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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Comment of the Moment: In Defense of Neil Young's Late-Late Style

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The Comment of the Moment is from Minke T. who posted a recent comment on CONCERT ANNOUNCEMENT: Neil Young + Promise of the Real - Arroyo Seco Weekend, Pasadena, CA, June 23, 2018 on Neil Young's musical shifts and twists:
Off topic: In defense of Neil Young’s late-late style.

I was thinking in what blessed times we live – musically speaking.

Neil Young has given some real great records over the last years, and regularly bestows us with gems from his long and (in)glorious past. Although we meet sceptics here on this highly appreciated site – and of course they have a full right to be disappointed – it is not what I experience. If we listen closely to NY’s output over the last ten years, we see many peaks and few real misses. He has been versatile, adventurous, experimental, but also moving, politically engaging -- and extremely professional. There is such richness in his output that we are left gawking. And yes, there are quirks, in his activism for better sound, his commercial strategies, musically too.

But the series starting with Fork in the Road (yes, folks, I like that album), through Le Noise, Psychedellic Pill (but no, I do not rate that one as high as some do here), and especially Storytone and Peace Trail, is of astounding quality.

In my view his alliance with The Promise, although I applauded it at first, because I grew tired of the sluggish sound Crazy Horse was developing, has not turned out to be very felicitous. On stage The Promise is capable to bring out from NY some of the deep cuts that need a lighter sound (White Falcon style) and a more frisky bounce but on record they are brewing a soup in which the ingredients do not mix well. Monsanto Years was not good (although it contains a few good songs), and The Visitor, although a good notch better, is not entirely satisfying in the end either.

But something else has been fermenting in NY over the last years. Just listen attentively to NY solo or in small company – not the six-man band of The Promise – and you’ll hear what I mean.

The record I keep returning to most is the Solo Storytone album. Although the version with the band and orchestra is definitely a satisfying listen, and I see why NY had so much fun doing it, the solo versions bring out the best of the songs and the man, and is absolutely absorbing. What a sparse, spright, well-crafted, sweet, emotional album that is. The playing is wonderful, the sound very intimate. This is the great lateness that NY is capable of. Put it next to Hitchhiker, one other great record of the last years, and be astounded by the differences.

While Hitchhiker exhales the typical mid-seventies atmosphere of loneliness and despair, the marihuana and booze, the Storytone songs have a lightness, efficiency in expression, and fragility that is extremely moving and captivating. The songs are simpler, the playing almost self-effacing. The production, by the way, is great (get off this Briggs-thing, people).

I have been thinking a lot about late style. The fact is that with the passing of the years the lives of the artists, their capacities, the sources of inspiration and the character of the audience are changing. This urges them to reinvent oneself. With NY’s voice getting thinner over the years and losing its firmness in the higher registers, his strength is in his intimate voice, lower, sometimes almost whispering. The expressiveness is astounding. Listen to a ditty like ‘I want to drive my car’. Despite its simple lyrics and superficiality, and the almost primitive accompaniment, it absolutely grips the attention. This is NY’s late style. Almost every other song on that album can be taken as an example of the density, efficacity of NY’s late inspiration. Tumble Weed, When I Watch You Sleeping, Who’s Gonna Stand Up, let them spin and let yourself be taken in by their minimalist delicacy.

Almost on a same par is Peace Trail, sparsely instrumentated with only bass and drums. Although it has an incidental lesser song (Glass Accident), and the entire album has a more experimental approach in sound and accompaniment than Storytone, its approach is similar. Not the boisterous rock attitude of the Nelsons or the hefty ponderosity of late Crazy Horse, but letting silence work.

Both albums, Storytone Solo and Peace Trail, by the way, have a consistency in tone, performance and atmosphere we encounter in few of NY’s albums. We can only wonder why the critics and larger audiences haven’t paid more attention to these albums. They should be on top of everybody’s lists and range among the alps in NY’s oeuvre.

