Neil Young might have quit the Geffen label, but that doesn’t mean he knew when to quit! This Note’s For You marked yet another instance of Young extreme genre leaps. This time he found himself in the territory of ’80s cheese-blues.
That’s right. We have the ultra-polished, swinging rhythm sections, the blaring horn sections and about zero-percent originality. Yucky! But let’s be fair. While this album isn’t particularly good, it’s not particularly bad, either. At least the instrumentation sounds good, which is what keeps it a fair distance away from so many similar albums of the era.
Well, my job reviewing this album is easy, because most of you already knows what this album sounds like without hearing it! Other than switching to a new label, it’s not even an important one for Neil Young since it’s pretty clear that he’s just treading water … again. There are a few candidates for “best song” in this album, but I went along with “Sunny Inside” partly because it’s one of the few tracks here that couldn’t be described as ’80s cheese-blues.
Rather, that’s a cheesy ’80s version of ’60s sunshine pop! It’s nothing too special, but at least Young forced himself to gravitate away from those predictable chord progressions. Although the back-up band pretty much plays the same sort of thing in that track as the others, so you might not even notice that he switched genres! Very, very sneaky…
Funnily, the only other song on the album that isn’t blues turns out to be a total piece of garbage. “Twilight” seems to be an attempt at trying on Dire Straits’ atmospheric cosmic-rock underpants… except instead of Mark Knopfer’s light-fingered twinkles, we get these clumsy clomps. It’s pretty obvious the band didn’t plan anything before going to the studio with it… The track is long, boring, long and boring … and even the atmosphere is non-developed, which might have helped matters. Come to think of it, I didn’t even care for Dire Strait’s atmospheric stuff, so what was Neil Young thinking?
The title track is a fun song even though it’s a little too short. The lyrics seem to be a message to his new label that he doesn’t want to be forced into doing things. I guess they complied, which could explain why Young would soon begin to start seriously writing his sort of music.
I also enjoy the generic blues-rocker “Hey Hey” a little more than usual because it has an especially enjoyable horn section, the rhythm section swings as mightily as it ever has, and he brings in a few awesome, wobbly electric guitar licks here and there!
The album opener “Ten Men Workin’” is an OK for an opener — it’s upbeat and it also has a swing to it. Though that particular one has a disadvantage, because any listener hearing this album for the first time is bound to be disturbed at that first instance when they hear Neil Young doing this sort of music. So, I gave it a B-. Maybe it would have been a B in the middle of the album? Well, that’s not a big deal anyway.
The closing song, “One Thing,” is a massive, massive bore, though. It’s six minutes long and not interesting for even one second. Although that seems like small potatoes compared to the eighth track, “Can’t Believe Your Lyin’,” which is about as interesting as Bill Clinton giving a speech not about sex. And it’s semi-embarrassing hearing Young trying to do slow jazz like he was some sort of female sex siren. To say the least, that’s slightly disturbing since he was already getting pretty old and wrinkly.
While this album has some merits and is not as bad as it could have been, there’s really no reason for anyone to hear it. This didn’t inspire any of his disgruntled ex-fans to return to him nor did he attract a new audience. About all this album is good for is existing.
This is the last of Young’s lengthy and, for the most part, critically unsuccessful series of experimental albums – a year later he would make the glorious comeback as a ‘grunge’ rocker and completely re-instate the critics’ rabid faith in him. For some, however, This Note’s For You heralded the comeback – it was somewhat less of a pure experiment, as the album contains its fair share of trademark Neil ballads. Essentially, though, what the man did on here was to record a bunch of not too original, retro-sounding blues and R’n’B tunes and record them with a fully-equipped brass section: in fact, the saxophones and trumpets are the next prominent element on the record after Neil’s guitar, and on the rockers they frequently overshadow Neil as well. Thanks, at least, that they aren’t synthesized; but if you’re not a big jazz or hardcore Chicago blues fanatic, listening to all the songs on a row may cause severe allergy on brass for ever after.
