Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Freedom (1989)


A man can’t live on perspective-less experiments forever. So what does a man do? “Say”, the man says, “it’s been a long time since I got all those rave reviews from the press and stuff. I wanna be a critical darling once more, and if possible, save the world in the process”. And what does it take? Why, make a long long record with all kinds of introspective acoustic songs and anthemic electric songs on it. You need to have a few condemnations of the cruel industrialized society. You have to put in a few words about how taking drugs isn’t really cool. You have to throw in a couple really sensitive love ballads so as not to get scolded for lack of diverse ideas. And, of course, you shouldn’t forget the feedback. Preferrably make it really distinctive.

In all seriousness, Freedom is an album that screams: “Look at me! I’m specially pre-packaged for five-star reviews!”. Just about every insightful person at the time, and many people nowadays as well take this as Young’s masterful comeback, and in a certain sense they’re right – one thing at least is obvious, on Freedom Neil returns to the things he does best, and makes perhaps the quintessential Young album to own, showcasing every side of his classic persona in a way that even Rust Never Sleeps never could demonstrate. But Freedom also marks Young’s conservation and sterilization as the ‘elder statesman’ (not in the good sense of the word), and if you ask me, there’s but one tiny step from an album like this to Neil’s rather, um, pathetic reaction to the WTC bombings. Here, Neil is still raving and ranting, but he’s also wonderfully stable, calm, collected, conservative, inoffensive and commercial. It is his Born In The USA, to be sure, and with but a little twitch here and there and a bit of ‘muscular attachment’ you could picture Bruce on the front cover instead.

Granted, I overreacted a bit at the beginning – it’s not a bad record. In fact, as far as pure melodic skill goes, these songs are decent, almost all of them. Hooks? You got ’em. Dedicated guitar playing? Definitely. Passionate singing? Yes, he does seem like he actually cares. The thing is, there’s nothing spectacular about these melodies. Now you go ahead and bet your life he actually spent more time writing them than when he did universally panned “crap” like Landing On Water. I personally won’t give a toss. It’s typical Young material, not better or worse, but way too socially-and-critically-oriented this time. Even Neil’s classic cruel and savage treatment of the guitar is pretty obnoxious in places. Usually he just makes his songs hard and dirty, here they are all essentially clean and polished, and the feedback sounds like it’s been consciously overdubbed where it was needed in the general context. Like in Eldorado, where that verse about the bullfighter goes steady and calm with an acoustic rhythm, and then BLAM! BLAM! you get several grungey explosions which smash your ears to dust and then go away as quickly as they appeared. Once feedback used to be a way of soulful expression, now it is a gimmick. Ha!

I thoroughly despise the main ideas behind ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ – Neil’s main anthem of the album, naturally telling about how bad the world is with the singalong chorus ringing out in all of its sarcasm, keep on rockin’ in the free world. (Again, direct associations with the double entendre of ‘Born In The USA’… you still followin’ me?). That is, I don’t exactly despise the ideas (there’s hardly anything despisable about ’em on their own), I just doubt the man’s sincerity and intelligence when he does that stuff, and even if he is sincere, there’s still something revoltingly fake about that stuff. At least the second version, the rocking one, has some punchy riffage to it; the acoustic can go to hell for as long as I care.

I do, however, like it when Young drops the populist anthemization and turns to more intricate stuff like the nine-minute long ‘Crime In The City’ with its mystically tinged acoustic rhythmic pattern and lyrics that kick the shit out of the straightforward ‘that’s one more kid never go to school’ crap (at least, in places). I don’t actually understand what helps that song go on for a friggin’ nine minutes, but at least there are lots of verses out there… duh… Other highlights include ‘Don’t Cry’, a love ballad where the feedback is actually very wittily meshed in with the basic rhythm for once, making the tune some sort of a weird cross between a ballad and an industrial noisefest; and Neil’s cover of ‘On Broadway’ is good dirty fun. ‘No More’ has perhaps the best vocal hooks on the album, even if they’re no great shakes (and why does the song sound so similar to ‘Eldorado’ musically?).

But even so, there’s some barely listenable schlock like ‘Wrecking Ball’ ruining the flow of the record, and the bolero tempo on the ballad ‘The Ways Of Love’, I suppose, has something to do with the ‘experimental leftovers’ or something. Actually, as far as I know, Freedom was pieced together from at least several scrapped projects of Neil’s, including a monolithic hard rock album and a monolithic ballad album, so if it doesn’t exactly seem to flow like a cohesive album would be supposed, keep that in mind. For me, it’s not the flow that’s really important here.

In any case, despite the generally solid rating of the record, I’m sad to say it has only managed to disappoint me – I expect more from ‘comebacks’ than simply a well-polished, rather lifeless nostalgic recreation of the past with a bunch of anthemic and populist gimmicks thrown in. Maybe I’m being too hard on Neil here, but you gotta understand me: I was expecting a revelation, and all I got was… nothing I didn’t hear before in much better quality.

Okay, so it’s not bad for a comeback record, but geez, man, can’t you feel the sell out in here?

April 30, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young Freedom |

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