-Landing on Water (Geffen, 1986)
Key tracks: "Hippie Dream," "Pressure." Avoid: "Violent Side," "People on the Street," "Hard Luck Stories."
It's not as if adding big arena rock sounds to his music was a detestable and unsuitable act by Neil. The fact is that he just didn't know how to write those types of tunes as most of this LP falls flat. There are so few things to enjoy here and it doesn't have the goofy act of Everybody's Rockin', so Landing on Water just may be the worst album Neil has ever done to this very day. The opening cut, "Weight of the World," isn't so bad, though it's not terribly distinctive or impressive either. "Violent Side," "Bad News Beat," "People on the Street," "Hard Luck Stories," and "I Got a Problem" all suffer from being poorly written, burdened with weak melodies, clunky keyboards and production and instrumentation that simply drags them down further. These songs in particular lack any of the rhythmic variety and precision of the best techno of the 80s, showing Neil was likely out of his element with this style.
Another noticeable bugaboo is in the titles and lyrical matter of the songs. They all sound like they were ripped from the headlines of magazines or tabloid papers but the problem is they offer little to no imagination to build off of these ideas ("People on the street need a place to go" and the other lines of that song are about as bare bones and boring as the worst of Re-ac-tor which was looking mighty fine at this point). "Touch the Night" is nothing much, but it manages to be one of the singles drawn from the LP and one of its stronger cuts. Can't complain too much about that one. Same goes for "Drifter," a decent way to end Landing on Water considering how mediocre the rest of the album tends to be. Famed session drummer Steve Jordan provides the pounding, loud work at the skins, while Neil and Danny Kortchmar provide guitar work. There's no bass because of all the synthesizers providing the bottom end and these doodlings on the keys are provided by all three and yet, that doesn't seem to work toward providing a steady rhythm here. A conventional rhythm section is indeed missed.
Landing on Water gets quite grating because it's all mechanically distorted guitars, intrusive sound effects, dull synth parts and ear-splitting drums. But other than a boys choir thrown in on a couple tracks, that's all you get. The incredibly similar sound to each tune eventually gets irritating, except when the song isn't bottom of the barrel, which happens so infrequently. The only stellar songs here are "Hippie Dream" and to a lesser extent "Pressure." "Hippie Dream" uses the tech-rock settings to great effect as Neil sings a thinly veiled message to disgraced David Crosby, at this point serving a drug and firearms offense after his crack-cocaine addiction grew well out of control by the early 80s. The lyrics to "Hippie Dream" are some of Neil's sharpest in the 80s. Neil's acid tongue remarks "But the tie-dye sails/Were just a hippie dream/Capsized in excess/If you know what I mean." Certainly it's Neil throwing stones from his high and mighty perch, but he does it somewhat out of concern for his old friend and how his hippie paradise was squandered by such reckless drug abuse.
"Pressure" meanwhile, is a nervy new wave rocker with just a few of the usual synth hijinks but they're kept at a restrained role. There's what sounds like a brief saxophone wail, although it's just as likely to be a processed synth sax noise. If the rest of the album was like the aformentioned two, perhaps Landing on Water could have been a worthy genre exercise and a sign of a turnaround. Instead, it's likely the worst LP the great N.Y. has ever put out. Everybody's Rockin' is merely a mediocre nostalgia trip to Neil's youth and the rockabilly he grew up on, but Landing on Water is an attempt to create relevant contemporary 80s rock that falls well short of the mark, or at least the notch a critic would expect from a Neil Young. Taking that into consideration, this is quite the dud. You're better off just picking up a few songs from this and eschewing the rest.
-Life (Geffen, 1987)*
Key tracks: "Mideast Vacation," "Prisoners of Rock & Roll," "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks." Avoid: "Around the World."
In 1978-79, Neil took his show on the road to record new compositions in concert, then spice in some overdubs from the studio and unleash it all on a new LP. For the electric side of his artistry, Neil used performances done with his longtime standbys Crazy Horse, naturally. Having not recorded anything substantial with them since 1981, Neil acquiesced to the frustration and impatience the Horse, and fans, must have been feeling. To promote his newest album, Neil hit the road in 1986 with some of the synths and programmed and/or electronic drums that distinguished the mediocre (terrible by Young's standards) Landing on Water, only with the tried-and-true garage rockers Crazy Horse as his supporting band. More comfy at home with his frequently used buddies, Neil was able to draw on his vast (already by 1986) repertoire while infusing modern touches instrumentally.
This was the last album Neil would cut for Geffen Records, but it's fittingly his most Neil Young archetypal album for David Geffen. There's more traditional brooding Neil folk with the eight-minute, exotic "Inca Queen" (after "Cortez the Killer" and "Like an Inca," the third historical perspective of the Incas in Neil's catalogue) as well as the gallant "Long Walk Home," which is somewhat flawed by excessive war and bomb sound effects. At its core, "Long Walk Home" is a throwback to his 70s folk, though with a lot more bombast thanks to the 80s tinge to it. Good old garage rock returns with the basic, but enjoyable "Too Lonely" and the fantastic "Prisoners of Rock & Roll" where Neil complains about music business politics, how he and his band won't listen to "Record company men" that "try to change us and ruin our band." Then he boasts in the chorus "That's why we don't want to be heard/That's why we don't want to be good."
