Neil Young's first solo album after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield is a tentative affair on which the vocals are mixed too far back (due to Neil's lack of confidence in himself as a singer) and the production is too soft (due to the prominence of Jack Nitzsche's string arrangements). This album has its moments, though, particularly "The Loner," "If I Could Have Her Tonight," "I've Been Waiting for You," and "What Did You Do to My Life?" "The Loner" and "I've Been Waiting for You" are the only songs that feature Neil's ragged guitar, while "If I Could Have Her Tonight" has pretty guitars alongside a yearning melody, and "What Did You Do to My Life?" has a naïve charm and makes excellent use of backing vocals. The album as a whole has a melancholic quality, and it lacks the immediacy of his later work, none of which would ever quite sound like this one again. "The Loner" (considered by many a sort of theme song for Neil, this was actually written about Stephen Stills, who later recorded it) is the only truly classic track on the album, though he later also included "The Old Laughing Lady" on his own handpicked retrospective, Decade. Personally, I find his almost inaudible vocals to be a real hindrance on this track (about another favorite Neil topic: death), though its jazzy ambiance and some haunting female vocals work in its favor (the almost 6-minute running time doesn't). Elsewhere, we have two forgettable instrumentals ("Emperor of Wyoming," "String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill"), an ecology-themed ballad ("Here We Are In The Years") that kind of comes and goes, albeit not in an unpleasant way, and "I've Loved Her So Long," which is all about its wistful countrified chorus (one of the backup singers is Merry Clayton, who would soon give the greatest guest vocal ever on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"). Last but certainly least is "Last Trip to Tulsa," an interminable 9-minute guitar/vocal only showcase that greatly contrasts with the over-elaborate orchestral arrangements and short running times elsewhere (aside from "The Old Laughing Lady"). It's not painfully bad or anything, but it was a far cry from Bob Dylan, who he was obviously trying to emulate with this track, which at least is one of the few songs here with any kind of edge to it. Despite some nice imagery, the album's simplistic, hippy-ish lyrics are also a problem, but, fortified by stellar backup support from a bar band who he hooked up with that he considered an "American Rolling Stones," things would soon get much better.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise ‘69) Rating: A
This classic second album was Neil Young’s first outing featuring his legendary backup band Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten; guitar, Billy Talbot; bass, John Molina; drums), who would appear sporadically throughout his long career, generally (and not coincidentally) on his finest albums. This great album was a big step up in class that featured raw, ragged playing, particularly on the extended showpieces “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl In The Sand,” two all-time great guitar epics that feature Young’s emotive voice and hypnotic, repetitively grinding guitars that have all the subtlety of a chainsaw. “Cinnamon Girl” is another instant classic (and perennial concert favorite) whose surreal, romantic lyrics are helped by fine harmony singing and more memorable riffs, while “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (one of Neil's most underrated songs) features unforgettable “sha la las” come chorus time and typically crude guitar thrusts. The rest of the album features slower but still fine country styled songs showcasing Young’s world-weary voice and sincere lyrics. Neil is aided by ex-girlfriend Robin Lane’s backing vocals on the slow, sad “Round And Round” (which drags a bit) and Bobby Notkoff’s mournful violin on the spare “Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets),” while the loping country folk of “The Losing End (When You’re On)” provides a pessimistic sing along. These songs proved that, more than just one of the all-time great guitar albums (which this certainly is), Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere was a winner all the way around. That said, it is the two long songs that make this album so essential. "Down By The River" is a dark, violent song ("down by the river, I shot my baby!"), with evocative verses and an explosive sing along chorus that showcases the group's underrated harmonies. I love the drum rolls in the chorus as well, but this song is all about its wild, distorted guitar. Neil uses repetition to build the intensity, and the band (who were not technically proficient musicians) play "by feel" rather than worrying about hitting all the right notes, as the album's live, hard rocking ambiance was as far away from his debut as you could get. Me, I'll take raw, inspired primitivism over professional competence any day, and the legions of garage bands who later emulated this hugely influential album would likely agree. In fact, you could argue that Neil earned his "Godfather Of Grunge" nickname (not coined until after Nirvana broke in the early '90s) right here, especially on "Cowgirl In The Sand," whose brooding guitar magic and length (10:30) exceeded even "Down By The River" (9:13) (hmm, "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl In The Sand"...any wonder why Neil's first marriage didn't last long?). More evocative lyrics and a catchy chorus add to the experience, and you can almost feel Neil's increasing confidence as a vocalist. I can totally picture Neil and his mates losing themselves during this song's incendiary instrumental breaks, which are awesome in their simple yet incredibly intense construction. Amazingly, legend has it that “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” were written in a single day during which Neil was bedridden with a 103 degree fever (!), and Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere was the breakthrough album (top 30 U.S.) that established Neil as a first class composer and guitar hero.
Live At The Fillmore East (Reprise '70, ‘06) Rating: A
Although this album was (finally) released in 2006, I'm putting this review here because chronologically this is where it makes the most sense. For years me and many fans waited for Neil to start releasing archive material, much like Bob Dylan has done with his terrific Bootleg Series of albums, and when this 43 minute album appeared many people were disappointed by how little material Neil saw fit to release. After all, it was well known that Neil and Crazy Horse (also including Jack Nitzsche on piano as an official member here) had recorded an acoustic set and that "Cinnamon Girl" was part of the electric set, but personally I'm not too bothered by this because I prefer my Crazy Horse fix served raw and electric, plus there are plenty of other live performances available of both acoustic Neil and electrified versions of "Cinnamon Girl." The bottom line is that what is here is fantastic. First of all, the sound quality is better than any bootleg of these performances you'll ever hear. Secondly, what performances! The album kicks off with a predictably great "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," always a personal favorite, and it also includes excellent versions of "Winterlong" and Whitten's "Baby Let's Go Downtown," both of which I've also long had an affinity for and these may be the best versions I've heard (with apologies to the Pixies who also did a wonderful cover of "Winterlong"). The other short song is "Wonderin'," a bit of a rarity in that it wasn't officially released until Neil's 1983 rockabilly record Everybody's Rockin', but though this easily loping number is also modestly enjoyable let's face it the reason that this album is so great is because of its two long longs. The 12+ minute "Down By The River" and especially the 16-minute "Cowgirl In The Sand" are astounding, utterly thrilling highlights that also might be the best versions I've heard of these songs. Man, this is rock 'n' roll as it’s meant to be played, with real musicians playing real instruments, with finding the groove and locking in being more important than technical perfection. The vocals are a bit raggedy but not in a bad way, and needless to say there are plenty of extended guitar solos along the way; with apologies to Frank Sampedro and Stephen Stills, I don't think that Neil ever found a guitar foil as sympathetic, who so perfectly fit what he was trying to do, than Danny Whitten, who was a talented singer and songwriter as well (for more information about him on this front read my review of Crazy Horse's criminally overlooked self-titled album from 1971). Anyway, again it's easy to criticize this archive release for its imperfections, which includes shoddy packaging (no liner notes from the guy who self-penned notes about each song on Decade?) but which mainly is simply too short and leaves you wanting more. Then again some of his other live albums are definitely too long, and I'll always be on the side of too short over too long so long as the overall quality is as high is it is here. The bottom line is that this is Neil Young & the first version of Crazy Horse at their absolute best, and Neil Young & (either version of) Crazy Horse at their absolute best delivered some of the best guitar-based rock music ever recorded (especially live music). Note: This album is also included as part of his The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972 9-cd box set released in 2009.
