Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
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Neil Young is a pivotal figure in rock music, having been a prolific part of it since forming his first band in junior high school in the early sixties. He's changed with the times but he always remains recognisable. The question I tend to ask when a new Neil Young album drops is whether it's relevant or not, because he has a strange habit of drifting out and back into relevance, notably becoming the godfather of grunge. Usually he's relevant or he isn't. This time he's kinda sorta, because this is a real mixed bag of an album.
There's little coherence across the album, these songs doing very different things in very different ways. For instance, it opens up with Think of Me, a pleasant enough three minutes spent with a lot of harmonica and an agreeably stripped down sound (this is the first Neil Young album with Crazy Horse for seven years). But then She Showed Me Love is a four minute song jammed for almost fourteen like this is a rehearsal of a garage band.
The goal, I think, is to hypnotise us into realising how we old white folks screwed up the Earth but the kids just may be able to fix it for us. I'm all for the message but the delivery is strange. Neil, in his traditional way of personifying abstract concepts, tells us that he saw Mother Nature and that "She showed me love". That's fine. The problem is that he repeats that over and over and over and over for a majority of the running time. I did find the often distorted guitar interplay interesting but not that interesting.
From those two utterly different tracks, we're given a real mixture of good, bad and indifferent in no readily apparent order. I wonder how long he spent on the track listing because there's no flow at all.
Let's look at the indifferent first. Olden Days is fair but the lyrics are a litany of expected rhymes that lessen the impact. Milky Way feels agreeably mellow, with the loose garage style guitar never threatening the mood. When we reach the end of the album, the last couple of songs seem fine while they play but they vanish into to the ether like magic tricks after we start the album again.
The bad seems to circulate around the environmental theme raised initially in She Showed Me Love. Eternity follows with a different approach, like it's an old hippie song. Even without context from Young's substantial career and even more substantial impact on rock music, the environmental material here sounds like an old hippie railing politely at the times. With Eternity, it's as if he's forgotten to even do that. Hey, listen to the train!
And that leaves the good, most obvious in Help Me Lose My Mind, where we can buy absolutely into that railing. It's an angry song, so much so that Young is too affected by his words that he hardly sings; he speaks and shouts and emotes. This is exactly the mood that Crazy Horse backs up so well. Young's often dissonant guitar finds real impact when he's hurling out his lyrics or just entreating us, "Won't someone help me lose my mind".
Based on the raw impact of that song, I'd have liked a lot more anger here. You're not wrong, Neil. We old white guys screwed up a heck of a lot but, it wasn't you and me, so maybe we should be angry about it on more than just a couple of songs. Help Me Lose My Mind is the one that really works. Shut It Down kinda works too. But nothing else here has any comparable anger level.
For example, the song in between them, Green is Blue, is the exact opposite of angry. It feels mellow, with some really nice tones in play. The lyrics continue the anger about environmental issues but, as if it was written and recorded while incredibly high, that anger is diffused into calm melancholy and elegaic acceptance. "There's so much we didn't do." It took me a while to get into it because it's so unlike its bookends, but it does its job.
And so this is a mixed bag. For three songs in the middle of the album, it's great stuff. Elsewhere there are just moments. What this album does most for me is tell me that, given the state of our times, Neil Young needs to record more with Crazy Horse. Channel that anger and scream at a lot more than just the environment. We old white guys screwed up a lot more than that.