Neil makes sure he gets in the ubiquitous political song, "Mideast Vacation," a tune portraying the tumultuous warring situation of the Middle East and the extreme anti-Americanism it calls, sung from the point of view of a military lifer. It is a powerful, hard rock tour de force with the synclavier gun sounds, heavy bottomed synths and another synthesizer that replicates a Middle Easter woodwind instrument. This 80s approach to rock is fine and dandy on "Mideast Vacation" but is overbearing on the wannabe hard rock anthem "Around the World," another topical song addressing worldwide violence among other issues. The LP loses some steam at the end with the average, vitriolic "Cryin' Eyes" and a couple of mournful ballads. The first of which sounds like a damn good single you'd expect to hear from the Cars, entitled "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks," one of his best ballads since the tearjerker, failed romance ones on Comes a Time. "We Never Danced" on the other hand is not so emotionally gripping, coming off more like a maudlin adult contemporary, sprinkled with those irritating bell-like synth settings of the 80s (the kind that would be used in a Vanessa Williams song or a tender moment on the TV show "Full House"). It's an unstable ending for a second side that loses the momentum built by a quality first side. This does not become the comeback record many were certainly hoping and wishing for, but it's easily his best since Trans and arguably his best since Hawks & Doves.
-American Dream (Atlantic, 1988) (CSNY)
-This Note's for You (Reprise, 1988)
Key tracks: "Ten Men Workin'," "This Note's for You," "Coupe De Ville." Avoid: "Married Man."
Returning to Warner Bros.' Reprise label, where he had enjoyed a solid relationship and his greatest achievements, Neil was looking toward a renaissance as his inconsistent 80s came to an end. Geffen had offered a lucrative contract with lots of creative control but came to regret it and president and founder David Geffen's move to sue Neil Young created a backlash against him and his record company. The matter would end with a judge finding in favour of Neil, ending the outlandish fiasco. However, Neil's first album in his return to Reprise was another genre exercise, this time with a blues band, complete with horns. Although it managed to get Neil playing his best lead guitar in almost a decade, This Note's for You was another shoulder shrugging product.
The album was originally attributed to Neil Young & the Bluenotes, until Harold Melvin (leader of the R&B vocal group the Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes) took legal action. This Note's for You produced a better chart showing than his past few albums, although one could credit the chart placing to the controversy around his music video for "This Note's for You." The video clip for "This Note's for You," directed by Jonathan Demme, mocked the commercialization of popular music in the era, targeting Calvin Klein, Michelob Beer, Pepsi and Coca-Cola (through a Whitney Houston look-a-like dousing a Michael Jackson doppleganger's enflamed hair with a can of cola). Neil's looks at consumerism caused MTV to ban the clip for its attempt to use product placement, even though it was clearly in jest and for satire. It generated a spotlight on Neil's work as he publicly defended it while seeming bemused by MTV's decision.
This disc contains an inexplicaby pared down, 2 minute version of the title track, though this was rectified by a live, 5 and a half minute version included on the 1993 Geffen compilation Lucky Thirteen. The first track is a bit of a rousing one as the bluesiness is demonstrated in fine form with "Ten Men Workin'." This actually is a good song, but it is slightly hurt by its basic horn arrangements that don't engage the listener much and this is a common malady with every song's horns. The slower, quieter pieces are actually the best part of this blues project, namely the jazzy "Coupe De Ville," the even jazzier closing track "One Thing," the Otis Redding dead ringer "Twilight" and the menacing "Can't Believe Your Lyin'." Some of these tracks just sound too much the same, usually because they share arrangements. That holds true for "Life in the City," "Married Man" and "Hey Hey" which are pure blues throwaways featuring those boring horn charts. It's really the more soul-inspired stuff that works on this LP as the already mentioned "Twilight" and "Sunny Inside" recall the energy and spirit of Stax Records.
All in all there are some delights to be had with This Note's for You but like even his best 80s albums there's that execution, that devastatingly honest punch, missing from Neil's music. Too many of the arrangements and songs are basic blues structures that go nowhere, even if they would sound top flight live in concert or at a bar. But on an LP, some of it falls flat on its face. However, Neil's artistic drive was rising as he even cut another album with the Bluenotes, an aborted one named Times Square. As usual, while Neil's recorded work suffered mixed reviews, his concert work was widely praised and he was a true performing dynamo with anything he wanted to play. One opus, an 18-minute tale from the streets called "Ordinary People" would not see official release for another 19 years but a listen to it proves that Neil's genius had not diminished and he was far from washed up. He had discovered his passion for electric guitar again and was cognizant of the noise/alternative rock bands he helped to inspire. His following album would be a comeback that propelled him into the 1990s with style, a decade that proved his legendary status could not restrict him from making great albums again.
-Freedom (Reprise, 1989)
Key tracks: "Rockin' in the Free World" (extended electric version), "Don't Cry," "Hangin' on a Limb," "El Dorado," "Wrecking Ball," "No More."
