Neil Young’s previous album was a half-baked folk and country album Hawks & Doves. Re-ac-tor is more of a half-baked hard-rock album. I’m sure all his fans were delighted with Young in the early ’80s. Here they were, sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping that Young would record another Americana album. And they were all treated to this goofy thing. No matter how you look at it, Re-ac-tor is an utterly inconsequential album that has many shortcomings. You can live a perfectly fantastic life without ever listening to it.
But then again, isn’t life inconsequential? We’re all going to die and get sucked back into the earth in the end, so what’s the big deal? I listened to Re-ac-tor, and I thought it was a blast-and-a-half! I’d imagine that Young was finished being touted as “important” throughout his career, and he just wanted to be a dumb old rock star. What else could explain a song like “T-Bone?” It consists of a single riff repeated for nine-minutes straight whilst Young continuously belts out “Got mashed potato!! Ain’t got no t-bone!” Normally, I have trouble sitting through nine-minute songs that just repeats the same freaking thing over and over again, but not this time. When it’s over, I have already joined in the merry mayhem! I want to do the air guitar and scream “AIN’T GOT NO T-BONE!!!!” (I don’t, though, because I’m too much of a victim of rationality.) Besides, the guitar is impressive, and they do a fantastic job littering it up with different tones and textures.
That was a lot of fun, but the best song of the album is easily “Opera Star.” Simply put, it has the best melody; it is incredibly catchy and even memorable. It’s difficult not to also mention those crunchy and excellent guitars. Plus, unlike many of the other songs, it’s not just a single riff being repeated over and over again… it actually has a chorus! Plus, the lyrics are funny and so is Young, who is sounding spirited and more-cartoonish-than-usual.
A lot of fans enjoy “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleeze,” and I like it, too. That melody is catchy, and it does have somewhat of an aura of “greatness,” but unfortunately it ended up coming a little short in that goal. That one would have needed some more studio work, and I just don’t find it nearly as gut-bustingly enjoyable as the two other songs I highlighted. “Get Back On It” is an ordinary and non-noteworthy boogie, which is a really odd thing to hear Young do. (That is, if you haven’t gotten a load of Everybody’s Rockin’ yet.) “Rapid Transit” is another guitar-heavy number that revisits those aimless proto-metal psychedelic days, and it’s not bad. And just to be cute, “Southern Pacific” has drum beat that sounds like a train. I’d say 70 percent of the world’s population will dislike the album closer, “Shots.” Like “T-Bone” is an incredibly over-extended guitar-heavy piece… except about every 10 seconds, there’s some sort of machine gun sound effect. Some listeners might be annoyed with that, but others will concentrate their attention to that ‘lectric guitar, which continues to play through the whole thing. Why, it’s patriotic in a way.
I did like Re-ac-tor, but I’m not going to recommend it. For Young newbies, this is completely uncharacteristic of him. And the Young oldies probably resent his entire career in the ’80s. But speaking for me, when it’s all said and done, I believe I’d rather listen to Young act like a total doofus than write another album of bloated, pretentious country songs! But that’s just me.
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.