With his latest album, The Visitor, NY unfortunately moved in another direction. Although the record certainly has its fabulous moments, it fails to enduringly captivate. The sound is not right. I never liked Lukas Nelson’s guitar tone, and his style certainly disagrees with NY’s sound and style. The arrangements are muddy, the tone not consistent. On the good side, Corey McCormick is one of the grooviest bass players NY has worked with, and Micah Nelson brings out an irony and madness that was absent in Crazy Horse (there was humor there, of course, but a much rougher, pre-punk version of it). On the whole, one is left with the feeling something is missing. NY’s ailing voice, also his inner voice, one feels, is drowned out. Lateness needs sparsity and a careful listening, like a whisper.

Lateness is exactly this: knowing how to deal with your diminishing muscularity. It is about compensating strength with expressiveness, beauty with message. It is about digging to the essence. Just think of the artists who not only were capable to sum up their careers in late age, but also achieved great heights by exploring and exploiting their fragility. One artist who has, although in an entirely different vein, fruitfully explored his lateness, was Johnny Cash, who made his best records, solo, under guidance of Rick Rubin. He too was able to dive inward and draw on his immense experience and musicality. Or Billie Holiday. Or Leonard Cohen. This turn inward to one’s basis is extreme.

Although I doubt NY’s ability and wish to do large tours, I am sure he will be capable of giving us great records and explore his lateness further.

Thanks for everything T&T,
Greetings from Europe
Thank you so much Minke for the well made points here on Neil Young's musical meanderings.

Some excellent points. We'll just say this about Neil + POTR, watching them play together up close many times over the past several years, we've rarely seen Neil play with such joy, freedom and abandon. Also, initially, he seeme to really relish the coaching/teaching aspects of his role directing the younger guys. And the feedback together was a delight to behold.

We firmly beleive that in the long run, we'll see and hear some much more interesting stuff as they mature into more than just a backing back for Neil covers, as others have remarked.

More from the concert rail on Neil Young + Promise of the Real
Telluride, Colorado - 10/1/16

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At 3/05/2018 12:53:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

I must say I agree with much of what was said. Specifically, I agree that his later years records have been quite good, for the most part. Le Noise I loved. PP, Storytone. I do like the new album, and some of the tracks are just flat out brilliant. He went full Sgt Pepper goes to the fair, trips in Fun House with the epic masterpiece "Carnival." I await warm up tour news!

Alan in Seattle

Rock on, Neil Young!

At 3/05/2018 02:51:00 AM, Blogger aussierust said...

I love PP and I think it stacks up pretty well against Neil's best. I think the rest of his post-2010 output is peppered with some great tracks but I couldn't honestly say that I love any of those albums. I struggled particularly with Monsanto Years although that has as much to do with the content and message as it does with the music. I like The Visitor quite a lot though and I agree with Alan about Carnival. It has an inspired kind of Tom Waits weirdness about it that feels refreshingly new.

At 3/05/2018 11:43:00 AM, Blogger Gary A. Lucero said...

I think production is a real sore point with Neil's output. David Briggs or no David Briggs, Neil needs a strong producer to help him realize his full potential. He doesn't always have one, and he doesn't always do good job of it himself.

As far as the recent content goes, well, it's mostly good as far as I'm concerned:

Fork in the Road - Great
Le Noise - So so
Americana - Great
Psychedelic Pill - Good/Great
A Letter Home - Not very good
Storytone - Not very good
The Monsanto Years - Good
Peach Trail - Great
Hitchhiker - I love Hawaii!
The Visitor - I agree that Carnival is the standout, but overall, it's good

I agree that POTR isn't the best band for Neil. Crazy Horse is sparse, and POTR isn't. But there's nothing I can do about who Neil plays with, and I can't bring back Rick Rosas or Ben Keith - I think those guys and Chad Cromwell were the best!

I love Neil Young, but can't listen to everything he releases. I do buy it all though!

At 3/05/2018 12:32:00 PM, Blogger Art Carey said...

Listening to Zuma today -- fantastic album: songs (music AND lyrics), singing, playing, production -- and sticking to my opinion that Neil's most recent repeated-listenable album was released over 15 years ago.