The 80s had not been a fun time for one Mr. Neil Percival Ragland Young. From bad relations with fellow musicians (Crazy Horse) to panned albums (take your pick) to difficult personal issues and the loss of his once strong commercial, and even stronger critical, clout. In 1988 he returned to Reprise Records after a stormy six-year stint on Geffen Records that is still easily the driest spell of his career, even though he was releasing a new album every year except 1984 (when the original edition of Old Ways was abandoned). After the blues genre exercise This Note's for You, there wasn't any more expectation of a breakthrough for Neil as there had been before it, even if Neil's concert tour with the Bluenotes produced some excellent work. Sessions through 1988-89 produced new music but a planned LP, Times Square, was scrapped and Neil decided to pick up the pieces, cull together all the good songs lying around that did not fit with the projects he had been partaking in and made Freedom.
With such a grand and exclamatory name, this new album certainly sounded like an improvement just based on title alone. His penchant for message/protest songs had grown in the 80s, but Freedom is the first time it ever came together as part of a triumphant formula, as in musically, spiritually and lyrically cohesive and stunning. Its release was preceded by an EP titled Eldorado, a rare collector's item now and even then because it was only released in Japan. Eldorado did not attempt to use straight country, rockabilly, techno, blues or any other alternate genre to the world of Neil Young lexicon in order to break ground. It simply went back to his pioneering use of distortion, powerful electric guitars and feedback. Simply, Neil went for pure noise and there were sections of ear-splitting guitar pyromania. There were dark, disturbed songs as if drawn from his mid-1970s bleary days and nights, namely the supposed shot at Stephen Stills, "Cocaine Eyes," the harrowing "Don't Cry" and "Heavy Love."
"El Dorado," the EP's title track and the fourth cut on Freedom, is a great moment, like some "Cortez" the second coming but only this time dealing with a criminal saga down south of the border, with Mariachi bands and a bullfight centering the tale. His cover of "On Broadway" reveals a new dedication to commanding vocals as he shouts furiously at most points, even tongue-in-cheek imitating a man looking for someone to "give me some of that crack" before he lets out a high-pitched scream calling for said crack. Yet again, a bizarre twist to a Neil Young song but a funny one too. It's a joyous cover that still manages to have the impact of any hard rock blistering showcase Neil had done in the 80s. Only better. "El Dorado," "On Broadway," and "Don't Cry" were included on the album, while the other three from Eldorado are a bit harder to get.
"Don't Cry" is another sign of a return to form for Neil as he juxtaposes quiet verses with heaven-rattling guitar bursts that seem to be a return to the carefree fury Neil once displayed. "Don't Cry" features ethereal singing at times, and also nearly demonic howls when the drama of the song picks up. The lyrics describe a man who seemingly follows and stalks his ex-girlfriend because of his unwillingness to get over their broken relationship. Creepiness personified right here, in other words. But what really resonates is what bookends this LP, a nod to how he structured Tonight's the Night and Rust Never Sleeps, his two greatest albums. "Rockin' in the Free World" kicks it off as a solo acoustic piece done in front of a live audience and although its abbreviated compared to the longer, thrashing finale, it sets a great mood for Freedom. "Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero, Part I)" is a swinging jazzy number that tells another story of a hard luck individual, continuing Neil's fascination with the down and out characters in every walk of life, something he had picked up for Landing on Water.
"Crime in the City" on Freedom is actually bested in faster, more dramatic live renditions, but here it has a cool, breathy aura about it and although it goes over 8 minutes, it's worth every second. The Bluenotes horns provide the real jazziness here, although the song goes deeper than any of the quiet ones from This Note's for You. The wild variety of styles on this album does not hamper it whatsoever, only going to show how deep Neil's songwriting talents ran. It almost seemed he woke up from his slumber in 1988-89 after disappointing the high expectations for so long. He goes for tender, smooth folk with "Hangin' on a Limb," a lovely tune with gorgeous harmony vocals from Linda Ronstadt, who also joins him on the sweet "The Ways of Love," which features a unique chorus done with a bolero rhythm. "Someday" is one of the weaker tracks due to a lack of a strong melody and cheesy Casio-type keyboards, although Neil's sincere delivery helps redeem it from the trash heap.
The honest romanticism of the album stands up well against the more abrasive grunge rock workouts and another winner comes with "Wrecking Ball," that shows how Neil can be great without fancy production techniques, only a spare band setting, driven by a single guitar or piano. His songwriting resonates so well that he can get away with material that others would be accused of being saccharine with. The great thing about the 1988-89 period is that Neil finds his most effective rhythm section outside of Crazy Horse, with drummer Chad Cromwell and bassist Rick Rosas having become a couple more of Neil's favourite sidemen. They provide such scintillating attack for many songs of the period, and a couple of the final few songs are indicative of that. A sort of sequel for "Needle and the Damage Done" (indeed he often prefaced this song with a version of that 1972 classic) comes with the haunting "No More." It's a memorable anti-drug rocker that has Neil at the top of his game yet again. "Too Far Gone" is a rather ordinary country-rocker, something proper for Old Ways but not here, although its history dates back to 1976.
