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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Comment of the Moment: "It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics": Micah Nelson on Neil Young

Neil Young
Zollhafen / Nordmole, Mainz, Germany 28 July 2014
Photo by Takahiro Kyono | Flickr
(Click photo to enlarge)

Lots of discussion lately about the "quality" of Neil Young's lyrics and whether he's taking sufficient care with the craft versus delivery of his "message".

The Comment of the Moment is from the posting "It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics": Micah Nelson on Neil Young by Syscrusher who said...
I always thought that because Neil seems to really believe in his 'style' of songwriting, what he calls 'Audio Verite', where he's really trying to capture the exact moment that the song is born.

He seems to believe that he is an antenna receiving a song and not necessarily writing it himself. And he does not believe in editing himself. I see some more recent songs that are great songs to me but have some lines that I view as bad, and I think it's just because he refuses to edit the original lines that came to him, or through him that is. One example I can think of at the moment is 'It's A Dream'. An amazing song, I always thought of it as the sequel to 'Helpless'. But just one bad line, the one about 'stopping with a Policeman to chat' I guess I just don't buy it coming from a pothead, even Patti Smith changes that one lyric in her excellent live version that I believe may have been posted here.

'You Never Call' is another great recent song. Much like some of his best early songs it gathers images that surround an event but doesn't really describe the event itself. The main difference i think is that 'You Never Call' was a lot easier to figure out what it was actually about by listening to the song. With much of his best early work he'll mention what the idea behind the song was, which always makes me say 'oh yeah makes sense', but the imagery that surrounds the idea is more abstract, and there seems to be so much more to the song than just the original idea. Thinking of Clancy/Flying On The Ground/On The Way Home.

I always felt like at his best, Neil takes an idea for a song and explodes it into an abstraction of that original idea. Where he captures the surrounding images to paint with his words. He's always had more literal songs, realism songs like 'Don't Be Denied'. And as I scan over his songlist right now, I see strong imagery in all his songs. Just glancing at the recent song titles evokes much in my mind. 'Falling Off The Face Of The Earth', 'When God Mad Me' 'No Hidden Path', 'All Those Dreams'...great when I hear a song and it evokes something. I mean 'Hey Jude' is a great song but I don't get the lasting impressions that I do from many recent Neil songs. Where Neil's lyrics are impressed on the song, it makes me look at a song title and see a painting. When I look at 'Hey Jude' I just really get a sense of the melody and performance. Make sense? Hard to articulate these thoughts...

I mean listen to 'Say Hello Chicago'. It's surely inspired by some simple event, like playing a show in Chicago in 2014, but he gathered the surrounding images to paint a picture that leaves an impression on me. (And I'm talking about the solo piano version of course.)

Love passes fast...
Thanks Syscrusher! The 'Audio Verite' concept still seems alive for Neil & The Nelson Boys as far as we can tell. Don't say it's over...

More on "It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics": Micah Nelson on Neil Young.

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At 6/07/2015 02:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point about Neil not editing himself is a crucial one. I think that, in the 70's, Neil's instincts as a songwriter were obviously razor sharp, and thus he could write down the first thing that came linto his head and, very often, it would be a work of genius. And when the "first take" wasn't that great, well, he would persevere and work hard until it was brought up to standard. The result is a body of work that is of consistent world-class standard.

The difference now is that, at the age of 69, Neil's songwriting instincts perhaps aren't quite as sharp as they once were. That's not a criticism: very few 69 year-old songwriters are writing to the same standard they were 35 years ago!

But as Neil has aged, he hasn't edited his songs more - he's cut out editing altogether! Just at the point when some careful editing and persistence would actually benefit his work the most. The result is a host of half-finished songs that have the promise of greatness about them, but have been somehow scrambled in transmission, turning them into lesser works. For example: one can easily imagine "She's Always Dancing" evolving into one of the best songs of Neil's career, had he taken the time to write some decent lyrics for the verses.

This is why I think Neil's songwriting from 1988 to 1996 is of particular note, and deserves the highest praise. At this point in time Neil was already starting to lose the songwriting edge he had in the 70's, but through tenacity and hard work, combined with the spark of inspiration, he managed to create some of the best works of his career. That's a true professional at work. Nowadays, the songwriting approach often seems to be "minimum work with minimum inspiration", and the results are naturally underwhelming in comparison.


