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Neil Young: Silver & Gold

Album: Gold
Label: Hip-O

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One of the great ironies of Neil Young's career is that, despite his refusal to capitulate to passing trends, he has somehow passed through decades of music, genius intact. Since Young's 1989 comeback Freedom, he's always been given the benefit of the doubt, but while his early-'90s output was as strong as ever, his last few albums have coasted through undernourished songs that subsist on only the occasional surge of vigor. Strangely, his new Silver & Gold actually demonstrates the opposite: This is Young's strongest set of songs in years, but the disc just isn't compelling. Part of the problem is that Young, the restless and wondering spirit, sounds absolutely satisfied to be right where he is. "Good to see you again," he croons on the leadoff track of the same name, to no one in particular. Or maybe to everyone, as Young sounds especially eager to please. A similar theme of nostalgia courses through the delicately devised album, carried by songs so simple and slight that they threaten to float away into the diffused sunset haze. Coming right on the heels of the CSNY reunion, "Buffalo Springfield Again"—an overt olive branch to Young's first band—might seem suspect if it weren't so sweet and earnest. Likewise, the love songs "Horseshoe Man" and "Distant Camera" (which verge on sentimentality) and "The Great Divide" (which hinges on a yearning chorus) get by on the basis of their gentle nature, not their gripping narratives. Unlike Harvest Moon, which it most resembles, Silver & Gold lacks drama: Its drifting daydreams and doodles stick around just long enough to leave a pleasant impression before fading away, but it's a bit like walking into a movie just in time for the happy ending. Still, just because Young likes where he's at doesn't mean there's nowhere left to go. Here's hoping he again finds more to offer than all this useless beauty.