The last song is the warhorse, the concert staple, the rock radio favourite, the electric version of "Rockin' in the Free World." Addressing patriotism (and not in the one-dimensional way he had earlier in the 80s), international strife, homelessness, the evils of politics, pollution and environmentalism, it's his most socially conscious and concise composition. The simple power chord prowess behind it allows for some of Neil's most awesome soloing, this often resulting in brilliant live performances of it. With it new and fresh in the public consciousness, Neil really drove it home when he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in September 1989 and the visual and audial effect of it combined made it a rare great musical moment on TV. It stands as a testament to Neil's re-invention as the Godfather of Grunge and a model icon for a new generation of rockers, as does the entire Freedom album. Many were surprised that this seemingly has-been singer-songwriter could strike back so hard in 1989 at the age of 44 with his best album in exactly a decade. But he did. And it was no one shot fluke, as Neil spent the first half of the 90s making good to great albums. It all got started here.
-Ragged Glory (Reprise, 1990)*
Key tracks: "White Line," "Love to Burn," "Mansion on the Hill," "Love and Only Love."
Upon Freedom, Neil Young had re-invented himself in some ways, but mostly had just regained whatever form had been lost between 1980 and 1988. Neil had also developed a renewed drive in his music, a knockout blow of loud, fuzzy guitars and punk-like values toward lyrics. The true red, white and blue Americana of Neil's early 80s adventures, what with the right-wing values, praise for the blue collar working class and the praise of Reagan, had transformed into an apolitical "man of the people" who wrote songs with the cause of the average man in mind. Neil stopped speaking out in public about his admiration for Reagan and seemed to sour on the "Morning in America" honeymoon. By the end of the 80s, Neil turned back toward more left-wing ideals, but instead of revealing them with tunes defending the Natives or bashing Nixon, Neil was espousing ideals of environmentalism and socialist beliefs. "Rockin' in the Free World" was the culmination of it all. Seemingly, he had rediscovered his old hippiedom.
After 1989 saw him bang with a bang, it would not have surprised many to see this be some one-shot fluke and Neil would go back to poorly emulating contemporary trends with generally unengaging songs. But instead, he hooked up with Crazy Horse again. This time, the desire to create a real made-in-the-garage sound produced easily his best collaboration of work with the Horse in over a decade. Though Re-ac-tor and Life were two of his most respectable albums in between Rust and Freedom, they had been mostly hollow echoes of what had been during the 70s. Only the outright hard rockers seemed to touch on any of the past magic, so Neil decided to build a studio in his Broken Arrow ranch garage and capture the craziness there, with very few overdubs (though Neil had been hesitant to overdubs in the 70s, he seemed to forget that during the erratic 80s). There would be no experimental flourishes with synthesizers or drum machines on Ragged Glory, which perhaps is the most fun album in Neil's canon.
Perhaps the Horse weren't as mystical or dark as before, but their accompaniment was at its peak here. Maybe this can be attributed to Neil's positive outlook and the fact that now they were all relatively clean and sober, save for a penchant for marijuana. No more cocaine, hallucenogenics, tequila (hamburgers maybe!) or even heroin (Whitten being its casualty and Frank Sampedro having quit hard drugs years earlier). While there had been long jams over the years, especially in concert, only Everybody Knows This is Nowhere saw true extended ones and we're talking double digit numbers. Such pieces can be flat and overly long if the song isn't so happening, but with the 10:00 "Love to Burn" and the 10:18 "Love and Only Love," the magic is there. Both songs are similar to the other but manage to be unique platforms for soloing from Neil on "Old Black" (his nicknamed electric guitar since 1969). The spirit of the initial Crazy Horse material of 1969-70 is evident, so much so that the first two tracks date back to that period and even got some play in live shows.
Those particular long-shelved chestnuts are the 7-minute "Country Home," a wistful pledge to find relaxation and comfort back in the country (gee, haven't heard that theme before have we? Neil sure loves that countryside) and the highway ode "White Line," at 2:57 an extremely brief one (compared to the album overall, which averages 6:20 per track). Neil is somehow more blatantly defiant in middle age, no longer afraid to ruffle feathers (although times had changed by 1990) and express his frustrations with the part-harangue, part self-deprecating "Fuckin' Up." There is a ton of nostalgia and reflection into the past, mainly on "Mansion on the Hill," which recalls the happy times of the late 60s counterculture movement and "Days That Used to Be," which finds hope in the present and future while remembering the past and those who fell by the wayside, which in Neil's world was a large contingent of peers and friends.
This nostalgia is at times a bit overbearing, namely with "Over and Over," but there is some light-hearted, fun-loving "Old Fart Hippie" humour that adds an infectious quality to Ragged Glory and this is best exemplified by Neil's bluesy, joyous cover of the 60s garage nugget "Farmer John." Neil's environmentalism comes to the fore on "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," which is a lightweight, somewhat overly sentimental plea for natural preservation and respect to the planet, recorded live with Crazy Horse's four-part harmony singing it. It's a grand old statement, but comes off as a bit too hippie, granola-eating precious. Since there are only ten songs here and a few fail to be anything memorable, Ragged Glory is not a sensational album although it is very good. The songwriting was stronger on Freedom, but the feel, the soul and band dynamic behind Ragged Glory was definitely superior.