After The Gold Rush (Reprise ‘70) Rating: A+
In a surprise move, Neil joined Crosby, Still, & Nash after Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere while simultaneously continuing his solo career. Hot on the heels of Crosby, Still, Nash, & Young's Deja Vu album came After The Gold Rush, which primarily focused on Neil's mellower side. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Crazy Horse, which had brought out Neil's aggression the last time out, was dismissed due to Whitten's unreliable drug-related behavior, or perhaps it was simply circumstance, as the album was supposed to be the soundtrack to a film that was never released. Actually, the members of Crazy Horse do play on the album, albeit as session help at various junctures rather than as his backing band (his right hand man on the album was future solo artist and E. Street Band-er Nils Lofgren, then only a teenager), and the album does contain a couple of hard-hitting rockers in "Southern Man" and "When You Dance You Can Really Love." But by and large the album has a charmingly laid-back ambiance that (according to Young) "really captured the spirit of Topanga Canyon," his residence at the time. Neil's vocals may be an acquired taste to some (I probably should've mentioned this before), but his keening, high-pitched voice has rarely sounded better than on beautiful folk-tinged ballads such as "Tell Me Why," "Don't Let It Bring You Down," and "I Believe In You," while the gorgeously hypnotic title track is a dreamy piano ballad that is among Neil's most affecting creations. The eminently catchy and singable “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was Neil's first top 40 hit in the U.S., and it was followed by the album's cranky centerpiece song (and one of Neil's signature songs, period). Lynyrd Skynyrd may not have appreciated it, but "Southern Man," Neil's musically and lyrically explosive diatribe against Southern bigots, was a classic rocker that continued in the same vein as the repetitive but riveting epics of the previous album, led again by his technically flawed yet cathartic feedback-fueled guitar. Conversely, both sides (on the LP, anyway) close with playful piffles such as “Till The Morning Comes” and “Cripple Creek Ferry,” neither of which are substantial on their own but both of which make perfect sense when surrounded by weightier material such as his hopelessly sad cover version of Don Gibson's country classic “Oh, Lonesome Me” (a lot of people seem to dislike this one but I don't know why since it fits Neil to a tee). The underrated "When You Dance You Can Really Love" may be a little more reserved than Crazy Horse at their most ragged, but it's still an intense effort that breaks up the sparse acoustic/piano-based songs (also including the pretty “Birds”) that mostly surround it, as Neil seems to have really put a lot of thought into conceiving this album as a cohesive whole. As such, these songs integrate with one another seamlessly, and the end result is an endlessly listenable and enjoyable album that showcases all of Young’s major strengths. By these I mean his aching, high-pitched beauty of a voice, his simple melodies containing heartfelt, wistful lyrics focusing primarily on love, and (on the two songs) his raw guitar. With his profile having been raised considerably by his group association, this timeless classic rightfully established Neil Young as a superstar solo artist.
Live At Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise '71, ‘07) Rating: A
The second live album released in Neil’s ongoing archive series, Live At Massey Hall 1971 is as excellent and essential as Live At The Fillmore East, and is that album’s polar opposite because this solo acoustic and piano performance shows Neil at his very best as a sensitive singer-songwriter whereas the prior full band effort focused on Neil the rampaging rocker. Recorded in Toronto during his Journey Through The Past tour in between two of his most important and successful studio albums, Neil is treated by his enraptured audience like the hometown hero he is, though in truth the crowd applause probably should’ve been mixed down a bit since the hysteria seems oddly inappropriate given the intimacy of the performance. This is a nitpick, however, because on the whole the sound quality is superb, as Neil’s fragile high-pitched voice comes through crystal clear; I’m not sure if his voice has ever sounded better. I can take or leave some of the between song banter, and I do miss the fuller fledged harmonies on some of the songs here, but the majority of these performances are first rate, and the song selection hits on most of his major songs (the biggest omissions are probably “Cinnamon Girl” and “Southern Man”) while being idiosyncratic enough (unsurprising for such a mercurial artist) to interest both casual and hardcore Neil Young fans (the latter of whom this release is more geared towards, naturally). At the time of this performance, 8 out of the 18 songs here had yet to be released on a Neil Young album, including five from Harvest, which truth be told is somewhat diminished by this release, as the string-less versions of “A Man Needs A Maid” (with different lyrics here and done as a medley with “Heart Of Gold”) and “There’s a World” seem more fitting and are definite improvements here. Elsewhere, Buffalo Springfield songs (“On The Way Home,” “I am a Child”) open and close the show, CSN&Y is represented by “Helpless” and “Ohio,” and less obvious selections come in the form of “Journey Through the Past,” “Love In Mind” (both later to appear on Time Fades Away), “See the Sky About to Rain” (later to appear on On The Beach), “Dance, Dance, Dance” (which had previously appeared on the self-titled Crazy Horse album), and “Bad Fog Of Loneliness,” which makes its first appearance on a Neil Young album here, though truth be told I can see why it hadn’t seen the light of day previously. Elsewhere, stripped down acoustic renditions of “Cowgirl In the Sand” and “Down By The River” can’t compare to their electrified counterparts (that goes likewise for “Ohio”), but these are still good versions and these performances fit in naturally with the rest of the album. On the whole, though maybe it doesn’t offer anything new to the seasoned Neil Young fan, this was still a much welcome release because it reinforces what a terrific singer, songwriter, and performer Neil is, as the minimalist solo only approach works extremely well here. Neil himself interestingly commented as follows: “This is the album that should have come out between After the Gold Rush and Harvest. David Briggs, my producer, was adamant that this should be the record, but I was very excited about the takes we got on Harvest, and wanted Harvest out. David disagreed. As I listen to this today, I can see why." Note: This album is also included as part of his The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972 9-cd box set released in 2009.
