"Landing on Water" by Neil Young: Incredibly Underrated | Steve Hoffman Forum
Landing on Water by Neil Young, July 1986
There are some who think much of Neil Young's work is underrated.
And then there are those who think that Neil Young's 1986 album Landing on Water is incredibly underrated. From "Landing on Water by Neil Young: - incredibly underrated! | Steve Hoffman Forum by The Zodiac:
I used to generally accept the common belief that “Landing on Water” by Neil Young was a lackluster album and thus didn’t give it enough of my attention for a good portion of my life.Thanks Zodiac! Some mighty fine writing their with some real gems like your take on "Hippie Dream”: "It’s the kind of hard rocking performance that can make smoke rise up out of your stereo speakers. The main riff is a chugging monstrosity, sounding like pile of rusted scrap metal being dragged across the cracked pavement of a garbage strewn tennis court in some post-apocalyptic world gone mad."
Then, one day about 10 years ago, I figured I’d better take the time and listen to it again to make sure the album was really as poor as I’d been lead to believe. Since the time of my reevaluation, I have found myself reaching for Landing on Water more and more. And why not? I can’t just spend the rest of my days playing “After The Goldrush”. That would become rather dull after a while. As the wise scholar Robbie Krieger sang, “Variety is the Spice of Life”. See, that’s the beauty of Neil’s body of work; when you get too tired of the popular stuff you can swim in the muddy waters of his more eccentric works, and strangely his commercial successes and critical failures are often equally enjoyable, if one were to put aside all preconceptions of right and wrong.
“Landing on Water” is no different. It has its strengths and weaknesses like all the others. But after allowing myself to let my guard down and accept the unacceptable, I can safely say that I no longer feel that “Landing on Water” is a good Neil Young album.
“Landing on Water” is a GREAT Neil Young album.
Following two albums of genre extremism (the old-school rockabilly of “Everybody’s Rockin’” and the 100% pure, unfiltered country of “Old Ways”) Geffen records were fed up with Neil and his games. They wanted more of the same, more “Rust Never Sleeps”, more “Harvest”, not this new, bizarre experimentation. They threatened to sue Neil unless he coughed up something “Neil Young-ish”. Neil threatened to counter sue and after a lot of pushing and shoving all the suits were dropped. All this ugly business took its toll on Neil. His albums weren’t selling, his fans were turning their backs on him, the record label wouldn’t give him any money to record with, Sally Kirkland was suing him over some bogus injury she sustained on the set of “Human Highway”, and, to top it all off, his son Ben had severe cerebral palsy and Neil could do nothing about it. “Landing on Water”, his 1986 release, was Neil Young’s emotional response to the mountain of troubles that was finally starting to drag him down. It's as close to a musical nervous breakdown as he'd ever get.
"Landing on Water" is a return to modern rock, and Neil’s trademark electric guitar work is found all over the album, but sometimes you have to look for it, because Neil decided he wanted the beat up front, which I suppose was the hip thing to do at the time. This decision isn’t all bad, especially when you’ve got someone like Steve Jordan absolutely tearing it up. His playing is relentless and exciting, certainly the most ferocious drummer to ever appear on a Neil Young album. While I obviously enjoy Neil when he’s playing with the Horse, they tend to have only two gears – slow and slower. The albums that really give you a kick in the *** are the ones where Neil hooks up with a high-octane drummer who sends things into overdrive. Would songs like “I’m the Ocean” or “The Restless Consumer” have as much firepower if the Horse were chugging along? Look how the Horse took the wind out of the sails of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on “Weld”. Sometimes he needs more horsepower (no pun intended) under the hood, and Steve Jordan delivers big time. But at the same time the unbalanced mix does become frustrating. You have to strain at times to hear some really good stuff that’s going on in the background. Whereas most Neil Young albums feature songs with a lot of band interaction, this time there isn’t really a band. The trio of players didn’t really interact, giving the music a very cold, isolated vibe, which I think ideally illustrates the lyrical themes of the album.
I suppose one could look down on this album because maybe Neil is compromising and trying to make something commercial to get the record company off his back, no longer pursuing his whims into country music or rockabilly. Then again, is this really what the record label wanted? Isn’t he STILL flipping them the bird?
I don’t think Neil could be accused of not taking an album seriously. Just look at these songs. They are too good to dismiss. You might not like the style or the production but you have to appreciate the substance. He obviously believed in these songs at the time, just as he believed the emphasis on drums was the correct choice.