Strange, though, I wouldn’t want to entirely dismiss this album. For starters, there ain’t really a non-decent song on here: at the worst, the tunes simply lack imagination and inspiration, but certainly not solid melodies or awesome musicianship (the brass section is really tight). And, since yours truly is by no means an anti-blues or anti-roots-rock person, I can easily tolerate even the most generic compositions. After all, when it comes to the blues, Neil Young is certainly no Eric Clapton, but he’s no dull ZZ Top, either. The worst problem is that most of this stuff is recorded according to the ‘try it you’ll like it’ formula – no soul, no true passion, nothing to cling on to and nothing to help you treasure the record and distinguish it among a thousand similar ones.
Therefore, I mostly prefer the balladeering stuff on here, especially the most quiet songs like ‘Twilight’ and ‘Coupe De Ville’ which highlight Young’s whiny voice. It hasn’t changed a bit since the last twenty years, and all the better: it’s finally become adequate. It was one thing – to go ahead and try to sound like a wisened old man in the Seventies, but it’s a completely different thing to sound like an old man when you are an old man. In fact, my guess is that it’s mostly this newly-acquired balance between the pretentiousness and the life experience that helps make, say, Harvest Moon such a fascinating listen as compared to Harvest itself… but hey, we’re running ahead. I was talking about the ballads, right?
Well, so ‘Twilight’ is very good; I do get the feeling that the ‘midnight saxophone atmosphere’ banalizes the song, and I could easily do without the brass on it, but otherwise, it’s a soulful, nearly tear-inducing love ballad that gotta rank together with Neil’s best stuff. And ‘Coupe De Ville’, with its mild, quietly strummed guitar and silky, tender vocals, is a highlight as well – you can even tap your foot to it, aided by the gentle percussion beat. In another age, somebody would have made a disco hit out of it; luckily, Neil didn’t ever make a disco album. Or did he? I haven’t yet heard it, then. Probably should have done; it’s a wonder he never tackled foxtrot on his records.
Unfortunately, even the ballads are hit and miss: ‘Coupe De Ville’ is fine for the first time around, but when several songs later it returns to you in a recycled form in ‘Can’t Believe Your Lyin’, you might actually repent in having just been so overemotional. When it comes to the sappy line ‘you have changed my life…’ backed by moody Fifties-pop-like trumpets, I cringe and I crumple and I slowly melt in my chair. And the album closer, ‘One Thing’, drags on for six minutes and doesn’t even have a distinguishable melody – crime! perversion! hideous! Of course, the fact that pretty much NONE of the lyrics ever amount to something more than the tritest love cliches, helps a lot. Man, I’d take Dylan’s Selfportrait over this stuff any time of day.
Back to the rockers – I actually respect a couple of these, too. ‘Ten Men Workin’, with its funny graveyard references, is a terrific barroom opener – just the thing you need to put on for a good party, of course, preferrably in a karaoke version and without the strained grunts of the band imitating the work of ten gravediggers. And both the title track and ‘Life In The City’ are standouts here since they’re the only tracks that manage to light a bit of a fire: the latter injects a mini-dose of social critique, while the former is Neil’s protest against the sold-out nature of show-biz: ‘Ain’t singing for Pepsi/Ain’t singing for Coke/I don’t sing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke’. Punctuating it with sharp, vehement lead guitar and a great swingin’ rhythm, Neil manages to make the song unforgettable – to be honest, I really recommend it as a show opener for any band with enough self-respect so as not to fall into the trap of commercialism.
Overall, the Surgeon General reiterates his warning – HIGHLY hazardous for persons with an allergy on Chicago blues and stuff, but quite recommendable for Neil Young fans. Sure, the two or three real highlights do not make the whole album stand out, and it certainly can’t be regarded as an innovative achievement or anything like that, but if you got cash to burn, there are far worse ways to do that.
Then again – why should you burn cash? Why not give it to somebody who’ll make a wiser use of it? (Me, for instance!) Just give me enough cash, and I’ll have the complete works of Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffett reviewed here by tomorrow’s end!