There’s no denying that Neil Young is one of the most prolific musicians ever to walk this earth. Not that you need the history lesson, but whether it be his solo/Crazy Horse work, Buffalo Springfield, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the man has written a couple of songs. With the 2003 album Greendale, Young created a rock opera exploring the political landscape in terms of environmentalism and the War on Terror that was supplemented by many other formats, including a film, live show and acoustic performances. And now, obviously, an original graphic novel published by Vertigo.
I’ve never listened to/seen Greendale, though I contemplated it before starting this book. In the end, I decided that perhaps my ignorance to the album itself would benefit my critical eye. Without knowledge of the music itself, I felt like it left me open to judge Vertigo’s Greendale as a comic book and not just another supplement to Young’s ambitions.
Greendale’s plot follows a young teen named Sun Green, who is struggling with her role in a changing political landscape and family troubles while stuck in a small, tightly knit California town. Tapping Unknown Soldier scribe Joshua Dysart was a fitting move for Vertigo, as his politically charged stylings in the aforementioned book are able to carry over to Greendale, almost in full. Much like Unknown Soldier, Dysart strikes a balance between the political themes and firm character development, with a slight dash of psychedelia thrown in.
Greendale is an odd mash-up; Dysart goes in many interesting directions but never follows through completely in any one. Sun’s desire to speak out against the impending war appears to be meant to tie into her family’s strange legacy, but when the pivetol moment comes – her moment of clarity- the effect is lackluster. For over 100 pages we’ve watched Sun move from hallucination to hallucination without any real certifiable information on just what this family legacy is all about.
Granted, that’s really not the point of Greendale. While the characters and their lives are important in terms of plot, they only exist to reflect our society and our problems as a collective whole. It’s meant to stir up awareness of respecting ourselves and the one home that we’ve been given. Perhaps ironically, the timing of this book’s release couldn’t have been better, with the current situation regarding the BP oil spill, as terrible as that is to say. In fact, the oil spill is a great example of how relevant the concept of Young’s work is, even 8 years after its inception.
The real prize winner of Greendale is Cliff Chiang’s beautiful, beautiful work. I’ve never seen a page of Chiang’s art that I didn’t fall in love with, and that doesn’t change in Greendale. His characters are brilliantly acted, from body language to facial features, and every character feels unique. His layouts are crisp and simple, putting the focus on the characters and emphasizing his stellar line and ink work. Accompanied by Dave Stewart’s earthy color palette, the artistic side of Greendale comes together in a way that I’m sure even Young himself couldn’t have predicted.
One last note about Greendale that should be mentioned, as it underscores the entire theme of the book, is that it is printed on 100% recycled paper (40% post-consumer waste). As such, the book feels different, texture-wise, but it also helps the art in sort of a fourth-dimensionally weird way. Knowing that the book itself is striving to be green only emphasizes the earthy tones of the art.
I’m excited to have Greendale on my bookshelf for the opportunity to go and listen/watch Neil Young’s other Greendale outings and then come back to re-read the comic to see if my opinion or understanding of it changes.
From BBC Music
The initial warning signs are on a sticker on the front of the CD. ”One of the most ambitious works of his career.” ”Young has rarely sounded so fresh and inspired”. Yes folks, once more as in the 80s, Neil’s record company are a little nervous and feel the need to sell him to us. Why? Well, since 1996’s wonderful soundtrack for Deadman old Neil’s been giving us nothing but lacklustre albums, and the wait for a great Young album has reached similar proportions to Dylan’s dry spell during the 90s. Greendale has already split critics and fans. But, when faced with a concept album about the Green Family living in the little Californian coastal town of Greendale, which is knee-deep in clumsy metaphor and half-baked truisms, the only message can be caveat emptor…
Young is an unreformed hippy, but one whose individualism borders on Republicanism (he claimed to be a Reagan supporter in the 80s). This story seems to revolve around ecological issues, the rights of smalltown Americans and the fact that California is full of Woodstock-era folks who are now grandparents. Something we can all relate to, then. Touring it in Europe he gave audiences the whole thing in one dour acoustic chunk. Fans back home get a full-blown theatrical presentation. Lucky them.
This opus comes with a wealth of supporting ephemera (DVD; unfeasibly large CD booklet with drawings by hokey Zuma-era artist James Mazzeo; labyrinthine website with maps, lyrics, narration and even falsified photos for goodness’ sake). Unfortunately it’s a smokescreen. When you strip away all the merchandising you’re faced with a series of desultory, lengthy two-chord strums with nary a tune between them. Crazy Horse, shorn of rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, do what they always do: Solidly plod through the material. Yet, where once this served as a bedrock for Neil’s stellar guitar wrangling and impassioned voice, it now merely highlights his inability to set fire to the fuse. Despite the bullhorns and grungy harp it’s barroom rock that should have stayed in the bar.
