Back again with Crazy Horse, and not necessarily for good, so it seems. The album is nowhere near as long or thoroughly embarrassing like Dead Man, but both share one serious flaw: they’re not for the uninitiated. In the latter case, this means that, if your ear is not perfectly attuned to the kind of ragged, dirty sound that Neil is so famous for, you’ll probably not be able to distinguish between these songs at all. Same problem could be actual for his previous records that relied on the same formula (Ragged Glory and Mirror Ball), but looks like on here he finally hits rock bottom. Namely, the album begins with three lengthy epics – ‘Big Time’ (7:24), ‘Loose Change’ (9:49) and ‘Slip Away’ (8:36) – which all sound the same: the band crashes and bashes at more or less the same, rather slow, tempo, Neil mumbles some lyrics which are absolutely impossible to hear as the recording’s quality does not top the most mediocre of bootlegs, and most of the time is given to sloppy, messy, feedbacky solos.
Actually, here’s yet another link to Dead Man: quite often, these solos sound more like the kind of buzz-saw imitations Neil practiced on that soundtrack, only this time they are set to a solid rhythm section. The worst blow comes in the middle of ‘Loose Change’, when the band suddenly sticks to repeating the same simplistic riff over and over again for about four minutes (and it reappears later, too, particularly at the end of ‘Scattered’), so that at one point it begins to seem that something’s wrong with your CD.
However, as horrendously lame as that ‘artistic’ trick is, it doesn’t really conceal the fact that there’s also some solid material here. For one, the three lengthy marathons are followed by four perfectly short and perfectly melodical tracks. The overall sound is still the same – bass/drums plus a couple heavily distorted guitars – and the arrangements are about as far away from each other as a plaice’s eyes (whoah, now here’s a good fishing metaphor), but these are good, entertaining songs. ‘Changing Highways’ starts the fun with a countryish type of boogie, whatever that means; actually, I’d heavily recommend people who think that ‘country rock’ equals ‘country’ take a good listen to this song and see what real country-rock is all about.
There’s a good, quirky harmonica solo, too, and the song is almost defiantly short, just as the previous three were defiantly long. That Neil, he’s really a freaked out one… ‘Scattered’ is countryish, too, though not as joyful or fast paced, but not a clone of the Great Album Opening Mess, either, as it has a clearly defined riff and vocal melody, and some autobiographic lyrics in ‘I’m a little bit here/I’m a little bit there/I’m a little scattered everywhere’. Plus, the sloppy arrangement really does the song good – were Neil to go for a lighter, more traditional arrangement, this would certainly seem much too banal. Next comes ‘This Town’ that manages to seduce me, too, with its ‘chunka-chunka-chunka’ rhythm and an almost nursery rhyme melody. Come to think of it, most of these melodies are so simple they’d easily fit nurseries all over the world, although I’m not too sure as to whether little children would enjoy the feedback mess and all the dirt.
Finally, ‘Music Arcade’ finishes the ‘quartet’ of minor masterpieces on a quieter note: the song would have easily fit right on Harvest Moon, as it’s just Neil strumming his acoustic and humming to himself as if nobody were around. It also has his best lyrics on the record – no kidding. Funny, the melody is somewhat sad, while the lyrics seem to be optimistic, as it’s essentially the phrase ‘don’t worry be happy’ that has made its long and treacherous way through the warped corridors of Young’s wicked mind and came out as a thousand different questions and metaphors.
Of course, the song would have made a fitting and suitable ending for the album, but, of course, Neil had to go and spoil it by adding on another lengthy, never ending bore – the cover of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, arranged as a pseudo-live recording with artificial crowd noises all around it. It’s not as dirty as the three ‘suites’ that open the record, and it never pounds on your head like the last four minutes of ‘Loose Change’, but it just drags like a paralized dog, as if the band were totally stoned out and played their instrument in a half-comatose state. Neil is not heard at all, the tempo is drastically slow (as far as I know, this song is usually done faster), and the band never knows when to stop, adding one more after one more after one more… guh. I usually turn down my CD before this one comes on. Even Roger McGuinn did a more decent version on it on Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde.
A weird album, of course, but, after all, Neil Young is much too unpredictable to not release a weird album after he’d already released a weirder one. Well, like I said, there’s some really good stuff and it ain’t that long. My advice to Neil, however, would be to make his new studio release as gimmickless as possible: it’s obvious that the guy is far from spent, but if he keeps abusing his listeners’ patience like that, well, I’ll just have to stop bothering about the sucker. AT ALL.
As with all of Neil Young’s Nineties output – and at eight or nine LPs, that’s some output – there is a halfway decent album struggling to get out of Broken Arrow, though struggling is perhaps not the right word. This is more of a stagger.
Second only to Dylan’s in loyalty, Neil’s fans will always be lenient as far as his Crazy Horse records are concerned. They’ve experienced a few too many odd and sometimes downright eccentric career detours over the years not to feel heartened by the group’s presence. Usually, this is with good reason – whatever twists and turns Young makes, this is a band reliable and flexible enough to respond sympathetically, compared with, say, the way Pearl Jam just kept on chugging away through the one- dimensional Mirrorball.