Many of these songs may sound grungey but none, not even "Fuckin' Up," wallow in self-defeat or rage like most of the groups at the forefront of that Seattle scene, namely the Cobain-led, Young-influenced (yes it's true) Nirvana. Of course, Kurt Cobain would figure into Neil's artistic outlook in a few years time and the fact that Neil was on a roll when groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit the scene certainly raised his legendary profile. Ragged Glory, even moreso than Freedom, helped find him a new audience and Neil's record sales began to improve after a good 7 year period where his commercial fortunes were minimal and, by contrast to his 70s releases, paltry. Ragged Glory kept his momentum going and he would continue to roll until petering out by the late 90s.
-Weld (2CD Live) (Reprise, 1991)*
Key tracks: "Crime in the City," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Welfare Mothers," "Like a Hurricane."
Yes there are plenty war(Crazy)horses thrown in here and yes the Ragged Glory renditions do not deviate much from their studio versions (proving the recordings of "Love to Burn," "Mansion on the Hill," "Fuckin' Up," "Love and Only Love" and "Farmer John" really captured a live feel), but yes this is a kick ass live album in many ways. It's at times too lumbering, redundant and flawed to be as good as Live Rust, but it has its allure for every Neil fan except those who cannot stomach his brand of hard rock. This is pure electric force, no acoustic fanfare. Because of that, it is a cherished record for big fans of Neil & Crazy Horse or just fans who find Neil's rock side preferable to his folk side.
This tour, better known as the Smell the Horse (likely a play on semi-fictional Spinal Tap's famed album Smell the Glove album from their 1984 documentary) tour, saw a similar stage design to the Rust Never Sleeps tour. No druids this time, but lots of oversized equipment. During the tour and then the mixing of this extraordinarily loud album, Neil suffered hearing damage and was afflicted with tinnitus for a while (a hypersensitivity to sounds) and became a big enough control freak that the Horse and the equipment crew of technicians could hardly stand him by the end, this all according to Jimmy McDonough's research in his comprehensive bio of Neil, 2004's Shakey. The backdrop of the Gulf War renewed Neil's anti-war sentiments and he was as vocally against warfare on this album as any in the past, arguably moreso than before.
Regrettably, although the performances are uniformly powerful, we get songs that were recorded live for a studio album and recorded live for a live album before being here. I speak of the songs from Rust Never Sleeps. Nothing about "Hey Hey, My My," or "Powderfinger" is much different or better than their originals. However, "Welfare Mothers," not included on Live Rust, is definitely worth a listen thanks to Neil's giddy commenting on the playing, often yelling out "Beautiful!" or "Sing it!" after the chorus line. Also, there is a borderline insensitive, certainly hilarious on-stage dialogue with Poncho Sampedro in which they pretend to be welfare mothers getting their cheques in the mail. It's classic weird-cum-comedian Neil. The reprising of "Cinnamon Girl," "Cortez the Killer," and "Tonight's the Night" don't do anything but update how the Horse and Neil delivered their music and there appears no decline, although the enthusiasm is more fun-loving and spirited than Live Rust.
"Like a Hurricane" is a unique adaptation here thanks to its extended 14 minute run time, most of which is just massive waves of distortion and feedback to draw it out, especially toward the end. Here, it's a good sonic experiment although they do it a bit much as most of these songs have a million false endings and drawn out sustained final chords to keep the energy from stopping. It gets old after a while. The live dynamic is strong all over though, even if "Rockin' in the Free World" with the Horse lacks the up-tempo crash and bash it did when recorded with the rhythm section of Cromwell and Rosas. Good 'ol Neil displays the anti-war flavour with his resounding cover of "Blowin' in the Wind," which has gun, bomb and explosion sound effects spliced in. The concert film for Weld displayed this in an arresting visual presentation but hearing it is good enough.
The faster, more blistering and bitter "Crime in the City" is found here and it bests the album version from Freedom no doubt. It's a highlight here as Neil uses his hollering voice, distinct on this double live set, to ram home the seriousness of the lyrics. A neat twist comes with the rarely included "Roll Another Number," almost revived because of its revisionist tinge and indeed it was that way even when it was written in 1973, a mere seven years into Neil's career in the business. Weld falls short of being a masterful live album and it could have used a bit more restraint on the length as well as variety in the song selection. These qualities, or lack of them, put it just a touch behind the more retrospective and representative Live Rust. But who can argue with the most demanding audial experience of any Neil Young album?
-Harvest Moon (Reprise, 1992)
Key tracks: "Unknown Legend," "From Hank to Hendrix," "Harvest Moon," "War of Man." Avoid: "Such a Woman."
Regaining his stature as an iconic singer-songwriter, Neil Young was riding high as the 90s dawned and progressed further. Having become more political and hard-edged topically than ever, Neil endured as a significant voice in pop music, although he had not really enjoyed a smash hit album since Rust Never Sleeps. That changed as he decided to go softer, crafting his most quaint and peaceful album overall since Comes A Time, which was also one of his few albums that went gold almost instantly (others would take years) having hit the top 10 in Billboard's album charts. Perhaps it was reeling from tinnitus that inspired Neil to write softer, folkier, country-flavoured songs once again. There had been some here and there on Freedom and songs left on the shelves during the 80s but Neil had not crafted a side of truly acoustic-based music since the "Doves" side of 1980's Hawks & Doves.
