Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Is it possible that after a life and career of defying expectations and pushing the boundaries of music (and his fans' tastes), that Neil Young is getting even further out there?  Let's look at recent musical examples; his personal and political life we shall leave out of the conversation for the time being.  There were two albums in 2012, both with Crazy Horse, one (Americana) being made up of old folk songs, some from the 1800's, done in garage band style.  The second album (Psychedelic Pill) was all-new material, purposefully spare and long, mostly made from extended jams, the lengthiest album of his career.  This year has also seen two albums, the first called A Letter Home, made solo in Jack White's antique self-recording booth, covers of songs by Young's heroes (Dylan, Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, etc.) 

Now comes Storytone, once again finding Young way out of his comfort zone, if he even has one now.  It seems he's only happy when he finds an idea that is completely different from anything he's done before.  The schtick here is that he's tossed all his props away, all his bands too, no guitar or piano even, no Horse.  Instead, there are very, very big orchestras on some cuts, or a big band (in the jazz sense) on the rest.  As many as 92 pieces filled the sound stage, massive string sections lifting his more tender melodies to the skies, with Young singing in front.  Of course, he's not doing Sinatra here, it's his usual croak, love it or not.  There was a full choir of 30-odd voices available too for the more rousing portions.  When the big horn band comes in, it has 13 members, plus a rock band section too, two guitar players including Waddy Wachtel, but not Neil.  Harps, bassoons, oboes and such flitter away on other cuts.

Overall, it's one of his more successful experiments.  Many of these songs, especially the ones with the string orchestra, are from his soft side, numbers that normally might find him at the piano, with little other accompaniment.  I've always like that side of Young, it brings out some of his best melodies and singing, and takes me back to early '70's numbers such as See The Sky About To Rain.  Others, such as Plastic Flowers and Tumbleweed, recall the gentler music of his Prairie Wind album of 2005, and even Harvest Moon cuts such as Unknown Legend, some of his more plaintive work.  The spunkier material here, with the horns, doesn't work quite as well, and its no surprise it harkens back to his time fronting another horn band, Neil Young and the Bluenotes.  The track Say Hello To Chicago is kind of interesting though, as he takes on a Sinatra-hipster persona.

Well, time to tackle the politics and personal now, as the lyrics must be examined.  For me, the true test of a Young album can be found in the words, and I've increasingly been disappointed the past couple of decades, as it seems he treats them as the least of his concerns.  Psychedelic Pill (his only non-covers album since 2010) was so thin on ideas it seemed he was tossing out random thoughts over Crazy Horse riffs.  Here, things are better, but there is plenty to cringe over too.  His topics are love, cars and the environment.  I Want To Drive My Car is one of the horn numbers, mostly repeating the title, with a small mention that we're running out of fossil fuel.   There may be a message, but not much of one.  More to the point is Who's Gonna Stand Up?, asking which of us will stop the big machine, save the rivers, end fracking and refuse more pipelines.  Simplistic, not really inspiring, but well-meant at least.  The personal numbers are the ones that really stand out though, given the recent change in his Facebook status.  Is he talking about Peggy, the woman who inspired Harvest Moon and dozens of other songs along the way, when he sings "Someday you're gonna need me/Like you used to do"?  Is When I Watch You Sleeping about new squeeze Daryl Hannah?  Can I stand to hear that song again, with the line, "When I hear you purrin'/Like a kitten and a lion"?  It's disappointing, and a little icky.  And if these words aren't about either, perhaps a disclaimer might have been in order, since that's exactly what everybody in the world is going to think.  Most fans are still reeling from the news, even if it is none of our business.

If you buy the deluxe version, you get the entire album all over again, only this time, there's no experiment.  It's Young solo, from piano to guitar to ukulele, doing the stripped-down acoustic album for those who want to hear what they would be like normally.  Funny, I thought I would like them better that way, but no.  The cringe-worthy words jump out more, the singing without the strings is less inspired.  Once again, I am left with the same question I've had for years and years with Young; he pours his heart into the music and the concepts and the concerns, so why won't he put as much work into the lyrics?  It's not all about the muse, there is the craft too, and hard work is part of it.

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