Comment of the Moment: Thoughts on "Peace Trail", Neil Young's Latest Album
Telluride, Colorado - 9/30/16
Photo by thrasher
2017 looks to be off to a promising start.
We only say that because of one of the first comments that was posted this year to Thrasher's Wheat was an in depth listen to "Peace Trail", Neil Young's latest album.
Here is the Comment of the Moment: Thoughts on "Peace Trail" posted to Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Best of Thrasher's Wheat's 2016 Posts by Scotsman:
Happy New Year to you all, and thanks as always to Thrasher for another year of putting up with my comments.Thanks Scotsman and a Happy New Year! Thanks for dropping off some serious wheat to get the year rolling along.
A couple of people were curious about what I thought about Peace Trail. So here are my impressions, fittingly messy and unpolished and honest.
It grabbed my attention from the first listen. And it's a GREAT sounding album. How would I describe it? It's the audio equivalent of a 3-dimensional image. Eccentric, funky, full of character, well-performed. An engaging mixture of fragile, bare-bones performances and colourful overdubs. Varied song arrangements that keep surprising (and often delighting) the listener.
Let's be clear here: NO ONE other than Neil Young could have possibly made this record. And I love how low-key it is, slipping under the radar. No ridiculous TV appearances or hype, just "here's the record, take it or leave it". You'll notice that Neil Young in recent years (consciously or not) only tends to aggressively promote his poorer ideas to the general public: confidently allowing the stronger ones to stand for themselves.
Now, it's true that Neil still struggles to get fully "in the zone" with his lyric writing; it just doesn't flow as easily or as impressively as it once did for him. That's the result of taking the easy "first take" route too often in the last 20 years: the songwriting muscle hasn't been stretched, so it has atrophied. Regardless, he still gets into that flow of unconscious lyric writing a few times on this album, and when he does, the payoff is substantial. He's still got enough instinct left to pull it off. And even when he doesn't strike gold, there's a vividness and aliveness and sincerity to the writing that makes it work.
He reaches out to you, and you can't help but reach back. And, like magic, a connection is made.
I quite enjoyed the live POTR versions of these songs, they were solid and soulful enough; but he clearly made the right choice recordings these songs with a different band. It's more exciting, more funky, more rock 'n' roll. Less laborious. It's no coincidence that David Briggs (a man who has been dead 20 years) gets a "special thanks" on this record: there's an openness and spaciness to the sound that is very Briggs-esque. And what Briggs would have thought of these songs is anyone's guess; but regardless, some of his spirit is captured here in the bare-bones "no nonsense" sound and colourful overdubs.
And unlike most of the recent POTR gigs, this studio record is 100% Neil Young. Which is a good thing, in case that needs spelling out to you. There is literally NOTHING superfluous on this record. No excessive guitar noodling or extra layers of sound counter-productively filling in those beautiful gaps. Everything here is functional, designed to bring the songs to life and then get out of the way.
This record is pure Neil Young, with all his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. If anything lets it down (other than the now obligatory hit-and-miss lyric writing), it's that he doesn't quite go deep enough, often enough. On the last Crazy Horse album, particularly on Giant and Ramada Inn, he laid bare some of his deepest hopes and fears and dreams and emotional struggles. Peace Trail is a good album, but it doesn't draw blood to the same extent. It doesn't get to the emotional roots in the same compelling way. It's more relaxed. And that's perfectly fine: not every album has to do that. But the very best ones generally do.
As always, my opinion can change with time. But like Neil Young, I have a certain fondness for gut instincts, and my gut instinct here is that Peace Trail is a charming, low-key album overflowing with personality and vibrancy, engagingly performed by a funky band.
And finally, a word of praise for his vocals. On most of Earth and The Monsanto Years his singing voice sounded frail and strained, as he struggled to make himself heard over far too many poorly-arranged instruments. Everyone bashing away with abandon. It was a mess. Here, with a more sympathetic backing group, his voice genuinely sounds as good as it did twenty-five years ago. That might sound improbable, but of course, magical things tends to happen when you are around Neil Young. And more than a few of them can be experienced on this record. So don't overlook it.
As often the case with Neil releases, Peace Trail can take a few listens to start getting into the groove.
We're looking forward to future visits in 2017.
Be the wheat.