Here in 2016, news of a new Neil Young album deserves two separate and opposite reactions.
The first reaction is excitement. Neil is 71-years-young. The first album to feature his songwriting, playing, and singing—Buffalo Springfield’s self-titled debut—dropped a hair over a half century ago on December 5, 1966. Here is a rock ‘n roll survivor, a man still chasing his muse and refusing to pull any punches in the winter of his life. Let us celebrate his continued dedication to his craft.
The second reaction is one of indifference. After all, Peace Trail, his most recent effort, is Neil’s thirty-ninth album of new material (in which he isn’t sharing billing with at least one other songwriter) and fourteenth release of the decade. That’s a lot of material to sort through, and the deluge of releases through the years can make it difficult to get excited when Neil announces yet another release. Bless him for continuing to consistently release albums this late in life, but with fourteen releases in seven years, Neil is expecting his diehards to hand over their hard-earned bread pretty frequently. Those fourteen releases include seven studio albums, three archival live sets, three box sets-worth of reissues, and one live album overdubbed with nature and animal sounds that Neil described as “an ear movie.”
The “ear movie,” Earth, released just this past summer, was one of the reasons I was relieved to see Neil had once again made his catalogue available on streaming services last month. I couldn’t justify spending money on Earth; it just seemed too goofy in theory. However, once I actually listened to it, I dug it. But of course, I’m one of the diehards. I’m not sure I could calculate how much money I’ve given to Neil over the years. I own almost the entirety of his discography, and I’ve seen him play live four times: twice with Crazy Horse, once as part of Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and once with a reunited-Buffalo Springfield in 2010. Neil probably owes me a free listen or two to some of his, shall we say, more creative releases.
And those creative releases reveal an important contradiction at the heart of Neil’s work. It’s a contradiction in how we think about Neil Young, and it goes hand-in-hand with the separate and opposite reactions of excitement and indifference to news of a new Neil Young album. We think of Neil as a maverick trailblazer who marches to the beat of his own drum, a beat that has him change hats frequently. He’s a Toronto, coffee shop folkie from the early days of Dylan; he’s an original Topanga Canyon hippie freak; he’s a Gonzo Nashville strummer; he’s a cocaine cowboy surveying the country’s vast neon expanse and reporting back with visions of Pocahontas, Marlon Brando, and the Astrodome; and he’s the godfather of grunge—no Pixies, no Nirvana without him.
However, we also think of Neil as a crazy person who is in desperate need of an editor, someone to cull the worthwhile material from his sweeping, sometimes unwieldy body of work. Neil needed someone in the late-1970s to tell him to keep up the good work when he was singing, perhaps because of cocaine, about a woman with varicose veins in a pool hall and lasers in a lab. That song is called “Sedan Delivery,” and it’s as amazing as it is weird. Neil also needs someone now to tell him to 86 the song cycles developed around themes of cars and environmental decay. Seriously, Neil has a concept album about the electric car. It came out in 2009.
The press and Neil’s fans have often reconciled the two ways of thinking about him by noting that in an industry largely controlled by corporate shills and A&R men, there’s something very admirable about the fact that Neil does just whatever he wants. Sometimes the results are brilliant, and Neil seems to get at some pure and timeless truth. Sometimes the results are forgettable and/or unlistenable, as when, again, he released a concept album about the electric car. Either way, fans and critics forgive Neil of his missteps because, hey, that’s just Neil being Neil.
I’m just as guilty of giving Neil the benefit of the doubt as anyone. There’s something incredibly appealing about someone who is so wholly unique, he seems to occupy his own planet. And there’s something decidedly American–Neil hails from Canada, but he’s spent his entire professional career in America–about an unwillingness to compromise. I think that American quality attracts a lot of folks. After all, it’s comforting to think we can make it by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and following our muse regardless of what anyone else expects or wants.
