Last week, as I approached the latest batch of Neil Young albums I would be revisiting, I knew there was at least one record that would stand the test of time and one very good live recording, but the others were more of a mystery to me: albums I probably listened to a couple of times and then filed away. After giving them a number of listens this past week, I found a lot to like…and a lot of forgettable music as well. They can’t all be winners, but at least I started off with one of his best. I still remember the first time I heard Harvest Moon (1992): in the passenger seat of a friend’s car late at night, returning from a long road trip. The album is so quiet & mellow that I should’ve drifted off, but the songs were immediately captivating and I found myself mesmerized from start to finish. I bought my own copy as soon as I could. In title, mood and participating musicians, it’s a sequel to his classic 1972 release, Harvest, although Harvest Moon maintains a particular atmosphere while the earlier record covered a wider variety of musical territory. They’re both among his all-time best, so I’ll leave the comparisons behind & focus on what’s important: the fact that the majority of its songs are career highlights.
“Unknown Legend” is a melancholy tune with a great guitar tone, excellent harmonies from Linda Ronstadt and a number of melodic hooks like the one at “Somewhere on a desert highway she rides a Harley-Davidson…” “Harvest Moon” slowly lopes along as it’s nudged forward by subtle brushwork on the snare drum, and Ronstadt’s vocals are sublime. “War Of Man” is more intense than the majority of the songs here. It has a Joni Mitchell vibe, especially with the alternate guitar tuning (at least, that’s how it sounds to these ears). There are nice shifts from sparse acoustic to the steady beat with a fretless bass line pushing it forward. It also features haunting vocals by Ronstadt, James Taylor & Nicolette Larson (“No one wins…it’s a war of man”). “You And Me” features only Neil on acoustic guitar & vocals, with Larson on harmonies. I occasionally hear hints of Neil’s classic, “Old Man,” and there are a couple of wonderful melodies (“I was thinkin’ ‘bout you and me”; “Open up your eyes, see how lifetime flies, open up & let the light back in”). One song, however, towers over the rest: “From Hank To Hendrix.” It struck a chord with me the first time I heard it, and it’s been a favorite ever since. Neil narrates the tale of a long relationship slowly coming to an end (“Can we get it together, can we still stand side by side?”), referencing Hank Williams & Jimi Hendrix (obviously) as well as Marilyn Monroe & Madonna. His sweet yet melancholy harmonica and the fantastic harmonies from Ronstadt & Taylor make this one of his most emotionally powerful songs.
[Neil Young - "From Hank To Hendrix"]
“One Of These Days” is a muted country-folk tune with tasty pedal steel guitar and a lilting melody (“One of these days, one of these dayyyys”). Like most of the songs here, he seems uncharacteristically nostalgic for old times, old friends and old lovers. In this case, he’s thinking about contacting long-lost friends and colleagues to thank them &/or apologize because “I know I let some good things go.” “Old King” is a hokey but fun banjo-plucked back porch song about “the best old hound dog I ever did know.” You can feel the love he had for his departed dog, even when he sings “Old King sure meant a lot to me, but that hound dog is his-to-ry.” “Dreamin’ Man” is a pleasant acoustic song with nice harmonies by Larson and Neil’s half-sister, Astrid Young. For me the best part is the instrumental break after each chorus. The lyrics are interesting, seemingly sung from the perspective of a homeless man living out of his car and dreaming of a woman he sees passing by every day. It’s possible I’ve completely misinterpreted it, though. The other two songs I haven’t mentioned aren’t quite filler, but they weren’t on the same level as the eight wonderful tracks I’ve already discussed. My instincts were correct, and this album that I loved so much when I first heard it over 2 decades ago still has the same impact after all this time.
