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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Comment of the Moment: Thoughts on "Peace Trail", Neil Young's Latest Album

"Mother Earth"
Neil Young
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.

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.

Thanks Scotsman and a Happy New Year! Thanks for dropping off some serious wheat to get the year rolling along.

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.

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At 1/04/2017 10:04:00 AM, Blogger rustedbugs said...

definitely needs a few listens. got it for x-mas and just listened to it ...LOUD (up at 11) last night.

It's growing on me...........


At 1/04/2017 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Dan1 said...

Scots, great review!

At 1/04/2017 01:15:00 PM, Blogger Arthur said...


A famous Scotsman yelled that a few hundred years ago.

I think maybe Neil was a little inspired by it too.

I always enjoy your insightful reviews FS!

Let's hope for a great 2017!

At 1/04/2017 03:53:00 PM, Blogger mrtew said...

Great review and I agree. For me the biggest difference between this album and any of his other albums over the past ten or eleven years (except PsychPill) is that it's enjoyable to listen to! Once in a while I can get into Le Noise a little but most recent stuff just isn't a pleasure like Peace Trail is. I listen to it at least once a day just for enjoyment because it sounds so nice.

At 1/04/2017 05:07:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

My expectations have clearly lowered in recent years, but I really like this album. It has a very consistent overall tone/feel, and musically, lyrically and vocally it holds up rather well and keeps my interest throughout.

Overall, I hear echoes throughout that closely aligns with "On the Beach" and "Greendale" in terms of lyrical and vocal phrasing, and musical pacing and temperament. In particular, to my ears "My Pledge" lyrically sounds like a Greendale outtake.

The song "Peace Trail" has also really grown on me, which is saying something because I liked it on first listen. I love the cool moody atmospheric playing and its casually catchy and identifiable lyrics.

"Ain't taken my last hit yet"

It's disappointing to me how little interest this album garnered. Even here in Neil's Web Hometown, the album came and went with barely a wimper. C'mon people: wake up, wake up--we're in the late innings here, don't give up now!

"Don't think I'll cash it in yet"

PS: Thanks for the review Scots--better late than never, and I'm glad it brought some discussion back to the album.

To keep the album discussion alive for a little while longer, here are two questions for you (and everyone/anyone who has heard the album):

1) What's your favorite song on the album and why?
2) What are your feelings about the song "Peace Trail" and if/how it compares to his other works throughout the years?

Take my advice
Don't listen to me

At 1/04/2017 05:42:00 PM, Blogger Christian said...

I saw a few negative reviews where it seemed like the album was given a cursory listen, and then the reviewer decided it wasn't another Harvest or Rust Never Sleeps and they just dismissed it without giving it a fair chance. I'm really liking this one, especially the title track, the wonderfully bizarre My Pledge with the dual vocal lines, and that distorted harp he plays on a handful of tunes...

At 1/04/2017 07:33:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

It reminds me an awful lot of Sleeps With Angels , which isnt a bad thing . Im very pleased with the last 2 NY lps .

At 1/04/2017 08:10:00 PM, Blogger andrea1bianco said...

Neil Young fans are very old and this can explain the mixed reactions on new releases. Peace Trail charted lowest in USA (76 on Billboard Charts), I think his more disappointing result. But in the specialized genre charts, Peace Trail charts very high. More simply, the old farts as us don't buy anymore music, considering the general sales. Rock/Folk genres are the new Jazz now. This is my explanation.
I appreciate the fact that Neil is still recording new music, considering the low volume of sales in the actual market.
Thanks, Neil!
So Tired.

At 1/04/2017 10:23:00 PM, Blogger onthebeach said...

I've been waiting for the vinyl that's coming out Friday. Bu the tracks and samples I've heard, I have really liked everything so far...Looking forward to giving this a spin.

At 1/05/2017 10:01:00 AM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Sales numbers and great art have nothing to do with each other. Most of Neil's most brilliant albums sold poorly went released, and years later are dubbed masterpieces. Frankly, I have seen these last several releases as inspired works by an artist that marches to his own drumbeat. From Le Noise to Peace Trail every album has been rich with honesty, skill, and integrity. I'm 60 years old and my passion is acquiring music to feed the spirit. Peace Trail is yet another example what exemplifies great art....
....... oh, and before I forget, Thanks Scotsman for the nice review.

At 1/05/2017 10:54:00 AM, Blogger Eric said...