Famously, after scoring his one and only #1 hit with “Heart of Gold” in 1972, Neil remarked, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Indeed, after “Heart of Gold,” Neil went on to release three fantastically dark albums, known colloquially as The Ditch Trilogy, that, in my mind, contain some of his best work. It was on the second album from The Ditch Trilogy, On the Beach, that Neil released a song celebrating Charles Manson. And anyone who knows anything about Neil will tell you that song, “Revolution Blues,” is easily one of the best songs he’s ever written. And of course, in celebrating Manson, Neil is actually celebrating the freedom of the Ditch.
The Ditch is where the rebel heart of rock ‘n roll beats with an unmatched fervor. It’s the perfect vantage point for the downtrodden dreamers to stare up at the stars. And once we followed Neil down into the Ditch, it became difficult to stop following him. Why stop following he who led us down to the place where we can be exactly who we are? Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Neil continues to release really damn good records amongst the duds. Heck, I thought last year’s The Monsanto Years was vintage Neil. He never leaves us waiting for too terribly long.
Still, for the average listener, it’s a lot to sort through. So, on the occasion of the release of his thirty-ninth album, I’ve put together a guide to help the uninitiated wade through these sometimes murky waters.
To start, I should mention that I’m only including releases on which Neil is the primary songwriter. Therefore, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and the Stills-Young Band are all out. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Neil’s collaboration with Pearl Jam, and Neil Young + The Promise of the Real, however, are all in.
Neil is at his most universal when he manages to strike a balance between dogged earnestness, bitter indignation, and obtuse weirdness. Neil has most often found this balance with his longtime backing band Crazy Horse; however, 1970’s After the Gold Rush stands as the zenith of Neil’s ability to synthesize his disparate moods into one album-length statement. On it, Neil shifts from the gentle folk strums on “Tell Me Why” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to the apoplectic guitar bursts on the anti-racism anthem “Southern Man” to the slow-burning, canyon jam “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” strains of which can still be heard in contemporary music from the likes of Father John Misty and Jenny Lewis. Of course, while the title track is one of Neil’s most beloved songs, we can’t forget that it makes mention of “the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.” Again, when Neil gets a little esoteric, it’s for the best.
I would also point to 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1975’s Zuma, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, 1990’s Ragged Glory, and 2012’s Psychedelic Pill, all recorded with Crazy Horse, as examples of peak Neil. These albums feature some of Neil’s strongest melodies (“Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Down by the River,” “Cinnamon Girl” “Cortez the Killer” and “Pocahontas”) cast against some of Neil’s longest and skronkiest guitar freakouts (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Ragged Glory each feature two songs that clock in north of nine minutes, and Psychedelic Pill has three cuts that eclipse the quarter hour mark, one of which is nearly half an hour). And if the lyrics get a little, or a lot, too weird from time to time—as they certainly do on Rust Never Sleeps (which, for my money, features some of the best lyrics Neil has ever penned)—the rich melodies and playing keep the proceedings tethered to earth.
If you’re looking for a one-shot compilation, the 1977 anthology Decade is the only viable option. In addition to a cross section of songs Neil recorded as a solo artist and with Crazy Horse, it includes recordings he did with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY. And it has the distinction of being the only Neil Young compilation to feature “Cortez the Killer,” so the other comps out there unquestionably belong in the toilet and are undeserving of your time or money.
If you’re after a live starting point, 1979’s Live Rust, 1991’s Weld, and the archival recording from 1970 Live at the Fillmore East, again all with Crazy Horse, are the first places I’d look.
Gonzo Nashville Strummin’
In 1971, the freakiest thing Nashville had seen was probably Chelsea-mod Bob Dylan swinging through to record an album or maybe some of the outlaw country singers who spit at the traditional values of the mainstream country music industry. So, when Neil rolled into town with his shoulder-length hair, patchwork bellbottom jeans, and dark aviator sunglasses, he must have cut quite a striking figure.
Neil’s Nashville albums—and I know that most of his Nashville albums weren’t actually recorded in Nashville—aren’t country albums, so much as they avatars for what Gram Parsons called Cosmic American Music. When Neil goes to Nashville, country, folk, R&B, soul, rock, and psychedelic music all get rolled into the burrito. You could maybe refer to the music contained on these albums as a particularly funky strain of country music. And with his prairie drawl and a backing cast of Nashville castoffs—some of whom would become Nashville mainstays thanks to their work with Neil—this funky strain of country music is played and sung with a surprising amount of authority.