Harvest (Reprise ‘72) Rating: A-
Young’s most commercially successful album was harshly received by critics at the time of its release, and though I sometimes agree with Rolling Stone's assessment that Neil here became "just another pretty-singing solo superstar," I can also see why this is seen by many as a "seminal country rock album." Even more than the last studio album, this album's sound is a direct result of circumstances, as a back injury prevented Neil from exerting himself while using his electric guitar, which appears only in rare instances (most notably on "Alabama" and "Words (Between The Lines Of Age)"). Gone too is Crazy Horse, and Neil's new band the Stray Gators (Ben Keith; steel guitar, Kenny Buttrey; drums, Tim Drummond; bass, Jack Nitzsche; piano and slide guitar) is a totally different breed comprised of L.A. session pros, while Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and CSN add backup vocal support. Unsurprisingly, this is a laid-back and occasionally boring album, but Neil’s one-of-a-kind voice is in impeccable form (I'll take his imperfect crooning over technically superior but emotionally empty top 40 regulars any day), and even seemingly slight songs such as "Out On The Weekend" and the title track reel you in after repeat listens. Only "Are You Ready For The Country" (a slightly irritating sing along) and "There's A World" (a bombastic attempt that doesn't really work) are misfires, and there are several standout tracks (not even including "Out On The Weekend" and the title track both of which I’ve grown to like a lot). Like "There's A World," "A Man Needs A Maid" features significant input from the London Symphony Orchestra, meaning that critics inevitably call it “pompous” or “overblown,” but this one works (despite lyrics that many see as sexist), particularly on the sparse piano/vocal parts, as Neil sounds particularly vulnerable and affecting on those sections. I've always been extremely fond of "Old Man" as well, what with its charmingly low-key melody and poignantly reflective lyrics, while Neil throws in some social commentary on the sparse, unforgettable anti-drug tale “The Needle And The Damage Done,” which was obviously written about Whitten. He also tosses some darts at “Alabama,” a rare rocker with strong vocal support from Crosby, Stills, & Nash that along with “Southern Man” was testily answered by Lynyrd Skynyrd on “Sweet Home Alabama” (one of rock n' roll's great answer songs), while "Words (Between The Lines Of Age)" is a dirge-like epic (6:40) that probably would’ve been better with Crazy Horse but which is still really good. Of course, the song that went all the way to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic (as did the album as a result) was “Heart Of Gold,” a catchy acoustic-harmonica led track that had Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor on backing vocals (as did "Old Man"). According to Neil in the liner notes to Decade, "this song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” His reaction against major success seemed kind of extreme at the time, but the gloriously grimy triumvirate that soon followed (after the disastrous soundtrack album Journey Through The Past, which we'll kindly make believe doesn't exist) resulted in some of the most powerful music of Neil Young's great career.
Time Fades Away (Reprise '73) Rating: B+
This is where things get complicated. At this time, Neil again asked Danny Whitten to attend the sessions for what was supposed to be the follow up to Harvest, but when Whitten was still too drugged up to be of any use Neil had no choice but to send him on his way. Whitten spent the $50 Neil gave him as a departing gift to score the heroin that killed him that same day, leaving the guilt-ridden Young devastated. With his recent back problems and a divorce behind him (he rebounded quickly by snaring actress Corrie Snodgress, with whom he had a son) Neil was in a bad mood to begin with, and he made few fans when he went on tour with the Stray Gators and refused to play his hits to the packed arenas that he was now playing. This was Neil's attempt to rebel against the shallowness of superstardom and the parasite-like industry that supported it, and it worked to a tee, turning off many of his "fans" who only wanted to hear "Heart Of Gold." Heck, the clearly frazzled Young's self-destructive and downright bizarre behavior during this tour preceded punk in its antagonistic "f-you" attitude. Time Fades Away (as of 2004 still not available on cd) contains eight songs that were recorded live during that troubled tour, and I can only imagine the frowns on his record company executive's faces when they first heard it, for this album was about as far from the safe confines of Harvest as possible. The three short but pretty piano ballads ("Journey Through The Past," "Love In Mind," and "The Bridge") aren't that big a departure, but the five rockers sure are. Darkly nihilistic lyrically and messily chaotic musically, the slow, plodding music has a savage intensity even if it could use a few more memorable melodies. In addition, Neil's ragged sounding voice (he'd recently undergone throat surgery) is often off-key; what can be a very pretty instrument often - and quite deliberately - sounds downright ugly here. At times ("Yonder Stands The Sinner" comes to mind) Neil seems to be trying to grate on my nerves, and the band's shambolic playing lacks the cohesive chemistry of Crazy Horse. So why does this album get a "very good" B+ rating, then? Well, for one thing, the three longer rockers are really good, as is the shorter “L.A.” (which delivers a nice mix of loud rock and melodic low-key pop), and even “Yonder Stands The Sinner” has grown on me. As for the longer tracks, "Don't Be Denied," the best song here which ambitiously tells Neil's life story in four verses, is as passionate (and oddly catchy) as anything that Neil had done to date, though radio wouldn’t go near it. The title track is a fine piano and harmonica-enhanced rocker that revisits familiar themes (i.e. it's another junkie lament), while "Last Dance" is the album's elongated epic (8:30); though not quite classic, this loud, exciting, powerfully raw song succeeds primarily due to its desperate intensity. So does this album as a whole, as for all its flaws, both from a songwriting and a performance standpoint, this is an unflinchingly honest and fascinatingly from-the-gut depiction of where Neil Young was at that particular time. It's not particularly pretty, but its not supposed to be; like watching a car wreck this album will have your undivided attention, and though it'll likely make you flinch you'll keep paying attention to its flawed yet riveting realness.
