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Sunday, March 08, 2009

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 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.


At 3/08/2009 03:55:00 PM, Blogger J Neo Marvin said...

Neil has generated such a massive body of work over the years with so many amazing peaks that he really doesn't owe us any more. I would rather see him follow whatever tangent suits his fancy than have him pandering to what he may think his audience wants. An artist can't second guess that stuff too much, and will often fall flat on his/her face trying.

If there are to be even more Neil Young albums in the world than there are already, I want them to break some new ground, even if they fail in the attempt.

Neil Young, like Robert Wyatt and Leonard Cohen, is a rare artist who has retained his curious, questing spirit well into old age, and that should be honored, even if you didn't like his last effort. An artist is not a faucet.

At 3/08/2009 05:50:00 PM, Blogger astrololee said...

Neil has always done what he has wanted to do and by doing so is naturally following his own muse. This of course has got him off-side on may occassions..i.e Buffalo Springfield days, Trans etc etc but I believe this course has always brought out the best in him, however some people have not taken the time to recognise the true nature of the artist that he is nor have they come to terms with the simplistic brilliance that he is and will be for evermore.
Whether you like the music or not, the key to Neil's music is in the lyrics. I've heard countless versions of the old songs which, have ranged from pure acoustic bliss which make me want to slip into some "foggy trip", to a raging cacophony of sound that makes me want to just go wild. All changing, however the words are constant and true. These songs all have talent and merit and it's Neil, doing whatever he wants to do and doing it very well.
So I always look forward to hearing the new stuff. Its stimulating and thought provoking and evolving and pure "Neil" and it's why we love him still after 40 years of bringing his world to us through his lyrics and music.

At 3/08/2009 06:59:00 PM, Blogger Lone Red Rider said...

I never knew Jaan Uhelszki was a chick.

At 3/08/2009 08:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm just a blindly devoted fan but I'm surprised Neil is catching so much flack for basically "being Neil". Fork In the Road may not be Barstool Blues but it's still Neil which makes it better than most other music by default. Truth be told, Neil could fart into the microphone for two hours and I'd tell you it was the greatest thing I ever heard (as long as he added a little distortion) ;), but that's just me.

Change your mind,

At 3/08/2009 08:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, that's where he got his influence for Prairie "Wind"

At 3/09/2009 06:42:00 AM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

I have alittle insight about the Muses. They're not always reliable, either.

Sometimes they can be downright selfish and imposing with hardly any redeming quality whatsoever.

What generally lies in their wake can be highly venerating as much as victimizing.

At 3/09/2009 08:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But, when you're terrified, you know you're on the right track."

I'll continue to take his word for it.

At 3/09/2009 11:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To no one's surprise I am sure, I voted do whatever he wants. I don't like the "true fan" labels (or even the semantically creative "optimal fan" one) but I do care about more than my enjoyment of the music when it's Neil.

I want him to do what he needs to remain challenged by something more than sales targets and radio play and proud of his work.

If he would feel like a sell-out if he simply crafted "new" music to exploit the enduring popularity of his "classics" then I can live with that even if
I might actually prefer to listen to traces and echoes of past glory.

He can and does still play the old stuff so I can see where he might see it as redundant and stifling to deliver new stuff that is mostly in the same vein (even if he has been so eclectic it's hard to use the singular there).

He doesn't want to be a nostalgia act. He probably sees himself as making sufficient concessions to fan demands by playing a selection of the popular stuff live and putting together the Archives (although that concession remains elusive).

I accept that he does a lot of what he does for himself. I'm free to walk away when his self-indulgence does not produce something that draws me.

I'm not walking. Partly because I admire his independence and iconoclasm, but mostly because I think he knows best what he needs to do connect with the muse on a level that produces creativity that is something more than echoing his own past.

He may now be very deep in the shaft, with the thickest seams played out requiring him to mine through a lot of rock to find the gold that remains. But, if he's still searching, I'm still listening, whether he hits gold or not. One thing is certain. If he stops searching he won't find it.

--Not Above Suspicion

At 3/09/2009 11:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glastonbury is official


Davie from Scotland

At 3/09/2009 11:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Keeps me searching for a heart of gold, an I'm getting old."

Not above suspicion - very well put.

Funny how that lyric, from his self-proclaimed and critically acclaimed 'hit' which caused a continental shift away from the center of the road seems to remain so valid of his journey even today.

muse-: to turn something over in the mind meditatively and often inconclusively: to become absorbed in thought

At 3/09/2009 03:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thrasher wrote:

So what it seems to have come down recently with the latest batch of new songs from the upcoming "Fork In the Road" 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.

I think that's an awfully simplistic categorization of the "rift" amoung Neil's fans over the new material. I could just as easily say that there is a rift between those who believe that "Neil's Muse" is infallible and those who think that even the greatest artists are capable of producing some duds.

But neither of those is right. I love that Neil follows his Muse, but after that, it's fully Neil's decision about what to do with where the Muse leads him. Neither he, nor we, can absolve him of responsibility for his work simply because he believes in an ancient Greek mythos regarding artisitic inspiration.

As I've quipped before, only Neil Young can give us "live albums" that have been edited, overdubbed, and otherwise produced for months in a studio while simultaneously giving us "studio albums" filled with raw first takes. If he wanted to devote more time to refining that which he brings us from his Muse, he certainly could, and at times he has. Sometimes things are better raw, sometimes they're not, and sometimes the Muse would rather eat mac 'n cheese than Peking Duck. There's no accounting for taste, even among spirit beings.


