Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)


It seems the greatest artists of all time can have their careers divided into trilogies, or even have their best works sorted into groups of three. The Beatles had a great one-two-three punch of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver, maturing rock and roll and readying it for psychedelia alongside Dylan’s own electric trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde.

Though I can bicker to no end about this (and I’m sure I’m not alone), The Kinks’ string of Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall of The British Empire) is regarded by the heavily opinionated Kinks writer John Mendelssohn as a trilogy. On one hand, I see where he’s coming from – three distinctly British records, musically timeless, and each equally approachable and palatable without any overt anger or vitriol towards anything other than “the man.”

Dylan’s career can almost completely be broken down into a series of trilogies, with the occasional odd one out – his first album is almost all cover tunes, but then came The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, and Another Side Of Bob Dylan, these three being the albums that turned the world onto Dylan. Then came the electric trilogy. Then came the roots trilogy of John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and New Morning, allowing for the odd one out of the almost unanimously-panned crapfest of Self Portrait.

After a spell on the sidelines, his “divorce trilogy” came out – Planet Waves, the fantastic Blood On The Tracks, and Desire, though Glenn Gass suggested in his course on Bob that Street Legal is just as much part of this set, being the first album he did after his divorce from Sarah Lownes-Dylan. Then came the Jesus trilogy – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love – love them or hate them. His last string of albums are considered part of a latter-day grouping of mature albums by one of rock’s most revered elder statesmen.

Aside from Dylan, Neil Young stands out to me as the one artist who can be defined by trilogies (even with the odd fourth record, making a tetralogy). He had gained acclaim as a member of Buffalo Springfield, which had also featured a young Stephen Stills and Richie Furay (later to form Poco along with Jim Messina…less said about that guy the better, unless of course “Your Mama Don’t Dance” is your kind of thing.) Unfortunately, Buffalo Springfield was marred by in-fighting and the fact that they were never able to capture their stage sound in the studio.

His first trilogy (throwing in his 1968 debut Neil Young to form a tetralogy) of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush (1970), and Harvest (1972) forms a story arc of sorts. Neil makes a name for himself as a solo artist, with the greatest garage band in the world (Crazy Horse) backing him on the first two, able to promote himself further as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, before finally recording a fairly slick-sounding country/folk/singer-songwriter album in Nashville (Harvest) with a bunch of session players, which in turn becomes the greatest-selling album of 1972.

As he said, success “put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” (Neil Young, Decade liner notes, 1977.) The so-called “ditch trilogy” makes up what I consider his best work: the rough ‘n raucous live album Time Fades Away (1973), the schizophrenic On The Beach (1974), and the so-depressing-it-sat-for-two-years-before-it-got-released-but-it’s-a-fucking-masterpiece Tonight’s The Night (1975), the most haunting, harrowing, and desolate album of the 1970’s, the brutal murder, embalming, and burial of the spirit behind the 1960’s. It probably didn’t help that his friend/Crazy Horse collaborator Danny Whitten overdosed on heroin purchased with money Neil gave him to help him get clean.

Once he was back on his feet artistically, Zuma (1975) embodied this feeling that the dark times were over. He reunited Crazy Horse for a great, rocking album, additionally marked by Neil’s development as a guitar hero. After a stint with Stephen Stills as The Stills-Young Band, the 1977 hodge-podge American Stars & Bars featured a side of shit-kicking country music and another side’s worth of bitchin’ guitar rock, including the sublime “Like A Hurricane.” It’s as if that album was a collection of extra songs from Zuma and the country/folk Comes A Time (1978), the odd man out in what could have been a trilogy. This “trilogy” ends with Rust Never Sleeps, a eulogy for the classic rock era; one side of the LP was beautifully done acoustic folk/rock, representing the best of Comes A Time, while side B showed Crazy Horse playing in a previously-unheard balls to the wall style, taking their primitive style and making it leaner, with “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” featuring the most distorted guitar sound you could possibly play on the radio without it being called noise rock.

