Neil Young Neil Young (1968), Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After The Goldrush (1970), Harvest (1972)
It’s getting hard to keep up with Neil Young. In addition to a new studio LP, 2009 has seen the release of the green-car concept album Fork in the Road, a new live set (Dreamin’ Man Live ’92), and of course the 10-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/CD extravaganza Archives Vol. 1, which documents the first 10 years of his musical life. Not to mention that just over a year ago Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 came out, so that even seems relatively new. We’re drowning in Neil Young this year, which for hardcore fans (and it seems like the percentage of his fanbase that meets this criteria increases every year) isn’t such a bad thing.
Add to the above the “Neil Young Archives Official Release Series,” which is the umbrella term for the wholesale reissue of Young’s catalog in remastered form. The first four albums, from 1968’s Neil Young to 1972’s Harvest, were released on CD under the banner a few months back, which made the Archives set even more confusing than it seemed initially. Since much of Archives turned out to be previously issued material, with some albums appearing almost in their entirety, it stood to reason that it would serve as the best way to hear these songs for a while. Anyone ponying up between $100 and $300 for Archives surely already had all those albums, and they’ll probably want the better-sounding versions in their original form, too. Young, like Bob Dylan, is almost impossible to read as far as stuff like this goes. It’s easy to say that he’s ripping people off by getting them to buy the same music over and over. But so many of his puzzling moves over the years, such as refusing to put out On the Beach on CD even though fans were clamoring for it, would seem to be to his financial detriment.
Here’s one more for the shelf: the first four albums have been packaged in two limited edition box sets. The CD version is pressed on 24-karat gold discs, and the packaging is new; the vinyl is pressed on 180-gram records (as opposed to 140-gram for the standard issue of the LPs). The vinyl set, which is what I listened to for this review, is going for $150, which certainly isn’t cheap. It packages the records in extra-heavy gatefold sleeves that will probably outlive me, and includes full-size reproductions of the original inserts, but there’s no extra documentation otherwise. For me, there’s an irony in listening to these deluxe versions, because I’ve long regarded used vinyl copies of Harvest as a litmus test for record stores. If they’re selling a used copy in excellent shape for $4 or $5, it’s my kind of shop; if they’re selling it for $8 or $9, I’m probably somewhere in the New York Metropolitan Area. Fact is, Harvest was the #1 selling album of 1972, and it continued to sell all through the 1970s. Literally millions of copies were pressed, and used copies are very easy to find. It’s a record that shouldn’t cost a lot of money.
Which is not to say it’s not a great record. All four of these albums, in fact, are excellent– records that everyone should have in their collection eventually, in whatever format. I say “eventually” because Neil Young is an artist you shouldn’t force yourself to get into; his most devoted fans are so convinced of his genius, and so bent on tracking down every last bootleg, that it’s easy to hear a few songs and decide that Young isn’t such a big deal. Sometimes it can just take a little while to come around to his music, and you need to be in the right frame of mind.
Harvest, whatever your copy ends up costing you, closed out one of the stronger four-album career-opening runs in pop history. Of course, Young had some practice before he went solo, so he had a head start. After gigging around Canada as a teenager in the garage-rock outfit the Squires, he headed out to L.A. and hooked up with the newly forming Buffalo Springfield in 1966. They were a band with a few songwriters, each of whom had their own personality, and Young’s songs (“For What It’s Worth”, the group’s biggest hit, wasn’t one of them) revealed an emerging and distinctive voice. In 1968, he left the band and started his solo career, releasing Neil Young at the end of the year.
The album bearing only Neil Young’s name is the one that sounds least like him. It’s a fine psych-tinged folk-rock set with colorful arrangements and top-shelf instrumental contributors like guitarist Ry Cooder and visionary keyboardist and arranger Jack Nitzsche, who would continue to work with Young periodically through the 70s. But Young himself sounds oddly tentative throughout, as if he weren’t quite sure what he wanted his music to sound like, and this is his most restrained singing on record. There are echoes of the great music to come, like the ballad “The Old Laughing Lady”, and the arrangements are lush and inviting, but Neil Young in a sense represents a road not taken, and it’s most interesting now in comparison to what was to come.
The opening riff to “Cinnamon Girl”, the song that kicks off Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, erases the memory of Neil Young completely in about five seconds. In the months following the release of his debut, Young hooked up with a ragtag trio of musicians from a band called the Rockets, renamed them Crazy Horse, and found his raison d’être. Where the performances on Neil Young were eminently professional, the sophisticated and exacting parts executed with polished precision, Crazy Horse were loose and sloppy, privileging groove and feeling above all. Many of Young’s seasoned contemporaries considered them an embarrassment, but for him they represented a new way of thinking about music, one that favored intuition and stayed true to the moment. A year later he would hook up with the hugely successful Crosby, Stills and Nash; Young would eventually call CSNY his Beatles, while Crazy Horse was his Stones. By this logic, they were making music on the level of Sticky Fingers from the jump.