His next release, Unplugged (1993), is both a great live album and a missed opportunity, in equal measure. Recorded for MTV’s show of the same name, if I recall correctly he was unhappy with the first recording attempt, so he tried again weeks or months later and the second time was the charm. With 14 well-chosen songs from throughout his career, it’s hard to argue that it’s a very enjoyable performance and one of his most accessible releases. However, I always thought that the concept of an “unplugged” performance was to re-work songs that are best known in a more electric setting, giving fans an alternate viewpoint. Since a large portion of Neil’s catalog was already acoustic, including most of the songs he chose for this album, there are far fewer surprises than I would have liked to hear. With that minor criticism out of the way, there are a handful of wonderful surprises. The solo acoustic take on “The Old Laughing Lady,” originally from his debut album, has more of an impact than the studio version. “Mr. Soul” is given a haunting & mysterious setting, highlighted by his dark harmonica playing. The only previously unreleased song here is “Stringman,” a simple piano ballad from 1976 that reminds me of Jackson Browne. The two highlights for me are “Like A Hurricane” and “Transformer Man.” The former is an amazing re-working of a classic, sounding like a church hymnal with Neil on pump organ. The latter takes a formerly futuristic song and brings it to life in an organic setting with pretty backing vocals. The other songs sound exactly as you would expect them to, which can be interpreted as praise or critique, depending on your expectations. There’s no denying, though, that’s it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
He reconvened Crazy Horse for Sleeps With Angels (1994), a more dark & subdued collection of songs than we had come to expect from Neil & his hard rockin’ cohorts. The title track was a tribute to the recently departed Kurt Cobain, and although the album has a reputation as an homage to the late Nirvana frontman, much of the music had already been recorded and it’s a coincidence that the mood and lyrical content address aging, loss and death. It took a number of listens for me to start appreciating this record and it was worth the effort, as at least half of the 12 songs made a lasting impression. The tack piano (or is that harpsichord?) on “My Heart” sets a cool mood to start the album, and I love Neil’s high vocals and the tight harmonies. This is a real standout in his catalog; it’s pretty & interesting, with a super catchy melody at “Somewhere, somewhere, I’ve got to get somewhere” and “My heart, my heart, I’ve got to keep my heart.” “Western Hero” and “Train Of Love” share the same backing track, so only the lyrics are different (not sure why he decided to do that, but who’s going to question Neil at this point in his career?). Both songs are simple, hushed & elegant, and wouldn’t have been out of place on Harvest Moon. The former is about a hero general who’s been forgotten over the years, or possibly about America’s stature in the world (“Through the years he changed somehow, he’s different now”). The latter is more about lost-love but it’s just as effective as the story in “Western Hero,” with a memorable melody and soft harmonies.
[Neil Young - "Prime Of Life"]
One of my favorite tracks is “Prime Of Life.” What initially sounds like a flute is probably a recorder, which provides a slightly ragged but instantly identifiable hook that reminded me of the intro to Mary Well’s Motown classic, “My Guy.” The music is propulsive yet subdued, and I love the “prime of life” backing vocals. The centerpiece of the album has to be the nearly 15-minute long “Change Your Mind,” which stands proudly among his best epics. Unlike some of those earlier songs, this isn’t merely a loose framework for Neil to explode on guitar. In edited form, it could’ve easily been a hit single. Naturally it features great guitar work, but it’s the melodies that make it special, especially the pre-chorus (“Don’t let another day go by…without the magic touch”) and the chorus (“Distracting you/change your mind, Embracing you/change your mind”). He never quite goes into overdrive in any of his solos, giving the song an amazing tension throughout its extended running time. “Trans Am” finds him in half-talking Bob Dylan mode, with a series of similar verses and a simple chorus of “Trans Am” backing vocals. The remaining songs didn’t have the same impact on me, except for the negative impact of “Piece Of Crap,” which is accurately named. The repeated bass note in “Safeway Cart” reminds me of The Eagles’ “One Of These Nights,” and I love the yelping harmonica. Album closer “A Dream That Can Last” returns to the sound of “My Heart,” giving this mostly dark album two lighthearted bookends. All in all, Sleeps With Angels is a standout in his catalog, and one of his finest with Crazy Horse. Newcomers should be willing to give it some time to sink in.