On The Beach (Reprise '74) Rating: A
Amazingly, this album wasn’t released on cd until 2003 (whatever his reasons, be they dismay at the cd medium or whatever, Neil should do right by his fans and make all of his albums readily available), which is a damn shame considering that it's undoubtedly one of his best albums. Filled with quotable sound bites (the most famous being “you’re all just pissing in the wind”) and consistently memorable music, this studio creation, the second of Neil’s commercially disastrous yet critically acclaimed “Ditch Trilogy,” has a serious, stoned vibe that beautifully conveys Neil’s depressed state at the time. A diverse mix of rockers and ballads, several with a decidedly bluesy feel (it’s no coincidence that the word “blues” appears in the title of three songs), makes the music as fascinating as some of Neil’s finest lyrics, starting with “Walk On,” the album’s most musically upbeat song which features beautifully melodic riffs and lyrics that take a swipe at his critics while lamenting the loss of innocence that inevitably accompanies growing up (“sooner or later it all gets real”). "See The Sky About To Rain" is one of Neil’s loveliest ballads, with keyboard (as opposed to the usual piano) being the primary instrument, while mournful pedal steel guitar and the song’s title itself perfectly encapsulate this album’s worn out mood. Neil gets spooky on "Revolution Blues," an appropriately sinister and intense take on Charles Manson, who Neil had known personally (even suggesting that his record company sign Manson, an aspiring musical artist who Neil ultimately distanced himself from because he was “too intense”). What’s really interesting about this song, aside from its bluesy, rocking guitar-based groove, is the way Neil presents both sides, the victim and the predator, which makes for an unforgettably unsettling experience. "For The Turnstiles" has a charming campfire sing along-type vibe to it (helped along by the banjo playing of Rusty Kershaw), but as is often the case on this album the lyrics are filled with gravity, as Neil questions his career and the age old dilemma of art versus commerce. The album’s weakest song from a musical standpoint is probably "Vampire Blues," an overly repetitive and forgettable piece which compares Neil’s beloved industry (snicker, snicker) with shark-like oil barons (choice lyric: “good times are coming but they sure are coming slow”). Much better are the three long songs that close this album and constitute possibly the single finest stretch on any Neil Young album. The 7-minute title track is loose and bluesy, with obviously autobiographical (“I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day”), image-filled lyrics that wonder about his place in the world (“the world is turning, I hope it don’t turn away”), while "Motion Pictures" (actually not that long at 4:16) is a sparse acoustic ballad addressing his second marriage (to Snodgress), which was on the rocks. The nearly 9-minute “Ambulance Blues” is a true tour-de-force, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“it’s hard to know the meaning of this song”), at times alternately about Patti Hearst and Richard Nixon (“I never knew a man could tell so many lies”), and laid-back musical accompaniment that’s led by Neil’s mournful harmonica and Kershaw’s fiddle. Really, I could listen to this wonderful song all day long, and it perfectly wraps up a decidedly imperfect yet deeply moving album. Sometimes Neil comes across as whiny (the still-stellar “On The Beach”), other times arrogant (“Ambulance Blues”), but he’s always worth listening to, and this incredibly rich album - both lyrically and musically - reveals previously hidden depths upon repeat listens. It’s not one of Neil’s more rocking albums, and neither is it mellow and pretty a la Harvest, it’s just uniquely its own thing, and though some lament how “depressing” the album is, some upbeat moments do offer the possibility of hope. After all, how bad can a world be that brings us such magical masterpieces as On The Beach, now finally available and at long last ready to takes its rightful place among rock n’ roll’s all-time classic albums.
Tonight’s The Night (Reprise ‘75) Rating: A
Inspired (if that's the right word) by the drug-induced deaths of Danny Whitten and another friend, roadie Bruce Berry, Neil actually recorded Tonight's The Night in 1973 but the album never came out (accounts differ as to why). After On The Beach, Neil set about recording an album of largely acoustic songs called Homegrown, but when he and several friends (including members of The Band) listened to that album side by side with this one it was all too apparent which one was stronger, so he decided to release this previously shelved album instead. The liner notes state that "this album was made for Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, who lived and died for rock n' roll," and in many ways this album is Neil's heartbroken response to their sad passing. Bashed out with his buddies (Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, Ben Keith, and Nils Lofgren) through many drunken late night sessions in which they shared in each other's grief, this bleak, unflinchingly honest record is deliberately under produced, with sloppy playing (replete with bum notes) and cracked, off-key vocals commonplace. Yet somehow this works in the album's favor, as it has a real ambiance to it (one that's best appreciated late at night) that transcends individual songs, several of which are excellent, anyway. For example, there's the two differing versions of the title track that bookend the album (he would repeat this strategy on future albums) and which so baffled audiences when he played multiple versions of the then-unknown song on the tour that launched the "Ditch Trilogy." The first one is spare, the second louder and more forceful, but both are powerful tributes to Berry. Elsewhere, the wonderfully weary "Tired Eyes" and a scorching performance of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” captured live at the Fillmore with Whitten on lead vocals (note: this song also appears on Crazy Horse’s criminally overlooked and quite excellent first album, as well as on the archive live release Live At The Fillmore East) are about scoring drugs and shooting up, with tragic consequences on the former: "well it wasn't supposed to go down that way." Although much of the album sounds like a drunken wake, in direct contrast to On The Beach's stoned vibe (though the albums have much in common as well, mostly a nice mix of rockers and ballads and feelings of anger, desperation, and disillusionment), other familiar themes also appear. Neil again laments the shallowness of fame on "World On A String" ("the world on a string doesn't mean a thing") and suffers self-doubt on "Borrowed Tune" ("I hope that it matters, I'm having my doubts"), but it's not all doom and gloom, as "Speakin' Out" (highlighted by its bluesy “alright Nils” guitar solo) and "New Mama" are paeans to parenthood. Perhaps the playing is too off-the-cuff and obviously banged-out-on-the-spot at times, and sometimes his influences are all too apparent ("Borrowed Tune" is based on The Rolling Stones' "Lady Jane," “Speakin Out” on Bob Dylan's “Pledging My Time”). These are minor complaints, however, as the album has a cathartic overall intensity and is often quite pretty (“Borrowed Time” and “Tired Eyes” in particular, though I also really like the soulful sing along “Roll Another Number (for the Road)”). Interestingly, during this dark phase of his career Young renounced the hippy ideals he once trumpeted (and would later again embrace), and though some songs here probably could've been further enhanced were it not for the tossed off nature of this project, this flawed, fatalistic album’s gripping despair nevertheless resonates quite deeply.
Zuma (Reprise ‘75) Rating: A-
After the trauma of Tonight’s The Night and the overall gloom of "The Ditch Trilogy," it was time for Neil Young and the newly reformed Crazy Horse (with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro replacing Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar) to record a more sober and upbeat rock n’ roll album (a massive Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young stadium tour came first, however). The reemergence of Crazy Horse was pivotal to the rest of Young's career, and though the band had a different chemistry with Sampedro than Whitten (Lofgren had also left for a solo career) the philosophy remained the same, meaning that raw emotion takes precedence above all else. That said, this is Young's most accessible album since Harvest, with lyrics that deal primarily with a broken relationship (example: "Well, I wonder who's with her tonight? And I wonder who's holding her tight? But there's nothing I can say to make him go away"), presumably with Snodgress. Neil seems to be ok in his own skin and enjoying life more these days, though, as the dark cloud has lifted somewhat, though I wouldn't exactly call this a sunny album, either. However, it is a very enjoyable one, and it's Neil's hardest rocking collection of tunes (and this does seem more like a collection of individual songs than the previous two, whose lasting images and overall sound one remembers more than individual songs) since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The mellower songs are among the best ones, though, as "Don't Cry No Tears" (the prior quote comes from this unassuming winner of a leadoff track) and "Lookin' For A Love" (Neil in country rock mode) both have excellent guitar melodies and catchy choruses (the former not quite "mellow" now that I think about it), while "Pardon My Heart" is a delicate acoustic guitar-led gem and "Through My Sails" a pretty ballad featuring support from Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Elsewhere, "Barstool Blues," on which the newly single Neil hits the bar scene, "Stupid Girl," which sees Neil and his meanest and most misogynist, and "Drive Back," about (surprise, surprise) a broken relationship, are harder rocking but more generic songs. The music on these simple songs sounds ragged and spontaneous, as if cooked up on the spot in the studio, which isn't necessarily a bad thing considering the band’s combustible chemistry. I still wouldn't call these songs highlights, but some crude but exciting guitar passages and passionate singing makes them well worth hearing (especially “Barstool Blues” which I've come around on big time), and the album also boasts two epic showstoppers in “Danger Bird” (6:54) and especially “Cortez The Killer” (7:29). The former may be a bit leaden but is nevertheless uniquely powerful, with chunky guitar and cool simultaneous vocals (there go those underrated Crazy Horse harmonies again) on the chorus being this intense song's best attributes. “Cortez The Killer,” clearly Zuma’s centerpiece song and easily one of Neil's greatest songs ever, slowly builds to a crescendo as Neil's searing, soaring guitar cuts through the raw rhythms of one of rock's best backing bands. Elegant lyrics that intertwine history and his own romantic longing provide the icing on the cake, as only a few groups I can think of (Zep, Hendrix, Cream) can provide such a gloriously primordial power. Fine though it is on its own, "Through My Sails" is anti-climactic by comparison (think “Thorn Tree In The Garden” following “Layla”), but on the whole this fine, often-overlooked album saw Neil (with help from Crazy Horse) escape from the dark cloud that had been following him in recent years, perhaps a bit scarred by past experiences but eager and excited to begin his next project.