I’m sure many folks would expect to see 1972’s Harvest in the previous category as a place to start with Neil. After all, it features some of his best-known songs: “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and his only chart-topper, “Heart of Gold.” But for me, Neil’s Nashville albums are earnest, often sweet, affairs that lack the anger and weirdness one needs to see to get the full picture of Neil. The prevailing ethos on Neil’s Gonzo Nashville Strummers is a certain “gee shucks” charm that precludes the inclusion of any of these albums in the previous “Start Here” category. I mean, a broom is used as a percussion instrument on the title track of 1992’s Harvest Moon. These are deeply and doggedly earnest records. Many people may find the albums in this category among Neil’s very best; however, I don’t believe they represent the best jumping off point. These albums are their own thing within Neil’s discography.
And of course, Neil could get angry or weird when he was in Nashville mode. 1978’s Comes a Time features the darkly brooding “Look Out for My Love” and the certified freak-flag-flying “Human Highway” and “Motorcycle Mama;” however, it also includes sweet and pretty moments on the title track, “Goin’ Back,” “Lotta Love,” and the Ian Tyson-cover “Four Strong Winds.” 2000’s Silver & Gold references “visitors from space” and incompatible software as a metaphor for lost love on “Without Rings,” but it also features the nostalgic “Buffalo Springfield Again” and “Razor Love,” which is a favorite deep cut amongst many Neil obsessives. “No Wonder” from 2005’s Prairie Wind might include Neil’s only lyric to reference, at least to date, Chris Rock, but the album is a lovely, bittersweet meditation on the death of his father and Neil’s own mortality following invasive surgery to remove a brain aneurism.
Like all of Neil’s best work, his Nashville albums pull in a lot of different directions; they just tend to pull more in a sincere direction.
If you would like to track down a live representation of Neil’s Gonzo Nashville Strummin’, 1993’s Unplugged is a solid bet, but your best bet is Jonathan Demme’s beautifully-shot 2006 concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.
Ride Along with The Cocaine Cowboy
I don’t know that Neil actually did that much cocaine, but I do know his lyrics started to skew stranger right around the time he famously performed with cocaine visibly dangling from his nostril in The Band’s farewell film The Last Waltz.
Referring to Neil as “The Cocaine Cowboy” isn’t about cocaine anyway. It’s about a certain near-prescience that comes from embracing one’s strangest thoughts. That’s The Cocaine Cowboy. These are Neil’s strangest, and at times darkest, albums. These are among my favorite albums by Neil, but they might not be for everyone.
We first must discuss the aforementioned Ditch Trilogy: 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On the Beach, and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night. Original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Witten was supposed to play on Times Fade Away, but was ultimately fired because he couldn’t get sober enough to do it. He would die of an overdose soon after. This period also saw the overdose death of Neil’s roadie Bruce Barry.
If Time Fades Away—with its rollicking title track and the driving “Don’t Be Denied”—was the turn towards the ditch, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night went full bore into oblivion. The cover of On the Beach says it all: Neil is alone on the beach, staring out at the water, reflecting on what has become of his life, with the wreckage of a classic muscle car, perhaps symbolizing what has become of the stories we tell ourselves about America, behind him. On the Beach was allegedly recorded under the influence of some baked honey and marijuana concoction that tended to Slow. Everything. Down. There are some burners on On the Beach, but it’s mostly the slow sound of a man coming to terms with his place in a life filled with loss.
Tonight’s the Night was recorded before, but released after, On the Beach. On it, Neil directly confronts the loss of his friends, but he also grapples with the slow creeping transformation from a world of peace & love to a world of violence & death. He sings about Bruce Barry’s death on the title track. He sings about drug-related violent crime in his beloved Topanga Canyon on “Tired Eyes.” He longs for the promise of oblivion on “Mellow My Mind” and “Roll Another Number.” And “Borrowed Tune” finds Neil at the piano, too drunk to not rip off The Rolling Stones. It’s a somber affair, but unlike On the Beach, you can dance to this record. It’s a party record for one’s own impending funeral.
