Oh happy day (potentially). Neil Young has announced a new album. It’s called Peace Trail and it’s primarily acoustic, or so we’re told. In anticipation, here are Neil Young’s five best primarily acoustic albums to date, live albums excluded.
5. ) Silver and Gold
This is a strong set, but there’s a nagging sense that it’s trying to be Harvest 3. Nonetheless, ‘Razor Love’ and the title track itself are worth the admission fee. And it was good to see ‘Red Sun’ being resurrected on a recent tour.
4.) Comes A Time
Some classic tracks, yet an album that somehow ends up being slightly less than the sum of its considerable parts. But Nicolette Larson’s vocals are always a joy. And listening to ‘Human Highway’ makes you wonder just how good that lost CSNY album would have been.
3.) Prairie Wind
It’s usually the long electric songs that are hypnotic enough to get totally lost in, but ‘Prairie Wind’ has the same effect here. Written in the context of family death and personal illness, this is an album that reimagines old times and reflects on uncertain futures.
2.) Harvest Moon
Coming after his epic return to form with Crazy Horse, Harvest Moon was an abrupt change of tack. Nothing new there. ‘Unknown Legend’ is one of his best songs, but it’s a great collection overall. Check out the change in the running order on Dreaming Man.
1.) Mixtape of sides 1 of Rust Never Sleeps and Hawks And Doves
These albums followed each other chronologically (Live Rust excluded). In both cases, a number of the songs had been written some years back. And, without exception, all of them still sound great. They make a perfect match. The argument doesn’t generalise, though, because the electric side of Hawks and Doves is a complete dud and under no circumstances should ever be paired with side 2 of Rust Never Sleeps.
Conor Oberst – Ruminations
Ruminations is just guitar, piano, harmonica, Conor Oberst, and ten new songs. Written during a period of illness and recorded in only two days earlier this year, this is the work of an artist who after more than 20 years in the business is still chock full of bright ideas, lovely melodies, and impeccable song craft. Name checks include Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Sacks, poor Robin Williams, and Sylvia Plath. And that’s just in one verse on ‘A Little Uncanny’. Classical piano themes tumble down on ‘The Rain Follows The Plow’. And no two songs are ever performed in the same style. Guitar songs follow piano songs, and with varying measures of harmonica, or none, in both. So, with a format that would normally start to feel somewhat samey by about song three, here there’s a sense of still wanting more by the time St Dymphna has finally kicked us out on track ten. With such a stripped-down sound, a lot of emphasis is placed on the words. And there’s no one better than Conor Oberst to rise to that sort of challenge. But if any of the songs have an autobiographical aspect to them, then we should probably be a little concerned. “I don’t want to eat or get out of bed, I try to recall what the therapist said”, on ‘Gossamer Thin’. “Gun in my mouth trying to sleep, Everything ends everything has to”, on ‘Counting Sheep’. “… the modern world it’s a sight to see … It takes all my will not to turn it off”, on ‘Barbary Coast (Later)’. If this is a cry for help, then it can be heard loud and clear. Otherwise, there’s at least one political song. The line that Ronald Reagan “Got me to read those Russian authors through and through” is one of the few moments of light relief. And the paean to Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright is a welcome distraction, though we all know how that ended. Ruminations is a dark album. Hopefully, it was a cathartic album for Conor Oberst. We’re lucky to have it and we’re lucky to have him still around too.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee
In the Instagram post that accompanied the release of Heart Like A Levee, MC Taylor wrote that he never explained his songs, but he did say that this new collection was meant to be hopeful. Maybe he should have said redemptive. For there’s a very spiritual aspect to MC Taylor and to this record. There’s mention of the ‘Lion of Judah’. Terms such as ‘grace’, ‘Lord’, ‘sinner’, and ‘spirit’ itself are sprinkled liberally across the songs. And there are more indirect Biblical references too. These are not words and phrases that simply fall from the skies, at least not in such numbers. But this is not a preachy album. Quite the opposite. The songs seem to turn inwards, pointing to the self-inflicted consequences of personal choices, notably the effect on family of long absences brought about by touring. For those already well versed in Hiss’s musical message, there’s plenty of familiarity to the sound, particularly in songs like ‘Cracked Windshield’. Happily, though, Heart Like A Levee builds nicely on its magnificent predecessor, Lateness of Dancers. Indeed, the album begins with a wonderful suite of songs that are perhaps the most ambitious and fully realised of anything that MC Taylor and his Golden Messengers have produced to date. When your heart’s like a levee, then it can either withstand the strain, or it breaks. Plenty of musicians on tour, plenty of musicians, plenty of artists indeed have found the pressure too much to take. This album confirms that MC Taylor has great spirit. And it seems to help him manage the pressure that being a creative artist places upon him. More power to him and to HGM.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Since he first appeared on the scene in 2007, Justin Vernon has come a very long way. From sending his album out to music bloggers in the hope of a short write up to collaborating with artists such as Kanye West and James Blake, Justin Vernon has gone from being an unknown artist to one of the biggest figures in contemporary music. Since this time, his sound has come a long way too. With its legendary back story, strummed acoustic guitar, and falsetto vocals, For Emma, Forever Ago was the epitome of the ever popular tortured artist effect. An instant classic. Four years later, Bon Iver was a big step up. Fuller. Bolder. It ensured that Justin Vernon could no longer be classed as just a fey indie folkie. 22, A Million marks a further change. And how. This is more than merely a follow up to a highly successful sophomore album. This is a work that captures a certain early 21st-century Zeitgeist no less. The songs are so fractured they literally break up in front of you. The vocals so artificially transformed, so overlain, that the ‘real’ voice of the singer is almost impossible to identify. And all by way of a carefully orchestrated social media campaign. The result is both as slick and as discomforting as the times we live in. And yet 22, A Million is not as far removed from its folkie predecessor as you might think. For Emma, Forever Ago was so affecting because Justin Vernon had been left emotionally fractured and disconnected and the songs reflected it perfectly. Even at that time, the falsetto was scarcely his ‘real’ voice. It was more like a vocal shield behind which to hide his ‘true’ emotions. And getting music bloggers interested in your sound was an innovative way of using social media at the time. Looked at this way, 22, A Million isn’t so much a new departure as the sound of an artist who’s moved on to a place where he’s been before. But it’s not the instant classic of its predecessor. This is an album that you have to ‘get’ rather than just like. An album that’s daring you to turn it off at the same time as it’s trying to draw you in. It’s a difficult album for a difficult age. A ‘true’ Bon Iver album.
If you’re missing some good-old fashioned guitar music after listening to 22, A Million, then try ‘Gallup, NM’ from The Shouting Matches, a Bon Iver side project from 2013 and reviewed here.