In the year 2000 Neil Young was 55. Since then, he has been in a buoyant creative mood. So far, he has released 16 studio albums - not counting two live albums, one soundtrack, and the 12 archive series albums - and launched his portable media player Pono.
In a time when people are generally starting to slow down their lives, Young has done the reverse. He has actually gone into overdrive.
These releases have helped redefined his career. This is the most creative period of Young’s 57-year career. And that is saying something. What makes these releases so enjoyable is how diverse they are.
‘Greendale’ is a concept album, film, and book based around a family living in a fictional town. ‘Are You Passionate?’ was a soul album made in collaboration with Booker T and the MGs. ‘Storytone’ was an album of big band music. ‘Fork In The Road’ was written about Young’s Lincoln Continental that had been reconfigured to run on alternative energy. Plus, let’s not forget his searing anti-war protest album ‘Living with War’.
Neil Young is not just going through the motions, rather he is still trying to push himself artistically rather than releasing his fans expect him to do.
But why are we surprised? He has done this his whole career.
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Neil Young’s 25th album, ‘Greendale’, was an absolute delight. After the slightly lacklustre ‘Silver And Gold’ and ‘Are You Passionate?’ he needed to come back big. And big he did. Not only was it the first Crazy Horse album since ‘Broken Arrow’ in 1996, but it is a 10-song rock opera/concept album set in a fictional California seaside town.
As JD Salinger used the Glass family to tell his stories, Young brought us the Green family. Musically Young and Crazy Horse sound like they are having a blast. Yes, the ramshackle bar-room blues on ‘Double E’ feels really far removed from the elegant performances on ‘Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere’, ‘Harvest’ and ‘Comes A Time’, but there is something compelling to its ad-hoc rhythms.
Throughout the album the Green family fight for environmental causes, discover how mass media enforces our views and finally exposing the corruption of their small town. In 2004 Young released a DVD version of the story with actors lip-synching the lyrics.
2010 saw the release of a graphic novel version through Vertigo. While there were not as effective as the album, they did flesh out the story a bit more giving it another lease of life. With it is rich with storyline ‘Greendale’ is an examination of small-town America, warts, and all.
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Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Throughout Neil Young’s career there are a slew of albums that were set for released yet shelved at the 11th hour. ‘Chrome Dreams’ was set for a 1977 release but ‘American Stars ‘N Bars’ was ultimately picked instead.
None of the songs from the original feature on ‘Chrome Dreams II’, but three were ‘lost’ songs from previous albums. ‘Beautiful Bluebird’ was written for ‘Old Ways’, ‘Boxcar’ and ‘Ordinary People’ were taken from the unreleased ‘Times Square’ album. The album is a mixture of tender ballads and full on searing rockers.
Despite being released 13 years ago it still resonates now. ‘Ordinary People’ is about how the ‘working man’ sees America and the hardships and inequalities dealt with during daily life. As I said, it still resonates now.
Around this time, I saw Young at the Hammersmith Apollo. Unlike other legacy acts who are still touring and phoning it in, Young’s live shows are broken into two parts. An acoustic set and a full band set. Throughout the acoustic set Young sat with an acoustic guitar and played to sheer silence.
The second performance was a blistering full band set. Crazy Horse and Buffalo Springfield songs were immaculately segued between bangers from Young’s stacked back catalogue. While the band played there was a painter in the background painting interpretative pieces either based in the songs.
For over three hours Young had the audience where he wanted. Captivated.
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‘Le Noise’ (2010)
After the bombastic ‘Living With War’, ‘Chrome Dreams II’ and underwhelming ‘Fork In The Road’ Young stripped things back for his next album. ‘Le Noise’ just features Neil Young, a guitar, a load of distortion, and producers Daniel Lanois and Mark Howard applying dub techniques. It sounds unlike any other album Young has released.
Lyrically there are themes hanging over from his previous run of albums. After ‘Living With War’ you could tell Young had not finished writing protest songs, as there were still things to protest. ‘Love And War’ feels like it could easily fit in with those collections of songs. ‘Le Noise’ features another ‘lost’ song ‘Hitchhiker’. Originally intended as an acoustic number but Young, Lanois and Howard beefed up the sound making it a genuine standout.
What is remarkable about ‘Le Noise’ is the sheer scare, and textures, of the sound. Young just playing with a guitar is not nothing new, but here the volume, levels of distortion and studio effects make it sound like he is playing in a cave, rather than in a home studio.
The album is not just my favourite of his recent output but is probably my favourite Young album period.
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Psychedelic Pill (2012)
In 2012 Young released not one album but two Crazy Horse albums. ‘Americana’ was the first. Expectation was high as it was the first time Young had played with Crazy Hose since 2003’s ‘Greendale’. Here Young & Co. took apart traditional American folk songs and reimagined them for a contemporary audience. It was not bad but did not feel like a classic.
A few months later ‘Psychedelic Pill’ was released. This felt like the real deal. At 90 minutes it may be the longest studio album Young has ever released. Parts of it are ungainly and overwhelming, but that is also part of the charm. Yes, it could have been trimmed to a tight 60 mins, but it is the prolonged parts that really make it enjoyable.
The band are following Young’s lead down every song’s twist and turn. This makes ‘Psychedelic Pill’ perhaps the best Crazy Horse album since ‘Rust Never Sleeps’. What it does better than previous Crazy Horses albums is capture the magic when those musicians are together in a room and start to play. There is a rawness to the guitars that Young never seems to obtain on solo.
The crunchy guitars on ‘Born In Ontario’ are worth the entrance fee alone. Lyrically, they have an aching tenderness to them that makes you sit up and take notice.
This is the kind of album that you can get lost in its labyrinth of melodies and killer hooks.
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‘Paradox’ is a soundtrack to a film written and directed by Young’s wife Daryl Hannah. It is a musical in which a gang of outlaws hide in the mountains looking for treasure. It's OK, but the soundtrack more than makes up for the film’s shortcomings. Throughout the album are instrumental tracks called ‘Paradox Passages’. These passages are reminiscent of Young’s score to the Jim Jarmusch ‘Dead Man’.
The album also features re-recorded versions of older songs ‘Show Me’, ‘Peace Trail’, ‘Pocahontas’, ‘Tumbleweed’ with ‘Hey’ containing a riff from ‘Love And Only Love’. Instead of being a solo album, or using Crazy Horse, Young uses the Promise of the Real as his backing band. This is the third time he has used the Promise of the Real. Through their inclusion ‘Paradox’ gives plenty of nods to his rich past, but they sound different enough to the original version that they sound fresh and exciting.
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Living with War (2006) / Living with War: The Beginning (2007)
‘Living With War’ is a scathing attack on the Bush administration and their conduct of the war in Iraq. ‘Living With War: The Beginning’ is a stripped back version of the same album. ‘Let Us Impeach the President’ could be Young’s finest post-2000 song and has sadly never sounded to vital.
A Letter Home (2014)
An album of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Gordon Lightfoot covers recorded straight to vinyl at Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph.
Peace Trail (2016)
The solo on ‘Can’t Stop Workin’ is one of the best on any Young album and worthy of a further exploration.
The first Crazy Horse album since 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ it features original band member Nils Lofgren, playing with the band for the first time since 1971s self-titled ‘Crazy Horse’.
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Neil Young releases new album 'Homegrown' on June 19th.
Words: Nick Roseblade
Photo Credit: Henry Diltz
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