Yet another great Neil Young album, one that has become quite underrated over the years in my opinion, this is perhaps his heaviest studio effort ever. Backed up by members of Pearl Jam (though Epic wouldn’t let the name “Pearl Jam” appear on the album) and recorded by their producer Brendan O’Brien, this album reveals both of their strengths, as Pearl Jam provides Young with dark, powerful backing without drowning him out.
Pearl Jam delivers tight playing, tons of energy, and an appealingly thick and muscular sound, while Young more than holds his own, writing some great if hurriedly written songs and battling the young bucks with his still-lethal guitar runs. Although the album was rushed (supposedly it was recorded in a mere four days) and many of the songs are therefore unpolished, I disagree with the common complaints that these aren’t well-written and well-recorded songs, and besides, it is the very raw immediacy and spontaneity of these explosive performances that makes this collection so consistently thrilling despite its flaws.
Yeah, perhaps some of these songs sound alike after a while, but I for one am completely intoxicated by the mad sailor chants of “Song X,” the catchy yet rocking “The Act Of Love” (both of these are anti-abortion songs), and the riveting “Peace And Love,” on which Eddie Vedder briefly makes his brooding presence felt (those searing guitar riffs don’t hurt either).
Elsewhere, “Big Green Country” and the anthemic “Throw Your Hatred Down” have good brisk grooves and more great guitar, “Truth Be Known” is more power ballad-y but is still quite good due to its soaring guitar crescendos, and the intense 9-minute “Scenery” stands out for being arguably the album’s best extended guitar extravaganza. Unfortunately, probably my least favorite song here, the more upbeat hippy ode “Downtown,” which is unrepresentative of the rest of the album, was released as the single, so this album never caught on like it should have.
There are also a couple of short but sweet mellow pieces that let you come up for air, but only briefly. Neil Young states in the excellent, epic groover “I am The Ocean” (arguably the album’s best song which like some others here makes excellent use of atmospheric pump organ), “people my age, they don’t do the things I do.” That’s for sure, and once I was caught up in the relentless wave of that masterful song I could only feel very grateful for that fact.
Note: Around this time Neil Young and Pearl Jam also joined forces on “Long Road” and “I Got Id,” both of which appear on Pearl Jam’s Merkin Ball two-song EP.
There comes a time when the penny drops and you realise the age you are in and you do a spot of self-assessment. You look around, get in touch with your peers and just see what they are up to. Are they the same people you knew 20 years ago? Did the values and ideals they sported still hold up or have they been changed, whether by “selling out” or by the realisation that they weren’t feasible?
Now imagine you are someone who has been through thick and thin. You played in a couple of legendary concerts, you lost people close to you to drugs and you had a hillbilly band diss you in a couple of songs. You’ve experimented loads of genres, just because you wanted the freedom of embracing the evolution of music. The acclaim you never got from your peers is slowly creeping in and a new generation is discovering your oeuvre thanks to a bunch of rag tags wearing flannel who are using feedback in ways you’ve never thought someone else would do. Surely not since you were on stage with a couple of Jawas.
One of these upstarts asks you to drop by and play with them at the MTV Video Music Awards. You jam out a bonafide classic and find that the age gap doesn’t mean fuck if the music is tuned in the same wavelength and if the passion is sported by the people you share the stage with.
So after the media’s chosen figurehead of this generation of rag tags passes away (murder or suicide, still debated) and you hear that he mentions you in the text of his suicide note, what do you? You record one album, partially based on the worries of his generation. You immerse yourself into their Zeitgeist and try to “pay it forward”. Your album, called Sleeps with angels, sounds harsh, moody, full of gloom but still breaches the sarcasm of a younger generation. But still, you want to do more.
Once you’ve tapped into them and understood them, you record an album, with your feelings dripping from your flannel sleeve, like you always did. You get those younglings who you jammed with at VMA ceremony and record an album in four days with some songs that you wrote and some that were born from those 96 hours. A jammy, organic album full of honest lyrics and your usual chord progressions, with the added kick of a young generation that utterly adores you.