If the production scares you off, I suggest tracking down some live recording of the “Landing on Water” songs, which puts a little more of the human element back into them. A couple of songs were played ever so briefly in early 1984 and then they enjoyed a brief run on the 1986 tour following the album’s release. The “Landing on Water” material wouldn’t be revisited again until 1997 when “Hard Luck Stories” and “Hippie Dream” were dusted off at a Crazy Horse tour warm-up show in San Francisco. The synth-less version of “Hippie Dream” is a must hear for any true Neil Young fan. It’s the kind of hard rocking performance that can make smoke rise up out of your stereo speakers. The main riff is a chugging monstrosity, sounding like pile of rusted scrap metal being dragged across the cracked pavement of a garbage strewn tennis court in some post-apocalyptic world gone mad. It’s a mother of a song, and if you can’t appreciate it in it’s original form, maybe this more recent live rendition will make you a believer. If that doesn’t work, seek medical attention. There’s something wrong with you.
So here we have an album of strong, catchy songs, with a consistent production and reoccurring themes of anger, paranoia, self-loathing and depression running through it. It’s a total package, it documents an incredibly turbulent period in Neil Young’s life, and it’s probably sitting in the cut-out bin at your local music store.
1. Weight Of The World - A terrific synthesized beat drives this strong lead off cut. Maybe it sounds cheesy now but I don't care. I’m sure some will have trouble accepting a song like this coming from Neil. I’m sure many picked the needle off the record within the first 10 seconds. But you have to see beyond the dated style. Whether it’s Neil Young or The Thomson Twins, it doesn’t matter. It’s simply a great, catchy song. The herky-jerky beat sends me into violent convulsions. I wish Neil would revisit more songs from this album on his current tours, but I suppose a song like this is next to impossible to play live, unless he goes on tour with a wall of synths or a horde of robotic percussionists.
2. Violent Side - Pure 80’s. A sampled choir of children’s voices (like something out of a ‘Mike & The Mechanics’ song) disrupts an otherwise decent composition. A very dated production, but not completely unlikable. A far superior live rendition of this was performed by The Horse in early ’84. You’d be better off looking for that version. Every single time I hear the opening line, “Here comes the night…” I expect him to follow it with a Harrisonesque “doo-doo-doo-doo”, but of course he doesn’t (that would be madness). It may be a little too formulaic to be considered a career highpoint, but the lyrics are an essential chapter in this album’s dark tale.
3. Hippie Dream - If you only need one reason to buy this album, this is it. This is Exhibit A. You wouldn’t be out of line placing this song high on the list of Neil Young’s all-time best. It might even make the top 10. If Neil had spent the past few years playing characters and hiding his own true feelings in different genres, he finally kicks open the door for this powerful, angry and disgusted dissection of the decline of the oh, so great “Peace and Love” generation. They thought they were going to change the world, but instead they got wasted and either died along the way or turned to rust.
David Crosby had fallen victim to drug addiction. Neil had tried to help him but David didn’t get the message. He was too busy being coked up and toting an arsenal of guns on his drug-filled boat in Sausalito before finally finding his crack-head *** in jail, where he somehow managed to kick both cocaine and heroin cold turkey. And he wasn’t the only 60’s superstar in decline. Many of Neil’s contemporaries had turned into sad parodies of themselves by the 80’s, spinning their wheels, touring the oldies circuit, or sinking into sick debauchery until their royalty checks dried up. They got fat and slow while Neil stayed lean and mean and continued to explore new musical frontiers instead of getting embalmed. He never took the highroad. That is why he’s still going strong today.
Leave it to Neil to cut through all the bullsh** and tell it like it is. Even the 80’s style synthetic bass driven production that hampers much of this album cannot stop this wrecking ball from picking up steam as Neil throws his anger down in a frenzy of feedback drenched guitar psychosis. And it’s a goose bump moment when Neil hauntingly repeats “Don’t Kill The Machine” over and over and over again. One of his all-time best. Definitely.
4. Bad News Beat – Neil wears his sunglasses at night, or at least it sounds that way in this Corey Hart-ish piece of lightweight pop. “Bad News Beat” is often referred to as one of Neil’s all time worst, and it’s hard to disagree. The main riff is totally unoriginal and uninspired, but the verses are salvaged by a strong vocal performance from Neil who is in great voice throughout this album. His vocal is so strong and so full of energy that you almost have to believe that there is something more to this song that meets the eye. There is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where snarling guitars bubble to the top of the pot and show you what might have been before sinking back down behind the onslaught of percussion and synths. Neil’s strange lyric seems to attack the media and lament the loss of his girl at the same time. Not one of his best.
5. Touch The Night - another standout on the album, with a cool music video to accompany it (check Youtube). In a way, this is the “Like a Hurricane” of the 80’s. It’s all there; a relentless, hammering beat, an epic guitar solo, a dramatic chorus. The choir of voices on the chorus is reminiscent of what Neil did with the recent “Living with War” album. If only the guitars were mixed up front to add some bottom end to it, then there would be no question of this album’s greatness. But people are afraid to give it a chance. I find this to be an arresting cut. I’d love to hear Neil play it live today and see what he does with it. The version from the ‘86 tour shows the Horse breathing new life into it, with Neil’s chaotic guitar shredding being brought onto the frontline where it belongs. Cross your fingers for an appearance on the Archive set.
