Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
With the release of Comes A Time (1978), Neil Young’s record label (Reprise) and the legion of fans he gained with 1972’s Harvest (many of whom he lost with his more challenging mid-‘70s albums) must have been thrilled by this return to accessible, acoustic singer-songwriter fare. In my opinion, it doesn’t have nearly as many high points as that earlier classic, but within its laidback framework there are a number of excellent songs. The soft folk/country of “Goin’ Back” starts things off, featuring a lovely acoustic guitar sound (especially during the instrumental sections) and a string section that adds a subtle dramatic quality. I like how the rhythm shifts at “Driving to the mountains high…” The song seems to have two meanings: the desire to live a simpler life as well as a return to the sound of his most successful record. “Comes A Time” is even better; an instantly hummable tune set to a bouncy country shuffle. There are great harmonies (mostly Nicolette Larson, who features prominently throughout the album) and a cool rhythmic shift at the chorus (“Oh, this old world keeps spinnin’ round…”). “Look Out For My Love” is slow, sparse & acoustic, with pretty vocal harmonies, a cool chugging feel in the second half of the chorus (“You own it, you own it now”) and a fun fiddle performance in the bridge (“It’s in your neighborhood…”). I was surprised to learn that such a quiet song was performed with Crazy Horse (guitarist Frank Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot & drummer Ralph Molina), who also provide backing for “Lotta Love.” This song became a top 10 hit the following year for Larson, and Neil’s version is just as catchy and hit-worthy. Of all the songs here, this one sounds most like a direct successor to Harvest.
[Neil Young – “Human Highway”]
“Human Highway” is a great folky song with hints of mountain music, and the acoustic guitars sound amazing. Lyrically, he seems to be singing about his critics and the fair weather fans who turned on him during his musical detours (“Now my name is on the line, how could people get so unkind?”). “Already One” is another one of those instantly memorable songs, with a chorus you start singing the first time you hear it. With a haunting melody & a languid pace, this song points ahead nearly 14 years to his Harvest Moon album. The album closes with the only non-original song, “Four Strong Winds,” a folk standard written by Ian Tyson in the ‘60s and covered by many artists. It’s smooth, catchy and somehow melancholy & uplifting at the same time. I especially love the 12-string guitar sound. There are a few songs I haven’t mentioned, but none of them add much to the album even though I’m sure some fans love them. The only one that stands apart from the others is “Motorcycle Mama,” which includes a slightly raw electric guitar and a bluesy groove, as well as Larson singing lead in the verses. It’s kind of a throwaway but certainly a fun song. I don’t think Comes A Time is in the same league as Harvest, although judged on its own merits it certainly holds its own amidst his catalog. I just need to be in a particular mood for quiet acoustic country and folk that rarely shifts gears to fully embrace the album, and fortunately that mood struck a number of times this past week.
His next album, Rust Never Sleeps (1979), is credited to Neil Young & Crazy Horse even though nearly half of the songs are simply Neil performing solo. The album features all new material, much of which was recorded live in concert with crowd noise (mostly) removed. It’s bookended by “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” the former an acoustic version with Neil on guitar & harmonica and the latter a pummeling, full-on band version with a fuzzy guitar sound that borders on metal. These two songs were my introduction to Neil Young when I was 13, as FM radio stations were playing both on a regular basis. I was probably aware of some of his earlier material back then, but this is where I first came to know him as a “rock” singer. Both versions of this song highlight the theme of the album, about an artist needing to move forward in order to stay relevant. The references to Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten in the immediate aftermath of the punk explosion (and subsequent implosion) indicates how he must have felt as one of the dinosaur artists from the ‘60s. These might be the two most frequently played songs from this album, but there are two others that are the lynchpins of the record and stand among his best work. “Pocahontas” is acoustic but has an electric feel from the first notes (“Aurora Borealis…”). It’s sung from the perspective of Native Americans being slaughtered & driven from their land, and both the melody & story immediately stick in your head. I’m not sure how or why it becomes about “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me” by the end, but I’d rather enjoy a great song than question the motive for his lyrics.