American Stars 'N Bars (Reprise ‘77) Rating: B
Surprisingly, his next project was an album and tour in collaboration with old sparring partner Stephen Stills. The album (Long May You Run) was inessential (the best song, the title track, also appears on Decade), however, and Neil again grew restless on tour, famously ending it prematurely by classlessly sending Stills the following note: "Dear Stephen, Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil". Quickly moving on (as was his wont), Neil spontaneously recorded five ragged country & western songs with Crazy Horse, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, violinist Carole Mayedo, and singers Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson, and added four more songs from various different sessions. The result was the somewhat disappointing and decidedly disjointed hodgepodge called American Stars 'N Bars, which lacked the cohesiveness and overall intensity of previous works, though it does boast one all-time Neil classic in "Like A Hurricane." Still, I'd be surprised if filler-ish songs such as "Saddle Up The Palomino" and "Bite The Bullet" are among anyone's favorite Neil songs, though they at least have a harder-rocking edge and a sense of humor. However, that one session did produce some solid songs in "The Old Country Waltz," a singable country ditty on which all of his non-Horse accomplices in particular excel, "Hey Babe," a low-key gem with lovely vocals and an appealingly melodic overall mood, and "Hold Back The Tears," the most memorable song on side one (which, flawed though it is, does have a certain ramshackle charm) with its catchy country chorus (on which Rondstadt shines) and ultimately optimistic lyrics ("hold back the tears and keep on trying, just around the next corner may be waiting your true love"). Alas, the boring Homegrown ballad "Star Of Bethlehem" falls flat despite typically fine singing support from Emmylou Harris, and Neil's reach exceeds his grasp on "Will To Love," which metaphorically sees a salmon swimming upstream (though, as per usual it's really about his own sense of dissatisfaction and romantic longing) while Neil plays all the instruments himself. The end result is seriously strange and often quite pretty, as this almost ambient track conjures a mystical atmosphere, but its formless, rambling nature (Neil himself states "sometimes I ramble on and on," and the song drags on for 7 overly long minutes) ultimately makes it an admirable failure rather than an ambitious success. All is forgiven during "Like A Hurricane," however, one of Neil's greatest songs; though some have complained that this 8-minute studio version lacks the rawness that Neil and Crazy Horse bring to the song in concert, it's still an excellent guitar epic. Mixing together poetic lyrics whose hazy, romantic images are a perfect match for the dreamy yet explosive music, Neil and Crazy Horse again lose themselves within several extended instrumental breaks during which the feedback flies and a hypnotic spell is put on the listener. As on Zuma (only worse), the last song here, "Homegrown" (a loud "hoedown" a la "Bite The Bullet"), provides an anti-climactic ending to this unfocused mishmash of an album, which has enough going for it to make it worthwhile if you're a diehard Neil Young fan (keep in mind that "Like A Hurricane" also appears on Decade, though).
Decade (Reprise ‘78) Rating: A+
A triple album now pared down to two cds, this monumental retrospective builds a convincing case that Neil Young produced more great music from 1966-1977 than anyone else. Skimming all of his albums and hitting many of the high points, including most of his classic longer guitar epics, what also makes Decade invaluable are its worthwhile rarities. These include the excellent “Down To The Wire” (recorded for an unreleased Buffalo Springfield album called Stampede), the beautifully spare, charmingly naive “Sugar Mountain,” (cut on a home tape recorder, this concert favorite isn't a rarity at all but this is its first appearance on any Neil Young album), "Soldier" (a lesser track from his unavailable Journey Through The Past soundtrack), “Winterlong” (country tinged and singable, later memorably covered by the Pixies), “Deep Forbidden Lake” (written for his unreleased Homegrown album), “Love Is A Rose” (another Homegrown song that was modeled after his earlier song for Crazy Horse “Dance, Dance, Dance” and which was later a hit for Linda Ronstadt), and “Campaigner,” a solo acoustic song that shows sympathy towards Richard Nixon as Nixon tended to his ailing wife. Young is far less sympathetic towards Nixon on "Ohio," another song making its first appearance on any Neil Young solo album, though it had previously appeared on Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young's exploitative hits package So Far. Easily his greatest song with Crosby, Stills, & Nash, this hard-charging rocker has Neil's classic chunky riffs and angry lyrics written in response to the Kent State tragedy, with the icing on the cake being Crosby, Stills, & Nash's unforgettable backing vocals, particularly by Crosby, who was so moved by the moment that he openly wept at the song's conclusion. Anyway, in addition to the "new" songs, most of which are spare acoustic ditties that are welcome additions to a mighty canon, Neil handpicked his favorite songs from Buffalo Springfield (six songs), CSN&Y ("Helpless" also appears), and The Stills-Young Band ("Long May You Run"), and the chronological song sequencing (chronological in when they were recorded, which isn't always the order in which they were released) shows Neil’s many career developments while effectively documenting that all areas of his diverse discography are part of a unified vision. Crazy Horse is also generously represented (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” “Cowgirl In The Sand,” “Like A Hurricane,” and “Cortez The Killer”), and the inclusion of great songs from lesser albums (such as "The Loner," “Like A Hurricane,” and "Long May You Run") further helps make Decade utterly indispensable. There are some questionable inclusions ("The Old Laughing Lady," "Star Of Bethlehem," five songs from Harvest) and omissions (nothing from Time Fades Away, scant representation for On The Beach, Tonight's The Night, and Zuma), but by and large Neil did a good job in selecting these songs. Truth is, Decade presents the best-case scenario for any retrospective in that it works as a great companion piece to, but not a substitute for, Neil Young’s original studio albums, plus if you had to choose one and only one Neil Young album this would have to be the one. As a final bonus, Decade also contains illuminating liner notes about each song scribbled by Young himself.
