Neil Young is the sort of artist who can do almost anything, and I can’t criticize him too much. I get the impression that every turn that he made in his career, for better or worse, had been wholly intentional… And, who the hell am I to criticize Young for doing something that he wanted to! Especially if it’s something as starkly noncommercial as Hawks & Doves.
In fact, this seems so insubstantial that it’s proud of it. There’s no other way to explain it. It’s like a demo tape. It isn’t even a half-hour long! The first half is either folk or folk-rock, and it contains material written between 1974 to 1977. It opens up with “Little Wing,” a too-brief acoustic folk song.
I do like the melody, but I wish it was a little bit more memorable and substantive. But sure, the laid-back atmosphere does sit nicely with me, and I can enjoy it fine as long as I’m not expecting too much from it.
“The Old Homestead,” however, is much more difficult to like. It goes on for a whopping seven minutes, and it repeats the same old ideas over and over again. It sounds to me like he was trying to channel Bob Dylan, but he didn’t quite manage it. Nonetheless, the song doesn’t actually bomb, which is surprising considering its length.
“Lost in Space” was nothing but a lost opportunity. The chorus is beautiful, but the rest of it is toneless, and Young seems to get in these awful, acoustic-guitar ruts all the time. They keep bogging it down! “Captain Kennedy,” a British folk number, is easily the most out-of-place song here. It’s wholly generic, but I ended up enjoying it, because I’m a sucker for British folk!
The second half contains material that was written recently and was actually intended for this album. It is country oriented. The purest highlight is “Union Man.” Sure, the melody is a little hokey, but I enjoyed Young’s surprisingly spirited, lighthearted performance. That performance was so warmly welcomed that a very similar song without the warm performance, “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail,” doesn’t come even remotely close to topping it. “Stayin’ Power” is OK Americana, and “Coastline” is fairly decent boogie-woogie, but both of their reasons of being is that gorgeous violin, which turns up occasionally to treats us to a real show!
The final track is also the title track, and it’s easily the most Young-like composition. The guitar tones are much darker (though a very far cry from Rust Never Sleeps sounds), and his characteristic harmonic style can be picked up from a mile’s distance. Even though I really enjoy how it started, it becomes quickly evident that he wasn’t going to take it anywhere interesting. It just sort of hovers and then fizzes out. The end result is a lost opportunity… it’s a potentially brilliant song that was spoiled due to a lack of imagination. Oh well.
I can’t say this is a *bad* album since Neil Young didn’t have any ambitions for it. However, I can say with a degree of confidence that this isn’t a *good* album! Its only audience is the fans… Fortunately for them, there’s surely enough here to make it worth their while.
But I don’t think even the die-hard fans would find this coming out of their stereos that often.
There are few musical artists who need the old canonization speech less than Neil Young. With his reputation preserved amongst us youngsters as the Godfather of Grunge (apparently based on little more than a predilection towards flannel), he’s already known by all as the hip great-uncle amidst the Woodstock era’s senile grandparents. Still, attention must be paid to the most impressive feat of Young’s career: an all-but-perfect streak of very good-to-excellent albums that spanned an incredible, and unparalleled, eleven years. To put it another way, from 1969-1979, Neil Young was rock’s Joe Dimaggio.
Which makes it especially cruel that, for years afterward, Neil’s eccentric skepticism about the auditory worth of the compact disc format kept many of those albums out-of-print. So it’s somewhat ironic that now, in the dying days of the digital disc, Reprise Records has finally convinced their stubborn client to allow for patching up most of these holes, rescuing four albums from obscurity and bootleggers. Fancy remastering, fancy packaging: who cares? I can finally retire four crackly vinyls to wall-decoration duty.
The most criminal omission by a long shot was On the Beach, the 1974 disc that represented Young’s last ramp-up before his masterpiece, Tonight’s the Night. Recorded with help from The Band’s crack rhythm section and colorful multi-instrumentalist hick Rusty Kershaw, On the Beach is one of the few from Young’s catalog that doesn’t land easily on either his country or hard-rock piles. Three song titles with the word “blues” give you an idea of the mood, but hardly prepare you for the bleak anger of “Revolution Blues” or “For the Turnstiles”, post-apocalyptic visions as eerie as any of 28 Days Later’s scenic pans. The real engine of the album’s brilliance, though, is the trio of slow, long, lonely hotel room folk songs that closes out the album, peaking with Neil’s “Desolation Row”, “Ambulance Blues.” To hear them is to know that Jason Molina goes to bed each night caressing a copy of this record.
The stark tone of On the Beach was only carried over to one track from 1977’s American Stars ‘n’ Bars, the creepily lo-fi “Will to Love”. What fills the remainder of the album is a sort of buffet-style Neil Young, offering up choice leftovers from various failed projects of the era. The peak, of course, is “Like a Hurricane”, perhaps one of the finest examples of Neil’s willfully untechnical guit-hartic playing style, a chord progression that induces string-popping frenzy in his live shows to this day. But also making appearances are Skynyrd Neil, slashing country-rock lines through “Bite the Bullet” and Farm Aid favorite “Homegrown”, and Sensitive Poet Neil, revisiting Harvest seasoning with “Hey Babe” and “Star of Bethlehem”.
Unfortunately, reclaiming that Harvest mood is what chokes the majority of Hawks & Doves, notable for being the dashed-off post-Rust Never Sleeps album that breaks his streak of excellence, and not much more. Other than faux-traditionals “The Old Homestead” and “Captain Kennedy”, this 1980 release captures an uncharacteristically tentative Neil, clearly unsure of whether to develop quirky singalongs like “Lost in Space” or plastic soul like “Staying Power” (an early harbinger of his recent unbecoming Motown romanticism). Young can’t even seem to stay on task thematically here, sequencing the patronizing “Union Man” before “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail”‘s fanfare for the working man. Consider that the title track is brimful of pro-American nationalism from the Canadian-born songwriter, and you’ve got a good idea of just how confusing an effort Hawks & Doves can be.
But confusion was to be the name of the game for Young in the 1980s, a period celebrated for his principled resistance to record company pigeon-holing, but very, very rarely actually listened to. The fourth reissue in this batch, Re-ac-tor, doesn’t quite fall into the gimmick trap that so much of his second full decade’s work did, but the effort is still held back by an unhealthy fascination with using guitars as sound effect generators: machine guns in “Shots”, backfiring cars in “Motor City”, train engines in “Southern Pacific”. Quality of songwriting and fierce playing by Crazy Horse manage to redeem the album, however: “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” and “Shots” rank as two of his most underrated barnstormers.
To own all four reissues, then, is to witness a couple snapshots of the man mid-streak, and a couple from the immediate aftermath, as he began to slouch towards genre experimentation and respectably above-mediocre twilight. However, all but the most devout Neilologists should forgo the latter two; it’d leave enough money to track down a bootleg copy of Time Fades Away, now the only neglected step-child of Young’s peak period (and despite what you may have heard from Neil himself, one of his best). Although we’d love to see that record in print, too, us superior folk would no longer have anything to lord over the peons. Sorry, Col. Molina, your secret recipe is out.