You’d think this would be Neil Young’s moment. The past couple of years have seen a popular resurgence of the kind of soulful Americana at which he’s long excelled, from Waxahatchee to Big Thief and back again. Yet aside from the occasional mention of his influence on these modern purveyors of his sound, there’s relatively little fanfare surrounding his new album with Crazy Horse, simply titled Barn. (Yes, it was recorded in an old converted barn deep in the Rockies.) Wherefore the adulation due one of the greats?
There are likely two main reasons why Young hasn’t seemed to engender the kind of latter-day renaissance that some of his contemporaries have enjoyed, like Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne. One is simply that he’s never really gone away. Where others artists have had their lost-in-the-wilderness years, Young has simply kept plugging along, chasing his own muse while steadfastly ignoring trends and cultural climate, probably to his commercial detriment (not that he cares). The other reason is more prosaic: His output has been unevenly received, to put it bluntly.
His debut album—“a sketchy template for the rest of his career,” as The A.V. Club describes it in a primer on the artist—contains most of the hallmarks of his style, by “combining solemn folk-rock, symphonic pop, and fuzzed-out stompers with a stinging, adenoidal tenor full of sinewy vulnerability.” But while he hit creative highs in the ’70s, he lost a lot of audience goodwill during his flop-filled ’80s experiments, before rebounding with a string of great releases in the ’90s, especially the landmark album Harvest Moon.
The 21st century has seen him slide into the role of elder statesman with a kind of outsider-art rep. He’s the oddball musician who’d turn up on The Colbert Report or The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to goof around, probably coming across more like a character than a deeply fêted artist, to any young viewers unfamiliar with his work. To be fair, he fed this reputation, releasing a string of unusual and sometimes baffling albums, most notably angry, protest-inflected concept records like Greendale and The Monsanto Years.
Barn, by any standard, is vintage Young: a collection of raw and often engaging tracks that—depending on your point of view—either continue his tradition of inspired lo-fi roots-rock excellence, or deliver another round of underproduced and underwritten songs before he’s on to the next project. Both perspectives are arguably true; his best numbers are often buried amid some dross, and his workhorse mentality means there’s more to sift through than a newbie could possibly hope to tackle in a month, let alone a day. (We’re at more than 40 studio albums and counting.)
But Barn might actually be one of the most accessible entry points to his music in quite some time. (For the curious, we have a Power Hour that attempts to do the same.) While a black cloud of darkness seemed to loom over much of Colorado, the 2019 album from Neil Young and his longtime intermittent backing band, Crazy Horse, there’s a more peaceful and reflective mindset that dominates this new one. Sure, he’s still got a couple tracks that blur the line between righteous protest and grumpy old rant (especially the squalling barnburner “Human Race”), but those are the exceptions to the rule—and the rule sounds as inviting as a frosty pint at your favorite dive bar.
Opener “Song Of The Seasons” delivers the Neil Young most people likely know best: A simple, sweet harmonica melody, leading into a genteel rhythm and acoustic guitar matched to his warbly tenor, crooning about nature’s beauty. But it leads straight into “Heading West,” a distorted, spacious rocker that conjures memories of his mid-’90s Mirrorball days. Followed by the rambling 3/4 blues of “Change Ain’t Never Gonna” and the jagged simplicity of “Canerican” (practically a statement of purpose for his mindset all these years), it’s as representative a cross-section of his work as you can get—or rather, it’s as close as you could come to such a thing from his work with Crazy Horse.
They sound like a seasoned bar band, for good and ill. The album can lean into elements of Young’s work that are less in vogue at the moment (especially on amiable toss-offs like “Shape of You”), but it also has a spare epic (“Welcome Back”) that would fit right at home on a split 7" with Phoebe Bridgers.
These songs embody the evolution of Young’s work with his most acclaimed collaborators; the accompanying documentary of the same name, which captures the recording of the album, reinforces this vibe. Filmed by his wife Daryl Hannah, the process comes across like old friends strapping on some instruments and getting loose, worrying less about getting the recording right than whether it feels right in the moment. At times, it plays like a more pastoral version of the making-of doc that accompanied Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You.
And yes, some of that comes paired with lyrics that can make the listener cringe a bit, depending on your capacity for unvarnished earnestness. A couplet like “When you’re angry and you’re lashing out / Don’t forget love,” from closer “Don’t Forget Love,” is only a hair’s breadth away from something Daniel Tiger might sing to your 3 year old. He’s just saying what he thinks, and if it’s a bit graceless in its honesty, well, so is Young at times.
And maybe that’s what keeps him from being venerated like other long-running rockers: He doesn’t have the poetry of a Dylan, or the populist instincts of a Springsteen. He wants to convey fundamental thoughts with music that often evades the accessibility of his peers, and if you find it clumsy or raw, he couldn’t care less. As always, Young is chasing his muse, and displaying the unforced results for all to hear.