Enjoyed all the comments and the Scotsman review. I have been with Neil's music for nearly 50 years. Like most of us long timers his output, although prolific, has been, save some notable exceptions, less than inspiring and absorbing over the last 20 years or so. I have not played a new Neil Young record this many times in this short of a space of time since "Sleeps With Angels. This album is brilliant in so many ways. Things I like. The Songs: Peace Trail, Show Me, Glass Accident, My Pledge, and My Robot are exceptional. The others are very good, Indian Givers excepted. Accessibility: How many times of late have you said about a Neil song, "I wish that would have lasted longer"? These songs hit quick and are gone, and I keep going back for more. The Performances: Keltner's drumming is a marvel. He enriches every song with his off beats and drum choices. I have heard some criticisms here and it's absolutely ridiculous. Neil's vocals are as good as they have ever been. I'm mostly referring to intonation and inflection. He is spot on. Neil's choice of guitars and his playing. (the electric guitars in Glass Accident and Peace Trail!) And finally, The Computer Finale: Neil takes us back 30 years, (Trans) and brings us back again to remind us of the artificial world we have created and perhaps what it has done to our humanity, individually and collectively. I love this album. Thank you Neil.

At 1/05/2017 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Arthur said...

"...I used to dig Picasso...I used to dig Picasso...

Then a giant tech company came along...

And turned him into wallpaper.....

I used to dig Picasso...I used to dig Picasso."

From "Driftin' Back" (my personal favorite since the '70's)

All I can say is beware of the AI....walk on.

At 1/05/2017 12:58:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Well said Eric and thanks for your thoughts. There's definitely something about this album that has that uniquely organic and free flowing Neil authenticity to it. His vocals are as good as I've heard from him in a long time and the mix of acoustic and electric guitar is well balanced.

Lyrically speaking, there's enough to keep me interested as well, and I think overall it's a nice reflection of and combination of the personal and public concerns felt by Neil. It's not too heavy handed, but ole' Neil still has a hammer in his hand at the ready...

Regarding the final song "My New Robot", it's among the most bizarre and jarring songs Neil's ever released. To quibble a lit bit, I've heard many people compare it to his work on Trans, but I don't equate the works very much (if at all). To me Trans was all about the vocoder, and some sort of rhythm struggling to be concealed and understood. It stands as Neil's most "unavailable" work and at the same time is both Neil's most understood and misunderstood work.

Sure, "My New Robot" introduces us again to a message of automation and slight distortion, but it isn't concealed in any way like on Trans. It's a striking dichotomy between the idealistically simplistic life in the day moment at the beginning of the song with the forced challenges and inhumanity we face and embrace today. It's completely unexpected in the context of both the album and song, and it's truly strikingly bizarre and disorienting, much like Neil himself.

Weeks after the album release, I'm still listening and finding new nuggets to mine each time.

"Take my advice
Don't listen to me"

At 1/05/2017 11:27:00 PM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

I finally had some time to listen to the whole album & I like it. I liked robot the best

At 1/06/2017 10:29:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Definitely something happening on this one. The fact that it's selling like crap and gettin mixed reviews probably means he's on the right track. There's a connection to a long ago Neil in these songs.

At 1/06/2017 06:33:00 PM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

> The fact that it's selling like crap and gettin mixed reviews probably means he's on the right track. < Well said. Great point!

At 1/07/2017 07:05:00 PM, Blogger nick said...

I think 'Peace Trail' may be Neil's best 21st century album. He's released better songs on other albums but as an *album* it's the most consistently engaging in a long while. None of the songs overstay their welcome. I can't recall the last album he released with four songs under 3 minutes. Even the much maligned Texas Rangers is only 2 minutes 30 seconds.

I do think the album would have benefitted from more effort put into crafting the songs (music & lyrics). I read that he used the 1st or 2nd take of most of the songs except the title track, for which he use a later take. And it shows, as Peace Trail is, to my ears, the most *musically* pleasing & well put together song. But at least the others are short and quirky enough to be interesting.

I honestly don't understand the notion that "it's too late in the game for subtle lyrics." I mean, if Neil wants his (political) message to be heard by as many people as possible, the words have to resonate with them. The words have to connect with people and touch them deeply if they are going to pay any attention to them. Tossed off lyrics are as good as tossed off melodies, and yet almost all of Neil's songs manage to have good melodies no matter what else.

Melody, sound/production ("everything you hear"), and lyrics are the three essential elements of any rock song and if one is lacking the whole song suffers. Despite its shortcomings, I think 'Peace Trail' is a pretty good album. Looking forward to the next one, already recorded apparently..


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