Comment of the Moment: Yet Another Re-Appraisal of Fork in the Road
Lots of comments on Neil Young's latest release Fork in the Road. Some love it. Some hate it.
The quick back story on our Comment of the Moment is that we've had some fairly serious disagreements with the commenter -- Pinto (or Flounder) -- over the past several months. Truth be told, we seemed to somehow mix him up with some snarky anonymous commenters which led to a little dust up.. But we moved on and agreed to disagree.
So here's Pinto (or Flounder)'s take on Yet Another Re-Appraisal of Fork in the Road:
It's funny, in retrospect, how, even though I'd been reading on the site for a long time, I initially took it for a place where critical analysis was a primary purpose and goal. Maybe because that's what Thrasher says it's for on the home page. And maybe because Thrasher's editorial stance, as evidenced by his really painstaking compilations of critical opinion, is pretty journalistically well-balanced. There's a strong pro-Neil tilt, to be sure, but it is, after all, a Neil Young web site, so what would you expect?
The comments section is a different story. It's here that the real split occurs between those who above all else revere the man and those whose primary focus is on the music. Thrasher's comments fall solidly in the first category, leading to opinions like the one that ends this column:
"But, there will always be those who can not get it, and will never get it, because they can't change their minds. Sad."
Restated this reads "It is sad that those who can't change their minds (about FITR) will never get it." What he's really saying is that Neil Young's every utterance is deserving of the utmost reverence because... well, because it's his web site and that's the way he wants it.
Those who come to the site with an honest critical approach that says maybe Neil isn't making the greatest music these days are greeted with torrents of abuse, from, at times, the host himself. (Though, to be fair, a reasonable amount of thoughtful discussion does occur amongst the rubble.)
I have no axes to grind here. Thrasher and I went back and forth a few times and agreed to a respectful (I hope, from his side) truce. I love and revere Neil's music; I am completely neutral on the question of the man himself and his personal qualities. I really don't care if he's a saint or a complete asshole. I have only ever been interested in discussing the arc of his career and possible reasons why he doesn't seem able to record songs that are as good as the ones he used to record. In the middle of a long heated exchange of opinions Thrasher explicitly agreed with this when he told me that I might have a long wait if I was expecting any more "classic" recordings from Neil.
So I continue to wonder what's happened to Neil's muse...career.. whatever you want to call it (and the corresponding issue of Neil's peers, Dylan, Springsteen, etc. whose career arcs seem to parallel Neil's in many ways.) To that end, the following thoughts on being a rock star in the 21st century:
Let's maybe look at Neil and his last few years from a different standpoint. As Deep Throat (the All the President's Men confidential source, not the porno movie) famously advised "Follow the money."
See, I've seen comments many times along the lines of "Well, Neil sure doesn't need the money." in justification of any number of arguments relating to his recordings, tours, charitable and public service participation, etc. My answer to that is, "How the hell do you know?" And, of course, neither do I, but if you start from the opposite perspective and ask "What if Neil does need the money?" you might end up with a different view.
Let's start the discussion with an an overview to illuminate the current state of what it might be like, economically, to be a rock star in the 21st century.
This week's charts of the Top 200 show that:
The best selling album,(Rascal Flatts) sold 351,000 copies
The 10th best selling album, Lady Ga-Ga, sold 56,000
Neil Young's Fork in the Road debuted at number 19 (unknown total sales but reasonable to assume somewhat less than 30,000)
After 77 weeks, Carrie Underwood's second album has been certified for 2 million units sold
After 129 weeks Taylor Swift's first album has been certified for 3 million units sold.
In the top ten best selling albums there are zero with multi-platinum certifications.
In the 11-50th best selling albums there are four certified multi-platinum with a total of 8 million sold.
In the 51-100 best selling albums there are four multi-platinum representing 8 million sold.
In the entire top 100 there are only two albums (Taylor Swift and L'il Wayne) that have been certified for 3 million sold.
This is not an unusual week. You don't have to go back too many years to find the Top 100 studded with albums certified for 5 or 10 or 12 million units sold. And it is reasonable to assume that the other albums on those charts sold more units by far than albums in the same chart position sell today. And, while digital sales have made up some of the difference, those sales are primarily of single songs by relatively recent artists, not albums by artists like Neil Young.
So, regardless of whether or not Neil still makes bundles of bucks from sales of his back catalog, royalties, etc., the inescapable conclusion has to be that Neil's income from sales of his individual albums are way, way down from what they used to be. And human nature tells us that it is fairly difficult to make a radical change in one's standard of living once one has gotten used to a certain level of economic affluence and comfort.
If you accept the argument that Neil's income from sales is way down (and he pretty much confirms that himself with the "My sales have tanked" line), and you make a logical deduction that Neil is maybe not too interested in downsizing his lifestyle, you ask yourself what Neil might be thinking/doing to keep the bucks arriving in a satisfactory manner.
The first approach, and most clearly obvious, is to step up the pace of his touring. This has been extensively noted, not just with Neil, but with many artists of his generation. Dylan has been on tour for about a hundred years now. Neil has been touring far more extensively than at any time in his artistic career. Springsteen reforms the E-Street Band and sells Greatest Hits exclusively at Wal-Mart after his solo recordings and tours fail to produce revenue anywhere near historic levels (and, again from Billboard, his 5-Star reviewed, Super Bowl supported Working on a Dream album sits at number 88 after 11 weeks with half a million certified sales.)
For us, the fan, it is, in one sense, wonderful. We have far more opportunities to see the man in person than was ever previously the case. In another sense, though, the constant touring doesn't leave much time for the man to sit around quietly waiting for the muse to produce new inspiration. So, we get the "direct lyrics" approach of Living with War and Fork in the Road, with songs written and recorded in, seemingly, minutes. It's quite a change from the days where albums would be assembled over months and even years and when entire albums would be trashed because they weren't quite matching where Neil's head happened to be at the moment.
But a secondary effect of the current music economy is to make it increasingly unlikely that an artist wants to take the time off from touring to record a major album. If the very top selling albums from the newest, hottest artists are only going to sell a million units or two over a couple years, why invest the time and psychic energy necessary to write and record them?
From an economic standpoint it makes a lot more sense to record a whole bunch of albums and sell them to the dedicated fan base than to spend the same amount of time recording one album that will, primarily, still only sell to the same fan base.
And, this, I think, more than anything, accounts for the current pattern of Neil's career. The topical, tossed off (and inexpensively produced) album will sell a few tens of thousands before it disappears; the gradual release of archives material will do somewhat better (I don't think it's an accident that the first volume of the archives seems imminent only after the third archive recording, Canterbury, only lasted a week on the charts); and non-stop touring will fill in the revenue gaps.
And, finally, I do not in any way mean this to be critical of the artist. A man's gotta eat. Neil has absolutely nothing left to prove to anyone. I just think that looking at the economic picture might provide a different insight into how we got to where we are.
More reaction to Neil Young's Fork in the Road.