Discussion of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere usually gravitates toward the two extended guitar workouts, “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. Both are masterpieces of rock minimalism, demonstrating the power of repetition as the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot cycle through the chords and Young solos endlessly in his grimy, deeply-felt tone, playing off the subtle, prodding rhythm work of guitarist Danny Whitten. But the more compressed and accessible moments on the record are just as powerful. The title track is a brash, rollicking country-rocker in the vein of the Band, while “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad that finds Young, Whitten, and violinist Robin Lane engaged in three-part harmony on the achingly slow chorus. Best of all on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young sounds comfortable and confident, singing with the versatile (and hugely influential) voice that has changed remarkably little in the 40 years since.
Everybody Knows was a sort of big bang for Young, a dense moment of creative explosion that saw possibilities expanding in every direction. So its follow-up was anything but a retread. With his newfound confidence, Young was poised to stretch, and After the Gold Rush sounds a bit like an overview of the Great American Songbook but with one guy writing almost all the songs. Members of Crazy Horse appear in various combinations on a few of tracks, and songs like “Southern Man” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love” have the hypnotically stoned but sneakily intense groove of the previous record. But more precisely crafted songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Birds”, and especially the astonishing title track, which has become a rock standard, show Young’s gift as a writer of original melodies of extraordinary beauty in full flower. It’s an aspect of Young’s work that can be overlooked: the guy can write a simple tune over a chord change that hollows you out completely. Sure, the record has a phrase or two that might sound a little dippy to those with an aversion to hippies (Young was one of those, though of a very individualistic sort), but After the Gold Rush is basically unassailable. There’s a reason why it’s the favorite Neil Young album for so many.
Which brings us back to Harvest, Young’s mainstream breakthrough. Stepping away from Crazy Horse and hooking up with Nashville session musicians he dubbed the Stray Gators, Harvest finds Young experimenting again with a richer, more painstaking studio sound, but one informed by the spontaneity he’d found so inspiring. It’s probably his best sounding album, and the ear tends to gravitate to the rhythm section in particular, as bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey are almost absurdly in the pocket throughout. (Here I should note that, while they certainly cost a lot of money, the vinyl pressings of these four albums live up to the hype: whisper quiet and clear but full and punchy– these records have never sounded better).
But Young’s songs, though not up to the level of Gold Rush, continue his winning streak. “Out on the Weekend” and the title track set the table for a mellow, rootsy, and breezily melodic album, which later songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Are You Ready for the Country” continue, but Harvest has a more tormented side as well. “A Man Needs a Maid”, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, is one of his stranger creations, an affecting portrait of loneliness undercut with a clumsy, lunkheaded chorus refrain, the sincerity of which has never been quite clear. “Old Man” is something of a signature song, laying out the wizened, long-view outlook that didn’t fit with his chronological age (by the time of the record’s release, Young was 26). And then there’s harrowing and radiant “The Needle and the Damage Done”: at just over two minutes, it’s far too short, almost painfully so, just like the lives of the junkies it was written about. Soon enough, two people close to Young, Crazy Horse’s Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, would die from drugs.
The unexpected success of Harvest, combined with the grief and guilt Young felt after Whitten and Berry died, would send Young into a dark and raw place with his next few records as he famously “headed for the ditch” to escape the middle of the road. Hereafter, an always-fascinating mix of success and failure would define Young’s career, and along the way he’d make some pretty lousy records along with the great ones. To embrace Young as an artist after Harvest would mean accepting his many flaws (including the questionable business decisions, like the many confusing releases of this year), which have made his career unusually rich and varied as well as maddeningly inconsistent. But all that would come later. Enjoying this brilliant four-album run requires no special commitment.
From The Observer
Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, the twin peaks of American rock’n’roll, have lately fallen into a rhythm. Last April the pair released protest albums at the same time, Young making pleas to ‘impeach the president’ on Living with War, while Springsteen, on We Shall Overcome, reworked some Pete Seeger anthems that had involved a previous American adventure abroad.
Now both have chosen the same month to release studio albums that mark a return to roots. For Magic, Springsteen is back with the E-Street Band for the first time since The Rising five years ago, while Young, for Chrome Dreams II, has reassembled old friends like Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and steel guitarist Ben Keith from Harvest days. This retrenchment seems highly conscious in both cases, a taking of stock. Young recorded his album at a garage studio in Redwood City, California, which features vintage petrol pumps on the forecourt and well-worn recording equipment inside. Springsteen put Magic together down south in Atlanta.
Listening to the results side by side, you are reminded of how, more than any of their contemporaries, more than shape-shifting Dylan, Young and Springsteen have always traded primarily in authenticity, and how they have come at that virtue from entirely different directions. Young has won his integrity by always following his eccentric muse, and forever testing his audience’s faith; Springsteen by never letting his ego get in the way of the music, always putting in a full shift for his fans. Young has been ‘Shakey’ so long, true to an ever-wavering sense of self and belief, that it has often seemed that only his guitar keeps him upright. The values formed in Asbury Park, New Jersey have been Springsteen’s consistent touchstone. Young has been a hippie and a supporter of Ronald Reagan; Springsteen has never taken a narcotic and has never stopped doing union benefits.