You are Neil Young and in the studio is also Pearl Jam (minus Eddie Vedder, hiding from a stupid stalker), working as your backing band. The result is Mirrorball, an album with lyrical teams ranging from abortion (‘Act of love’, ‘Song X’), selling out and age (‘Downtown’), wars (‘Throw your hatred down’) and how the more things change, the more they stay the same (‘I’m the ocean’).
For starters, it has to be said that Pearl Jam really pull it through. Jeff Ament and Jack Irons rhythm section is a force to be reckoned with, specially considering the short time for rehearsal and recordings (although by the sound of the banter in some tracks, there probably was no rehearsal). Mike McCready and Stone Gossard manage not to choke up when being paired with a bonafide guitar genius, who also manages to never upstage anyone in the album. All instruments get their respective place, and, like previously stated, it’s a very organic album. And, hey, Eddie Vedder does manage to contribute for a bit (he’s “blink and you miss” in ‘Peace and love’).
They all feel free, like good friends just having fun in a garage. No constraints, no self-imposed rules nor tunnel vision, just eleven tracks with a lot of reflectiveness and some serious solos (check the one in ‘Throw your hatred down’, the song streaming right now).
Young‘s lyrics are never self-righteous and they never look down on the listener. Lyrics-wise, my heart will always be with ‘I’m the ocean’, a song inspired by Neil Young driving around Los Angeles during O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial (“…the testimony of/ Expert witnesses on the brutal crimes of love”). His observations are like a page from a diary, wondering about the Vietnam generation (“Homeless heroes walk the streets of their own town”), the numbing down of our collective lives through television (“Need random violence, need Entertainment Tonight”) , how he might be an outsider to his own peers (“People my age, they don’t do the things I do”) and conceding that although the generation gap is there, he will pay attention (“I can’t hear you, but I feel the things you say /I can’t see you, but I know what’s sin my way”). It’s a seven minute monster but the whole song is a slice of an era of confusion, seen from the eyes of someone who survived an even more confusing and cruel time.
Yeah, I really like that song. It’s one of those songs that strikes a chord in your heart and although Neil Young has an impressive back catalogue, this album is the one I revisit the most. Not only because I’m a big fan of Pearl Jam, but because I can really identify with the songs in this album (I’m from that generation). So many ideas rushing through my head seem to be plastered all over this. A couple of songs inspired me to write short stories too, so the least I could do to pay it forward to this album is to write about it.
I really like how between the distortion and rock moments, there is time to do some slow, calm pieces. There’s two and they re-use musical motifs from the album, but in a minimalistic approach: it’s only an organ and Neil Young‘s brittle voice, doing a little segue (‘What happened yesterday’) and a epilogue (‘Fallen angel’). Anger and frustration paired with reflectiveness and acceptance. It’s a couple of beautiful moments in an already stunning album. If you like how this sounds, I really gotta recommend you check Neil Young‘s unplugged: he deconstructs ‘Like a hurricane’ into a haunting piece (again, only organ and voice).
A consequence of Mirrorball was the change in style for Pearl Jam. If they were already professed fans of Neil Young (again, I mention that VMA 93 performance with him, superb), Young‘s presence and songwriting sensibilities stuck and they show perfectly on Pearl Jam‘s next album, 1996′s amazing No code (the one with the polaroids). Songs like ‘Smile’, ‘Off he goes’ (dedicated to Young) and ‘Red Mosquito’ (which sounds like an alternate take of ‘Song x’) feel like they are paying it forward to the grandfather of grunge, while still having their own identity. That’s all I will say for the meantime as next week’s Lost gems will be about this Pearl Jam album (with a mention to the transition single Merkin ball).