At 3/09/2009 04:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm prone to over-analyzing things (and maybe over-expounding upon my analyses), but I find it odd that many people who not only say they anxiously await the Archives, but wish the released product would be even more complete take issue with Neil making available for contemporary release music that he has made.

If we want studio outtakes over thirty or forty year old unreleased music, why would we want him to hold back things he is doing now?

I hear people say with some frequency that they love songs or particular alternate takes that for one reason or another he decided against releasing in the past. At the same time I'm hearing he should not have released some songs because they "aren't up to par."

Apart from the obvious reality that different people have different opinions and some people like things others dislike, why would anyone be against him releasing more rather than less? Who is hurt by music being made available?

If you don't like it, don't buy it. then you can't even claim the loss of $15. Those who want it can buy it. The implication of some that Neil is harming his legacy strikes me as being both silly and no one's business other than Neil's.

Personally, I want to hear anything he's ever done. I won't like it all but I'm actually a good bit more interested in what he's doing now and thinks enough of to prepare for release for release than I am the
339th (random number) version of Powderfinger, even if that 339th version of Powderfinger is a sure thing.

--Not Above Suspicion

At 3/09/2009 04:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil should not worship Satin.

Bye Bye

- Anomalously Anonymous

At 3/09/2009 05:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes I meant satin not satan. I am against the wearing of satin. It sounds like shit.
Anonymously Anonymous

Better choose another road Neil. Old Hag!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At 3/09/2009 07:56:00 PM, Blogger john said...

Neil's MUSEic is his gift,to nurture & express in song& performance.,as he sees fit.

I think we can appreciate that the muse can come & go,be stronger at times to inspire his greater songs & performances.

He has his own freedom of choice as to what is released.He is the artist & in Neil's case can exercise his prerogative as to what gets out there.

It's a bit of a cheek for others to bitch at Neil for producing something new material that they don't like,particularly,after all the years of his giving great songs to the world.The tail should not wag the dog,I say,with respect!

Mind you,as a performer he is consistently great,obviously inspired by the act of performance & what he gets back from audience response.

At 3/09/2009 07:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey thrash, just wonderin, How do you earn ya stripes to get a "B" in a red box in front of your name?
Is this thrasher's secret society of relevant bloggers. I'm not really keen on the "anonymous "logo!Its very trollish!

At 3/09/2009 09:37:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

Hi DD,

Good question. If you follow the Comments Policy link that appears every time you comment you will see the following:

It is encouraged -- but not required -- that a profile ID account be established for posting comments. Here's how to establish a Google Accounts. This will give you a valid signature for posts. This will better enable us to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Now register thy self!

At 3/10/2009 06:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thrash, this is a test to lose my troll status. "Chaff" me or "Wheat" me. I'm profiled. Now,Ok, looking forward to my "B"status.... Here goes

At 4/06/2009 04:19:00 PM, Anonymous dr dip said...

Looks like I wasn't accepted...Darn!

At 6/04/2009 09:20:00 AM, Blogger The tired banker said...

I think Neil should do a record every 5 yrs rather than one every year, and be a bit more selective with what he puts on records. That way he could still make some great stuff. To produce a record with 13 songs of which 1 is good, 2 are passable and 10 are really bad is not the best way to be remembered in rock history. But probably he doesn't care...

At 9/26/2009 06:58:00 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

Neil being Neil...

Will always be true to himself without doubt! I've loved his work since I first heard "Rust Never Sleeps" in 1979-and really, I've never regretted becoming a huge fan-even through all the so-called "lesser" albums that he has done since that point. Every artist (Of any type-music, movies, art, dance, etc...) has periods where, clearly their muse has temporarily deserted them (Hello Bowie & Dylan through parts of the 80's! Bowie & Tin machine? Dylan & "Wiggle wiggle wiggle"???!!) You cannot be an artist over such a long period of time (40years plus in all 3 cases!) without a slight dip in quality control. It just isn't humanly possible to operate at a peak on a sustained basis. Sports athletes & teams can't do it either. Once you've gone to the top, there's only one place to go...

But, you can go to the peak again. And again. It just might not be as frequently-or to the same summit. But, it can be done.
The crucial part is recognizing the limits of your own abilities-and adjusting your expectations accordingly. And if your happy with that, then you'll be in the right position to respond to any new situation in front of you.

So, for me, the noughties have actually produced some fantastic new Neil Young music & albums. Sure, some albums will never rate highly compared to whats generally deemed as his "Classics", but I would much rather Neil continued following any creative urge/impulse that he gets anyday, rather than him pandering to any other expectations of whats 'expected' of him. How many other major recording artists recorded a song as incendiary as "Lets Impeach The President" at its time of release?

With 3 months to go before the end of this decade, I think time will see this as another hugely important decade in the life of Neil Young. Its the varied nature of this decades 'work' that provides the key as to why it will sit more than well with his complete artistic output.

Personally, I'm looking forward to him creating the bastard child mutation of "Trans" & "Arc-Weld" !!! Or maybe, a 30 minute prog epic with many individual sections a la Yes!

Long may you reign Neil, Long may you reign...

At 10/13/2009 09:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do what youre always done Neil!It's fine by me, cause that's how you are.Youre the best!!!well to me anyway I still enjoy your're music ,speciale when you play life,like that best! Monda


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