With his new release Silver & Gold, Neil Young has once again shifted gears. For this outing, he has moved back to the acoustic-oriented fare that he had previously explored on such masterpieces as After the Gold Rush, Harvest, and Harvest Moon.
Silver & Gold took several years to create and was originally envisioned as an entire album of solo acoustic material — much of which was debuted on a tour in Spring 1999. After reuniting with his pals David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, however, Young saw fit to donate several tracks, which were originally intended for his own album, to the new CSNY effort Looking Forward. While this might have diminished the quality of many artists’ subsequent releases, this certainly can not be said for Young. He rethought his album, made a few modifications, and pulled together one truly amazing disc. While Silver & Gold is not really a solo acoustic effort, it is perhaps his most sparse and intimate affair to date.
The soft and quiet atmosphere created by Young serves his songs well, adding to the reflective nature of his lyrics. The narrative thread binding the tracks together is that of a middle-aged man contemplating his life and the love he has found and lost throughout it as he wonders just what it all means. “Love’s the answer/Love’s the question,” Young states on Horseshoe Man, and this is precisely the dialogue that he ponders throughout Silver & Gold.
On Daddy Went Walkin’, Young ruminates on his own childhood — focusing on the happier days, rather than his parents’ divorce. He proclaims the importance of family, friends, and lovers, and he regrets the rift of time that has divided them. “Workin’ hard, everyday/Never notice how the time slips away,” he sings on the title track. On Buffalo Springfield Again he adds, “Like to see those guys again/and give it a shot,” and on Good to See You, he croons, “I been down on the Endless Highway/I crossed on the solid line/Now at last I’m home with you/Feel like makin’ up for lost time.”
Without question, Silver & Gold is a deeply personal album, and Young concludes it with the melancholic Without Rings. Here, he drives home his point that it is far better to mend the wounds that divide than to wait. Death and loss can strike at any time, and material gain and personal recognition achieved through the rat race only serve to separate. So put down the treasure chest and let it slip away, Young urges on the title track – adding “Our kind of love never seems to grow old/It’s better than silver and gold.”
The greatest chameleon of the past 30 years started to compose his first true solo record (as in DIY), but as is his way, the course changed a couple of times. And when he decided to flesh the material out with other musicians, he grabbed stellar sidemen including Spooner Oldham, “Duck” Dunn and Jim Keltner, along with longtime associate Ben Keith (who co-produced the record). The result is a relaxed, casual journey through some heartfelt and pensive songs that find Young in both a thankful and inquisitive mood. Comparisons will most certainly be made with Harvest and Harvest Moon because of the acoustic tone, but don’t play the trilogy card right away. This Neil Young is older, wiser, more reflective and less judgmental.
At 10 tracks and 40 minutes, it’s no coincidence that Silver And Gold plays like an album with two sides. Emotional differences? Now versus then? The opening number, “Good To See You,” is as simple and direct as it sounds. “Daddy Went Walkin” deals with broken families from the perspective of a hopeful child, and in “Buffalo Springfield Again,” Neil looks back at a different kind of broken family, and forward to enjoying the time after wounds have healed. In “The Great Divide,” he’s not fitting in among the broken plans and roads of uncertainty, and the arrow of blame sometimes points straight back.
“Distant Camera” and “Horseshoe Man” deal with the rebuilding and refocusing of lives, as well as the inability to easily do so sometimes. But regardless of whether you jump or need to be pushed, Young feels that ultimately a clear, honest love is the answer. As he states in “Razor Love”: “on the road there’s no place like home / Silhouettes on the window.”; and love “cuts clean through everything.”
“Without Rings” is perhaps the most puzzling song on the record. As the gentle melody repeats over and over like a gentle tide, Neil’s reviews his place, his purpose; his life theoretically passing within, not before his eyes:
fighting drugs with pain
there’s a war inside
pictures in my brain
I’m looking for a job
I don’t know what I’m doing
My software’s not compatible with you
But this I can’t deny
I know that you can fly
Because I’m here on the ground without you.”
As he did in “The Great Divide,” he’s feeling displaced but looking to communicate (“I’m waiting for a sign / I’m standing on the road / With my mind outstretched to you”). But with whom? A lover he is separated from? His god or maker? Perhaps, in a less harrowing way than “Tonight’s The Night,” with ex-bandmate Danny Whitten (“The road we used to ride / Together side by side / Has flowers pushing through the dotted line.”). It’s a haunting coda to the record.
