recent history, this one has to be taken whole; the unevenness of individual songs fades to its pervasive pall, an acid that slowly strips away layers of significance to reveal crucial elements of seemingly offhand but subtle invention. (The Complex Sessions, a promo-only EP recorded live while shooting videos for the record, offers a different perspective on four songs from the album.)
Mirror Ball cements Young’s union with the new generation, borrowing Pearl Jam to serve as a second-rate stand-in for Crazy Horse on a thick, tough rock record whose appeal is more obvious than its qualities. Producer Brendan O’Brien locates a steady dynamic plateau, and the musicians ride around it, clutching a stack of songs whose melodies are largely wasted on trivial lyrics. Ultimately, Young’s material is stimulating more than satisfying, and the album suffers from a hastiness at the wrong point in the process. Instead of just being recorded in a hurry (usually a good thing for Young, and an apt approach here), the songs sound hasty and ill-considered, expressing simple ideas far too simply. Among the album’s frustrations are “Big Green Country” (“Sometimes I feel like a piece of paper/Sometimes I feel like my own name”), “Downtown” (“…where the hippies all go”) and “Peace and Love” (“flying so high/too young to die”), into which Eddie Vedder’s clenched-teeth clumsiness (“Broke walls of pain to walk”) is utterly out of keeping with Young’s own ungainly musings. “Act of Love” is a masterful piece of music and “Throw Your Hatred Down” is commendable in its sincerity, but you have to wish Neil had brought a better stash to the studio.
It makes sense that a powerful iconoclast should have an unfettered conduit for expression, and in early ’96, Young unveiled Vapor Records, his own independent label. Unfortunately, there’s a thin line between freedom and indulgence, and Dead Man — music from, and inspired by, the Jim Jarmusch film of the same name — flounces over the median strip like a rotting fish in its death throes. As Johnny Depp and unidentified actors recite poetry and do scenes from the film, Young fools around aimlessly on echoed electric guitar (plus pump organ and “detuned piano”) for an hour of shapeless, seemingly unskilled and nearly random sound that is far more discouraging than Arc.
Whatever that was about, a restorative bout with Crazy Horse produced the pliably rough Broken Arrow soon after, and washed away the bad taste of Dead Man‘s aimless noodling with some forthright electric jamming. (Yes, there’s a difference.) An exceedingly loose ambience that draws seven new songs, plus an unexpected live cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” out to nearly 50 minutes tests the unexceptional material’s mettle, but these old pals have no trouble tuning in on each other’s hallucinations and keeping it all moving together in raw and sloppy eddies of melodic invention. (The vinyl edition boasts a bonus track, “Interstate.”)
Year of the Horse is the live album companion to the Jim Jarmusch documentary film of the same title. Young and Crazy Horse are still at the top of their game, yet there’s no burning need for additional live renditions of “Sedan Delivery” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love.” That said, the electric rearrangement of “Pocahontas” and the extended jam version of Zuma‘s “Danger Bird” give the disc some real value.
The four years separating Broken Arrow and Silver and Gold is the longest gap between solo studio albums in Young’s career. In the interim, he reunited with Crosby, Stills and Nash to release 1999’s lifeless Looking Forward. Young’s contributions to that album were songs he had recorded for Silver and Gold which the other three singers thought would go well with the material they had already completed. Proving yet again Young is better alone, the songs that he ended up putting on Silver and Gold far outshone the ones CSN chose. On his own record, Young easily slides back into his Harvest / Comes a Time guise, with simple acoustic songs about love (“Good to See You,” “Red Sun”), a humorous take on one of his old bands (“Buffalo Springfield Again”) and one of his finest efforts in years, “Razor Love,” a hypnotic tale of being faithful to those left behind at home.
The oddly titled live album Road Rock V 1 (there has not yet been a second volume) does live up to its subtitle, as Young is joined on this document of his 2000 summer tour by a band featuring his wife Pegi on backing vocals, longtime collaborator Ben Keith on guitar and head Pretender Chrissie Hynde singing on a cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Young’s fourth live album in less than a decade would be absolutely unforgivable if not for the first official release of the long-bootlegged “Fool for Your Love” and an absolutely frenetic 18-minutes of “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Still, essential only for diehards.
Young took another one of his stylistic detours on Are You Passionate?, recorded with Booker T and the MG’s (with Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro filling in for Steve Cropper). Young’s songs liberally steal from the Stax catalog of the venerable Memphis sidemen. The homage to (or blatant ripoff of) ’60s soul music might have been easier to take if Young had worked a bit harder on the lyrics. He’s covered most of the themes here (the loss of love, being away from one’s true love) with greater insight before. However, the album takes a hard right turn midway, with two songs that could be from completely different records. “Let’s Roll” was quickly written and recorded in response to the events of 9/11, specifically the passengers who helped bring down Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. (One of the last things a passenger told his wife via cell phone provided the song’s title.) While it’s as much a time piece as “Ohio,” it certainly doesn’t have the lasting impact as that protest of the Kent State killings. The other misplaced song is “Goin’ Home,” which was recorded live in the studio with Crazy Horse and seems to compare General Custer’s last stand to finding a parking space.
While Are You Passionate? was a not-so-unexpected departure for Young, Greendale came as a complete head-scratcher to even the most ardent fans. Stretching 10 songs over 78 minutes, the concept album about the Green family and the fictional town of Greendale has only one number (“Bandit”) with what could be called a traditional chorus. The songs ramble on and on with Young trying to shoehorn the incomprehensible story about the Devil, the media and the loss of the family farm into some of his most lifeless music since the Geffen days. Yet Young believed in the story so much that he made a film and a book about it, and initially released the album with a live acoustic DVD on which he explains the entire story. The album’s second version includes a DVD of it being performed live in the studio alongside clips of the film. For a man who has made so many odd and fascinating records in his 40 year career, Greendale is easily the oddest. And the worst.
The one-disc Greatest Hits is not a worthy successor to Decade, as it adds only three songs recorded after that compilation’s 1977 appearance.
The bands chosen to honor Young’s songs on The Bridge, a fundraiser for a California school for physically challenged children, paint an offbeat picture of his influence. Soul Asylum makes a solid country-roots connection with “Barstool Blues,” Victoria Williams and the Williams Brothers make a beautiful issue of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and Nick Cave sucks “Helpless” into a grim torpor. But Sonic Youth’s rendition of “Computer Age” is a failed stab at irony, Flaming Lips trivializes “After the Goldrush” and Psychic TV so lacks the ability to feign sincerity that “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” feels like a parody, not a tribute.