“Powderfinger” is a fantastic midtempo rocker with a great melody and an absolutely killer guitar riff. It also features a couple of his most blistering yet melodic soaring guitar solos. The lyrics seem intentionally vague, about a man protecting his family from an attack or possibly a soldier at war. I would rank this up there with previous epics like “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Cortez The Killer.” The remainder of the album doesn’t live up to these high points for me, but there are a few noteworthy tracks. “Thrasher” is a relatively long story song that travels through a number of verses without a chorus. Is it about poor workers? Illegal immigrants? The younger generation taking over? Regardless, I like the music a lot, especially the sound of the 12-string guitar. “Ride My Llama” is short & sweet, with sparse stop-start guitars during the verses (“Remember the Alamo, when help was on the way?”) and fun lyrics (“I met a man from Mars, he picked up all my guitars and played me traveling songs”). Crazy Horse fans might not agree, but the two other songs with that group (“Welfare Mothers” and “Sedan Delivery”) are just silly, stomping rockers. They might be fun for the band to play, or even to see them performed in concert, but on record they don’t amount to much, especially in comparison to the much stronger material surrounding them. It’s ironic that this album is where the iconic sound of Neil Young & Crazy Horse as we still know it today coalesced, but only a couple of their songs are highlights here. Rust Never Sleeps may not be a top-to-bottom classic, but enough of its songs have stood the test of time to make it an excellent if slightly flawed listening experience.
Recorded during the same tour that produced a number of songs for Rust Never Sleeps, the 2-LP Live Rust (1979) features at least one song from every Neil Young album except On The Beach, as well as a Buffalo Springfield song and “Sugar Mountain” (which was originally a b-side and then appeared on the Decade compilation). Split between 6 acoustic and 10 electric songs (with Crazy Horse, of course), it’s a definitive live recording capturing Neil at one of his career peaks. The acoustic section, which includes “Sugar Mountain” as well as “I Am A Child,” “Comes A Time,” “After The Gold Rush” (with Neil on piano), “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and “The Needle And The Damage Done” (which appears a little later in the set), could be seen as the template for MTV’s “Unplugged” phenomenon 10-20 years later. Crazy Horse joins in for “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” bringing a rockin’ & swingin’ swagger that rarely lets up. “The Loner” has more punch than the original and I love the twin guitar attack. “Lotta Love” has a subtle band arrangement, and the male harmonies are a nice contrast to Nicolette Larson’s on the studio version. “Sedan Delivery” breathes a little more than the original but it’s still not a favorite of mine. Then the album kicks into a higher gear with a series of guitar showcases that also allows the members of Crazy Horse to flex their individual and collective muscles. The sequence of “Powderfinger,” “Cortez The Killer,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Like A Hurricane” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” is absolutely breathtaking. The only drawback to the version I own is that one minute of the “Cortez” guitar solo was edited out to make room for the album on a single CD (back when the maximum time for a CD was 74 minutes). It’s not a jarring omission as you’re listening to it, but knowing there’s another 60 seconds of Neil shredding away on his guitar had me wondering what I was missing. The intensity comes down for the final song, “Tonight’s The Night,” which is less ominous & claustrophobic than the studio version, and even turns into somewhat of a sing-along. I really can’t find a single fault with this album, and I would be curious to hear an extended version with additional songs that I’m sure were performed during this tour. Live Rust has quickly risen on my list of greatest live albums of all time.
Hawks & Doves (1980) seems like a forgotten album, probably because it doesn’t include any radio hits and was not available on CD until 2003. The first couple of times I played it this week I thought it was merely pleasant with only a few songs making any kind of impression. After the 4th or 5th listen I finally started to get into it. The harmonica at the beginning of “Little Wing” (not the Hendrix song) is huge and washes over the listener. There’s a sad feel permeating the song (“Little wing don’t fly away when the summer turns to fall”) that makes it an interesting choice to start things off. Most of the remaining highlights come during the second half of the album (aka. Side 2). “Stayin’ Power” includes barroom piano, lovely fiddle and a light jazzy beat. The choruses are a little too simplistic but I really like the music, which has bounce & swing after a number of quieter songs that I’ll briefly discuss below. “Coastline” moves along with a country-swing feel similar to the previous song, but has its own charms like the hook where the music stops during “We don’t back down from no trouble, we do get up in the mornin’.” It’s one of those rare short songs that could’ve benefitted from being fleshed out a little more. The final three songs are linked musically & thematically, referencing the plight of blue-collar workers amidst traditional country music. “Union Man” tricks the listener into thinking it’s a pro-union song with “I’m proud to be a union man,” then turns things around with “I pay my dues ahead of time, when the benefits come I’m last in line.” The same theme pops up in “Comin’ Apart At Every Nail” with lines like “The workin’ man’s in for a hell of a fight.” I like the fiddle-heavy country arrangement, and the harmony vocals in the chorus sung by Hillary O’Brien and longtime collaborator Ben Keith.