6. People On The Street - An almost hip-hop beat starts off this song, followed by a vomit-inducing keyboard solo. But once that passes you find yourself in another catchy-as-all-heck song on what is supposed to be a bad album. How can an album loaded with such passion be a disappointment? A scale-climbing riff in the chorus is the real treat here, worth sitting though the somewhat unimaginative verses for, even if your pleasure is taken right back from you with the arrival of a weirdly soulful bridge that sounds like it came from an entirely different album. Lyrically, again, not his best, but they can’t all be “Powderfinger”, now can they?
7. Hard Luck Stories - The dated 80’s sound and synthetic bass really weighs this song down. And it’s too bad. There’s a good upbeat pop melody here. I think as a song it’s quite pleasant, but I can understand the disappointment with long-time Neil fans. It barely resembles any of his older work. This is what the popular production standards were at the time, though.
Why was he following the crowd? To satisfy the record label? Or was he truly inspired by this new style? You can’t blame Neil. A lot of good music got lost during this period, smothered by a technology-crazed recording industry. This was the “Invisible Touch” era, when records sounded like they were made by a Commodore 64 and the humans just stood by and watched it all unfold before their eyes. This song was played in 1997 in San Francisco in a more modern and satisfying (albeit typically sluggish) style by Crazy Horse.
8. I Got A Problem - Heavy duty riffing like only Neil can play it. This is the most Neil Young sounding of all the songs. It wouldn’t be out of place on the “Eldorado” E.P. Just an angry song, full of funky hellfire. In fact, this whole album is one big meditation on anger and negative feelings. What is the problem Neil is referring to? Well, for one, Neil was backed into a corner by Geffen Records and he didn’t like it. He came out swinging. “Every time we talk about it I break out in a cold sweat”. The music illustrates the pain he’s singing about perfectly. You can really feel his anxiety and tension. Maybe his anger was affecting his home life too. It seems like he’s doing some soul searching on this album, as if he feels guilty for being angry about his situation and the pressure he’s under. Speaking of pressure….
9. Pressure - A new wave techno seizure. It’s definitely interesting to hear Neil attempt something like this, but this cut may be a little too much of a shift in style for the “Sugar Mountain” fans to handle. This song is pure cyborg. A sharp, spastic Rolling Stones-style riff slashes your ears with a rusty scalpel before the schizophrenic chorus goes Mr. Roboto all over you’re a$$. A sampled primal scream is used for a keyboard solo. Another highlight of the album, and another example of Neil Young taking risks that few of his contemporaries would ever dare.
This album is pretty unique in Neil’s catalog, not only musically but lyrically as well. I can’t think of any other album of his where Neil expresses his vulnerability or bares his naked emotions so plainly, assuming that he’s being honest with us. He’s in trouble and he knows it and he thinks he’s cracking up and he’s looking for a way out. Powerful stuff. Don’t ever take this album lightly. Neil is in a bad way on it and while it sounds like it was a painful experience to go through, we the listener can reap the rewards by savoring this incredible piece of art that was born from Neil’s terror.
10. Drifter - The chord changes and tempo are very much in the traditional Neil Young style, but the repetitive, droid-like bleating guitar riff gets on my nerves after awhile. This is another song that could be a monster if he played it live. The lyric continues to let us know what’s really going on it Neil’s world. “Don’t try to fence me in/Don’t try to slow me down….I’ll stay until you try to tie me down….Don’t try to rescue me/I like to feel the wheel….”. He’s laying it all down on the line here. It almost plays like a concept album. It’s the story of what happens when the corporate thugs try to pull the reigns on an artist who thrives on creative freedom, and watching the results of this power struggle is fascinating. It’s good versus evil, both internally and external. He’s fighting the record company suits and fighting himself at the same time to regain control of his mind and soul.
When the music’s over I’m left with a slight feeling of sadness. The whole record sounds like a desperate cry for help. I always tend to think of Neil as a tough son of a gun who does what he wants when he wants and absolutely never compromises his art or takes any crap from “The Man”. He’s like an invincible super hero who never succumbs to the forces that are going against him. To listen to him here, with his back to the wall, faced with a future of uncertainty and insecurity, is a whole new experience for the listener. This record serves as a detailed journal of Neil Young’s physical and mental anguish during a terribly difficult period of his life. How can anyone dismiss an album like this? He tries to exercise some of his personal demons and manages to do it within the confines of infectiously catchy tunes. Those who have dismissed it, ignored it, or are befuddled by it, I advise you to take another look and try to hear what Neil is trying to tell you.
After all, aren't we all just trying to land on water anyway?
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