At 6/07/2015 03:24:00 PM, Blogger B M O'Sullivan said...

IMHO Scotsman, while I think that Neil can put out half sketched ideas at times, not everything needs to be fully baked at all times. Consider painting - groups of painting have greater than, and lesser than values when considering the grouping, but they kinda of had to exist together. Then you maybe can look at the macro of Neil's full output and go "Wow, look at Neil's 50 'great' songs, and two happen to be from The Monsanto Years". You are undercutting him before he starts. Americana (possible half stabs at standards) looked bad on paper, as did Psych Pill (35 min jamz), and those are really great.

At 6/07/2015 03:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

B M O'Sullivan - I think Psych Pill is a good album with great parts to it; it's not a great album as a whole. Ramada Inn is the heavyweight song of the album. Walk Like A Giant is of a similar standard: right up until the noise ending, which wasn't too bad in concert, but just comes across as a disenchanting mess on the album. It's the kind of thing that Briggs would have shot Neil for. After the first thrilling 10 minutes, the track (and album) comes to a lengthy anti-climax which spoils much of the excitment that has so skilfully been built up.

The rest of the songs are fine musically - but we can only wonder just how magnificent the album would have been had Neil taken a little more time and effort sculpting the often bland, prototype lyrics into something more worthy of the occasion.

Americana is an underrated album (even Neil has hinted he lacked faith in it), but part of what makes it a success is the fact that Neil didn't write any of the lyrics! In other words, he focuses on his current strengths. It's a departure from the usual approach, and one that I agree is surprisingly successful.


At 6/07/2015 08:14:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Scotsman nailed it. I feel the most important phrase he employed was "true professional at work" when describing Neil's "earlier" work ('88 - '96). If I haven't written it before, that's the thought I keep coming back to--it's just not professional quality. Neil is either unwilling or incapable of committing. Monsanto and his other recent work is mostly amateurish, uninspired, unrefined, incomplete and infused with a lazy arrogance. The worse it is, the prouder Neil seems of himself, as if somehow it shows immediacy and integrity.

Still, since 2000 I feel that Silver and Gold, Prairie Wind, Greendale, Living with War and Psych Pill are good to very good works, and Le Noise had its moments. Just felt the need to say something positive--negativity is a draining emotion...

Neil: When will I see you again?

At 6/08/2015 06:25:00 AM, Blogger La Johnson said...

Great how many people here are trying to convince themselves that some of the recent output has been sub-standard - negativity = realism.

At 6/09/2015 12:39:00 AM, Blogger Babbo B. said...

Micah has some lengthy, heartfelt follow-up comments himself over in the Rusties group on Facebook, FWIW

At 6/09/2015 06:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Micah comes across as a nice person and I don't disagree with anything he says there. Though perhaps if he wants people not to speculate on the quality of the album, it would be more effective to not keep talking about it!

My own thoughts on the quality of the recent lyrics have been based on the songs written approximately 2005-2014. I think there has been an obvious decline in quality during that period - a trend that may well be broken this year. I agree that we should wait and see with regards to the new album. I've avoided listening to the recent concert recordings for this very reason.

As I mentioned before, both Psych Pill and Storeytone had some flashes of songwriting genius, so I'm hopeful this new album will be another step up the ladder.


At 6/09/2015 04:22:00 PM, Blogger nick said...

A New Day For Love is now on Spotify.

In the live version I heard, for the first 20 seconds there's a beautiful melody before the heavy guitar kicks in. When I read that this song would be the first track on the album, I thought what a great choice, a beautiful way to start the album. Now having heard the album version, I'm so disappointed. The melody has been totally butchered, it even sounds like they edited out part of the beginning. If you compare the two, the album version sounds like they used the first or second take before they really fleshed out the melody. The rest of the track is okay but that introductory part really makes the song for me.

(Rant over. Sorry, I know it's a minor detail but I just had to get that off my chest.)

At 6/09/2015 07:20:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Nick, it's not a minor deal. It's quite clear that Neil is intent on releasing the first or second initial recorded moment (spark is to nice a word for it) without any proper thought or review. It's astonishing to me how little he seems to care about what he releases.

