In the original liner notes to Neil Young’s 1977 anthology Decade, the singer-songwriter comments briefly about where his head was at after his multi-platinum 1972 country-rock album Harvest. “I was becoming more interested in an audio verité approach,” Young writes, explaining the bumpy path his music would take over the next five years. It’s not that his songs became difficult to understand in the 1970s, or even harder to like. Young’s a classicist, who believes in plain folk ballads and garage-rock, with verses, choruses, hooks, and solos. But while his peers were buying into the major label system by plowing their royalties back into polished albums—letting everything from the running order to the cover art be fussed over in corporate boardrooms—Young recorded and released his work haphazardly, aiming to document his state of mind during a dark, chaotic period of his life. The resulting music was mostly too raw for radio, and confounded some critics as well, primarily because it sometimes seemed like Young had barely worked on his records at all.
Last week, Reprise Records released The Monsanto Years, a concept/protest album that Young recorded with Willie Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas—and Lukas’ band Promise Of The Real—full of songs about how corporate greed is ruining farming and other grassroots American businesses. The LP joins a recent run of sometimes-baffling Young releases like Storytone (performed with an orchestra), A Letter Home (modern folk and country covers recorded in Jack White’s vintage Voice-o-graph booth), Americana (creaky old folk covers recorded with a children’s choir), Psychedelic Pill (epic-length jams reflecting on the 1960s), Fork In The Road (a set of songs about the past and future of automobile production), and Living With War (a series of loud, tuneless rants against George W. Bush’s war on terror).
But this has always been the course of Young’s career. After leaving the Toronto folk scene and moving to California in the mid-’60s, Young hooked up with old acquaintance Stephen Stills and formed one of the hottest acts on the Sunset Strip, Buffalo Springfield. Almost as soon as the band started getting popular, Young bristled at the showbiz hoops he was asked to jump through, so he bailed and went solo, releasing a few idiosyncratic but ecstatically received LPs before rejoining Stills in the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Again, massive popularity—and the layers of management that came with it—drove Young away, and while he’d return to CSNY periodically on his own terms, he mostly preferred to doodle in the margins.
Then in the late 1970s—with the career-defining Decade and the music that immediately followed—Young briefly became a critics’ darling and bankable star again, and responded by signing with a new label and embarking on a series of off-model ’80s albums that frustrated his new bosses and squandered his stores of public goodwill. He rebounded in the ’90s with a handful of more accessible records that fit well into the post-grunge era, and has since assumed a position as rock’s irrepressible elder statesman, even though his actual music is stranger now than it’s ever been.
Throughout Young’s less successful periods, he’s continued to produce timeless songs, as well as music that’s fascinatingly personal—even when it’s not something a fan could play for a neophyte and say, “This is Neil Young; I think you’ll like it.” It’s hard to reduce Young to an hourlong playlist, not just because he’s recorded enough essential tracks to fill a 10-CD box set, but because some of his more offbeat work inevitably has to be excluded, as well as some of his most popular. Young’s long jams with his off-and-on band Crazy Horse are among his most beloved, but they take up space that could go toward a wider sampling of his career. On the flipside, it’s hard to come up with songs from shaky LPs like Re-a-ctor, Trans, or Old Ways that are good enough to push worthier Young favorites off the list, even though those records are a major part of the Young story. (The synthesizer/vocoder-driven Trans in particular is an underrated effort, notable both for how a veteran rocker grappled with new musical technology and for how it represents an attempt by Young to use electronic sounds to communicate with his profoundly disabled son.)
That said, this Power Hour does try to dig a little deeper than the best-known Young hits, with a few exceptions. There’s no “Cinnamon Girl” here, or “Heart Of Gold,” “Rockin’ In The Free World,” “Like A Hurricane,” “Mr. Soul,” or “Hey Hey My My.” (“Harvest Moon” does make the cut though, both because it’s excellent and because it represents its era in an essential way.) Consider this just one of many possible ways to encapsulate one of the most consistently vital artists of the rock ’n’ roll era.
After leaving Buffalo Springfield, Young recorded a fussy but frequently brilliant debut album that positioned him as one of the best of the many hippie musicians haunting Topanga Canyon. But Young became fascinated with a local garage-rock band, The Rockets, so for his second album he appropriated three of its members, christened them “Crazy Horse,” and dropped the production frippery for a raw, loud album that blew past the more tasteful “cosmic America” of other Los Angeles folk and country outfits. The title track to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is the LP in miniature: Raucous, twangy, and slightly bruised, with as much of a spotlight on the backing band (in particular singer-guitarist Danny Whitten) as the frontman. This album and this song laid the foundation for the decades of Young music to come that would prize a live, frazzled sound.
While Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere proved there was more to Young than his early work had suggested, it was the follow-up After The Gold Rush that started to establish him as “Neil Young, genius singer-songwriter.” Unlike the stoned jams of Nowhere, After The Gold Rush consists mostly of tightly constructed songs, using more acoustic instruments (including a piano played by hot-shot teenage guitarist Nils Lofgren, who’d had no training on the instrument), and a number of its tracks have been covered over the years. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” exemplifies the tone and approach of Gold Rush. The album properly introduced the prematurely world-weary side of Young—previously evident on a few scattered songs—while retaining the poetic allusiveness of his early work. It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret a line like, “Don’t let it bring you down / It’s only castles burning,” but the words do rattle around in the listener’s head, perhaps because they insinuate more than they actually say.
In 1972, Young released his biggest album, Harvest, which took some of the best of the songs that he’d been workshopping on the road for two or three years and presented them in spare country-rock arrangements, played by real Nashville pros. “Journey Through The Past” was left off that album, though it did appear provide the title for a bizarre 1972 Young art-film, and it’s become enough a part of the Young canon to serve as an elegy to the fading hippie dream in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film Inherent Vice. It’s a lovely song, capturing the “laid-back dudes picking on the porch” feel of the best of Harvest, while also cutting to the heart of the reactionary nostalgia that’s a key part of the Young aesthetic.
The anthology Decade restored Young’s critical reputation, and almost by accident—because it wouldn’t have been in his nature to do this intentionally—he capitalized with two new albums that sold well and kept the kudos coming. The first, the country-folk-inflected Comes A Time, was surprisingly mainstream; but the second, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, upheld Young’s gonzo spirit. After Harvest, Young became frustrated by his band’s inability to do justice to his next batch of songs, and he attempted to solve that problem by using the Harvest tour to record the poorly received (but ultimately underrated) Time Fades Away. He brought that “new songs played live” concept back for Rust Never Sleeps, taping concerts where he played material that he’d never gotten right enough in the studio to release. “Powderfinger” serves as the transition point between the two sides of that album—one acoustic, one electric—by working some fiery guitar solos into a wistful mid-tempo country-rock track. The triumphant hook is largely ironic, given that “Powderfinger” tells the story of a young man seeing his native culture’s impending doom floating down the river in the form of a gunboat. But the overall sound of the song is enhanced considerably by the live recording, which sounds appropriately frayed and desperate.
With Buffalo Springfield, Young tried out a lot of what he’d expand on throughout the rest of his career, working in a wider range of modes (and a lot more intuitively) than his fellow Buffalos. “I Am A Child,” one of his last songs with the band, is closest in style to the direction he was headed on his early solo albums, with its simple structure, pretty melody, elegantly sparse arrangement, and lyrics that are at once mysterious and crystal clear.
In retrospect, it’s easy to listen to Neil Young’s self-titled debut album and hear the artist he’d become buried not-too-deep beneath the layers of strings and elaborate rock orchestrations. Neil Young’s “The Loner” has remained a staple of his live shows, though subsequent versions have been a lot louder and/or shaggier than this pretty, trippy 1968 take. Here the fuzzy guitars are mildly abrasive instead of cutting, and Young sings instead of shouting, which allows his voice to harmonize a little with the swirling backing track. Meanwhile, the third-person description of an elusive individual displays the kind of intimate detail that suggests Young may have been looking into the mirror when he thought up the words.
There’s no purer example of Young’s “audio verité” vision than the album Tonight’s The Night, which was originally recorded in 1973 and then shelved because it struck both him and his label as maybe too dark and nervy. Performed late at night by a band bombed on tequila (among other things), the record was Young’s way of dealing with the drug overdoses of two close friends (including Whitten), by singing songs about death, need, and the maddening exhaustion of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. On “Speakin’ Out,” Young delivers a sleepy vocal performance over a draggy beat, while the guitars and piano sloppily pluck their way to fleeting moments of heart-stopping beauty. The whole song sounds like it’s falling apart, which makes its lyrical stretches all the more wonderful. Life is messy, “Speakin’ Out” seems to say, yet within that mess there’s still something worth celebrating.
Toward the end of the ’80s, after Young had befuddled his fans with one “off-brand” album after another, he embarked on a tour similar to the one that resulted in Rust Never Sleeps, featuring a combination of previously unreleased songs and lively new ones, all harkening back to the classic Young sound of thumping rock ’n’ roll and sweet ballads. The album that followed the tour, Freedom, stunned critics who’d almost written him off, and effectively relaunched his career heading into the ’90s. Some fans (including Jimmy McDonough, the author of the Young bio Shakey) have griped that Freedom is wimpy in comparison to how its songs sounded on tour, but “Don’t Cry” offers a strong counterpoint to that argument. The ferocity and dissonance of the guitar solos shatter what’s otherwise a toe-tapper, proving that even at his poppiest, Young can be mean.
Young’s comeback with Freedom—and its rowdier follow-up Ragged Glory—coincided with the rise of grunge, a genre whose mix of classic rock and flippant punk was partially indebted to Neil Young’s ’70s albums. When Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain killed himself (and quoted “Hey Hey My My” in his suicide note), Young responded by releasing the moody album Sleeps With Angels, featuring a title track that fits the sonic violence of the Seattle sound into a defeated-sounding elegy for someone who burned out too early.