Broken Arrow, however, is no Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Compared to that masterpiece, this is, well, nowhere. Lyrically, it’s Neil’s equivalent to Dylan’s Under the Red Sky, with the most trite of formulations pursued to the point of tedium and beyond. “I’m a little bit high, I’m a little bit low,” he offers in “Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)” before going on to make similar routine observations along the lines of wrong / right, here / there, up / down, and so on; it doesn’t exactly pinpoint his position with the precision one might have desired. The rest of the songs are little better, but sometimes eerily similar in their sense of balance. “Have you ever been lost, have you ever been found?” he enquires in the quiet acoustic number “Music Arcade”. Well, yes, you think, but you didn’t feel constrained to write a song about it.
Musically, the meat of the album is concentrated in its first three songs, which cleave to the classic Crazy Horse style – long, ragged and (hopefully) glorious electric guitar workouts with warts in plain view. But it’s pretty poor stuff, even by the shaky standards of Young’s recent work. The 10 minutes of “Loose Change” ride a cumbersome Bo Diddley riff, complete with tail-chasing guitar solo. “Slip Away”, the best track, offers a serpentine reverie to match the woman who, in the song, “just slipped away/ like a river flowing down”, while “Big Time” finds Neil claiming to be “still living the dream”. This may be part of the trouble – for most of Broken Arrow, he’s sleepwalking.
Boring! Sorry to be so bluntly dismissive like that, but how the hell else am I going to describe Neil Young’s Broken Arrow? I’m sure that any big fan of it would tell me that I haven’t listened to it enough, and thus it hasn’t had the proper chance to sink in. That could very well be the case. But, alas, I am a mere mortal. Based on the four very close listens that I gave, I don’t project that I’ll become a major fan of it anytime soon. I’m open for it to grow on me, but it seems too much like you’d have to be really into Neil Young to appreciate it. That’s not to say this is a terrible record; just like most of his albums, it’s nothing if it isn’t 100 percent respectable.
Crazy Horse is back, they’re still very much in grunge-mode. But all of these songs are very slowwwwwwwwwww particularly when Young sings as though he’s ready to fall asleep, which makes it seem even slower. That’s an interesting idea, I suppose; if anyone is going to write an album full of sleepy songs, then it should be Neil Young. He sort of sounds like he’s falling asleep anyway!
There are some mightily decent moments, particularly “Scattered” with its sloppy riff and engaging vocal melody. But even then, the pacing is slow and plodding. So I can claim to even get a little bit bored with my favorite song of the album. Whoah boy! Another highlight is the three-minute, bouncy country tune, “Changing Highways.” It’s quite strange although hardly fascinating songwriting. It’s the only ‘happy’ song in this overall bleak and depressing album. So, I appreciate it!
The album’s biggest songs happen to be VERY big, spanning more than seven minutes. So, this tests even the hardiest Neil Young fans’ attention spans! The trick to enjoying a song like the seven-minute “Big Time,” which plods along at a never-changing mood, is to allow the groove to hypnotize you. I can’t really tell if Young was playing the same thing over and over and over on purpose, or he was just being lazy. (If it was done on purpose, then I guess you can call it a sort of grungified version of Philip Glass!) Whatever the case, I can’t claim that it puts me enough in a trance for me to love it. But I can at least appreciate all of the guitar noodling, which Young hardly skimps out on.
The one song that our attention spans are really put to the test is “Loose Change.” For 10 minutes, it repeats the same freaking groove without end. Does it take you up in its trance, or do you get deathly bored through it? For me, I get bored. Sorry. On the other hand, the eight-minute “Slip Away” has a soaring melody that interests me as well as a mightily OK riff. Still, I really wish that it would hypnotize me better. …Then again, I also wish I could swing around on skyscrapers like Spider-Man!
The final track is eight minutes long, and that’s the only part of this album that I can’t seem to respect very much. It’s a live cover of “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and it sounds like it was recorded in the back of a nightclub. You can hear the audience talk, whistle and cheer much more clearly than you can hear Young’s voice. I can’t be too sure what the point of that was, and I suspect that there wasn’t one. It was just something weird (and lazy) to do. Also, like everything else on this album, it is done at an extremely slow-moving pace, which goes to confirm my beliefs that this album is boring.
By now, I think I adequately summed up my assessment that Broken Arrow will only appeal to hardcore Neil Young types who are fascinated with these slow-moving songs. As a mere casual fan, I can say that this is either one of Young’s worst albums or it just went completely over my head. At this point, I can’t really tell. Though I suspect the former, since it sounds an awful lot like he was half-assing it. At any rate, I’m somewhat confident that my sentiments toward this album will likely be shared with other casual fans. So, only listen to Broken Arrow if albums like Ragged Glory, Weld and Mirror Ball didn’t drive you mad. And I’m not talking about the highlights of those albums, either.