The late-‘70s and early-‘80s is where The Cocaine Cowboy really came out to play. 1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars, 1980’s Hawks & Doves, 1981’s Re-ac-tor, and 1982’s Trans are all delightfully odd records.
Side one of American Stars ‘n Bars finds Neil, the Horse, pedal steel player Ben Keith, Linda Ronstadt, and Nicolette Larson doing their take on a country & western bar band. With it’s refrain of “I’d like to make her scream/When I bite the bullet,” “Bite the Bullet” is a pretty heavy-handed ode to cunnilingus, but, uh, I wouldn’t bite anything unless you’re specifically asked to, and even then I’d probably double-check. While side one is boozy and weird, side two features four classics: “Star of Bethlehem,” “Will to Love,” “Like a Hurricane,” and “Homegrown.” “Homegrown” is about farming, but it’s, of course, been adopted as a stoner anthem for growing one’s own weed. And actually maybe that is what it’s about. It’s hard to tell with The Cocaine Cowboy.
Hawks & Doves also has two distinct sides. Side one, the doves side, consists of older songs, including the autobiographical “The Old Homestead,” which, among other things, explicitly defends Neil’s continued collaboration with Crazy Horse, and the folkie strummer “Lost in Space,” which includes the lyric “Don’t draw on the infinity board.” The hawks side is patriotic and maybe right-wing in tone? It’s hard to know if this is Neil trolling or if cocaine-psychosis temporarily drove Neil into the arms of Ronald Reagan. If that’s what it was, he wasn’t alone. Many rock ‘n rollers from the sixties flocked to Reagan. But at least Neil came back to the good side soon enough.
Re-ac-tor is low-key one of my favorite Crazy Horse albums. It’s Neil Young & Crazy Horse meets the Ramones. These are cartoonish, punky songs. It might not be his most sophisticated album, but I love “Opera Star” and “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleeze.” I love the populist “Motor City.” I love the nine-minute “T-Bone,” with its only lyric “Got mashed potatoes/ Ain’t got no t-bone” repeated ad infinitum.
Then there is Trans. Critically reviled. Allegedly the first salvo in Neil’s war with his record label Geffen. But when I listen to it, I hear a natural progression from his previous records. I hear a man sincerely playing around with synthesizers for the first time. And frankly, I hear Neil Young songs. They might be heavily processed, but underneath those layers are honest-to-god Neil Young songs. I know in our information economy, being the holder of the hottest take can have a great value, but this isn’t simply a hot take. I’ve spent a lot of time with this album. I tracked down the vinyl long ago, but I was really happy to it’s now streaming (as is Times Fade Away). These are songs that—both lyrically and in the techniques employed to record them—attempt to grapple with emerging technologies and the possibilities those technologies hold for those who exist outside of traditional hierarchical power structures. And Neil got a lot right here. The vision of the future depicted on the album cover might be hilariously dated, but the vision of the future depicted in the lyrics looks a lot like our current digital landscape.
The nineties were perhaps Crazy Horse’s most triumphant decade, and 1994’s Sleeps with Angels and 1996’s Broken Arrow were victory laps of sorts for the Horse. Beyond their brief experimentations with synthesizers in the ‘80s, Sleeps with Angels is the only Crazy Horse album to see the Horse stray from their four-on-the-floor, two guitars, bass, and drums rock band approach. Here we find the Horse experimenting with flutes, tack pianos, vibraphones, and marimbas. It’s one of the darker Crazy Horse albums, which is fitting as the title track is an elegy to the recently-departed Kurt Cobain.
Broken Arrow is closer to traditional Crazy Horse fare, but it’s still a bit darker than one might expect from the Horse. It gets by largely on the strength of the first three songs, all of which are over seven-minutes: “Big Time,” “Loose Change,” and “Slip Away.” However, the album’s penultimate cut, “Music Arcade,” finds Neil alone with his acoustic, reflecting on the tiny moments of happiness one must find amongst life’s profound sorrows. It’s one of my favorite deep cuts from Neil.