Comes A Time (Reprise ’78) Rating: A-
Around this time Neil embarked on a bar tour with a pickup band he dubbed The Ducks (members included Jeff Blackburn, Johnny Craviotto, and former Moby Grape alumnus Bob Mosley, though an album never actually emerged) before he released this much-delayed album (apparently it took some time for Neil to be satisfied with the results). This laid-back country folk album is an enjoyable singer-songwriter effort that sees Neil back "in the middle of the road." Fiddles, violins, pedal steel guitars, banjos, and the occasional piano or string section (this time generally employed with taste and finesse, as opposed to the bombast of his debut or Harvest) fleshes out the spare musical settings, which are almost always centered around an acoustic guitar, while Nicolette Larson provides a pretty female counterpoint on most tracks (this can almost be considered a duets album). And though I sometimes yearn for Neil to cut loose and add some excitement (though “Motorcycle Mama,” a goofy, grating rocker that sticks out on side two like a sore thumb, isn’t exactly what I had in mind), the consistently accomplished, lazily loping, and deceptively catchy melodies quietly sink in over time. Probably Neil's most country album to date (particularly twangy are the title track, "Human Highway," and "Field Of Opportunity"), these subtle songs are tuneful but lack excitement, though a strong batch of lyrics that address familiar themes (a loss of innocence, the passage of time, missed opportunities, and especially lost love) adds to the album's overall sense of accomplishment. Still, it would've been nice had Neil not played things so safe; even the two cuts ("Look Out For My Love," "Lotta Love") with Crazy Horse are comparatively low-key. Both are quite good, though, as are most of these songs (favorites: title track, "Peace Of Mind," and "Four Strong Winds," the latter a rare cover song originally written and performed by Ian Tyson) for all my catty complaints. Anyway, Larson had a top 10 solo hit with "Lotta Love," which likely helped helped Comes A Time from a commercial standpoint, as did its stylistic similarity to Harvest (this was easily his biggest seller since that album, though I suppose that's not saying much given his commercial decline due to his willfully "difficult" yet musically rewarding projects in recent years). This may not be among Neil’s most exciting or adventurous albums, but there's no denying that many of these songs are quite pretty and often moving (such as "Already One," on which Neil notes that he and Snodgress are forever linked due to their son), or that Comes A Time is among his most easily accessible and likeable albums.
Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise ‘79) Rating: A
Its prescient liner notes describe Rust Never Sleeps as “a loose-knit concert album built around Young’s conviction that an artist’s reach must always exceed his grasp; that the alternative to creative growth was stagnation and irrelevancy.” Indeed, Young sheds his past (particularly Crosby, Stills, & Nash) on the acoustic “Thrasher,” saying “so I got bored and left them there, they were just dead weight to me, It’s better on the road without that load.” Unlike almost all of his peers, he also embraces punk, with a specific nod to the Sex Pistols (and Elvis Presley) on the two songs that bookend the album. “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” has a haunting quality that sets the tone for the album’s first half, a stellar showcase for Young’s voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and his often-fascinating lyrics. Memorable lines such as “it’s better to burn out than fade away” (later to become infamous when it appeared in Kurt Cobain's suicide note) detail what drives his creative muse, while songs such as “Pocahontas” and “Sail Away” are dreamily romantic without being corny. The former showcases Neil's storytelling skills (again integrating historical lyrics sympathetic to the plight of the Indians with a cameo from not only himself but the titular heroine and even Marlon Brando!) and arguably contains side one's most memorable melody, while the latter is another pretty duet with Nicolette Larson that would've sounded right at home on Comes A Time. "Thrasher" is simple but extremly effective musically (and lyrically), and like most of the songs on side one this one's strengths become more apparent over time, while the twangy “Ride My Llama” is the album's slightest song, though this ode to aliens, marijuana, and (one would presume) llamas is also modestly enjoyable. The album’s second half is something else altogether, as Neil teams with Crazy Horse for four joyously ragged rock n' roll performances. The tongue-in-cheek “Welfare Mothers” (“make better lovers”) and the frantically lurching “Sedan Delivery” tackle the punk challenge head on, and though neither are among his best compositions both get by due to the band's ferocious playing, while “Powderfinger” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” are among his best compositions and alone ensure this album's importance (both songs are probably in my all-time Neil Young top 10). Rarely has Crazy Horse's scraggly music better matched Young's cinematic lyrics than on “Powderfinger,” which really puts you in the narrator's shoes and in the line of fire, all while Crazy Horse supplies a gloriously melodic yet primitive racket (Neil lends one of his most famous guitar solos as well). Finally, “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” is one of Young’s hardest rocking guitar epics, whose massive, ridiculously distorted riffs are matched to emotionally charged lyrics that echo the album's central theme, resulting in a towering edifice of raw power. In retrospect, this release, which was mostly recorded live with overdubs added, is the album that solidified Neil's status as the “Godfather Of Grunge” (even if that moniker came many years later), and it remains an impressively unified work that's obviously a key contribution to Neil Young's incredibly forward-thinking canon.
Live Rust (Reprise ’79) Rating: A-
Recorded during his outlandish Rust Never Sleeps tour (see the Rust Never Sleeps video for visual proof of how strange and over the top it was at times) during which stage props and a forced storyline sometimes overshadowed the music, Live Rust is nevertheless a great albeit significantly flawed live album, though it seems less necessary today after the release of Weld and the various archive live releases. At the time it was the best live Neil Young album available, however, as the performances by Neil and Crazy Horse are very solid, and the album features many of his best songs side by side. So what's not to like? Well, for one thing, I'd be hard pressed to name too many songs here that I prefer to the original studio versions, all of which I already own. Additionally, too many essential songs are missing ("Down By The River," "Cowgirl In The Sand," "Southern Man," "Heart Of Gold," and "Ohio," for starters) for this to work as an adequate "best of" collection, and there's too much overlap (four songs) with the recently released Rust Never Sleeps (which was actually recorded after this concert was captured). This album starts with several solo acoustic songs that are well done (my favorites among these are probably “Comes A Time” and “After The Gold Rush” - I always smile when the crowd erupts on the “I felt like getting high” line), but for me this album really springs to life when Crazy Horse joins Neil for excellent renditions of excellent songs (and non-obvious selections) “When You Dance I Can Really Love” and “The Loner.” After mellowing out again for a couple of songs (“The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Lotta Love,” the latter preceded by the amusing “no rain” snipped from Woodstock), Neil and the Horse plug in and unleash seven of the rawest, loudest, wildest, heaviest, most electrifying songs of the band’s career, highlighted by transcendent renditions of “Cortez The Killer” (despite Neil’s strange and ill-fitting faux Jamaican accent) and “Like A Hurricane,” which if anything are too short! True, some additional rarities, a cover song or two, and a radical song reworking here and there would've been nice, but what is here is very good and at times great.
