Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Neil Young’s initial release during his second tenure with Reprise Records, This Note’s For You (1988), was a continuation of the genre exercises at Geffen that preceded it. Instead of tackling ‘50s rock & roll/rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’) and traditional country (Old Ways), this time he opted for jazzy blues and R&B featuring a 6-piece horn section. The album was credited to Neil Young & The Bluenotes and featured a logo on the back that read, “The Dawn Of Power Swing,” in a way predicting the ‘90s swing revival. I loved this record when it came out, since I’ve always been a sucker for a great horn section, and I was curious to see how it held up after 25 years. The best-known track is “This Note’s For You,” which gained notoriety for its video parodying various popular singers while decrying commercial endorsements that were gaining in popularity at the time. Ironically, what used to be considered “selling out” is now a generally accepted practice in the music industry, but Neil was having none of it back then. This song still packs a punch, and I was surprised by its brevity (just over 2 minutes). “Ten Men Workin’” has a nice midtempo funky groove, and I love the “ugh-ahh” backing vocals, equating the life of a working band to that of hard laborers. Neil delivers some great guitar work in a variety of styles throughout this song. “Coupe De Ville” is a downbeat blues with muted trumpet that evokes the loneliness of an empty house after his woman left (“If I can’t have you, I don’t want nothin’ else”). I really like the smoky sax and subtle use of the horn section. “Life In The City” is a fast swingin’ blues with razor sharp guitar playing. He offers a commentary on poverty in the US that’s somewhat hidden because his vocals are a little low in the mix, but the killer groove and ferocious guitar playing won me over.
[Neil Young – “Sunny Inside”]
“Sunny Inside” is a song I had previously overlooked that has become a new favorite. It’s a cross between Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and Bruce Springsteen at his most upbeat. It’s a fantastic little song that conveys sheer exuberance (“With our love taken care of, from now on I ain’t scared of…lonely nights, I can kiss those days goodbye”). “Can’t Believe You’re Lyin’” is unlike anything he’s ever done. It veers into slow jazz territory while remaining grounded in late-night blues. I especially love his phrasing at “You have changed my life in too many ways,” as well as the tasty guitar work. The remaining tracks may not reach the heights of those I’ve already mentioned, but there are also no clunkers among them and you can hear how much fun Neil & the boys had recording them. “Twilight” is a sparsely arranged song that might work even better in a solo acoustic version. I used to consider “Married Man” one of this album’s highlights, but now it sounds too similar to a couple of better songs here (yet I still enjoy it). I was under the impression that this album was a bigger hit than it turned out to be, probably because a couple of songs received a decent amount of radio play. Executives at Geffen Records were probably relieved, but his commercial fortunes would continue to improve with each of his next few releases. This Note’s For You may not be what most people expect from Neil Young, but that’s what makes it such a unique and enjoyable listening experience.
His next album, Freedom (1989), gets overshadowed by “Rockin’ In The Free World,” which quickly became one of his signature songs. It appears here in two versions, one acoustic and one electric, and they bookend the album in the same way that “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” appeared on Rust Never Sleeps. Although on the surface he seems to be evoking that earlier record, he covers a lot more musical ground here. My only complaint is that the album is too long, an issue that would plague a number of his subsequent releases as well. This also applies to a number of individual songs that could have used some judicious editing. That being said, at least half of the songs are fantastic. The aforementioned “Rockin’ In The Free World” is a political protest against the domestic policies of the US government during the George H.W. Bush presidency, and addresses similar themes to the previous album’s “Life In The City.” The electric version has elements of heavy metal, especially in his guitar playing, and points ahead to the grunge movement that was just around the corner. “Hangin’ On A Limb” is a lovely duet with Linda Ronstadt, featuring striking harmonies between the two and some great strumming & fingerpicking from Neil. Ronstadt appears again on “The Ways Of Love,” this time with a full band. It’s basically a country shuffle with an offbeat drum pattern and an interesting bolero feel in the chorus (“Ohhh…the ways of love”). Also, Ben Keith delivers some nice pedal steel.
“Someday” features an instantly memorable piano figure that recalls the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan. I love the slow build throughout as well as Neil’s emotional vocal delivery at “We all have to fly/sin/wait…someday.” It certainly owes a debt to Bruce Springsteen, most notably when the horns join in. “Wrecking Ball” is a moody piano ballad that once again brings to mind Mr. Springsteen at his most tender and dramatic (“Meet me at the wrecking ball…wear something pretty and white and we’ll go dancin’ tonight”). “Too Far Gone” is a brief folky tune with pedal steel & mandolin that brings him into Steve Earle/John Hiatt territory. He’s done this type of song before but it’s still solid, and I really like the simple chorus (“Was I too far gone, too far gone, too far gone for you?”). I like a few more songs, but they don’t rate as highly as the others mostly because of their excessive length. “Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1)” is a semi-acoustic story song with a reggae-inspired bass line and a mellow Dire Straits vibe. Coming across like a latter day Bob Dylan epic, it’s also the longest song on the album. “Eldorado” has a nice Latin rhythm in the intro before switching to another Dire Straits groove, with Neil sounding like a bluesier Mark Knopfler. It took some time for this album to sink in, probably because it shifts gears so often, but I’m glad I stuck with it…even though it’s not one of his all-time classics. Certainly a handful of songs would have to be included on a career-spanning anthology, and they would stand proudly among his best work.