Commercially, it has always been the softer side of old Neiler that connected with the public and generated good sales. Harvest Moon has actually gone double platinum as of today, only the third album of his to do so (joining Harvest and After the Gold Rush), success that Neil had only experienced as part of the ultra popular, megagroup CSNY. The album finds Neil in a less introspective mood than its "prequel" Harvest, instead finding him a melancholy, contented 46-year old man. Often, that melancholy can become weary and boring. This is maybe the first indication that Neil mellowing with age could take the edge off him. He was no longer churning out moody love songs like "Pardon My Heart" or "Look Out for My Love," perhaps because he really was happy with his personal life. Neil still comes up with wonderfully tuneful work on this album however it begins to seriously lose steam after a prime opening five cuts. Here, Neil enlists the Stray Gators, a group of sidemen including Kenny Buttrey, Jack Nitszche, Tim Drummond, Spooner Oldham and Ben Keith that had been his group on Harvest.
With their presence, Neil returns to that easy-going country formula that struck gold (or platinum that is) 20 years earlier, before becoming a hellacious relationship on the road. Therefore, we get more pronounced use of harmonica, very few electric guitars (unless pedal steel counts), brushed drums, soothing piano and nothing as riveting rhythmically as something found on Ragged Glory or Freedom. Heck, its spiritual predecessor had James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt guest on "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold," so why not bring them back into the fold (though Ronstadt had appeared on a few other LPs over the years)? Ronstadt is joined or replaced, on other tracks by her old friend, the late Nicolette Larson, and Neil's half-sister Astrid, giving it the warmest vocal atmosphere of a N.Y. album since that old benchmark Comes A Time. There are ruminations on finding love, losing love and aging such as "Unknown Legend" about his wife Pegi, "You and Me," likely about the same (which borrows melodically from "Old Man") and "From Hank to Hendrix." He criticizes warfare once again with the haunting, weighty "War of Man."
The title track is another homey love song, that describes going out to dance at the local dive as a romantic evening. Well, they always say Neil fancies waitresses and is intrigued by the simpler things of life and "Harvest Moon" is a great portrayal of that trait. "One of These Days" is like his "Days That Used to Be" acoustic style, with Neil vowing he will one day write a long letter to all the good friends that he's known, which I'm sure is not something he actually took up but it's the sentiment that counts not necessarily practicing what you preach. The song is the weakest up to this point but is overtaken by a few throwaways at the end, namely the incredibly sappy "Such a Woman," which is similar to 1993's "Philadelphia" his Oscar-nominated theme song to the movie of the same name. The thing is, "Philadelphia" is a sparer, more emotionally moving piece that does not get bogged down as an unabashedly corny love pean. If you didn't think it was so bad at first, "Such a Woman" eventually brings in strings to accentuate the sickly sweet message. Oh well, as long as Neil's wife liked it.
"Old King" brings in the banjo to sing some rollicking, but buoyant country about the late Elvis, Neil's dog. From love songs to his wife to love songs for his dead dog, Neil is all about tributes on Harvest Moon. After the pleasant, but average "Dreamin' Man," yet another almost unashamedly modest, gentle one, there is another tribute if you will. "Natural Beauty" is it, and at over 10 minutes (perhaps a bit long even though it's built to be a lengthy tribute) it's one of his longest purely acoustic songs. In segments, it reminds one of "Will to Love" what with the addition of marimba to the acoustic guitar. It sounds a lot like an acoustic adaptation of "Cortez the Killer" as the chords are the same, but there's a wailing harmonica, eventually accompanied by animal sound effects. The melody is one of the stronger ones and although this meanders, it never preaches too much about Neil's love of nature (which he calls his own personal religion) despite a badly worded chorus that goes "Natural beauty should be preserved like a monument/To nature" (as if it wasn't a monument to nature?).
All in all, because of some modest, rather restrained performances and production, Harvest Moon does not sizzle like its inspired 1972 predecessor, although both share the distinction of being his highest-selling albums, which may explain why they're often considered two of his most overrated. This is no mere product, but it's not the latter day masterpiece it's sometimes touted as. There's something missing, some gravitas that used to separate Neil from your average airy-fairy folkie. Here, he comes dangerously close to sounding something like a more talented, gifted and less ridiculously maudlin version of John Denver, America or Harry Chapin, three "contemporaries" of his in the early 70s singer-songwriter phase. Three who, to varying degrees (in the order provided actually) outsold him in record units, except for... You guessed it, Harvest. And that assertion means this album is still not that bad at all, but not great either. And for that, I will always bestow a:
-Lucky Thirteen (Geffen, 1993)
Key tracks (of the new versions): "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me," "Ain't it the Truth," "This Note's for You" (Live).
As scattershot and underwhelming as the 1980s were for Mr. Young, it wasn't all bad. Collecting the varying styles makes this compilation a weird one and quite imperfect. Of curse it was originally just going to be Geffen's attempt at a hits collection or singles collection for his six-year stint on their label. However, Neil decided to intervene so he could unleash some material from the vaults along with selections with his own input involved. But there are four newer tracks that would have stood out had they made the cut. First, there's the waltzing country "Depression Blues," which discusses economic hardships and was intended for the original, shelved Old Ways in 1983-84. Then from his 1983 tour with the so-called Shocking Pinks is highlighted with the bluesy, pleading "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me" and the "autobiographical" supposed "story of the Shocking Pinks" in a track called "Get Gone," which borrows heavily from "Willie and the Hand Jive."
