Don't be scared but it looks like the nineties may the most normal decade that we've heard out of Neil Young so far (musically speaking at least). Of course, with a restless soul like Neil, this could all change in a second or an album/CD but that's part of the fun.
So far at least, the most tantalizing part of his escapades have been who he's teamed up with: Booker T. and the MG's (Otis' back-up band!), Sonic Youth (on tour), Pearl Jam (on stage and in the studio), the Stray Gators (in the studio after a 20 year hiatus), Crazy Horse (much to the amazement and glee of his fans after an on and off hiatus of years).
Of course, it's been the last two groups that have put Neil back into the hearts of his fans, got him plenty of new ones and got him firmly back on the charts (though Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth helped his hipster credentials among "Generation X"). Not only does he get his rep as the "godfather of grunge" but he also stacks up points with the classic rock crowd and even some easy-listening folk for Harvest Moon. It's almost frightening that something like this happens to him after all he's done before. This may mean that he's (and we're) in for a reverse of epic proportions. For someone like him, that's saying a lot.
Consider that during the seventies, after he let out Harvest, he took one long, agonizing dive into despair. Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight's the Night not only document this horror, they still sound scary today (not to mention that they still hold up as great rock). He put the breaks on for a few years before he unleashed Rust Never Sleeps, an incredible ride through his folkie and noise music which got him back his fan base.
Then, just like before, he went south. In comparison, what happened before was a picnic. From heavy metal to electronics to country to blues to rockabilly, his albums skirted these concepts past the point of tolerance. In truth, his best music cannily combined all of the above but now he took the trouble of stretching out each style thinly over a whole album. Not only that but the fact was that those mid-70s albums were a hell of lot more fierce and harrowing where his 80s twists and turns just seemed like whimsical farting around.
Most enfuriating of all, he refused to put out the best music he made during this long loss of his senses. Only on bootleg will you get to hear Catalystic Reaction, recorded live with Crazy Horse in February 1984. Not only was it like old times, this was a rebirth of his howling, painful music of the mid-70s with a vengence- easily some of his greatest work. The most he would do with these songs is recreate a few of them half-heartedly in the studio.
Admittedly, just like there were extenuating circumstances in the 70s that pushed him out there, he had his share of set backs in the 80s. First there was the trauma of raising two crippled sons with his wife. Then there has his long battle with Geffen Records. The more that they insisted on commercial music, the more he backed away and enfuriated them. You could say that it was very cool of him to stick it to the man but in the end, the fans were the ones who suffered this long, drawn out battle (for some time, he's promised Decade II, which'll have four or ten or twenty CDs of his 80s music which will clear up the whole picture but don't hold your breath waiting).
Then again, just when he all counted him out, he came back like the last 10 years never happened. After the false start of Time Square (and its companion Eldorado), Freedom was his entry back to his better judgment and music that was his own. Just like Rust Never Sleeps (not to mention Tonight's the Night) he started off with an acoustic song then ended off with a roaring rock version of the same song, each time making it a personal statement.
Sure enough, Crazy Horse was back at his side and they let out Ragged Glory, probably the most appropriate title he's ever come up with. It really then seemed like his 80s never happened and he had just followed up Rust Never Sleeps- just in case, you didn't get the point, he did a live album next featuring mostly Glory material and oldies (and surprise, zero from his 80s albums other than Freedom) just like he reprised Rust with Live Rust. Here's a guy who knows that history repeats itself.
Speaking of which, he decided to go all the way back to Harvest for a little romp. Not only did he hire back the same back up band he ditched about twenty years ago but he even hire James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt to sing back-up just like they did on that album. And you have to give him credit- as far-fetched a concept as it is, Harvest Moon is a much more coherent, better sounding album than Harvest itself.
But still you have to wonder. Why did he pick the album that threw him into stardom as the one he'd reprise? This was the album that he acknowledged "put me in the middle of the road" where he found that he didn't like. Surely, this relentless nay-sayer could have picked much stronger albums as Zuma, Time Fades Away or maybe even the slight, charming Hawks and Doves as worthy of encores. Even more bewildered is asking yourself why he needed to encore anything.