“Hawks & Doves” is a country-rock hybrid with a great guitar sound (twangy yet aggressive). Lyrically, it’s patriotic and anti-establishment in equal measure (“Ready to go, willin’ to stay and pay”), and the harmonized refrain of “USA, USAyyy” could either be a rallying cry or a pointed criticism. Of the three songs I haven’t discussed, “The Old Homestead” is noteworthy for the appearance of The Band’s Levon Helm on drums and Neil’s old cohort Tim Drummond on bass, both of whom add some subtle syncopation to the slow, steady beat. The eerie sound of a musical saw is a strange inclusion, which over the 7-1/2 minute running time gives it a feel of an old b-movie. I can’t say I love this song, but it’s certainly an interesting oddity in his catalog. The other songs feature some nice acoustic guitar work and they’re at least pleasant, but they’re also easily forgotten. I’m not sure how I would rate this album. I can’t say for sure that I would include anything here if I were putting together a compilation of Neil’s work, but that doesn’t take away from this relatively low-key but still highly listenable album.
There’s something about the production of Re-ac-tor (1981) that makes the album so hard to embrace. Teaming up again with Crazy Horse, the slightly sterile sheen and less nuanced performances meant that it took a number of listens this week before a handful of songs finally made an impression. “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” features a number of subtle tempo & rhythmic shifts and a hint of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the guitar interplay. With such a ridiculous chorus (“Come on down for a pleasure cruise, plenty of women, plenty of booze”) it’s obviously not meant to be serious, and Neil’s excellent guitar solo helped me to appreciate this minor but fun song. The chugging, boogie-woogie piano shuffle “Get Back On It” comes and goes in a flash (just over 2 minutes), leaving behind some Clapton-esque blues guitar and a great driving rhythm, as well as simple lyrics about a truck driver heading out on the road. The high point of the album is “Southern Pacific,” which chugs along like a freight train through mountains, tunnels and other terrain as it mirrors the lyrics. It seems to be both about the railroad itself and an employee being let go after years of service (“I put in my time, now I’m left to roll down the long decline”).
The twin guitars in “Motor City” sound like a cross between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy playing a steady country-rock beat. It’s a statement about the US auto industry that bemoans the invasion of foreign automakers (“Who’s driving my car now?”). Album closer “Shots” is an excellent propulsive shuffle (driven by triplets on the snare drum) with fuzzy rhythm guitar & lead guitar squalls that tackles the plight of immigrants crossing the border. I wonder if it’s an older song since it has more heft than the bulk of this album, even if it’s not quite on the level of his previous epic tracks. A couple of the remaining songs are too simplistic and one-dimensional to spend any time discussing, but “T-Bone” gets special mention as one of the most tedious songs you’ll ever hear. It’s over 9 minutes of foot-stomping swamp-rock with the phrases “Got mashed potatoes” and “Ain’t got no T-Bone” repeated ad infinitum. In some ways it’s charming in its stupidity, but I can’t imagine ever being in the mood to listen to it. Re-ac-tor is fairly inessential, but since a couple of the songs I mentioned would probably be worthy of inclusion on my hypothetical Neil Young compilation, it’s not without merit.
Over the course of these five albums he covered a lot of the same musical ground we’ve come to expect from him, with a few minor twists thrown in. This era wasn’t nearly as consistent as the last two batches of albums I revisited, but that’s not harsh criticism as it’s hard to keep up that kind of pace. After this period he signed to a new label and confounded fans & critics alike with a number of albums that flitted from one style to another. I can’t say I’m familiar with the bulk of the music contained on those records, so I’m really looking forward to spending a lot of time with them. I can’t imagine they’re all bad, and I’m eager to uncover some surprising gems.