Freedom (Reprise ‘89) Rating: A-
After the two Rust albums Neil made a poor decision, leaving his record label Reprise for Geffen Records, with whom he had an adversarial relationship, to put it mildly (in fact they actually sued him for deliberately making non-commercial music!). His output during the majority of the 1980s was indeed baffling from a commercial standpoint and was also poorly received by critics, who didn’t understand his assorted detours into the genre exercises that comprised the bulk of his forgettable output during this decade (in fairness, few of his ‘60s and ‘70s contemporaries fared well in the ‘80s). Feel free to listen to Hawks and Doves, Re-act-or, Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’, Old Ways, Landing On Water, or Life yourself (not only was Neil bad during the ‘80s but he compounded it by being prolific!), or perhaps a better move is to try out his Lucky Thirteen compilation, which attempts to sum up the lost Geffen years. Back on Reprise, Neil released the r&b-flavored This Note's For You which was also no great shakes but which was at least more commercially successful, in part due to the help of the MTV executives who cluelessly banned the video for the title track, thereby giving him priceless publicity that he otherwise wouldn’t have had. After a weak CSN&Y reunion album (Neil promised Crosby he’d rejoin if he got sober which he finally did), American Dream, and long after nearly everybody had written Neil off as a weirdo has-been, he came roaring back from out of nowhere with this stellar outing; suddenly Neil Young was cool again, and this album began in earnest a major career resurgence. Like other classic Neil Young albums, Freedom is bookended by two versions of its signature song. Starting things off is an energetic acoustic performance of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” captured live at Jones Beach amidst a raucous crowd that is notably oblivious to the irony of the lyrics (reminiscent of the army of fist pumping responses to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.”). Freedom is an eclectic album that encompasses a vast array of musical styles: whether duetting with Linda Ronstadt (“Hangin’ On A Limb,” “The Ways Of Love”) on melodic, pretty folk ballads (“Wrecking Ball” is another quiet beauty, covered years later to haunting effect by Emmylou Harris), unleashing torrents of feedback (parts of “Don’t Cry” and “No More” plus a loud, obnoxious reworking of The Drifters' “On Broadway”), introducing a bluesy Spanish guitar (“Eldorado,” which like "Don't Cry" is part ballad, part grunge rocker), mandolin ("Too Far Gone," which also adds his trademark grizzled grunge guitar), or incorporating strains of r&b (via a sax solo on the pleasantly melodic if somewhat dated sounding “Someday”), Young reclaims the strengths that had long lain dormant while hinting at what his future work would hold, specifically Ragged Glory and its polar opposite Harvest Moon. Though Young’s unflinching honesty (“my life’s an open book”) can be embarrassingly earnest, on Freedom Young finds the role of social commentator fitting, revisiting the perils of drugs (with crack replacing heroin as the drug of choice) and tackling homelessness while learning to cope with middle age. Though the Dylan-esque “Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1)” is a series of interesting vignettes that is overly long at nearly 9 minutes, the electrified “Rockin’ In The Free World,” closes Freedom with an anthemic blast; it’s an all-time Neil “grunge” classic with some major guitar shredding, probably his most famous and many would argue best song of the past 30 years. Nobody plays guitar like this guy, and Freedom was another great album that closed a decade, a la Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps, both of which are major Neil classics whereas this is more a minor one.
Ragged Glory (Reprise ‘90) Rating: A
Taking off from where the glorious “Rockin’ In The Free World” had last left us, Neil Young reunited with old foils Crazy Horse and turned the amps up to eleven for this thrilling showcase of spontaneous, countrified hard rock. On melodic, relaxed yet rocking songs such as “Country Home” and “Mansion On The Hill” (love 'em both) Young is again the hippy dreamer, though disillusionment is (as usual) also a recurring theme. Young remains hopeful, though, urging us to “take a chance on love, you gotta let your guard down” (on “Love To Burn”) because “Love And Only Love” can break down hate. Such sentiments might seem corny if the music wasn't so good, and Young also nostalgically yearns for the “Days That Used To Be” and asks “why do I keep “F*!#in' Up?,” probably the album's best known song along with "Mansion On The Hill." His snorting guitar, and thick, meaty chords say otherwise (all guitar players should f-up so bad), and the majority of these songs burn with a scorching immediacy rarely glimpsed in modern day rock. Largely recorded live and forsaking technical proficiency for raw excitement (as per usual with the Horse and producer David Briggs), Ragged Glory is aptly titled, as it's an imperfectly perfect collection; for example, Young’s voice, which has completely forsaken his upper register, repeatedly cracks. Razor-edged, feedback-fueled guitar solos are commonplace within (primarily mid-tempo) songs that extend up to ten minutes long, while catchy harmonized choruses ensure that these songs kick ass while remaining quite tuneful. On the downside, Young’s clunky remake of the Nuggets garage rock classic “Father John” is a misfire (mostly because he comes across as a lecherous old man) and some of these songs are drawn out a bit longer than necessary. Yet when the stark, feedback-filled chants of “Mother Earth” close out the album eerily evoking an earlier guitar pioneer, Jimi Hendrix, the timelessness of Young’s music and then-current vitality are thunderously evident. As Kurt Loder memorably wrote about the album in Rolling Stone: "Ragged Glory is a great one, from one of the greats." It's probably in my top 5 Neil Young albums and it's certainly one of his greatest guitar albums, as well as his heaviest studio recording to date; long live the Horse!
Weld (Reprise ‘91) Rating: A-
This live document of the Ragged Glory tour provided an exclamation point to his ragged resurgence, as it further cemented his reputation as a fiery, dedicated live performer. Loud and proud, explosive and emotional, the strong (especially disc 2) if overly predictable set list captures many of his most primitive moments all in one place, making for a gigantic grunge-fest that aims to show his younger followers that he’s still king of the hill. It largely succeeds, though it relies too heavily on Ragged Glory for material (5 songs), much like how redundant material from Rust Never Sleeps had plagued Live Rust. While we're at it, there are too many songs on Weld that were also on Live Rust (six songs, to be exact), but that album had a lot acoustic stuff too so this is the Neil album to turn to when you just want loud, untamed, relentless rock 'n' roll. Besides, there are several unexpected treats in store for Young devotees. “Crime In The City” is scaled down and electrified to powerful effect, and a riff-heavy version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” features a war torn backdrop that effectively echoed the Gulf War that was going on at the time; it’s hard not to think of that time, and also think of Hendrix, while the feedback billows through your speakers. “Cortez The Killer” is a mellower but soulful rendition that retains its gloriously “epic” feel, an exciting “Rockin’ In The Free World” is extended into a 9-minute jam session, and an almost 14-minute “Like A Hurricane” has enough "wow" moments to place it in the running for best version of the song ever. On the whole, the performances by Young and Crazy Horse are extremely strong throughout, and though the album is flawed in much the way that Live Rust was, Weld nevertheless expertly captures the loud, primitive, and proud side of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, plus it has one of my favorite album covers ever. Note: A companion piece to Weld is Arc, a half-hour tour document of edited feedback, tune-ups and song introductions sure to test the patience of all but his most devoted followers.