Another song from Rust Never Sleeps, “Sedan Delivery” is one of the most obvious examples of how the emergence of punk rock inspired Young (even though he’d later claim that he didn’t really listen to the music those younger bands were turning out… he was just fascinated by the articles about them). Originally recorded for the unreleased album Chrome Dreams in a more loping country-rock style, “Sedan Delivery” became a full-on rager in its Rust Never Sleeps version, with thrashy verses giving way to a dreamy acid-rock chorus. Even when asking Crazy Horse to play punk, Young couldn’t help but get a little psychedelic.
Two of Young’s most underrated albums are 1977’s American Stars ’N’ Bars and 1980’s Hawks & Doves—both of which came across and slight and scattered initially, in part because they collected unrelated songs from sessions that spanned years. In a way those albums best represent what Young was up to in the ’70s, when he was writing and recording constantly, and responding immediately to the stimuli of the moment. “Comin’ Apart At Every Nail” is sort of a political song—foreshadowing a crankiness with the state of the nation that would lead Young to proclaim himself a Reagan supporter a few years later—but he sings it with a wink, as though trying on the character of a grumbler rather than stepping into it sincerely. That puckishness, combined with the raggedness of the music, is a big part of what makes Hawks & Doves special (and Stars ’N’ Bars before it).
In a rare moment of purpose and clarity during Young’s turbulent ’70s, he went back to Nashville, brought back some of the skilled session men and collaborators that he’d worked with on Harvest, and recorded the likably rustic record Comes A Time. If “Comin’ Apart At Every Nail” documents the tossed-off, feverishly inspired Young, the stately title track to Comes A Time is who Young would’ve been if he’d been content to join fellow multi-platinum Californians like the Eagles in making records that radio programmers liked.
One of the most-covered of Young’s early songs was one he recorded himself several times before releasing the haunting After The Gold Rush version. The sprightliest “Birds” is an outtake from the self-titled debut LP, and has a more youthful air, closer to the sunnier Buffalo Springfield side of Young than the wrung-out artist who’d record Tonight’s The Night five years later.
Ever since Harvest, Young has driven record labels and business partners batty with how he’s chosen to follow his own whims, even when he’s clearly capable of writing catchy songs with mass appeal. Not long after Freedom, Young proved this yet again when he recorded the Harvest “sequel” Harvest Moon, another set of gentle country-rock numbers, which contained his biggest hit since “Heart Of Gold” in the title track. It’s a honey too, this “Harvest Moon”—a lilting, slow-dance-ready love ballad that sounds exactly like the kind of pop standard that Young has always claimed to love best.
Young has often referred to Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night, and On The Beach as his “ditch trilogy”—his descent into ugliness and noise in the wake of Harvest—and though Tonight’s The Night was released last, the album that really starts the climb out of the ditch is On The Beach, which was the final one recorded. “Walk On” kicks off the LP with a positive vibe, a swinging beat, and a more complicated arrangement than was the norm for Young at the time. “Walk On” has the immediacy of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the competence of Harvest. In other words: It seems to have taken actual effort, reassuring Young’s ’70s detractors, who frequently griped that he seemed too content to release whatever he’d knocked out in an afternoon rather than trying to perfect it.
The magnificent perversity of Young in the mid-’70s is best represented by the album Zuma. In a lot of ways, this was the focused, straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll album that critics had been clamoring for since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and yet its raw production and sloppy playing—nothing like what either FM or AM radio was into in 1975—combined with its scrawled cover art made the record seem more half-assed that it actually was. (In Shakey, McDonough describes coming across Zuma in a store and wondering if it was a bootleg.) This was what made Young so essential in the pre-punk era. He rarely considered conforming to a system that was skewed more to the bankers than the artists. As a result, songs like “Barstool Blues” are among the finest achievements of ’70s rock ’n’ roll, because they’re honest, resolutely un-trendy, and still contain killer lines like, “I saw you in my nightmares / But I’ll see you in my dreams / But I might live a thousand years / Before I know what that means.”
Shortly after 9/11, as the U.S. readied to go to war, Young started thinking up a story about a small town and the multiple generations of activists aching for a change too long in coming. The resulting songs were mostly long and droning, with dialogue where melodies should be, but Young foisted them on paying audiences before the concept album Greendale was released, which rubbed some fans the wrong way—and may have ultimately provoked a mixed response to the record. Greendale is one of more fascinating of Young’s experiments from the past 15 years, even if it’s not the most musical. And it contains a song that deserves to be salvaged and included on any future anthology of this decidedly freaky period of Young’s career. “Bandit” couples the conversational quality of Greendale to a nice acoustic arrangement, with a yearning chorus that sums up so much of Young’s winding career in seven words: “Someday you’ll find everything you’re looking for.”
Total time: 59:59