Ok, so it’s not as bad as last year’s Are You Passionate? There’s a fire in Young’s delivery that speaks of some kind of bitter railing against a world that’s forgotten simpler joys; but this sure isn’t the way to make us care. By the last track, the interminable ”Be The Rain”, you detest the saccharine backing vocals of the ‘Mountainettes’ (wife Pegi and others), have stopped caring about any of the loosely-sketched characters and you’ve realised that all the hard work in trying to discover what he’s on about is never going to help. Only the lonely acoustic ”Bandit” with its rattling bottom string, whispered delivery and lovely chorus really stirs the listener.
An ability to disregard the weight of the past and restlessly seek new ground is to be applauded. This is a brave move, but then so was Trans, and that was pretty terrible too. What really rankles with Young is his contradictory stoner’s logic to such projects. While taunting his fans with his cornucopia-like Archive box set of rarities (now in its fifteenth year of postponement, folks) he feels the need to rant to us about vague issues, like a plaid-wearing Dennis Hopper. Along with Dylan his genius and importance are assured; at least to his fans. Yet one can’t help wondering why, like Dylan, he couldn’t have simply shut up for a decade while he found something interesting to say.
Superman might be the Man of Steel, but I don’t think he would be able to listen to Neil Young’s Greendale without getting overwhelmed by its boringness. I don’t know much about the science of being born under the influence of Planet Krypton’s gravity, but I seriously doubt it could have prepared him for this. Not that the songs on this album are particularly terrible—they’re just so LONG that it’s insane. You might look at the song-listing and immediately think that it’s a very digestible 10-tracks. But then you notice that the album’s running length, at 78 minutes, pushes the limits of a compact disc. If you’re anything like me, you slapped your palm on your forehead and exclaimed “Errghh!”
Look, Mr. Canadian. I thought we went over this in the ’90s. Just because you have 78 minutes to make an album, it doesn’t mean that you had to use all of it! Seriously, man, if you keep this up in your subsequent albums, I’ll have to start calling him Old Geezer Windbags. He’s like the old guy you cross paths with at the supermarket who starts talking to you and never shuts up. I’m still glad that Neil finally got out of his murky grunge phase, but, seriously, is this dude trying to torture me or something?
This is a rock opera, according to Wikipedia. When I first read that statement, I had to blink my eyes once or twice to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. (Although, come to think of it, the one time in my life that I have hallucinated, blinking my eyes didn’t do anything.) Not that I was surprised that Neil Young would try to put out a rock opera, but Greendale doesn’t sound like I’d think a rock opera would sound. When I think of a rock opera, I think of extravagant events like The Who’s Tommy or Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But here, Neil Young only plays a bunch of worn-out blues riffs for a billion minutes and sings melodies that sounds like he made them up off the top of his head.
Listening to Greendale can, indeed, be a trying experience, but at least Crazy Horse manages to keep the experience crunchy by playing a bunch of admittedly cool mid-tempo rhythms, and Neil comes in often enough with reliably good, personality-ridden guitar noodles. (Ah, what would one of his albums be like without his solos?) The guitar solo that takes the cake is “Be the Rain,” the nine-minute closing song. While the gruff texture and nice Crazy Horse rhythm keep the experience determined and menacing, Young’s guitar noodles are so freaking absorbing that I hardly notice the time go by! It also helps that the song’s vocal melody is pretty dang hooky. That’s a stark contrast to most of these other songs, such as the seven-minute “Leave the Driving,” which the melody consists of (I’m not kidding) the same three notes repeated over and over.
If you want my opinion, and I assume that you do, the main problem with Greendale was that it had to be a ROCK OPERA. Maybe if Neil wasn’t so busy telling us some story that I don’t care about, he wouldn’t have felt the need to drag on these songs for so long. I mean, perhaps “Grandpa Interview” wouldn’t have been 13 minutes of all the same thing if he didn’t have so many freaking stanzas of lyrics to go through!! (Actually that’s one of the more “rock-opera-ish” songs of the album, since you can pretty distinctly hear Neil doing some play acting! He’s not bad!!) Yeah, so you can tell that I’m not particularly thrilled about the concept, but is it possible I’m listening to this album wrong? Many of the overwhelmingly positive reviews of it I read on amazon.com talk extensively about the tragic story depicted in these lyrics, and how they are so moving. They also seem to appreciate how this album offers some rich insight into Neil Young’s view of the universe. (“Be the Rain” is notably an environmental anthem.) And here I am, writing a review of Greendale, without bothering to even mention the lyrics until now! I’m a freaking rock ‘n’ roll heathen!! …However, if you love Neil Young for his lyrics, then I can see why you might treasure Greendale. I read through them, and they’re alright. (I’m not much of a lyrics man, myself. If you couldn’t tell.)
It has a classy album cover, though. This album has that going for it. It looks like something you would buy from a National Park gift shop. And these are pretty good songs, anyway. Despite my sometimes bitter cynicism throughout this review, I can’t honestly say that I find Greendale to be such an excruciating experience. It’s just needlessly longer than it had to be. That’s all I’m sayin’. It has the tendency to wear out its welcome.