Finally, I must mention two of Neil’s most unique and interesting collaborations: 1996’s Dead Man and 2010’s Le Noise. Dead Man is a 1995 Jim Jarmusch film starring Johnny Depp. There was a 1996 soundtrack released, but the music was all improvised by Neil on electric guitar and organ while he watched a rough cut of the film, so the film really needs to be seen to get the full impact of Neil’s music. To hear Neil’s lone electric guitar wailing over Jarmusch’s black & white picture gives me chills, and Jarmusch himself loved the results so much that, going forward, he composed his own soundtracks/scores on electric guitar to try to achieve a similar effect. (Side note: he succeeds; I love Jarmusch films for many reasons, but Jarmsusch’s scores are always one of the top reasons).
Le Noise is Neil’s collaboration with Daniel Lanois. This album features Neil singing over his electric guitar on six tracks and his acoustic on two. The only other sound heard is what Lanois refers to as his “sonics.” Lanois ever-so-slightly manipulates the recordings to create a more expansive aural landscape. This one is a real headphones album, but it’s not worth it just for the sound. There are some classic Neil songs here, too, such as “Walk with Me” and “Hitchhiker.”
To hear the Cocaine Cowboy live, there are two options, and they are very different: 1997’s Year of the Horse is yet another live album with Crazy Horse, but on the tour captured on this one, they were paying tribute to Neil’s longtime producer David Briggs, who had passed away the previous year, by playing his favorite of Neil’s songs. So, this is the one live album that strays farthest from Neil’s classics, and it is, therefore, unique in that regard.
The strangest of Neil’s archival releases—and therefore my favorite aside from maybe the 1970 Crazy Horse set—is A Treasure, which captures songs recorded on Neil’s 1984-85 tour with the International Harvesters, a ragtag assemblage of Neil’s typical Nashville cohorts and an ace ringer in the form of Cajun fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux. A Treasure isn’t Nashville Neil though; it’s much more hard-driving than that. If you watch the footage that accompanies the deluxe edition, you’ll see a band that is getting in to it. They are cooking on countrified takes of Re-ac-tor’s “Motor City” and “Southern Pacific.” And it’s almost worth the cost for the performance of the previously unreleased “Gray Riders” alone.
Maybe Give These Albums a Listen
If you still need more Neil in your life, the following albums all have some redeeming qualities, but they’re all a bit of a mixed bag, and the results certainly vary:
1969’s Neil Young is largely a collaboration with Jack Nitzsche and features guitar playing and arrangement help from the legendary guitarist Ry Cooder.
1985’s Old Ways was Neil’s first and only foray into a more mainstream country sound. Some write it off as Neil’s antagonistic, ‘80s genre experimentations, but with contributions from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, I tend to think it’s a sincere effort. And it certainly features some decent tunes.
1987’s Life is Neil’s worst collaboration with Crazy Horse (at least the worst to see the light of day), but it’s still Crazy Horse, and I tend to find some of the synth work at least interesting.
1989’s Freedom includes “Rockin’ in the Free World” and a few decent John Mellencamp knockoffs; that’s probably the best I can say about it.
1995’s Mirror Ball is the album Neil did with Pearl Jam; it’s fine. I would rather hear these songs with Crazy Horse, but it’s Pearl Jam, so it’s worth a listen or three.
2003’s Greendale is a song cycle about environmental destruction at the hands of corporate and state interests and the impact that destruction has on the small fictional town of Greendale. These aren’t Neil’s best songs, but it was an ambitious project. I saw him stage a production of these songs complete with Crazy Horse, actors, and fairly elaborate sets. I’ve seen the album draw comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio.
2006’s Living with War is an anti-Bush, anti-war protest album, and honestly, the songs and the production on this one hold up pretty well. It’s maybe just a little too gimmicky, however, to qualify as a more classic Neil album.
2007’s Chrome Dreams II, a sequel to an unreleased album for some reason, is a bit of a hodge-podge, but it features “Ordinary People” and “No Hidden Path,” which are 18 and 14 minute burners respectively.
2012’s Americana is the Crazy Horsification of the American songbook. I wouldn’t call it essential, but it’s fun.