The band is thoughtfully restrained and supportive of the songs throughout. Ben Keith, in particular, plays some beautiful pedal steel guitar, and when Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris chime in with background vocals on “Red Sun,” it’s just wonderful. And the cohesiveness of this record is pretty amazing considering its history. When several tracks were first assembled, Neil met up with his CSNY partners and offered them some songs for their album (four wound up on Looking Forward). One song remained from the DIY version, two were added after CSN raided the shelves, and two others date back over 15 years. Some of the songs have been played live but have changed names and arrangements over the years (“Without Rings” was called both “Pictures In My Mind” and “Sharpshooter”; “Red Sun” was “Railroad Town”). That his records successfully gestate in such a manner is nothing new for Young, who’s always had a fairly liquid catalogue of material to play with and draw from.
Although Silver And Gold finds Neil Young further on down the road, he’s yet to show signs that the well is even getting shallow, let alone drying up.
What the!!!! This is an album full of Neil Young singing to an acoustic guitar! I guess it’s been 10 long years since the grunge movement took a hold of the ’90s and Neil Young’s career, but now that it became the decade with no pronounceable name, I guess it was time for him to go back doing the quieter, introspective stuff. I stand by my earlier statement that I’d rather listen to his maddening grungy albums than boring folky music, but as someone who had spent the previous month reviewing a bunch of those grunge albums in a row, it’s admittedly quite a relief to listen to him just sitting back and delivering some nice, quiet tunes for a change.
But this ain’t no Harvest Moon. That album featured some of Young’s finest melodies, and it had the ability to haunt my dreams. Silver & Gold is little more than a collection of passive and unoriginal folk and country tunes that he could have written and performed in his sleep. And he probably did, by the sound of it. It all seems very lazy.
The fans sure liked this, though, and that’s probably because Neil Young has the ability to make himself sound extremely important. And I’ll have to admit, I get caught up in a little bit of that grandeur at times. He also had the ability to bore the living crap out of me, and he does that a lot here, too. The one song on here that everybody should listen to is “The Great Divide,” which is one of those Neil Young songs that just seems to *get me* right at the center of my soul. Even though Neil Young had a lot of great songs in his career, I can’t say that there were too many of them that quite affected me like that. It has such a nice melody with a sweet vocal delivery, and a solid, shuffly rhythm that’s quite easy to get caught up in.
I also like that nostalgia-ridden “Buffalo Springfield Again,” which Neil seems to hint to his old bandmates that he wouldn’t mind having a reunion! It has a nice melody, too, and if the reunion had ever happened, it would have been a perfect song for them to perform in concert. “Good to See You” is an overwhelmingly sweet and pleasant ditty and it makes a nice album opener. The title track is also a good ‘un with a nice melody, and it constitutes another special treat for any fan of Young’s folkish works. “Razor Love” has been one of the more widely celebrated songs of the album, and that’s for good reason: It’s quite a mesmerizing little tune! But the down-side of it is that it goes past six minutes, and there wasn’t great reason for it. Other than, perhaps, to fill up space since this album is a startlingly short 39 minutes.
For every song that’s sweet and captivating, there’s at least one that’s absolutely boring. “Daddy Went Walkin’” not only makes a boring experience, but the melody was ripped off of some old folk song from the early 20th Century. (I’m not apt enough in such music to be able to point out where this melody comes from, but you’ll know what I mean if you ever hear it. It’s so common!) “Red Sun” had an interesting idea to usher in a subtle bagpipe sound, but that melody is so dull and clunky that it’s rather difficult to listen to. The album closer, “Without Rings,” couldn’t have ended things on a drabber note. It’s just a plodding acoustic guitar song without an interesting melody or captivating instrumentation. Blahhhhhhhh… I mean, the least he could have done there was to have Mr. Slide Guitar perform some noodles in the background, or do a depressed harmonica solo. Why make it so plain?
But whatever. This is a good album. Neil Young has always been known for releasing good albums, and his longtime fans will surely find enough about Silver & Gold to treasure listening to it from time to time. He never released anything close to resembling a perfect album, anyway! The Neil Young of the ’00s was not only as scraggly and scruffy as he’d ever been, but he also finally became a grand old coot. That might have given him permission to be lazier and less original than he used to be, but I sort of like him taking on that image. Somehow, I don’t think anybody made a better old coot than Neil! Except maybe Randy Newman, but in a different way.
This might not be a terribly exciting album, but it’s a nice album. I don’t think it’s quite as hopelessly dull as many critics point out, but I also think Neil could have worked a little harder developing these songs a little better. I mean, he wrote Harvest Moon, after all, so I know he had it in him! But anyway, Silver & Gold remains a nice experience to sit back and soak up one sunny afternoon with headphones. It might put you to sleep, but it’ll give you pleasant dreams.