All in all, do yourself a favour and check Mirrorball. It’s a true gem of the 90′s, a perfect piece of grunge and a primary example of how a band can gel together so well that it stops being different individuals and becomes just a collective being, speaking musical platitudes about this life.
The scene is a college dormitory; the year is 1979. By happenstance, the roommates all play instruments, mostly as a hobby. In one corner, the drummer sets up his kit, and two guitars are plugged into small, album-cover-size amps. Songs are attempted and discarded before one of the students starts the opening chunka-chunka chords to Neil Young’s ”Down by the River.”
The sound is choppy, their attempt at the ooh-oohs in the chorus fairly tuneless, the guitar solos inept. None of it matters. They keep playing, losing themselves in the intoxicating power of amplification, and suddenly a half hour has gone by. Just as suddenly, in comes the older student who oversees the floor and firmly shuts them down — they can’t play live, loud, amplified rock & roll in their room, for Christ’s sake. The party is over, but the students agree that it was fun while it blasted.
Another scene, 16 years later. One of the three roommates is now a man, an adult with a job, a home, and a mortgage, plopped into advancing middle age. In fact, he is 35 today. To maintain some degree of fitness and to stave off whatever physical deterioration will inevitably start to occur, he is perched on an exercise bike at a gym. He has brought along Mirror Ball, the collaboration between Neil Young and Pearl Jam (whose name, incidentally, appears nowhere on the cover, for unspecified legal reasons).
The tape starts just as the wheels of the exercise bicycle begin to turn, and even on the wobbly Walkman headphones, the music crackles. The man has been listening to and buying Neil Young albums for 22 years, and he instantly recognizes that Young is in electric mode once again. Recorded in four days, the album has a spontaneous, bang-it-out casualness that is, to say the least, extremely rare for a rock veteran. Songs open with random studio chatter and sometimes end with decidedly unpolished feedback buzz. Taking a solo on ”Big Green Country,” Young fumbles at first; only after a few halting attempts does he find the right notes and the right ear-piercing tone.
Unlike the overambitious songs on last year’s Sleeps With Angels, these melodies are mostly three-chord stompers, and Pearl Jam seems content to kick out the jams behind him. Being an older fan, the man on the bike finds the music reminiscent of Young’s Zuma period. ”Song X” is an electrified sea chantey; ”Downtown,” a simple paean to seeing live rock at local dives ”where the hippies all go,” is one of Young’s loosiest-goosiest songs in years. It is thrilling in itself to hear Young pushed along by a young, eager-to-bash drummer, Jack Irons, as opposed to the weathered peers he has used for the past quarter century.
Mirror Ball isn’t quite the summit meeting one would have hoped for. Except for taking two solo verses on ”Peace and Love,” Eddie Vedder is, disappointingly, nowhere to be heard. The album’s lyrics are mostly jumbled rehashes of standard Young imagery — Indians and ”lone riders” all suffocating in a nation of ”media image slaves,” and war as a metaphor for love. The exerciser pedals a little slower during a sluggish tune or two.
And yet the album is such a tossed-off firecracker that the man, groaning his way toward 40 push-ups, forgives it its faults. ”People my age/They don’t do the things I do,” Young sings at one point. And indeed, Neil Young is a miracle, the man realizes. How can anyone at 49 sound so ornery yet youthful, still play such wiry guitar, still sing in that quavering high tenor? And Pearl Jam is like he and his college roommates nearly two decades ago, intently cranking out Neil Young music, but this time with the craggy Rock & Roll Hall of Famer himself.
The man leaves the gym, the headphones still clamped onto his ears, and rewinds the tape to ”Peace and Love.” From its opening razor-blade guitar lead, it aims for that anthemic mode of the Neil Young of old, and despite a few muddled chords and even more muddled lyrics, the collaborative magic works.