I could keep going, but the album at hand is by this point waving and yelling, “Um, hello?! What about ME?” with perfect reason. Let me preface the rest of this discussion by saying that I love Neil Young. Aside from Link Wray and Dave Davies, he stands as my favorite guitarist – noisy minimalism does a lot more for me than seeing Eddie Van Halen or even Jimmy Page wanking their ways up and down a fretboard.

To put it simply, to get your point across, would you stand in the middle of a riot and deliver a well-written piece of rhetoric or light a molotov cocktail and lob it at a(n unoccupied) bus? It isn’t difficult to see where I stand on the issue. Neil also has a great sense of tone on guitar, right alongside Rick Nielsen with the sounds he’s capable of making, whether it’s that aching squeal on “Like A Hurricane” or the farting buzzsaw of “Hey, Hey, My, My,” I hear his playing and hear beauty.

Neil also has a flair for deeply personal lyrics. He’s got a brand of artistic honesty – see the ditch trilogy – that pulls at the heart, all his own, separate from the poetic approaches of Dylan and Ray Davies, just as intense as John Lennon’s debut album at his personal low points, and just as mystical as George Harrison with his sense of romance. I’ve met a few people who bitch about Neil’s singing voice…I fail to see the problem, much like Dylan as a singer. People, I listen to The Residents, Captain Beefheart, and Masonna. (Not a typo – Masonna is a noise artist from Japan. If you can listen to him, consider yourself my newest friend. Special thanks to Dan Crall for the introduction.) With that, I can listen to pretty much anything else.

Pretty much. That’s a pretty vague caveat. Some tones just strike my ears as offensive – for example, I HATE the sound of the clarinet in almost any setting – while the stuff we’re not supposed to like – feedback, the atonal shrieking of an out-of-tune (or burning) guitar – I think sounds great! Maybe now would also be a good opportunity to say I am a fairly weird guy.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere stands as a very solid album. It is musically entertaining, consistent (for the most part), and it set the standard for his career. Isn’t that what we look for in a good album? It’s hard to describe an album I rank fairly high without this turning into a handjob convention. I’ll just let the songs speak for themselves.

01. Cinnamon Girl [11]

This is essential Neil. Using a heavy guitar tuning of DADGBD, the song crunches from the get-go, contrasted by the beautiful two part harmony sung by Neil and Danny Whitten (Neil on the low part, Danny on high.) Ralph Molina is a great powerhouse of a drummer, with his hi-hat and ride cymbals sounding like instruments all their own. I don’t think this guy ever played a fill in his life, but that’s hardly the mark of a bad drummer. In fact, it arguably takes more talent to play like that than it does to play like a bat out of Hell sitting in a dynamite pond.

It also bears mentioning that the guitar solo at the end is just one note. Therein lies the power of minimalism.

02. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [9.5]

Too short! Again with a great Danny Whitten harmony, the lyrics tell a good story of escaping to “nowhere.” It’s just right where a guitar solo would come in had this song been on, say, Zuma, followed by a repeat of the chorus, it fades out. I’m sure this song is fantastic on stage.

03. Round And Round (It Won’t Be Long) [5.5]

The great fun of these first two songs is almost interrupted by this folk/country ballad. Neil would do a whole album of songs in the style of this one called Comes A Time, which seems like a bunch of Crazy Horse tunes minus Crazy Horse and the perpetual female backing vocals, sharing as much or even more airtime than the song’s composer’s own voice. Plug this song in, get Danny, Ralph, and Billy Talbot (the bassist from Crazy Horse) to do their thing, and you might have a great song. At the very least, a good song. Just not this.

To be fair, it’s a good melody. It’s just too repetitive. The chorus repeat of “Round and round…” doesn’t help to remedy this quality of the song.

04. Down By The River [10]

Oh, hell yes! This brooding rock song takes its time, and in the best way possible. Two electric guitars lead the song in. Billy and Ralph enter the fray without much fanfare before Neil starts the verse. The beautiful pre-chorus leads into the chorus at 1:10 with a muted drop of feedback (keep in mind, this was 1969, before Sonic Youth but after Jimi Hendrix – needless to say, that above linked clip of Pete Townshend making his guitar squeal at Woodstock was at the time not considered a sound one’s guitar should make), transitioning into the chorus with a touch of majestic irreverence. And that chorus! If I didn’t love “Cinnamon Girl” for reminding me of the girl I intend to marry, this would have easily been the 11 on this record.

