Neil Young – Roxy – Tonight’s the Night Live
“I want to get into Neil Young. What album should I listen to?” To this – oh so jejune – question, there is only one answer. “Try Rust Never Sleeps and get back to me”. If they say they like only the first half, then pat them on the head and direct them to the Harvests and perhaps Silver and Gold if they’re the adventurous type. If they say they like only the second half, then shake their hand and tell them to check out Ragged Glory and hope that they discover Broken Arrow. However, if they say they like both My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) and Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), then there’s a further response. “Now go check out Tonight’s The Night and tell me what you think”. If they find it unlistenable, but still vow to put on Rust Never Sleeps every now and again, then at least there’s that. It’s a classic after all. But if they totally get it, then you’ve got them. Forever. For Tonight’s The Night is the quintessential Neil Young album. Full of gorgeous tunes (one of them borrowed from The Rolling Stones and not included here) and featuring steel, acoustic, and electric guitar, it brings together many of the different eras of Neil Young’s long career. (Excepting Trans). But its the magnificent approximateness of the performance that’s the clincher. It’s the key to Neil Young’s career overall. He may be the most fastidious curator of his own archives, but as an artist he revels in the gaps between the notes, the sounds that jar, the voice that wavers, the beauty of the immediate. Tonight’s The Night embodies this ethos. And this live version of the album at the Roxy from September 1973 captures that spirit perfectly. There’s about the best ‘Speaking’ Out’ you could wish for. A relatively tight run through of ‘Albuquerque’. And a moving rendition of ‘Tired Eyes’. So, if the question is “I want to get into Neil Young. What album should I listen to?”, the trick is to answer it in a way that gets them to wind up at Tonight’s The Night. Studio or Live at the Roxy version is just fine.
Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Visitor
In the latter part of the 21st century when students at the future University of South-West Tulsa are completing their sophomore year in Neil Young Studies, it’s possible that they’ll consider The Visitor to be a late-career highlight. In contrast to the throwaway Peace Trail and the bombastic Storytone, The Visitor captures a band that sounds like they’ve playing together for years and includes songs that make you want to listen to them for more than just old times’ sake. For sure, the context is clear. We’re in Trumpland, or anti-Trumpland from the Youngster’s perspective. “I’m living with a game show host, Who has to brag and has to boast, ‘Bout tearin’ down the things that I hold dear”. But unlike The Monsanto Years, this visitor isn’t a preachy one. That’s probably because we’re all pretty much on the same page Trumpwise. So, there’s no need to belabour the point. And this means more time for the music. The guitar break on ‘Stand Tall’ is as good as anything in recent times. ‘Almost Always’ would be perfectly at home on ‘Silver and Gold’. And the melody on ‘Already Great’ sounds like it’s been sitting in the archives for a couple of decades just waiting to find the right home. But there’s more than just a few nice sounds here and there. ‘Carnival’ could be one of the very best Neil Young tunes of all time. It’s based around a simple and potentially clichéd Mexican-style riff that continues for more than eight minutes. But there are some wonderful merry-go-round moments that harken back to songs like ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!’, or The Beach Boys pre-Pet Sounds highlight, ‘Amusement Parks USA’. More than that, it’s a lyrical blast. “I do resent, Too much time was spent, In the tent of the strange, Elephant of Enlightenment!” And better still, this is Neil Young back at his cinematic, story-telling best. Think ‘Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Pt. 1)’, or ‘Ordinary People’ without the social commentary but with plenty of characterful cackling. The sophomore year of Neil Young Studies already has a rich and very varied curriculum. But students at the future University of South-West Tulsa may well find themselves spending some time with that late-career highlight, The Visitor.
Neil Young – Peace Trail
The new Neil Young album includes one sure-fire instant classic, some could-be-great protest songs, and only a couple of tracks that don’t quite fit. That’s not bad for another in-and-out-of-studio-in the-wink-of-an-eye release. The sure-fire instant classic is the title track. It’s the equivalent of ‘Goin’ Home’ from Are You Passionate? The track that lifts the rest of the album to a better place. It’s also a track that could be played in plenty of different ways live, from a scorching guitar-led Crazy Horse/POTR track right through to a more reflective acoustic solo ballad. That’s the sign of a great Neil Young song. Aside from ‘Peace Trail’ itself, there’s also a bunch of could-be-great tracks. In fact, there’s a really powerful protest album trying to fight its way out of this set of songs. Standing Rock is a common reference point, making the album a sort of The Monsanto Years for the Dakotas. But there are other themes too, notably Black Lives Matter. The disappointment, though, is that while most of the songs in this category – ‘Show Me’, ‘Indian Givers’, ‘Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders’ – have great potential, most are not sufficiently well realised to make their point as forcefully as they might. And in some cases, the presentation is more than a little approximate. ‘Texas Rangers’ being the worst offender in this category. Only ‘John Oaks’ really matches the title track for its compelling mixture of the message and the music. And then there are the tracks that don’t quite fit. ‘Glass Accident’ is strange. The melody sounds eerily like ‘Sail Away’, but the subject matter is more personal than anything else on the album. It’s a good song, but one that belongs in a different place. As for the closing track, ‘My New Robot’, this could have been a sort of protest song too, providing a sense of the anomie of modern-day living. However, with its Trans-era Vocoder sound, it just doesn’t deliver. Peace Trail is a deceptively simple album. It may include only one great song, but it’s well worth a listen. And as a commentary on Trump-era America, indeed contemporary life pretty much everywhere, it has a serious point to make. And that can’t be said of every new album, never mind one from a 71-year-old Canadian.