For Ragged Glory (1990), Neil returned to “guitar hero” mode with a collection of songs that cemented Crazy Horse’s reputation as a pummeling rock band. Like its predecessor it goes on too long, yet I found myself loving the majority of the album after giving it ample time to sink in. The 7-minute opening track, “Country Home,” is a bouncy song in a similar vein to his earlier “Don’t Cry No Tears,” but a little rawer & looser. The lead guitar figure & solos are spectacular, and I love the vocal melodies (“I’m thankful for my country home, it gives me peace of mind”). “Over And Over” is a typical Crazy Horse driving melodic rocker with scorching guitar work. The Jayhawks co-opted this sound, right down to the clean guitar sound morphing into distortion. At just over 10 minutes, “Love To Burn” is only the second longest song here. It has a similar groove to “Over And Over” only slightly slower & funkier. Although the melody is quite catchy (“You better take a chance, a chance on love”), it’s really just an extended guitar showcase. “Mansion On The Hill” was a Mainstream Rock radio hit, and it’s easy to hear why. It bounces along with a catchy melody (“There’s a mansion on the hill, psychedelic music fills the air, peace & love live there still”) and great melodic guitar.
“Days That Used To Be” starts off as another “Don’t Cry No Tears”-type song, but quickly morphs into an homage to Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” (The Byrds’ version). Two years later he would perform that song, along with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty & Roger McGuinn, at a Dylan tribute concert. That performance was the highlight of the show for me, specifically Neil’s distinctive vocals & guitar shredding. Like that Dylan song, this homage has a similar theme of looking back at better times in the past. “Love And Only Love,” another showcase for his guitar playing, clocks in at 10:18. During that time he tells an epic story of historical/biblical proportions (“Long ago in the book of old, before the chapter where dreams unfold, a battle raged on the open page, love was a winner there”). It’s one of his most uplifting songs, with messages of spirituality, inner strength and love conquering hate. Album closer “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” finds him wailing on guitar like Jimi Hendrix’s famous take on “The Star Spangled Banner.” The melody has hints of “Home On The Range” while the lyrics reference the depletion of Earth’s resources, a subject that still applies more than two decades later. That’s seven out of ten songs that I consider noteworthy, which makes this a much stronger album than I initially gave it credit for. A lot of fans probably like the song “F*!#in’ Up” because of the title and its anthemic, AC/DC-esque driving groove. I don’t dislike it, but it probably garnered more attention than it deserved because of the expletive in the chorus (“Why do I keep f*!#in’ up?”). I’m sure it’s a lot more fun to hear in concert.
Recorded during the tour in support of Ragged Glory, Weld (1991) is a mostly one-dimensional live album that focuses on “Neil the guitar god” with Crazy Horse providing the pummeling backdrop. It certainly accomplishes what it set out to do, but it pales in comparison to his earlier concert album, Live Rust. Where that record showcased various sides of his personality, offering up some light and shade, Weld keeps pounding the listener over the head. This is less a criticism & more of an observation, since I really enjoyed a lot of the performances. The only song that hadn’t previously appeared on one his albums is a dirge-like take on Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” The wartime sound effects, including gunfire, fighter planes and air raid sirens, were a nod to the Gulf War taking place at the time. Six songs that appeared on Live Rust are reprised here, including “Cinnamon Girl,” which isn’t as good as the previous versions but I enjoyed the reference to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” near the end. Two earlier epics and one new one create a formidable trio of guitar heroics: “Cortez The Killer,” “Powderfinger” and “Love And Only Love.” Crazy Horse’s take on “Rockin’ In The Free World” is a little slower and lacks the manic edge of the original (which was recorded by other musicians). “Like A Hurricane” lasts nearly 13-1/2 minutes and never lets up, including a memorable extended outro with drum fills & guitar squalls. The set closes with two classics from Tonight’s The Night. First is a killer version of “Tonight’s The Night” with a swirling lead guitar throughout the intro that gives it a great new feel. It’s followed by “Roll Another Number,” which is an excellent (if surprising) choice for a set closer; a ragged country-rock shuffle with Neil getting a biting yet emotional tone out of his guitar. A lot of people probably love this album more than I do, and if you prefer his harder rocking material then this one’s for you. I prefer to hear a more diverse selection of songs. He also released a live album called Arc at the same time, which features 35 minutes of guitar feedback and vocal fragments. I never got a copy so I can’t comment on it, but I’m guessing it’s the kind of thing you hear once & then file away. If anyone thinks it’s more essential than that, please let me know and I’ll seek out a copy.
I’ll be back soon to discuss his next batch of albums, which includes a successful return to his acoustic singer-songwriter style and a collaboration with one of the grunge era bands who were influenced by him (and vice versa). I’ve already begun listening to them and I can tell that I’ll have a lot of good things to say. Until then, I look forward to hearing what you think of the era discussed in this post. Since a lot of people stopped listening to him during the Geffen years, I’m curious to find out which album(s) brought them back to his music.