The song thumps along for 9 minutes and 15 seconds, ending side A with an epic rock song.

05. The Losing End (When You’re On) [7.5]

Hardly a filler tune, it just seems aloof among the rest of the titans of this album. An odd choice to start side B of this record. This song would have been welcome on Comes A Time, or even Harvest. I don’t know…this one is just kind of there, not unlike “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” on the next album.

06. Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets) [10]

Now I know just why “The Losing End” seems like a lost child of a song, sandwiched between “Down By The River” and this haunting, borderline lo-fi elegaic masterpiece of shame, regret, and sadness. The best songwriters can own up to their own failings as humans, and this song nails it. The violin weeps through the song, briefly double-tracked in the middle portion, which in tandem with Neil’s mournful melody makes this sound like something centuries old. This wouldn’t have been out of place, lyrically, in the ditch trilogy; its musical offspring is “Will To Love” off American Stars & Bars, a similarly moody acoustic ballad with an equally odd, off-center feel that makes it disturbing with little in the way of studio trickery.

07. Cowgirl In The Sand [10]

One could assume that two extended guitar exercises would be monotonous on the same album (I’m looking at Frank Zappa’s Zoot Allures as a fine example proving this theory), but other than the fact that they are long and have plenty of guitar work worth fawning over, they are quite different. It isn’t until we’re almost at the two-minute mark that Neil starts singing. If anyone finds his voice annoying, look towards his delivery on this. He is able to hit some high notes without cracking. Much goes to Billy for laying down a remarkable bassline, especially during Neil’s solos. Yet another classic Neil Young song -and on an album with only seven tracks, this is something quite noteworthy.

Subtotal: 90.7% A-

Replayability Factor: 2

A great album to have on in the car, plenty of “classic rock” essence to it, and for my money the heaviest of what I consider his first trilogy. A great introduction to a great artist, but it’s hard to sit and concentrate during the big guitar solos on every single listen. The 2 I’m awarding for this is hardly a sign of this record being a slouch, as it’s no crime to have music on to get lost in.

Consistency Factor: 2.5

This became the benchmark for later albums being considered a “return to form, in the style of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, though I personally don’t like that phrase all that much. Still, clichéd as it sounds, for a “return to form” to be an album driven by heavy, thumping rockers and the occasional beautifully arranged ballad, you could do far worse. It’s really hard to ponder what the “average” Neil Young record is. On one end of the spectrum is an album like this, and on the opposite end is Harvest, with plenty of head-scratching albums in the middle (including a techno album, rockabilly, the bipolar Rust Never Sleeps, and even lean R&B featuring Booker T. & The MG’s as his backing band) that makes him hard to peg down. But Neil’s refusal to be pegged down is one of his most endearing qualities.

This album gets its 2.5, first of all, for being a good album, but for being diverse enough in only seven songs for being a fine example of Neil flexing all of his songwriting muscles, from hard rock to country to folk. Little bits of the career to come is here on this album. I honestly don’t think he’d ever have such a broad palette on a single album ever again, hardly a criticism for the rest of his career, but a mighty comment for this album.

External Factors: 1

Just a year after leaving Buffalo Springfield, Neil’s second album overcame the threat of the “sophomore slump” – mainly because his first album wasn’t that popular, to the point that this writer thought this was his debut – and showed his flexibility as a folk balladeer and as one of the leading precursors to grunge, all on the same record. Different moments from his future were foreseen on this album. Unfortunately, Neil’s had a bit of an inconsistent career, so when it’s good it’s fucking on…but when it doesn’t succeed it stands out. On its weakest track, it’s overlong, and while it can’t always be back-to-back tens, this veering into extended and repetitive country-stuff is a predecessor to the weak spots on Harvest, American Stars ‘N Bars, Comes A Time, etc. However, this album marks the debut of Crazy Horse, a great backing band; no bullshit, no frills, just good playing. This album doesn’t sound dated – it isn’t too slick or too bleak – and it could just as easily have been recorded last week.

March 14, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere |

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