Mirror Ball is an interesting detour from Crazy Horse after his splintering with them over the widely-hailed Sleeps With Angels. He'd done a number of shows with Pearl Jam then decided since he couldn't trust his old buddies that he would hook up with a bunch of young bucks (who in truth don't have half the spirit that he does). The results are loud and racuous with Neil dodging questions of autobiography as skillfully as Lou Reed. It's definitely not the Stooge tribute some have said and it would have helped to have more solid material but it definitely proved there was lots of life in him (compare his old co-horts in CSN). In any case, he has patched things up with Crazy Horse again and using Broken Arrow as title of their reunion ought to tell you that what comes around goes around yet again for him.
As heartened as a lot of people were by his wavering between feedback and tender ballads, he now seems like he's content to stay at one place or the other. In the 70s, he certainly didn't as he wandered everywhere emotionally. In the 80s, he wandered musically which is why it was less exciting. Both times, he seemingly gave up a potentially huge audience for the sake of following his own instincts. Very few performers would (and have) ever dared such a feat. Is it possible that he actually has decided to give this up and just settle?
Like we know, this will all probably change soon but there's other signs of complacency. His solo and "unplugged" appearances have been getting rave notices too, especially as those are now pretty fashionable. Give him credit though: that's been part of his music for years and who the hell would be strange enough to do some of their oldies on a pipe organ at a taped concert?
All of which leads you to wonder is it actually possible that Neil is finally beginning to mellow out in his old age (As if you or I could write beautiful songs like he still does)? It's no crime certainly and he wouldn't be the first performer to do it. And hey, he's still graceful about it, which is a hell of a lot more than you can say about a lot of people who followed in his footsteps.
Then again, this could another of his little games. Think of it: for over twenty years, this guy's done so many weird moves and confusing turns that we'd expect anything from him next. The only further out he could get would be whole albums/CDs done as rap music, new age or free jazz (I hope he doesn't get any bright ideas). What if he pulled off the biggest shock of all? That is, after leaving us hanging after putting out each album, waiting for his next turn of tune, that he actually decided not play games with his music anymore. We'll be sitting around each album, thinking "that was a good one but wait til he goes nuts and comes out with his next one." But it never happens! He becomes old faithful and we're truly bewildered.
Of course, there is one more explanation and probably the most reasonable one. It could be that after all of this time, all that he's done, all that he's considered, he could just be sick and tired of making peoples' heads spin and just want to put across his music as he wants to, without any backtracking or side-steps. No one could blame him and I'm sure we'll all be peachy with that. Let the young, snotty morons play games and fuck the fans over, he may think. I can put out great music just as myself so why the hell not, he'll say.
But maybe not. Let me say this much for him. Anyone from the sixties who's held out this long has to go a long way to stay credible. Luckily, Neil is gifted enough with songwriting and quavering voice to hang in there. The thing is, if he had never taken any detours, you know that we'd all be sick of him coming out with the same thing for twenty years now no matter how high-quality it all is. Even a good thing can get tired out after a while. No doubt that he's had this in mind for a while and sworn to stay fresh by taking chances, wrong turns and gambles, some of which have paid off. In fact, if you think about it, it's just things like that which make rock so exciting. Why the hell would we deny him that?
When all's said and done, I'm still a fan. I've seen Bowie, Dylan, Madonna, and plenty of other nitwits take all kinds of wacked out trips with their "art" and looking like even bigger fools than the fans they fuck over. Admittedly, some of Neil's 80s music is just as contemptuous especially considering how easily he bounced back as if to say that he could have made great music any time he felt like it (not to mention burying the Catalyst performances). He still means something to a lot of people and will for a long time because not only does he still have the knack that made him great but he also refused to turn into a bitter old man or clever statesman or live solely off his past achievements. I wish him the best and hope to hell that I'm just as ornery, good-hearted and spirited when I'm about to hit 50.
Also see RollingStone.com's Neil
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