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?
The end of a decade really seems to bring out the fear and loathing in Neil Young. In 1969, he bid an embittered adieu to the shaky Sixties promise of Peace and Love with the irascible guitars and confessional despair of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Ten years later, on Rust Never Sleeps, he addressed the advancing arthritis and superstar complacency of Seventies rock with bristling verse and corrosive guitar violence, not to mention the deliberately provocative evocation of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten in the same song.
Freedom is the sound of Neil Young, another decade on, looking back again in anger and dread. The songs are populated by the walking wounded and littered with dashed hopes and drug paraphernalia. The ties that bind — faith, love, charity — are coming undone, and betrayal is the norm. Then Young throws all this hurt at you, and it hits like a bucket of ice water in the face. You register shock at first, then indignation and finally a kind of vengeful exhilaration. As with Rust and Everybody Knows — and with other contentious classics like On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night and Re*ac*tor — Neil Young’s tour of Freedom’s wasteland leaves you feeling both exhausted and invigorated, dismayed at what we’ve wrought yet determined to set it right.
It’s no coincidence that “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the album’s de facto theme song, bookends Freedom in separate live-acoustic and studio-electric versions. Like “My My, Hey Hey …” — its twin on Rust Never Sleeps — the song is a sing-along ball spinning on an axis of deadly irony, its superficial cheerleading charm soured by Young’s parade of victims: the homeless “sleepin’ in their shoes,” a young woman addict, her abandoned baby (“That’s one more kid/That will never go to school/Never get to fall in love/Never get to be cool”). And in the acoustic take, which opens the record, Young plays it like a body-count blues, his high, lonesome countertenor ringing with plaintive desperation.
The acoustic track, however, fades before the crucial last verse, which is restored in the climactic electric version. Over a thunder-fuzz attack that sounds like Rust to the tenth power, Young takes dead aim at cheap inauguration rhetoric (“We got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler, machine gun hand”), then whips around and takes a different pledge of allegiance. “Got a man of the people/Says keep hope alive,” he howls. “Got fuel to burn/Got roads to drive.”
The whole record seesaws like that, between pensive acoustic woe and embattled electric vigor. That’s partially because of the varying origins of these songs. The ballads “Ways of Love” (one of two duets with Linda Ronstadt on the LP) and the achingly beautiful “Too Far Gone” date back to the late Seventies. “Don’t Cry,” “Eldorado” and a frenzied cover of “On Broadway” come from a recent killer EP, Eldorado, culled from sessions last year in New York with a basic trio and the amps cranked up to 11. The EP, alas, was only released in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Freedom also includes material cut with Young’s blues ‘n’ brass gang, the Bluenotes.
The album’s checkered makeup heightens its thematic kick. While a lot of people will fall for Freedom because its schizo bounce between folkie ballads and high-decibel urgency bears a comforting resemblance to the gentler mood swings of his big Seventies successes — After the Goldrush and Harvest — Freedom’s mixed menu of sound and sentiment has a lot more to do with the cyclical whirl of pain, pressure and pleasure in real life. Young put out an album two years ago called Life, but this is more like it.
It can be hard to see sunlight through the album’s gathering clouds. “Crime in the City” is a chilling litany of cynicism and resignation set to a skeletal, almost jazzy gallop and laced with Ben Keith’s icy steel guitar and the earthy mooing of the Bluenotes’ brass. In “Don’t Cry,” Young echoes a gentle but decisive kiss-off involving two lovers with alternating gestures of quiet guilt and vicious firestorm guitar. “No More” is a first-person update of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” the confessions of a former junkie who lapses into the same tired whisper: “No more, no more, no more.”
But if this album is about the illusion of freedom, it is also about Young’s refusal to accept that as the last word on the subject. He’s at least determined to go down dancing in “Wrecking Ball.” He’s willing to believe that “smog might turn to stars” in “Someday,” a wry, warm ballad with light R&B seasoning. The megametal cover of “On Broadway” is delightfully perverse, Young strangling his guitar with dramatic conviction. The high, Crazy Horse-like octane Young injects into the Drifters’ original street-corner hymn of blues and bravado boldly captures the competing strains of agony and ecstasy running all through Freedom. Still, at the end, he erupts into a nasty vocal freakout, yelling, “Give me that crack/Give me some of that crack!” and screaming like he’s just thrown himself onto the Times Square subway track. So much for fairytale endings.
What Young does to “On Broadway” is nothing compared to the garage-punk disemboweling of his own “Lotta Love” by Dinosaur Jr. or the way Sonic Youth transforms “Computer Age,” his ode to the digital life, into a primitivist guitar brawl. But that’s why The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young is such a gas. A compilation of eleven Young covers (fourteen on CD) by an all-star team of postpunk and college-radio acts, The Bridge celebrates not only Young’s enduring song-writing but the iconoclastic spirit and anarchic glee with which he continually challenges rock myth and defies rock convention. The best interpretations on the album overstep the songs’ original musical parameters without violating their emotional premises: the Pixies’ vibrant, loving “Winterlong”; Soul Asylum’s hooligan bash at “Barstool Blues”; Nick Cave’s version of “Helpless,” slowed to a funereal German-cabaret crawl.
The brainchild of Terry Tolkin, an ardent Young fan who conceived the project, commissioned the tracks and made a commitment to donate a portion of the proceeds to Young’s favorite charity (the Bridge School, for handicapped children, in northern California), The Bridge does have its small share of misfires, most notably Psychic TV’s overlong, overwrought “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” But the breadth of the album’s artist roster — which also includes Southern-gothic ??nteuse Victoria Williams, avant-rock guitarist Henry Kaiser and acid-dementia specialists Flaming Lips — is testament to the extraordinary scope of Young’s influence on rock in the Eighties. Freedom, in turn, is Young’s prayer for the Nineties, a harsh reminder that everything still comes with a price. Including rockin’ in a free world.
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 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 Rondstadt (“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 from the past 30 years. Nobody plays guitar like this guy, and Freedom on the whole 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.