There are two slightly conflicting narratives out there about Neil Young. The first holds that Neil is a maverick trailblazer who marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s the godfather of grunge and a hero to many (myself included). The second narrative holds that Neil is a crazy person. In the 1970s, because cocaine, Neil sang about alien spaceships and visions of Pocahontas, Marlon Brando, and the Astrodome. As an old man, Neil rambles endlessly about cars and the environment. Seriously, my dude released a concept album about the electric car in 2009. The press and fans have often reconciled the two narratives 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 the fuck he wants. Sometimes the results are brilliant, as when he sings about “that great Grand Canyon rescue episode.” Sometimes the results are forgettable and/or unlistenable, as when, again, he released a concept album about the electric fucking 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,” 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 shit about Neil will tell you that song, “Revolution Blues,” is easily one of the five best he ever wrote. And of course, in celebrating Manson, Neil is actually celebrating the freedom of the Ditch.
The Ditch is where the rebel heart of Rock & 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 didn’t hurt that Neil continued to occasionally release really damn good records. Hell, Neil’s last great effort–2012’s Psychedelic Pill–was released less than two years ago. It’s not as though he leaves us waiting for too terribly long.
But there have been a few red flags from Neil in the past few months. For the first time, I’m not sure “Neil being Neil” is a good enough excuse.
The first red flag came when news hit that Neil and Pegi Young were divorcing after 36 years of marriage. The former couple have two children together. Neil, my dude, no. You don’t spend an entire career singing about love and then divorce the lady to whom many of those songs were sung. You don’t do that, Neil.
The second red flag came with the news that Crosby Stills Nash & Young will never perform together again on account of an irreconcilable feud between Neil and David Crosby. Apparently the feud stems in part from comments Crosby made about the new digital music player Neil has helped develop. I hate to say it, but I agree with the Croz on this one, which is really saying something considering the allegations that the Croz played many shows in the ’80s while wearing a backpack containing a loaded gun, and when arrested for illegally carrying a concealed handgun, the Croz said he had the gun because “John Lennon, man.” It might be odd to agree with Crosby, but if the electric car Neil helped develop is any indication, this digital music player will end disastrously. Regardless, Neil and The Croz are a combined 141-years-old. That’s way too old for a petty feud over bullshit. Neil, my dude, reconcile with the Croz. Reconcile with him if for no other reason than the fact that he wrote “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Cowboy Movie.”
With those two red flags flapping in the breeze, I’m starting to question Neil. The album he released earlier this year, A Letter Home, was a covers album recorded in a fucking phone booth. My dude, I’m pretty sure you could get better sound quality recording an album on your iPhone. And the novelty certainly isn’t worth my money.
His second album of 2014, Storytone, is being marketed as a stylistic counterpoint to his phone booth album. Various press on the album has claimed he was backed only by a 92-piece orchestra and a choir. That’s not entirely true. Neil is definitely playing guitar on a few songs. And some of the songs have less of an orchestral sound than a big band sound. But regardless of who is playing on this record, Neil, my dude, no. To say that having over 100 people play on a record is superfluous and overkill is an understatement. It’s especially true considering this is a record by a man who has built an entire career around the ethos “the more you think, the more you stink.” The solo on “Cinnamon Girl” consists of one note. And it fucking rules. My dude, why would you ever record an album like this?
From the first notes, this thing sounds like the score to a Disney movie. Within the first few seconds of lead track “Plastic Flowers,” I’m expecting cartoon birds to start fluttering and twittering about.
The lead single, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?,” isn’t any better with its overwrought lyrics about fracking.
Look, I disagree with fracking as much as Neil, but I don’t need the sentiment to include an orchestral score.
Elsewhere, Neil does a big band Chicago blues thing with absolutely zero authority on “Say Hello to Chicago.”
“When I Watch You Sleeping”–the one halfway-redeeming song on the entire 41-minute album–blessedly features Neil’s signature clawhammer acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, even the one decent song on the album is muddied by the presence of the orchestra.
Hopefully Psychedelic Pill isn’t the last great album from Neil. But following his decision to dissolve two of his longstanding relations, I’ve been forced to finally start considering whether my longtime hero’s misguided moments are representative of a more deeply rooted problem. If Neil can callously throw away two relationships that always seemed to mean so much to both parties, what should his fans expect of his relationship with them? Don’t some of the bullshit, throwaway albums he’s released through the years–the electronic record (which, truth be told, I really enjoy), the rockabilly record, Landing on Water–stand as fuck yous not only to his record label, but also to his fans? Do we deserve better than bullshit recorded in phone booths and with giant orchestras? Should this kind of work really be rewarded or even released? Perhaps I should remain content knowing a guy like Neil is out there doing his thing and getting paid to do it. Or perhaps I should have been questioning him all along.