As songwriters, they are both interpreters of the common American man, but Young, the son of a Canadian sportswriter, has always dramatised himself as the outsider, looking on, wearing his angst as a badge of honour; Springsteen, whose father was a bus driver, rarely recognises a distinction between himself and his subjects; his voice suggests they win together and they lose together. They are both obsessed by the American road but Young sees it in Kerouac’s sense, with no particular end in sight; Springsteen comes at it through Steinbeck, as the way back home. You can hear this stand-off in their harmonicas; Young’s always sounds like it is played in a howling desert, Springsteen’s asks for a campfire or a back-room bar.
Either side of 60 – Young is three years Springsteen’s elder at 61 – both have produced classic albums in their own image. Chrome Dreams II grows out of a familiar Young legend. It is the sequel to a record that was never made. (Chrome Dreams, scheduled for release in 1977, is one of several ghost ships in his archive, victim of a sudden shift in obsession.) It is characterised by its absence of coherence. The opening three tracks were first recorded in the Eighties or were occasionally performed live then; they, along with what follows, are a tentative kind of primer in Young’s catalogue of the past 40 years, veering suddenly from the grungy guitar of ‘Dirty Old Man’ (I’m a dirty old man, I do what I can/ I like to get hammered on Friday night’) to the saccharine gospel of ‘Shining Light’, which is Young in best bed-wetting mode, with the kind of simpleton falsetto (‘shine light, you always show me, you always guide me’) that only he can get away with.
The 12 tracks are held together by two things: a tremulous kind of optimism that sometimes extends to a dippy faith – an antidote to the righteous anger of Young’s last, political outing; and by the 18-minute epic ‘Ordinary People’, which Young defiantly plans to release as a single.
Backed with the gusto of big horns, Young’s guitar is once again a thing of wonder on this track, now slashing and burning, now playing transcendent dance riffs. The song itself, dating back nearly 20 years, is a tracking shot of the margins of American working life, of the kind Springsteen has made home territory. Young invests it with more alienation, producing a sort of paranoiac ‘Penny Lane’: there’s a man ‘dealing antiques in a hardware store… with five pit bulls inside, just a warning to the people’. Young can catalogue American individuals, like a latter-day Walt Whitman, but always in the context of a song of himself. ‘Everyday people, I got faith in the regular kind,’ he wails, but it’s more in desperation than hope.
One of his strategies to save himself from despair is to employ something that Springsteen has never properly risked: little fragments of comedy. Young finds it in the nursery rhyme bathos of the splendid ‘Ever After’ which offsets a Hank Williams mood with a classic Young piece of wisdom: ‘A man had many boxes/ And he liked them quite a lot/ But they would not be opened / ‘Cause the value would be shot.’ And he suggests it, too, in the surreal comfort blanket of the album’s pay-off, ‘The Way’, in which the plinking of Young’s piano and the piping voices of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City are reminiscent of ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’ and St Winifred’s School Choir: ‘This is the way, we know the way, we’ve found the way’ trill the choristers as the troubled Pied Piper Young leads them along some primrose path to who knows where.
There aren’t laughs on Magic, or even many surprises. Springsteen’s songs are all new, and they all seem to come from almost exactly the same place. Magic is an uptempo rock album, back to the basics of love lost and found and smalltown tragedy after the overt rabble rousing of the past three years that began with his Vote for Change tour around the election of 2004. Springsteen has always been a lyricist capable of achingly great lines, but as ever he uses them sparingly; you are lulled with plenty of ‘Your world keeps turning round and round’ before you get a ‘Pour me a drink Theresa in one of those glasses you dust off/ And I’ll watch the bones on your back like the Stations of the Cross.’
There are no 18-minute tracks on this album. Springsteen does not wilfully try patience. There is, though, also a lack of genuine event; some songs will only come alive on stage. This sense of ‘and the next, and the next’, is partly redeemed by the lust and energy that Springsteen still finds with his band, in particular the testosterone sax of the great Clarence Clemons. There are one or two tracks that might eventually stand up alongside ‘Glory Days’, ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’, say, or ‘Long Walk Home’, though nothing with the heart of Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. This album is, as the Boss announces on the opening track ‘Radio Nowhere’, about ‘finding his way home’ after a few years of excursions into other territory. ‘Is there anybody alive out there? I just want to hear some rhythm…’ You can picture the arms raised in response.
The title track, ‘Magic’, suggests how easy this rhythm has become for this band: ‘I got a coin in my pocket, I can make it disappear/ I got a card up my sleeve I’ll pull it out your ear’ – but that doesn’t make it any less energising a sound. And one thing Springsteen does share with Young is that his years of sincerity allow him to pull off the big sentimental finale, though this one could hardly be further from ‘The Way’. ‘Terry’s Song’ was a late addition to the album written for Frank ‘Terry’ Magovern, Springsteen’s personal assistant for 23 years, who died in July. It is, unlike much of the album, one from the heart, with a refrain – ‘when they built you brother, they broke the mould’ – that proves there is still no cliche yet written from which Springsteen’s voice can’t wrench full-scale pathos.