The fourth unreleased one is a sizzling live cut with the Bluenotes entitled "Ain't it the Truth" while the definitive "This Note's for You," also done live with the Bluenotes, is included in its 5 and a half minute form. The concert snippets from his work with the Bluenotes are the highlights and they show the actual album This Note's for You could have been better. As for the already released selections, there are two very questionable inclusions that also take the grade down, those being the rather boring "Where is the Highway Tonight?" and the clunky techno-rocker "Around the World." If you want other ones from Old Ways and Life, then "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" and "Prisoners of Rock & Roll" would have done. The rest, "Sample and Hold," "Transformer Man," "Once an Angel," "Hippie Dream," "Pressure," and "Mideast Vacation" are proper choices that represent the best of each dizzying genre exercise Neil indulged in. Lucky Thirteen isn't so aptly titled, as the 80s were anything but lucky, but it is what you want if you'd rather not collect the mostly mediocre LPs they came from.
-MTV Unplugged (Reprise, 1993)
Key tracks: "World on a String," "Helpless," "Transformer Man."
While Live Rust was a proper greatest-hits-done-live set and Weld an accurate representation of the calamitous electric guitar sludge Neil had been slowly fomenting ever since returning to lead guitar with the Bluenotes, this one seemed to capture his acoustic settings and in the wake of the popular Harvest Moon. He re-invents some of his electric work as acoustic pieces, with "Mr. Soul," a major key version of "The Old Laughing Lady," and "World on a String." Plus there's "Pocahontas," yet another version of "The Needle and the Damage Done," and a piano-led version of "Helpless" aided by Nils Lofgren on accordion. There are some truly interesting quirks here as we get a previously unreleased 1976 song "Stringman" done on piano and then a slightly shaky version of "Like a Hurricane" done on pump organ. This doesn't sustain itself for the 4.5 minutes very well, but it's a unique re-interpretation.
The band joins him for the last 6 tracks and apparently this was the second run-through of the set after Neil was dissatisfied with his band's performance the first time around (this being the Stray Gators with Astrid Young and Nicolette Larson on backing vocals, Nils Lofgren adding guitar, accordion and autoharp and Oscar Butterworth taking Kenny Buttrey's place on the drum stool). The slick, relaxed band setting is not unlike Harvest Moon but at least we hear a subdued "Look Out for My Love" as well a spacey, acoustic, non-vocoder version of "Transformer Man." But it all has this frustratingly restrained sound to it and the performances rarely take off, falling short in the face of superior studio versions, this holding true for "Unknown Legend," "Long May You Run" and "From Hank to Hendrix." It's too bad a live album of Neil's has not drawn on his greatest, most overlooked acoustic tunes like "Tell Me Why" or "Pardon My Heart," settling for the more easy listening countrified ones. The first part of this disc is the most rewarding and slowly but surely, this MTV Unplugged set becomes just a passable live one.
-Sleeps with Angels (Reprise, 1994)*
Key tracks: "My Heart," "Driveby," "Prime of Life," "Change Your Mind," "Safeway Cart."
Having renewed and strengthened his bond with Crazy Horse, one that seemed fractured in the 80s, Neil decided to use them in a much more eclectic, softer fashion. That sounds like a recipe for failure but instead it results in perhaps Neil's best 90s album, an album that referenced aging, death, addiction and all the darker elements of life that Neil had not quite gone near since Tonight's the Night. Crazy Horse gets to rock out but not nearly as much or as hard as usual. Instead, they are utilized to give rough backup on instruments like bass marimba, vibraphone, electric piano and grand piano (though this is mostly Frank Sampedro) while Neil pulls out his keyboard skills for accordion and tack piano, which becomes almost the signature instrument of the album because of its upfront presence, mainly in its melodic usage and being the primary chord change provider on a few cuts.
Though Neil's career was on the rise and he had become a favourite of the grunge crowd, and therefore respected by the MTV generation, he wanted to get back to those themes from the tragic underbelly. The real hard-hitting moment for Neil came when his immortal line from "My My, Hey, Hey" was referenced in Kurt Cobain's suicide letter from April 1994: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Drawing on the suicidal tendencies of rock stardom among other disturbing scenarios, Neil made an album that was both dark and defiant. There is a ragged weariness that is much less tightly wound than on Tonight's the Night and more melancholy, world-beaten and resigned. It's not as if Neil has gone pessimistic overnight. He is only speaking for the lost souls it would appear and does not limit this sense of decay and death to rock stardom.
This is almost like he is reflecting on that very line from Rust Never Sleeps that Cobain included in his suicide note, almost re-thinking what it means, its purpose as a mantra or life-affirming belief. Certainly Neil does not feel death is something you should prefer over becoming a washup, or else he would have offed himself in the mid-1980s. But there is a tired mood throughout the record with somewhat mournful numbers like the downbeat "Prime of Life" (featuring the first inclusion of recorder- or flute?- on one of his songs), the drifting "Driveby" and "Western Hero" (written about war heroes while "Train of Love" is the same exact song only with different, more unimaginative lyrics). Even when the mood is low, the songs can actually be rather thrilling and ominous. The volume level is not ear-splitting like a Crazy Horse collaboration can be and this album is perhaps the decibel opposite to Weld. These songs include the tremendously eery "Safeway Cart," and the partly spoken-word "Trans Am."