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.
‘Tis the season to divulge one’s end-of-year lists. Here’s part 1: Great albums by big names.
Big names often disappoint. Oh, how I once looked forward to the latest release from Sting. Well, in an alternate universe anyway. Sometimes, though, the big artists continue to deliver great work. Here’s a selection from 2015. (Spoiler alert: Adele is not included in the following list.)
Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Monsanto Years
Following Neil Young is like being on a rollercoaster ride. After a couple of duds – Storytone, A Letter Home – he came back with a scorcher. A little preachy, to be sure. But with some fine tunes and playing that hits the heights of the great Crazy Horse, The Monsanto Years was so good it almost made me want to eat GMO food. Did I miss something?
Björk – Vulnicura
I shall lay my heart bare. Indeed, I shall portray it as such on the cover of my album. There wasn’t much subtext on Björk’s album, but it was certainly raw and confessional. This was a Björk sans affectation, sans happening, sans the usual Björk. And all the better for that.
Don Henley – Cass County
Don Henley isn’t a huge name in his own recording right, but the point is that he delivered a really nice album this year. The version of Tift Merrit’s ‘Bramble Rose’ was worth the price of admission on its own. Overall, there was a sense of an artist who wasn’t afraid to show that he was in the latter stages of his career. That’s refreshing. Especially when the tunes are as good as these.
Ryan Adams – 1989
In my world, Ryan Adams is the biggest artist. This year he surprised us with a full cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Great cover songs transform the originals. And here was a whole album of same. It raised the idea of Taylor Swift covering Heartbreaker in its entirety. Oh be still my beating heart.
Neil Young + Promise Of The Real – The Monsanto Years
Any new album by Neil Young is welcome. But some are more welcome than others. Fork In The Road had the door slammed in its face. Storytone wiped its feet, but wasn’t allowed to stay. Psychedelic Pill was found a quiet place in a corner to sit down and recover. In fact, Chrome Dreams II was the last to be let into the drawing room for a nice cup of tea in the best china. For its part, The Monsanto Years is one of those Neil Young albums that you greet with the door only slightly ajar and the safety chain still firmly on. Like Greendale, it’s not entirely clear whether or not it’s safe to let it in. Well, after sizing it up for a while, the decision has finally been made. Come on in The Monsanto Years. You’re very welcome. Why? Well, partly because there’s a real Crazy Horse vibe at times. True, there are never enough riffs to get Ragged Glory lost in, but the rhythm section is great and there’s some fine guitar work and not just from the frets of Old Black. Plus, there are some memorable songs. ‘A New Day For Love’ wouldn’t be out of place on Broken Arrow, that most maligned of Crazy Horse albums. ‘Wolf Moon’ has clear and present Harvest Moon echoes. And the frazzled country sounds of American Stars ‘n’ Bars can be made out on some of the tracks, not least ‘A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop’. But the centrepiece is ‘Big Box’. This is one of Neil’s story-telling tracks, reminiscent of ‘Crime In The City’, or ‘Ordinary People’. It’s utterly effervescent, keeping up a breathtaking pace until the very end. Too often recently, Neil Young albums have got lost in the very idea alone. A Letter Home with the Voice-o-Graph. Storytone with the orchestra and big band. The Monsanto Years could have gone the same way. But the song-writing and the playing keep it more than honest. Credit to Neil Young. Credit to Promise of the Real.
Here’s Haskell Wexler’s documentary that captures the making of the album. It’s quirky. Worth it.
Pop Matters review
The Line of Best Fit review
American Songwriter review
Consequence of Sound review
This is great. Jimmy Fallon doing Neil Young and Neil Young doing Jimmy Fallon doing Neil Young.