Is Neil Young Losing The Plot?

This is going to be hard to write.

I feel like a traitor, a turncoat.

That I’ve turned on a life-long friend.  Also, this site prides itself on its positive outlook – the mantra here is report on music I like and news that’s relevant.

Maybe I won’t finish this, maybe I’ll get cold feet.

I first met Neil Young over forty years ago.  I still remember that day.

It was on the beach.

He was staring out to sea, wearing a lemon top and white calico pants.  His long dark hair streaming behind.  He was the coolest person I’d ever seen.  Nixon was in the news again and there was a newspaper lying on the sand.  There was a car fin lodged in the sand – it was weird, but I sought no explanation.

Some of the things Neil said that day were so profound, introspective and sharp that I still recall them vividly to this day.

The world is turnin’,
I hope it don’t turn away,

I need a crowd of people,
but I can’t face them
day to day,

I went to the radio interview,
but I ended up alone
at the microphone

“On The Beach”

I never knew a man
could tell so many lies
He had a different story
for every set of eyes.
How can he remember
who he’s talkin’ to?
‘Cause I know it ain’t me,
and I hope it isn’t you

And there ain’t nothin’
like a friend
Who can tell you
you’re just pissin’
in the wind

“Ambulance Blues”

See the sky about to rain, broken clouds and rain. Locomotive, pull the train, whistle blowing through my brain

“See The Sky About To Rain”

Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.

“Revolution Blues”

Well, all those headlines, they just bore me now I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow

“Motion Pictures”

 

Of course, I didn’t meet Neil.  But it was in 1974 that I bought my first Neil Young record, mainly on speculation.  was it the cover? was it just luck?  I don’t believe I have heard a finer album since (and believe me, I have listed to a few in the intervening years).  Yes folks, given the order to take one album to my desert island, it would be On The Beach.  I could not live without it.

Since then it’s been all Neil.  The second album I purchased was Time Fades Away and then it was all over red rover – everything he has ever released, plus bootlegs (sorry!), boxed sets, DVDs, archives, re-releases, movies, books, guitar music.

A life-long friendship – Neil and I.

Well, I must admit that I don’t feel the relationship to have been between equals.  In fact, sometimes I feel that Neil hasn’t heard a word I’ve said over the forty-year journey.  But that’s sorta been OK – he has a lot to say himself, he is following his muse in that determinedly, sometimes eccentric and single-minded way that the best creators do and he has given me so much.

Hell, I’ve even withstood the 80s when some of his output became hard work.

You might know what it’s like to follow – passionately and unflinchingly – an artist no matter what, through thick and thin, without question or doubt.  Being a guy, I have been a collector and, ultimately, the aim is to collect everything.  Over the years though, you get to the point where you just lose the desire to unquestionably part with your hard-earned cash constantly in order to be a completist.  I stopped buying without question the latest, say, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, The Cure but I’ve never given up on Neil because there’s always been some redeeming feature to his work or enough promise in what is to come.

Until now.

My devotion started to waver around Fork In The Road.  It was ramshackle and loose-limbed, had a funny film clip but it seemed to be cobbled together with such haste, that somehow I didn’t feel like it had his whole attention during its creation.  Le Noise engaged uber-producer Daniel Lanois and was an interesting move into stripped-back electric guitar and voice material.  For me though the album lacked diversity, in tone and colour.  Then there was Americana, a bold but unsuccessful attempt to breathe new life into a bunch of traditional tunes – a few tracks OK and some a little embarrassing.

Psychedelic Pill was a return to form, of sorts.  Finally, back with Crazy Horse and the time-honored long grooves that have epitomised Neil’s best work.  Maybe the song-writing wasn’t as profound (“Ramada Inn”!) and we have heard much of the vibe before, but at least I felt that Neil was back focused on music foremost (and that maybe Linc Volt, books, archive releases and Pono had taken a back seat).

But A Letter Home has tipped me over the edge.  Another covers album for a start (two out of the last three).  Now I get the sentiment of returning to the songs he first learned and appreciated.  I have to say the audio tracks to his mother, the lacklustre approach and just plain bad song judgement have unnerved me.  But the sound quality!!  Nostalgia is great but if music was sold with this recording technique back in the late forties or fifties, the music business would have died back then.

I’ve played it once the whole way through and that’s it.  Neil’s worst release ever?

Anyway, I’ve got that off my chest and I don’t feel particularly cleansed.

I feel bad, just like when I started writing this.

Maybe I’m wrong?

 

Anyway, here’s my ratings of Neil’s outputs since day dot (out of 5, and I have allowed myself no halves).

