I discovered Trans as a void, an empty space in my father’s record collection where the album may (or may not) once have sat. Did he sell it back to the store after one spin? God knows my father would have hated it, but still, the absence in his collection seemed puzzling: nearly everything else in Young’s vast discography was there and accounted for, dating back to the 1969 self-titled debut and including rarities like Time Fades Away (out-of-print since the ‘70s, and never released on CD) and the Journey from the Past soundtrack, so why not Trans?
I filled the void.
I can’t recall the precise chain of fascinations that led me to it. I know I found the LP cheap on Amazon (used, of course—the album has never been reissued, and the CD never released at all, in the US), and I know it was more than completist compulsion that drove me to Add To Cart. I was struck more, I think, by the notion of a black-sheep album so warped beyond all recognition, so incontrovertibly screwed-up, as to preclude coherent reconciliation with the rest of a beloved songwriter’s storied catalogue. How do you deal with a Neil Young album that refuses to behave like a Neil Young album?
If that seems attractive to me (and it does), it may hint at a frequent personal gravitation towards the “weird” album in the discography—the one that doesn’t quite fit. Records that ruined careers, infuriated label heads, maybe found an audience a generation later, or maybe not at all. I think of PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?, with its uncompromisingly abrasive textures and twisted character sketches that made fans question the artist’s mental well being. I think of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Slowdive’s Pygmalion, two of my personal favorite records, and two of the best records ever to end record contracts. (Though their sprawling abstractions alienated fans and critics alike, both works found eventual acclaim as landmark precursors to what would later became post-rock.)
And I think of Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man, perhaps the clearest parallel to Trans by simple virtue of its abrupt divergence from the stylistic trademarks of Cohen’s rich songbook. Here, the sparse folk backdrop of “Suzanne” or “Joan of Arc” is violently subverted by Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound production; the music’s swampy texture seems almost to hint at the vulgar lyrical fantasies. Most potently, there is the remorseless obscuring of an iconic, raw voice behind thick sheets of disguise (in this case, chaotic backing vocals and murky reverb) and this, intriguingly, is precisely the same offense that rendered Trans so immensely incomprehensible to so many.
If there’s a problem with the parallel, it’s that Cohen has largely been absolved of blame for Ladies’ Man’s commercial and critical failure. It was Spector’s doing, disapproving fans proclaim—the album has his fingerprints all over it. Popular legend even has the producer threatening Cohen with a crossbow, and literally locking the singer out of the studio to mix the record—to fulfill his own grotesque creative vision—without interference from, you know, Leonard Cohen himself. Trans has no such scapegoat. It was Young’s project to the end. His fingers on the buttons, his hands on the dials.
Direct the Action with the Push of a Button
And so, in 1982 Neil Young became “involved in something that [he] shouldn’t have been involved in”: electronica. Vocoders. Drum machines. Synthesizers. Lyrics about fascist robots and “computer cowboys.” Song titles like “Sample and Hold” and “We R in Control”. Mastered it, called it Trans. Sent the tapes to Geffen.
The bizarre project was to be his first release for the recently founded label.
Among casual fans and admirers, the album typically inspires more bafflement than it does ire. Bemused chuckles are the norm; shrugs of “What’ll he do next?” as trivializing as they are meaningless. It’s evoked more in the abstract, as an isolated and largely inexplicable event—something Neil did back in the ‘80s and just as quickly left behind—rather than a living, breathing album and enduring document, something one can still, in 2010, acquire and explore and formulate an opinion on.
Among professional critics, bafflement more frequently gives way to outright dismissal. William Ruhlmann, writing for AllMusic, awards the album two out of five stars and concisely affirms the popular verdict: “Trans had a few good songs… but on the whole it was an idea that just didn’t work.” The 1996 MusicHound Guide to Rock echoes the sentiment, lumping Trans together with its immediate follow-up, Everbody’s Rockin’: “[Neil Young]’s biggest failures were wild stabs at different genres.”
Thus, the record becomes a thoughtless reference point, a knee-jerk namedrop alongside other hugely successful artists’ bizarrely self-indulgent experiments that Just Didn’t Work (see: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, John Lennon’s Two Virgins, Dylan’s Self Portrait). It loses its distinctiveness. If it isn’t Neil Young’s most universally hated album, it’s certainly his most misunderstood.
That’s unfortunate. Because it’s one of my favorites. It’s a compelling and wholly singular work; it’s catchy, even, and—yes—sincerely moving, at least in parts.
So I mount my defense.
I’d like to think that by now most of you understand where I’m coming from. Be that as it may, there will likely be a percentage of you who will not understand why a writer who has chosen to focus on progressive music would have anything to do with Neil Young. Never mind that he was a driving force behind the proto-grunge movement and helped in no small way to define the Seattle Sound… and that he has, for that matter, hopped around from genre to genre leaving his mark in each one for the better part of forty five years. Forget that he’s a Canadian national treasure and, though I normally don’t buy into that sort of thing, I love him for it. No, if there’s any one reason to include Neil in our stroll through the history of prog, it’s his criminally underrated album Trans.
