Some artists are easy to peg down: Bob Dylan is a folk singer, Bruce Springsteen is a rock and roller, James Brown is the godfather of soul, and George Clinton is firmly planted in funk. However, there is the occasional artist whose work defies labels, refusing to get too cozy with any particular sound. My favorite artists are these least predictable ones, the ones where we can still get excited about their new album, wondering what it will sound like. Neil Young is an artist who has constantly challenged himself. He may regularly revisit his folk roots, but he is also just as likely to put out a hard rock album.
Sometimes the results are not all that great, but his willingness to try new things is endearing. I have much more respect for an artist who is eager to experiment and fail as opposed to those who have been safely treading water for decades, pumping out the hits guaranteed to draw in the masses. Young’s eclectic nature even got him in trouble with his record label in the 1980’s, who sued him for making “unrepresentative material.” (He eventually won the case, and the lawsuit has gone down in history as one of the dumbest actions taken by a major record label.)
The most endearing quality about Neil’s work, however, is his lyrical style. Everything he writes seems to come straight from the heart, no matter what the mood. At his darkest, he has written glowing tributes to friends and cohorts that he felt left the world too soon. At his brightest, he writes about the endurance of his marriage. Even in his younger days, he wrote some fine love songs. Between his lyrics and his unique voice, Neil’s work is unmistakable, no matter what the genre. He doesn’t have the country outlaw image of Johnny Cash, nor does he have a swarm of rock mythology surrounding him like Keith Richards or Frank Zappa, but Young was and remains a true musical iconoclast.
Of the many hats Neil seems to wear, his most celebrated is that of the acoustic singer-songwriter. His folk-country album Harvest was the best selling disc of 1972, thanks in no small part to the smash hit he had with “Heart Of Gold.”
The album was recorded in Nashville, with some of Music City’s finest session men backing him up, many of whom had backed up Dylan on his 1966 album Blonde On Blonde. He also had his friends David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals. Despite the star-studded cast, Neil is the author of the album. Other highlights from the album include the sentimental “Old Man,” supposedly written in honor of Neil’s ranch-hand, and “The Needle And The Damage Done,” which was a dark ode to Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten, who was struggling with a heroin addiction.
As a whole, Harvest is not Neil’s best record. Many of the songs revisit previously covered territory (“Alabama,” while good, is simply a retelling of his 1970 song “Southern Man,”) and others are simply terrible. Two songs, “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World,” are laughably bad due to the heavy, over-dramatic orchestral overdubs. Thankfully, both songs can be heard – unadorned, with just Neil and a piano – on Live At Massey Hall, 1971, released in 2007. In the live setting, Young plays “A Man Needs A Maid” back to back with “Heart Of Gold,” making a delicate two-song suite. My big criticism with Harvest is that it stinks of being conceived as a deliberate hit. It has its high points, and it is worth owning, but I rarely listen to the whole album from end to end. Twenty years later, Young made Harvest Moon, a spiritual sequel to the original that is vastly superior and more earnest.
After Harvest, Neil included a stray acoustic ballad amidst a batch of heavy rock songs: “Pardon My Heart” from 1975’s Zuma, a gentle meditation on his own flaws in relationships. It is a relaxing break from the rest of the album, and one of Neil’s most heartfelt lyrics. The first side of 1977’s American Stars & Bars (which features a cover design from actor Dean Stockwell) is straight-up country, fiddles and all. As someone who grew up in southern Indiana, preferring to listen to The Sex Pistols than, say, Garth Brooks, I was misguided in thinking all country music was hokey rubbish. That said, Neil’s country efforts on American Stars & Bars are remarkable. He also sounds like he is having a blast.
On “Saddle Up The Palomino,” his electric guitar sounds like it is always on the brink of giving off some nasty feedback, but Young keeps his playing in check. After the almost-too-sweet “Hold Back The Tears,” Neil and his band go into “Bite The Bullet,” a stomping number that serves as the logical crossroads between Neil’s country sensibility and his rock edge. On the flip side of the album is “Will To Love,” a seven-minute ballad with vibraphone flourishes, double-tracked vocals that are occasionally filtered through a phaser effect, and the occasional crackle of a fire. It is often overlooked, but my vote as a sleeper candidate for one of Neil’s best acoustic moments.
Young ended the 1970’s pursuing his acoustic muse with Comes A Time and the first half of Rust Never Sleeps. On the former, Neil offers a collection of soft folk songs. The song “Lotta Love” would be a big hit for singer Nicolette Larson, who sang many of the Comes A Time tracks with Young. She even sings lead on “Motorcycle Mama,” a song reviled by many Young fans, but I dig it. The best song on Comes A Time is the title track. While it is a folk tune throughout the verses and chorus, the instrumentation in the bridge exhibits a difference between fiddles and violins, the whining fiddles supplanted by lush Hollywood strings.
Rust Never Sleeps is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums. With its first half being acoustic and its flip side being Neil’s heaviest electric rock, the album stands with Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home as a bookend to the classic rock era. Punk was on the rise, and Neil was among the few of his generation to appreciate the changing of the guard. Neil reflected on the passage of time with “Thrasher,” making oblique references to his cohorts Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The surrealistic “Ride My Llama” is a story about pot-smoking aliens. On “Pocahontas,” he uses the plight of the Native Americans as a metaphor for the changing rock scene, delivering one of his most beautiful melodies as a backdrop for this surprisingly sentimental number.
Neil started the 1980’s with Hawks & Doves, a mostly acoustic album. The only noteworthy song is “Little Wing” (not to be confused with the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name). The rest of the album is a puzzling mish-mash of country music that does qualify as hokey rubbish. The songs “Comin’ Apart At Every Nail” and “Hawks And Doves” have Neil espousing right wing politics, an ideology wholly out of step with Young’s personality. It’s even worse than it sounds. A similar aura pervades his 1985 album Old Ways, which actually featured noted country stars Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
During Young’s artistic renaissance in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, his 1992 release Harvest Moon was a testament to Neil’s growth and maturity. Rather than merely being a creative peak, Young’s work flourished in the 1990’s; however, Harvest Moon stood out as the only Neil Young album from the decade that was not heavy rock and roll. As Young ages and continues to release music, he periodically returns to folk and country albums amid both rock and more experimental albums. His 2005 album Prairie Wind feature Young in a particularly pensive mood in the aftermath of his father’s death and his own brain aneurysm.
The music on these albums is delicate and heartfelt, showing a depth found in the works of few other artists. It is also in Neil’s folk and country releases that his musical talent, both as a singer and an acoustic guitar player, shines through. Meditations on life, family, monogamy, aging, and death aren’t exactly rock and roll stereotypes, but then Neil Young hardly fits the stereotype of any genre.