Maybe someday this music will be of some value, but for now I won't pay to see and hear his sketchbook of songs.

At 6/10/2015 02:33:00 AM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

The original comment on Neil's songwriting process makes sense to me, especially the part about the final recording being an abstract expansion around the original idea; it's sort of like form following function, or really form working in tandem with the thematic/songwriting content. And there have been more literal and more figurative numbers at all points. Sometimes the literal ones are very powerful, like Love and War from Le Noise. (Both Le Noise and CDII make my list of highlights from recent years and, in my own humble opinion, Prairie Wind has some moments but as an overall cohesive unit, is a little overrated--don't kill me). But even as recently as Storytone, there are songs rife with images and metaphors: Plastic Flowers and Tumbleweed spring to mind. They're favorites of mine partially because the lyrics have an imaginative, colorful quality that transcends the concrete and employs metaphors that, to my mind, were clearly thought out, whether before or after he started putting them on paper. All Those Dreams succeeds in mainly a more literal direction: there are images but they are not metaphorical for the most part and certainly not fantastical. Yet they are beautiful and it's the almost bald, unvarnished literalism in the song that makes it unique to me in Neil's catalogue: to my memory, we've never had another set of lyrics quite like that and it was refreshing, not to mention that the song sounds so happy that I can't help but feel good listening to it. And because it has those feelings of fresh openness and new beginnings, it's a clever choice to close the album.

Good comment and I'm glad to be sharing the "Comment of the Moment" spotlight with other voices.

At 6/10/2015 05:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TopangaDaze and nick - I agree completely that the first-take "religion" has often put a spanner in the works!

I think there is often a clear difference between what is the best recorded take, and which is Neil's favourite due to his memories of the recording sessions. Performing a song for the fourth or fifth time might not be as consciously exciting to him as the first time: but it will often be a more focused, intense and emotionally moving performance than the intitial "sketch" which doesn't even scratch the surface.

This is where an authoritative producer would be able to step in with a clear unclouded judgement, and steer Neil towards performing a more quality performance. "No, it's not good enough - do it again". Briggs was known for his ability to push Neil in this way, when necessary, and you can hear that focus and work ethic on the majority of the records he was around for. Listen to Sleeps With Angels, for instance. Or the Ragged Glory rehearsals, most of which sound completely underdeveloped compared to the sublime released versions.

The idea that Neil has always insisted on a pure first or second-take approach is also inaccurate. Classic songs like Like A Hurricane only really took shape after they had been worked on extensively. Nowadays that song would never have had time to grow into the released version that we all know and love.


At 6/10/2015 11:16:00 AM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Historically, Neil walked that delicate balance between spontaneity and craft. Quite often he shelved songs for years, or tweaked (or combined) them until they were fleshed out and felt right to him. In recent years, it's become all about spontaneity, quality be damned. In concert, that works well (for the most part), but on record, it's largely a disaster.

For me, it truly becomes unlistenable when he tries to write topically. Though I agree with a good many of his stances, his lyrics have become so terribly forced, and when mixed with under rehearsed, unfinished, sloppy music and production, it's painful to listen to.

Personally, I'd much rather him write another book and shelve the music for a while..

At 6/10/2015 07:08:00 PM, Blogger Syscrusher said...

Thanks Ian K., Nice comment yourself.
I like what you said about 'All Those Dreams'. Love that song.

At 6/11/2015 01:18:00 AM, Blogger nick said...

Interview clips and rehearsal footage of Neil & POTR. In the last few minutes, Neil sheds some light on the muse.

At 6/11/2015 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

"The writer's life, to me, means that I can write about whatever I want to, and that's a great freedom. I cherish that freedom."
--Laura Nyro

At 6/11/2015 12:12:00 PM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

"It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something."
--Ornette Coleman

RIP to the most incredible and humble musician that I ever saw and heard. Modern music would be unthinkable without your contributions. Thank you, thank you, thank you....

At 6/11/2015 05:17:00 PM, Blogger Syscrusher said...

Thank you Mr. Henry,

Well said

At 6/11/2015 06:00:00 PM, Blogger nick said...

Sorry, the correct URL of the video is:

At 6/16/2015 10:47:00 AM, Blogger marc goertz said...

looks like a new song is coming very soon.......:-)


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