2015’s The Monsanto Years and 2016’s Earth were both recorded with The Promise of the Real. On these two releases, crazy old man Neil is back to ranting about the environment. Honestly, the playing on these records is transcendent. Sometimes, when Neil is hammering a cause, even a cause in which I believe, it can be difficult to get fully on board, but these are both really solid records. And I appreciate the intent of the experimental overdubs on Earth—the whole “ear movie” thing—in theory if not always in practice.
If you ever want to go really, really deep into the Neil Young discography, the archival releases that I’ve yet to mention—save for one that I mention below—are all maybe worth at least one listen.
Please, I Implore You Not to Listen to These Albums
Look, honestly, if you stick around for as long as Neil has and release as many albums as Neil has, you’re going to lay an egg or seven.
As noted above, I don’t find Neil’s run of ‘80s albums as egregious as a lot of people do, and while I appreciate the idea of releasing an album as a middle finger to one’s record label, I’m not buying the idea that all of Neil’s genre experimentations from the ‘80s were released as antagonistic missives aimed at Geffen.
1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’, however, is pretty undeniably an F-you to Geffen. Neil doesn’t exactly make for a believable rockabilly singer, the recordings are just drowning in reverb to the point of being unlistenable, and Ben Keith, who normally played pedal steel with Neil, plays some of the most amateurish sax lines I’ve ever heard. The songs themselves aren’t necessarily bad, so much as they are almost preternaturally pointless. If I had forked over money for this album when it was first released, I would’ve felt ripped off.
In fact, pointless experimentation done with zero authority and cutesy novelty shtick are the indicators of all of Neil’s most groan-inducing albums: the blues rock of 1988’s This Notes For You and its archival live companion Bluenote Café, the Stax/Volt Memphis soul of 2002’s Are You Passionate?, and the orchestral and big band recordings on 2014’s Storytone. Then of course there is 2014’s A Letter Home, which is an album of covers recorded in a vintage telephone booth by the king of experimentation done with zero authority and cutesy novelty shtick himself, Jack White. And I would be remiss not to mention, though I previously alluded to it, the concept album about the electric car: 2009’s Fork in the Road. Try to avoid listening to any of these albums.
I suppose if you do listen to one album from this group, make it 1986’s Landing on Water, which holds the distinction of being Neil’s worst album by a prairie mile. Neil found varying degrees of success experimenting with synthesizers on other albums in the ‘80s, but not here. The production, by Neil and Danny Kortchmar, who, for frame of reference, is best known for his work with Don Henley, is comically gaudy and overwrought. Underneath that production, there might be some good songs—Neil resurrected “Hippie Dream” on this year’s Earth, and it turns out it’s a pretty good little tune—but I’ve never been able to listen long enough to find out.
The one live album that I implore you to avoid is 1991’s Arc. You know that thing rock bands do at the end of songs in concert where they just kind of allow their guitars to feedback while the drummer just kind of hits the cymbals and the audience just kind of stands there thinking “let’s get to the next actual song?” Have you ever wanted to listen to a whole album of just that, cut together and processed in a way to make it ostensibly interesting? If your answer is “no,” and trust me when I tell you that your answer should be “no,” then please avoid Arc. It is sub-Metal Machine Music narcissistic, gimmicky drivel.
And that, friends, is my guide to Neil Young’s discography. There is undeniably a lot of music to work through, but it’s music that has continued to reward me as I’ve revisited it through the years.
For better or worse, people have often compared Neil to Bob Dylan over the course of their careers. I don’t know that it’s a fair comparison. Bob Dylan might be an unparalleled, once-in-a-generation songwriter, but Neil, even when he’s singing about aliens or an old rerun of The Brady Bunch or Chris Rock or even the electric car, seems to get to the truth, to cut to the quick, faster and with greater ease than any other songwriter to whom I’ve ever listened. Neil never seems to labor over his craft. Sometimes, of course, I wish he would labor over it a little more. But more often than not, I simply have to marvel at the ease with which he speaks truth and exudes beauty. Simply put, he’s one of the true treasures of our time.