Following The Muse: A Good Idea?
Moderator Jaan Uhelszki & Neil Young
SXSW Keynote Address, Austin, Texas - March 16, 2006
photo by Michael Weintrob, Groovetography
Over the past several weeks, we've been engaged in a pretty interesting exercise in the ongoing analysis of Neil Young's muse.
Back in 2006, at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, during Neil Young's keynote address, he said:
"'The one constant is not to let yourself get distracted when a song is trying to find you. Once you have an idea with music, nothing else matters but that idea. Your responsibility to the muse is to follow it.... There's nothing more important ... Commitments are one of the worst things for music making - they're annoying.'"
During Young's address on artistic creativity, he went on to explain the muse:
"I'm proudest of my work when it comes really fast [and] I don't edit it. It's the purest form of creativity ... you just have to be there.
You can't worry about the result while you're in the midst of creating. Afterwards, you can scrap it, record it or dump it in the editing bin. But, when you're terrified, you know you're on the right track.
Now, there are big breaks and [then] it's just like a dam bursting. I used to write a song every day.
People want to know why you don't make your most famous record over and over again. Because it's death."
So what it seems to have come down recently with the latest batch of new songs from the upcoming "Fork In the Road" (Pre-order on Amazon.com. Thanks! You'll also be supporting Thrasher's Wheat) is that there seems to be a huge divide between fans who are comfortable with Neil following his muse and those who steadfastly refuse to allow Neil's creativity to deviate from their own desires.
It has all been quite fascinating. Here's a brief rundown on some recent posts which have generated hundreds and hundreds of comments between impassioned Neil fans around the world:
- The Myth of Washed Up Neil (140+ comments)
- So Who's Really Washed Up? (30+ comments)
- Yonder Stands The Sinner (25+ comments)
- Life in the Neil Young Cocoon (15+ comments)
- "Fork In the Road" - New Video! (70+ comments)
- Those New Songs: Falling From Above (80+ comments)
- Comment of the Moment: Yonder Stands The Sinner (40+ comments)
- A Battle Raged on the Open Page: Can You Change Your Mind? (30+ comments)
- "Optimal" Neil Young Fans (10+ comments)
Well, here's another perspective on whether Neil has a wheel in the ditch or a wheel on the track by Not Above Suspicion:
Here's my perspective. Neil's recent albums have not excited me as much as much of his earlier work.
Using 10 years and looking at his out put since the CSNY Looking Forward, I'd be hard pressed to put any the albums containing "new" material in my favorites category and I'd have to put LF, AYP and LWW close to the very bottom of any albums Neil has done solo or in a group. I also agree that the general antipathy toward those albums is unlikely to be subject to revisionist appraisals as was the case with TFA, TTN and OTB.
CDII is probably my favorite of the albums. It does contain some old material and it still would probably be somewhere in the middle of my ranking of all his albums. I like S&G, Greendale and PW but I'd probably put them all in the lower half of a ranking.
So, to that extent I am in agreement with those who state Neil's recent work is not on a par with much of his earlier work. I'd be more inclined to say he hasn't delivered the "great" albums that he produced, if not consistently, frequently in the past.
Of course, he and I are both much older now. Honestly, I don't think anything, music or otherwise, can excite and move me as much today as it could when I was young.
I also think that Neil is using the latter portion of his career and the almost unique luxury he has in terms of his relationship with the recording industry to release whatever strikes his fancy at a given moment without regard for any of the factors usually considered. This is not really something new for Neil but in the past even his "challenging" albums seemed more internally diverse musically and topically. now, to an extent, you do get "here's 10 songs one after another that all reflect this attitude and feeling that occupied my thoughts the last month or so." there is an element of unrelenting self-indulgence present, and it's likely that factor which accounts for wide variance in opinions.
Some people (not surprisingly from almost exclusively the cadre of his biggest fans) are closely attuned to Neil's "self." Probably because: (a) they are extremely interested in what Neil is feeling and thinking and the songs and albums provide clues that they value in an "extra-musical" sense; and (b) those people just happen to have "selves" that are more similar to Neil.
That's not being sycophantic, which connotes a sense of uncritical adoration and often insincerity. Neil might just be the last person allowed to "narrowcast" from a major record label.
I think some of today's critics just don't know what to make of someone who is allowed to break all the rules and isn't relegated to the underground of obscure corners of the internet and self-published CDs.
Criticizing Neil for failing to deliver things with broad appeal might be accurate but is similar to criticizing health food stores for not delivering sugary treats.
-- Not Above Suspicion
In keeping with some of our recent analysis, what do you think? Should Neil follow his muse?
So why did you vote the way you did? Comment below.