Harvest Moon (Reprise ‘92) Rating: A-
In typical Neil Young fashion, after releasing his loudest album he defied expectations by releasing his softest, quietest album. Then again, given that he damaged his hearing mixing Weld, I suppose it made sense that Neil would break out his acoustic guitar and his harmonica and return to the land of his most commercially popular album, Harvest (I'm sure that Reprise was thrilled, and this album became another big seller). Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and a slightly reconfigured Stray Gators (with soul sessions legend Spooner Oldham replacing Jack Nitzsche) are together again for the first time in 20 years (though Ben Keith's exquisite pedal steel guitar playing had enhanced many prior Neil Young albums), as is Nicolette Larson, another contributor to long distant recordings; given the abundance of (mostly female and quite lovely) harmonies throughout you could argue that this album has as much in common with Comes A Time as Harvest. The album stands out on its own, however, mostly because it has such consistently pretty and well-crafted songs, though those who complain about the album's lack of excitement and sense of adventure do have valid points. This is Neil in the middle of the road again, after all, but then again hanging out in ditches all the time would get boring too! This album is best appreciated on a lazy Sunday morning or right before bedtime, because its songs are relaxing, melodic, melancholic, and in many cases subtly catchy. The songs that immediately stand out for their quality are at the beginning, in particular the lazily loping "Unknown Legend," the lonesome country of "From Hank To Hendrix," where Neil pays tribute to past heroes, and especially the romantic (the album in general finds Neil in a romantic, giving mood), utterly gorgeous and magical title track. Elsewhere, "You and Me" is also nice even if it's overly reminiscent of "Old Man," "War Of Man" is good too and is mostly memorable due to its periodic outbursts via a moody yet catchy harmonized chorus, the lighter, simple "One Of These Days" is an effectively nostalgic thank you note to friends and fellow musicians who have enriched his career, and "Dreamin' Man" is positively dreamy due more ethereal female vocals (it has some nice pickin' as well). The songs that stand out for being different than the rest are the maudlin love ballad "Such A Woman," featuring Jack Nitzsche's gloopy string arrangement (though he blames Neil for ruining it in the mix), "Old King,” a rare up-tempo (bluegrass) and humor-laden track that sticks out here like a sore paw (ha ha), and "Natural Beauty," mostly by virtue of it being 10 minutes long (not that it really needed to be, but this is another nice number). Some would argue that Neil Young albums aren't supposed to be "nice," but one of the things that makes Neil Young such a great artist is that he can rock out like on Ragged Glory/Weld and then come right back and mellow out while making a belated sequel to a 20 year old album, and despite their flaws and stylistic differences what they have in common is that they're all really good.
Sleeps With Angels (Reprise ‘94) Rating: B+
After a popular Unplugged album, Neil returned with Crazy Horse for this downcast album, on which the ghost of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain is ever-present. Cobain had quoted lyrics from Young (“it’s better to burn out than fade away”) in his suicide note, which deeply troubled Young, and this album saw him trying to come to terms with it. Given its pre-occupation with death this album is sometimes compared to Tonight's The Night, and though it's not at that level quality-wise it nevertheless is a haunting if somewhat dreary collection of sometimes-memorable and often-moving songs. With Crazy Horse on board, the sound is raw, stripped-down, and sloppy, as per usual, with ragged but right harmonies being commonplace. However, this is also among the most atmospheric albums of Young's career. "My Heart" and "A Dream That Can Last" start and finish the album with fragile marimba-led ballads, while "Driveby," "Safeway Cart," and "Trans Am" are sparse ballads with hushed vocals that are all about the ghostly atmosphere they conjure, while "Western Hero" and "Train Of Love" share the same (very good) melody but with different lyrics (a different strategy than just doing the same song twice as in the past). Grungier numbers include "Prime Of Life," with its cute out of tune flute and catchy call and response vocals, the chaotic but compelling title track which directly addresses Cobain, the ugly, plodding dirge "Blue Eden," the loud, obnoxious, and out-of-place sounding "Piece Of Crap," and "Change Your Mind," the album's stellar 14+ minute centerpiece song which is most notable for its great harmonized chorus, though I feel it could've been a few minutes shorter. All in all, this is a "grower" album that delivers a somewhat discomforting but consistently captivating listen. At over an hour some of these songs could've been cut down ("Change Your Mind," "Safeway Cart") or been removed altogether ("Blue Eden," "Piece Of Crap"), but on the whole the uneven but ambitious Sleeps With Angels was another singular and quite fine Neil Young album.
Mirror Ball (Reprise ‘95) Rating: A-
Yet another great Neil Young album, one that has become quite underrated over the years in my opinion, this is perhaps his heaviest studio effort ever. Backed up by members of Pearl Jam (though Epic wouldn't let the name "Pearl Jam" appear on the album) and recorded by their producer Brendan O'Brien, this album reveals both of their strengths, as Pearl Jam provides Young with dark, powerful backing without drowning him out. Pearl Jam delivers tight playing, tons of energy, and an appealingly thick and muscular sound, while Young more than holds his own, writing some great if hurriedly written songs and battling the young bucks with his still-lethal guitar runs. Although the album was rushed (supposedly it was recorded in a mere four days) and many of the songs are therefore unpolished, I disagree with the common complaints that these aren't well-written and well-recorded songs, and besides, it is the very raw immediacy and spontaneity of these explosive performances that makes this collection so consistently thrilling despite its flaws. Yeah, perhaps some of these songs sound alike after a while, but I for one am completely intoxicated by the mad sailor chants of “Song X,” the catchy yet rocking “The Act Of Love” (both of these are anti-abortion songs), and the riveting "Peace And Love,” on which Eddie Vedder briefly makes his brooding presence felt (those searing guitar riffs don't hurt either). Elsewhere, "Big Green Country" and the anthemic "Throw Your Hatred Down" have good brisk grooves and more great guitar, "Truth Be Known" is more power ballad-y but is still quite good due to its soaring guitar crescendos, and the intense 9-minute "Scenery" stands out for being arguably the album's best extended guitar extravaganza. Unfortunately, probably my least favorite song here, the more upbeat hippy ode “Downtown,” which is unrepresentative of the rest of the album, was released as the single, so this album never caught on like it should have. There are also a couple of short but sweet mellow pieces that let you come up for air, but only briefly. Neil Young states in the excellent, epic groover “I am The Ocean” (arguably the album's best song which like some others here makes excellent use of atmospheric pump organ), “people my age, they don’t do the things I do.” That’s for sure, and once I was caught up in the relentless wave of that masterful song I could only feel very grateful for that fact. Note: Around this time Neil Young and Pearl Jam also joined forces on the atmospheric big ballad "The Long Road" and the great rocker "I Got Id," both of which appear on Pearl Jam’s Merkin Ball two-song EP.
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