Even the brighter, happier material has an air of lonely desperation to it. The almost child-like amateurish structure to "My Heart" comes off as affecting and genuine, rather than corny and/or maudlin which was a problem with some Harvest Moon tracks. "My Heart" is an oddity in Neil's catalogue because nothing about it had the hallmarks of a typical Neil ballad and credit goes to the man himself for throwing in vibes and tack piano in to colour the song. Crazy Horse's usually spirited harmonies are more warm, soft and tender here. The finale uses the same instrumentation but has a more triumphant mood to it, with "A Dream That Can Be Last" a fitting finale to the album and in fact a superior closer than the ones on his previous two LPs. The muddy mix of certain songs may bother audiophiles but without it, "Sleeps with Angels" would not have that detached, dissonant feeling that makes it one of Young's more challenging, unsettling listens.
If you're the kind of Neil fan who really enjoys a real gutkicking hard-assed style of rock, then you'll find it with the bluesy "Blue Eden" and the comedic "Piece of Crap," in which Neil blares over a punk ethic and arrangement about all the stuff he buys that falls apart because it's, well, a piece of crap. Not a great tune, mind you, but it's the attitude that counts in punk and the same goes here. "Change Your Mind" is in the style of a long-winding jam like the ones from Ragged Glory, only this one falls just short of the live version of "Words" from Journey Through the Past, as the longest track on a non-bootleg album of his. Both were bested when "Ordinary People" finally came out. "Change Your Mind" is one of his eloquent love songs but the jamming and soloing in between each verse is extensive stuff and although the song isn't up to the level of previous greats, it's rewarding enough to deserve going for 14:39. There are a few slip-ups but the album length is not a problem the way it is on Weld, Ragged Glory or Harvest Moon so it's sequenced well. And the spot-on deliverance of the goods on his return to darker themes makes this stand as the last truly excellent album Neil has done to date (Freedom still might be his last indispensably masterful LP).
-Mirrorball (Reprise, 1995) (w/Pearl Jam)
Key tracks: "I'm the Ocean," "Truth Be Known," "Throw Your Hatred Down," "Scenery."
Of all the younger bands and singers that openly idolized Neil "Godfather of Grunge" Young, Pearl Jam was undoubtedly the most vocal. They often credited him as a major influence and although there were more 70s hard rock influences in them than classic Neil garage rock, they shared a similar ethos and passion for being honest, hard-working artists. A dispute with Epic Records left their names off the final credited product but 1995's Mirrorball still featured them backing Neil on every track making poor old Crazy Horse an afterthought to some, though dearly missed by others. Pearl Jam prefers tighter, bouncier arrangements and their rhythm is usually much steadier and accomplished than the Horse. The album came together after several live collaborations which dated back to 1993's MTV Video Awards when Pearl Jam backed Neil on a shaky version of "Rockin' in the Free World," Eddie Vedder stumbling around drunkenly while nursing a bottle of hooch or something which still was a highlight of the usual trendy affair.
Eddie Vedder is found on backing vocals on some tunes and a co-lead on a song he co-writes with Neil called "Peace and Love," a decent inclusion here. He was mostly absent from sessions due to an apparent problem with some stalker, but the musicians in the band were there and Jack Irons, then Pearl Jam's drummer and formerly drummer of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, gives some of the more propulsive drum work of any Neil recordings. Likely due to Pearl Jam's commercial clout, this album would be Neil's highest charting album since Harvest, making it to number 5 before quickly fading from the charts, which even bested Sleeps with Angels #9 showing and Harvest Moon (#16). This is basically grungey type of music, a bit cleaner than your average Neil garage rock. Some songs aren't very much more than average, such as "Song X," "Act of Love," Big Green Country" and two short, relatively minor pieces on harmonium in "What Happened Yesterday" and the closer "Fallen Angel" (a move that recalls the barely-over-a-minute inclusions of "Till the Morning Comes" and "Cripple Creek Ferry" on After the Gold Rush).
There are very solid rockers too, like the driving "Throw Your Hatred Down," the bluesy rocker "Downtown" (one of two singles derived from the album) which is littered with great soloing from Neil and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready or Neil's lumbering, impassioned 8.5 minute slam on celebrity and fame, "Scenery." "Truth Be Known" is one of the more memorable of the slow rockers but the true classic is Neil's semi-autobiographical "I'm the Ocean," as exciting and honest a rock number that Neil has done post-"Rockin' in the Free World." It's a seven minute tour de force with not a second wasted as Neil candidly and frankly looks at the special nature of his life, memorably signing "People my age/They don't do the things I do." Mirrorball suffers from some throwaway material and few true grand slams, so this is not exactly much better than Harvest Moon and it really comes down to which style caters to you best. Personally, Mirrorball is more interesting but it is not quite the fine showing Sleeps with Angels was.