It is a pleasant night, warm and inviting, and weaving his way in and around people on the street as these musicians from different generations come together and hit a communal musical peak, the man feels 19 again. It has been nearly a decade since he even picked up a guitar. He wonders where it is now. A-
It’s hardly a secret that Neil Young loves Pearl Jam and vice versa. When the band opened for Young in 1993, he often brought them out during the encores for a run through “rockin’ in the Free World”; when Young was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it was Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder who did the honors, pronouncing the singer “a great songwriter, a great performer, a great Canadian.”
That this mutual-admiration society would eventually result in an album was probably inevitable, but even so, it’s hard not to be surprised by the spin Mirror Ball puts on the relationship. Though Young is clearly the dominant partner — it’s his concept, after all, his songs and his album — it’s Pearl Jam who ultimately end up determining the music’s shape and feel, providing a level of input and energy that goes well beyond the normal purview of a backing band.
Just how much Pearl Jam bring to these songs can be gauged by comparing this “Act of Love” with the versions offered by Young and Crazy Horse in concerts earlier this year. At both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame dinner, in New York, and the Voters for Choice concert in Washington, Crazy Horse’s “Act of Love” was a lumbering behemoth, a slow-moving marathon of billowing guitar chords and rambling, snaky solos. It isn’t only the abbreviated length (just less than five minutes) and comparative lack of guitar solos that set the Pearl Jam version apart, it’s also the rhythmic vitality. Whereas Crazy Horse came across all muscle-bound and lugubrious, Pearl Jam have the lean, sinewy brawn of a champion welterweight, jabbing through the power-chord chorus with light-footed agility and ear-bruising assurance.
This isn’t just a matter of musical style; there’s almost a generational difference at work. Crazy Horse revel in the overamplified grandeur of acid-rock excess; Pearl Jam prefer the blunt beauty of punk’s amphetamined minimalism. Young, though, is fascinated by both. And after spending much of Sleeps With Angels viewing the alterna-rock generation through the haze of Crazy Horse, here he spins the telescope around to see what hippiedom looks like through the lens of Pearl Jam.
To be honest, the view can be pretty funny. “Downtown,” for instance, sends up the notion of ’60s cool by cartoon hippies who head off to a place where “they dance the Charleston/And they do the limbo.” But as much fun as Young and the band have with the image (as well as the tune’s chooglin’ three-chord groove), they don’t overlook the era’s most enduring strength: its music. “Jimi’s playin’ in the back room,” sings Young, “Led Zeppelin’s onstage.” And although the music doesn’t attempt to evoke that sound, it does convey its spirit.
They don’t stop there, though. With “Peace and Love,” Young and Pearl Jam cut to the heart of the ’60s-’90s rift. After Young invokes the mystic ideal of finding “love in the people/Living in a sacred land,” Eddie Vedder offers a sort of generational counterpoint. “Found love, found hate, saw my mistake,” he sings. “Broke walls of pain to walk again.” Two different kinds of transcendence, to be sure, but as the surging, anthemic finale suggests, they’re far closer than either generation thinks.
Not every issue raised on Mirror Ball is resolved as easily. “Act of Love,” for instance, takes on the issue of abortion without offering a clear-cut political solution. Instead, Young’s words play with the irony of so much hate and disdain rising in the wake of an act of love. He paints the anti-abortion movement as a “holy war … slowly building,” then pictures an unwilling father-to-be pressuring his lover into ending her pregnancy: “Here’s my wallet/Call me sometime.” It’s an ugly set of images, and the band’s attack is as unrelenting as news stories that give the song its currency.
Rather than struggle against the course of events, Young and Pearl Jam choose instead to ride out the wave. It’s like the impending accident Young describes at the beginning of “I’m the Ocean,” in which the protagonist decides to “let the moment last” instead of slamming on the brakes. And at its best, Mirror Ball takes that thrilling, contradictory moment for all it’s worth — from the Utopian uplift of the catchy, insistent “Throw Your Hatred Down” to the telegenic grandeur of the “cancer cowboy” in “Big Green Country” to the mournful resignation of the world-weary “Truth Be Known.”