Neil teamed up with Pearl Jam for Mirror Ball (1995). I’ve never been a fan of theirs, mostly because I don’t like Eddie Vedder’s voice. Friends have chastised me for this, but I’m not saying he has a bad voice; I just don’t like listening to it, which is a shame because all the members of Pearl Jam are great musicians. I kept an open mind as I played it several times this past week, but other than a handful of notable songs it’s done in by a muddy production and vocals that are buried in the mix. I would describe album opener “Song X” as a “sea shanty waltz,” and the “Hey ho, away we go” backing vocals contribute to the pirates-at-sea vibe. It has a different feel than I would’ve expected, but the typically crunchy guitars and fiery solos were not surprising. “Big Green Country” sounds like an early Foo Fighters song: super melodic, loud & raucous. There’s a manic yet controlled off-kilter guitar solo, and a recurring melody reminds me of The Moody Blues’ “The Story In Your Eyes.” The big guitar riff that starts off “Downtown” continues through the song, a groovy & fun tune with playful lyrics. Normally this might seem like a dumb, by-the-numbers rocker, but it’s a real standout here. It has a loose, Rolling Stones vibe, and it was nice to hear Neil referencing Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix in the final verse.
My favorite song is “Throw Your Hatred Down,” a propulsive & driving melodic rocker. It’s similar to another song here, “I’m The Ocean,” which never shifts gears over its 7+ minutes, while “Throw Your Hatred Down” tosses in some twists & turns, as well as a melodic chorus where the piano gives it an E Street Band vibe. The anti-hatred message is a strong one (“Children in the schoolyard finish choosing teams, divided by their dreams, while a TV screams”), and the raw & ragged guitar solos give off a sense of urgency. “Scenery” is the longest song, at nearly 9 minutes, and it might have been more effective in edited form. It’s big & loud with a soaring lead guitar, and lyrics that appear to address the pitfalls of stardom (“You sell your heart but that’s not the price of freedom, where things are useful only when you need them”). Album closer “Fallen Angel” is more of a song fragment at just over 1 minute, with Neil alone on pump organ singing about a dead artist (Cobain again?) and how his music & image are being posthumously treated (“Hungry people move like waves behind the beat”; “Fallen angel, who’s your saviour tonight?”). I doubt I’ll be coming back to Mirror Ball too often in the future, as only 1 or 2 songs would make the cut on a hypothetical career-spanning anthology of Neil’s work. I’m sure this album speaks to a lot of fans, but clearly I’m not one of them. Maybe a remix would help, but I’m sure this is exactly the way he wanted it to sound.
Neil followed up Mirror Ball with an album that was even less memorable, Broken Arrow (1996). Recording again with Crazy Horse, there seems to be no purpose to this album other than to give the record company more product to sell. It’s by no means terrible, but it’s certainly unnecessary. The only truly noteworthy song for me is “Loose Change,” which has a nice harmonica line & is instantly catchy at “I built a house of cards, built a house of rain, built a house of love, it’s hard to build again.” Over its 9+ minutes there’s a slow-but-swinging groove, but it’s more of a “long song” than an epic, and occasionally sounds like a jam or a work-in-progress. And that’s the one true highlight on this album.
“Big Time” has a pretty good framework for Neil’s guitar heroics and a very good chorus (“I’m still living the dream we had, for me it’s not over”). After another extended song that doesn’t do much for me (“Slip Away”), the next four songs are at least mercifully shorter. Of these, only “Changing Highways” (a short honky-tonk song with loud electric guitar) and “Music Arcade” (an acoustic song with the great line, “Have you ever been lost, have you ever been found out?”) made any kind of impression, and they’re forgotten pretty quickly. Why he chose to end the album with a bootleg quality recording of the ‘50s Jimmy Reed song “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is beyond comprehension. It’s a slow, down-and-dirty blues shuffle with great musicianship, but sonically & stylistically it sounds like a poorly selected bonus track. This is an album that should’ve remained in the vaults, and considering he has a number of unreleased albums which fans claim are as good as anything in his catalog, he would’ve been better off allowing one of those to finally see the light of day.
Well, that wasn’t a very good album on which to end this post, although I’m glad I gave it a few listens to confirm my initial impressions. The highlights of this batch are clearly Harvest Moon and Sleeps With Angels. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this period of his career. Now it’s time for me to move on to his next 4-5 albums, which include a couple of live releases (with and without Crazy Horse) and a few studio albums I don’t know much about (as with a lot of his records, I probably played them twice and quickly forgot them). I’ll start listening this weekend and will share my thoughts on them after I’ve given them ample playing time. Thanks for stopping by.