 

Neil Young 3 1968
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 5 1969
After the Gold Rush 5 1970
Harvest 5 1972
Time Fades Away 4 1973
On the Beach 5 1974
Tonight’s the Night 4 1975
Zuma 4 1975
Long May You Run 3 1976
American Stars ‘N Bars 4 1977
Comes a Time 5 1978
Rust Never Sleeps 5 1979
Live Rust 5 1979
Hawks & Doves 4 1980
Re-ac-tor 3 1981
Trans 2 1982
Everybody’s Rockin’ 2 1983
Old Ways 3 1985
Landing on Water 3 1986
Life 2 1987
This Note’s for You 3 1988
Freedom 4 1989
Ragged Glory 5 1990
Arc 1 1991
Weld 4 1991
Arc Weld 4 1991
Harvest Moon 5 1992
Unplugged 3 1993
Sleeps with Angels 4 1994
Mirror Ball 3 1995
Dead Man 3 1996
Broken Arrow 2 1996
Year of the Horse 3 1997
Silver & Gold 3 2000
Road Rock, Vol. 1: Friends & Relatives 2 2000
Are You Passionate? 2 2002
Greendale 3 2003
Prairie Wind 4 2005
Living with War 3 2006
Live at the Fillmore East 4 2006
Chrome Dreams II 3 2007
Fork in the Road 2 2009
Le Noise 3 2010
Americana 1 2012
Psychedelic Pill 4 2012
A Letter Home 0 2014

 

Please tell me I’m wrong…

 

Author: Rob Dickens

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9 Comments

  1. No your not wrong. I would give a few albums and extra star, take one away from a couple but your spot on with this article and your rating. Neil used to be my favorite and like you I also have all his stuff. He has totally lost me on his regular false updates on NYA Volume II as well. He just cant be trusted to give anyone the straight scoop anymore. He is more interested in sleeping around with the mermaid woman, dumping his wife who nursed him through decades of substance abuse issues and putting out hale hearted and as you also said, too many covers albums. He was the man back in the day, now he’s just a pono peddling (wouldn’t take one if he gave them away), cantankerous old man…look at your life…

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  2. As John said I wouldn’t quibble much with your ratings. A few changes here and there. So much talent but his output of late is very hit and miss. Storytone. Where do I began? The orchestra might have been a good idea had the songs been better but they weren’t. The acoustic versions are listenable but not especially memorable. I’ve heard two tracks off The Monsanto Years. Really enjoyed Big Box, but the Starbuck song was a bit too goofy for me. I admire Neil for not pandering to his audience, on the other hand there is too much pissing in the wind.

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    • Well Tom, it’s been a while since I wrote that article. Since then I have heard a couple of tracks from “Storytone” and didn’t want to go any further. Must admit I don’t hold out many hopes for “The Monsanto Years” either. Neil is so busy at the moment, with books, audio players, conservation, railing at corporates. Maybe he should spend more time on (to quote Steve Earle about his own music career) his ‘day job’. Incidentally, I was in Nashville last September and visited Third Man Records and saw the famous Voice-O-Graph booth. Not surprised ‘A Letter Home’ sounds like it does!

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  3. Rob, I don’t have that much hope for Monsanto years either, however I did really enjoy “Big Box”. Maybe not the greatest lyrics but the music was pretty good. I thought it was more like what I heard on Psychedelic pill. Neil use to be auto buy for me but lately I need to listen. I took a chance on Storytone and I was sorry I did. Didn’t buy Letter from home or Fork in the Road.

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  4. LIke you i have all neil’s albums including , the monsanto years , yes i know its not officially released yet , but that’s life , i agree with all ,well 90-95% anyway, my order would for giving points be 5 points each for Everybody knowns….after the gold rush….time fades away…..on the beach…zuma…..ragged glory……. i know no harvest but can’t stand ‘a man needs a maid & ‘there a world’ if those to tracks were replaced by ‘through my sails’ & ‘don’t be denied’ i would have gave it 5 or 5.1! ps the new album seems to be a lot large lot of the musicical riffs etc come from the living with war sessions a 3

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    • I like “Man needs a Maid” although I admit it’s a bit dated these days (a bit sexist maybe?) and it is overproduced for sure. I just read a review of The Mosanto Years by American Songwriter – not encouraging, it mentioned that most of the stuff Neil has done since the aneurism (2000?) has appeared rushed and incomplete. Maybe that’s another one I won’t buy…

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      • I fully agree most of the stuff Neil has done lately has appeared rushed. He seems to value inspiration and spontaneity over the finished song. I will say that I felt “The Monsanto Years” does suffer from lyrical laziness, the music does not. Whether that is due to the youthfulness of the two Nelson sons I cannot say. I will say that I really enjoy the music. This is one of the few, the other being “Psychedelic Pill” that I truly enjoy.

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        • Yeah, Psychedelic Pill is a shining light. no question. Thanks for the views on the musicianship on ‘The Mosanto Years’

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