Yikes!! What an album! As far as Neil’s ’90s grunge outings go, give me Mirror Ball over anything else. As a matter of fact, you can give me Mirror Ball over any grunge album on the Planet Earth! (OK, I’m ignorant. I need to listen to more grunge albums. And I guess Nevermind is probably better anyway.) But seriously. After giving this album four full listens, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr. Neil Young is one bad-ass mofo.
Before I can truly get to heart of discussing the awesomeness of Mirror Ball, I first must discuss one of its primary shortcomings. I’m pretty sure I complained in earlier Neil Young reviews that his songs have an awful tendency to repeat the same hook over and over again approximately eight billion times. Believe me, that’s more true about the songs on Mirror Ball than it was on anything. The good news is that these hooks are generally quite compelling, and they all seem to put me in a trance.
While the hypnotizing attributes of these melodies are an integral part of Mirror Ball, the true star of the album is of course the electric guitar. Considering I still get pretty violent Arc flashbacks, it took quite a lot out of me to listen another one of his grungy guitar albums. But, here, he seemed to get the sound of those guitars just right. They’re very deep and very dark, but they also don’t sound so much like the Devil’s helicopter. …I don’t know how I can praise these guitars more: Everything about them are positively awesome. I read all the time that Neil Young is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest electric guitar soloists. After listening to Mirror Ball, I can do nothing but agree with this assessment 100 percent. They not only sound cool, but they have their very own personalities. I know I’m listening to a good solo whenever I can imagine its personality!
My only complaint about the guitars is that some of the tracks have those overextended, distorted codas that plagued a bunch of his early ’90s albums as well as the entirety of Arc. Luckily there are only a few of them, but as you can tell in the track reviews, I complained whenever they popped up! What can I say? I quit reviewing Neil Young albums for an entire year because of those distorted codas, and hearing them again was like picking at my scabs!! (…Oooo, I’m being melodramatic!)
Oh god, I haven’t even mentioned a single song yet. Let’s start at the beginning. “Song X” is by far the most distinctive song of the album, sounding like a grungified version of a sea shanty. Without even listening to that song, I would think that was a novel concept. When you think about it, some of the grungiest people in the world are, literally, sailors! They are out there in the high seas with nothing but the sea air and their own stench. And, once you take a listen to that song, you can tell right away that it was nothing less than a stroke of genius. The guitar is rough, wind-worn and disturbed. Neil Young’s lead vocals even fit the material perfectly. Come to think of it, Young has always sounded like he was some sort of pirate! Oh and the band members joining in the chorus, singing “Heigh ho, away we go/we’re on the road to never” fit the spirit just perfectly. I could go on about that song forever. And I almost have.
Another major highlight is “I’m the Ocean,” a terribly engaging song with, I think, the coolest bass-line ever to be featured in a Neil Young album. (Excuse me if I don’t re-listen to every single song of his to make sure that statement is true.) It goes on for seven minutes repeating the same old things and, amazingly, I never grow tired of it. “Big Green Country” is a similarly awe-inspiring song with a catchy hook, incredible guitar and incredible drive!
OK, now I’m going to tell you why I’m only giving this album a 12 even though I’ve done little else than praise it with my praisiest words: It’s just so gosh-durn samey! I get a tad tired of this album by the very end… And, even in the songs I singled out as the “highlights,” they do seem a little bit like one huge blur. That’s not a particular problem if you’re really big into grunge music… You’d think of that as a bonus more than anything else. But it’s the slightest problem for me. At the same time, I think it’s pretty amazing feat that I enjoyed such a heavy guitar centered album this much. Remember, I’m a pretty big Elton John fan! …At any rate, this is a great Neil Young album, and it’s a close 13. Perhaps the most amazing thing of them all is that he was freaking 50 when he recorded this! Neil Young wasn’t going to fade away anytime soon!