The seeds of the album were sown in his third album with his sometimes backing band Crazy Horse, 1981′s Re.ac.tor. While trying to find therapeutic ways to relate to his second son (both of Young’s sons were born with cerebral palsy), Neil acquired a synclavier and a vocoder. The synclavier made its way onto Re.ac.tor, which, while it did feature the proto-grunge elements of Rust Never Sleeps, was written off by most die hard fans as an attempt to merge with the popular new wave movement, a dominating force in the post-punk landscape of the early eighties.
After signing with David Geffen in 1982, Neil briefly began work on a more familiar-sounding record which was to be called Island in the Sun, but Geffen expressed that he would like to hear something a little stronger. Young’s focus shifted once again to the sessions with his son. He quickly built a concept out of the boy Ben’s inability to speak. Using the vocoder to mutate his speech, Young combined the reality of the then emerging and computer age with his son’s struggle to communicate to create a work that would depict the irony of the ‘information age.’ Though three of the tracks from Island in the Sun would be included as something familiar, the six remaining tracks would feature vocoder-processed lyrics which, with a few exceptions, would be entirely indiscernible. The fruit of this brilliantly progressive concept is Trans.
The first track on the album is one of the ones from the Island sessions and I can only imagine it caused a great deal of confusion among the man’s loyal fan base. “Little Thing Called Love” is a very familiar type of Neil Young track, even going so far as to include a very “Harvest Moon”-like guitar hook after the chorus. I suppose this track was placed first on the album to remind everyone that this was in fact a Neil Young album. The next track, however, hurls us directly into the grand Trans concept.
To me, the album’s second song, “Computer Age,” is one of the greatest examples of how prog mutated and survived throughout the eighties. Although most hardcore prog fans consider the emergence of new wave and electronic music as anti-progressive (believe me, most of it was just fluff created to entertain a mindless pop-culture majority), I find it very difficult to write off intelligent concepts that used the emerging popular sound as a tool to make intelligent concepts heard rather than dismissed. The song begins with a synth beat that will sound familiar to haters of the current electropop resurgence. For the love of prog, try not to think of it this way! I’ll say it once so that we’re clear: the modern electro-resurgence is entirely made up of mass-produced tripe that makes money because little girls can dance to it and say ‘hehehe, that sounds funny!’ and spread it around the net in the form of the ever-popular meme… and the only self-respecting male that can listen to it is only listening to it to get girls. In this way, it is akin to disco. For heaven’s sake, the difference between that and the handful of intelligent experimental electronic composers from the late seventies and early eighties is night and day! Neil Diamond and Tony Iommi both used guitars, are they the same? Pardon the outburst; I’m sure the majority of you are mature enough to understand this album.
The aforementioned beat brings us into a strikingly bleak sound and then to one of the most beautiful guitar hooks I have ever heard. The whole sound before we even get to vocals is perfect for the growing sense of the emergent cut-throat big business dystopia that so populated the eighties underground (i.e. Blade Runner and anything by author William Gibson). The vocoder-filtered vocals finalise the picture and illustrate well the oft-explored concept of a future where humanity comes in clips and sentence fragments.
This dystopian concept is even more prominent in “We R In Control,” and by this point, if you aren’t familiar with his guitar tone, you likely won’t recognise this as a Neil Young song. However, even with the electro-saturation, one can still hear Young’s ingenius ability to implement catchy hooks in any and all types of music. This and all the rest are wholly typical Neil Young tunes if that they are cleverly disguised on the exterior. One needs only to closer inspect the compositions. As proof of this, “Transformer Man” has been performed in acoustic form, notably on his MTV Unplugged album.
The second side begins with another, more familiar-sounding tune (complete with the infinitely more natural sounds of pedal steel and electric piano) but then we’re right back into the prevailing concept with the sprawling “Sample and Hold” which, while quite dancy (cringe), contains subtle and atmospheric guitar playing that I bloody love. We are eased out of the synth stuff with “Mr. Soul,” a song that to me is pretty much a straight-forward electro interpretation of a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll tune. The album’s coda is the bitchin’ “Like An Inca,” the nearly ten minute track that makes this album a must even for fans who will skip the electronic stuff. “Like An Inca” is the third non-concept track intended for Island in the Sun and it is seventies Neil all the way!
Because I feel it is one of the neatest, the album’s cover must be mentioned. As one of the first to be drawn on computer, it is nothing short of progressive in its own right.
If you’ve heard the album before and put it down because of its notorious departure from previous works, take what I have put down here and give the album another listen. I, and to a far greater extent I’m sure Neil, would love for you to appreciate Trans for what it’s really about. And if you’re an astral traveller who has been wandering through the depths of prog space and never ever thought to set the controls for Neil Young, you now have good reason to.
Categorised in: Album Reviews, Reviews
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2 Responses »
October 18, 2012 • 5:19 pm
Neil Young’s musical journey took a few detours from his style of folk rock/grunge that he was known for. These stylistic sidelines took him to rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’), R&B/Blues (This Note’s For You), Pop/New Wave (Landing On Water), and Electronic (Trans). These sidetrips were negatively accepted by both critic and fans when these albums were released. But now, these detours can now be perceived in the proper perspective as Young’s experimentation with other genres for whatever reason they served the artist.
Experimentation – this is probably one of the reasons why Neil Young is one of the last holdovers from the classic rock era. For this, he has earned my respect and admiration.