Yes: I keep buying everything he does. Well, except for Pono.

At 3/05/2018 12:49:00 PM, Blogger Paul Dionne said...

Excellent comment by Minke T. - I love comments like these, that are backed by consideration, thank you Minke -

paul dionne

At 3/05/2018 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

After reading this comment I was certain that it would be comment of the moment. Some great observations on Neil’s recent output and I have to say that I agree with most of what was said. Like Minke T. points out, many of Neil’s fans have found the 21st centuries output less than exceptional, yet with the exception of Road Rock V1, and Fork in the Road, I have genuinely loved everything Neil has put out this last 17.2 years. He has challenged, entertained and provoked a response from me with every album he has put out.

Not including all the archival releases which have all been incredible.

2000 started off with Silver and Gold which I found to be classic Neil with Razor Love the brilliant track among several wonderful songs.

Road Rock does have the epic 18:00 min. Cowgirl in the Sand, but for me the rest of the album just falls flat.

I know that many felt that Are You Passionate was spotty and disjointed but I still found lots to love there.

Greendale is clearly a masterpiece from being to end. I’m also attached to the DVD solo performance from Ireland which is every bit as powerful as the studio version.

Living With War is protest music at it’s best. It took a few listens before it soaked in but for me it really holds up. The Raw version is my preferred version but they’re both excellent.

Prairie Wind is one of Neil’s most personal records and at times it feels as if I’m invading his privacy it’s so raw. This one really benefits hearing on vinyl. Great songs throughout.

Chrome Dreams II is another favorite of mine especially No Hidden Path, Ordinary People,
And Boxcar as standouts. Yet not a bad song on the whole album.

Fork in the Road has Light a Candle, but the rest of the record just doesn’t call to me.

Le Noise is a record I heard live solo first, and although I prefer the songs solo as I did in Austin TX. I still love the record. My only complaint is that You Never Call didn’t make the record.

Americana is a masterpiece for me although when we went to see the Americana tour we didn’t hear anything from the album, but we did hear all of Psychedelic Pill which is perhaps my favorite Neil record since Sleeps With Angeles.

A letter Home was a success as an experiment with ancient technology and again I loved the results.

Storytone is a record experiencing new love and joy. I love both versions but the solo version is the one I return to most often.

The Monsanto Years is the most catchy protest records ever. After a few listens you just can’t get the melodies out of your head.

Earth is another master work. Nuff said.

Peace Trail.... same as Earth.

The Visitor works great as an example of Neil’s capacity for variety and diversity with wonderful results.

All that being said, I’m looking forward to what comes next. Hopefully Neil will continue to challenge, entertain, and change.


At 3/05/2018 09:46:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

Everyone used consideration except you.

At 3/05/2018 09:53:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

I prefer the clean version of A Letter Home. I never found a good reason to use a recording medium which War led the speed and fucked up the sound. I like vinyl. I still don't like dirty ALH. You Never Call would have been nice on the Le Noise album, but... I loved it. So funny to hear folks talk about their favorite NY albums. Sleeps With Angels never really did it for me, but a few songs like Trans Am did hit the spot. There is no accounting for taste. I love Neil Young and he seldom disappoints. I have never seen him play a bad live show, always excellent. Omeemee had me scratching my head a bit. I am SO excited to see him play with PotR. Those of you who don't like the band, all I can say is, go see them live! Alan in Seattle

At 3/05/2018 09:54:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

Which War led the speed!? I meant to say, a recording medium which Warbled the speed!

At 3/05/2018 09:56:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

And yet a song like Stupid Girl makes Neil look like a cave man or misogynist, at best. Hurt feelings can excuse a song like that, what about Welfare Mothers? There's a song which is not PAC in the least. Ugh.

At 3/05/2018 09:57:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

PC, not PAC! Spelling is off tonight!

At 3/07/2018 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Alan: I didn't get what you meant by not using "consideration"?

Politicly correct is my favorite oxymoron.


At 3/09/2018 04:40:00 AM, Blogger Dan1 said...

I 100% love this run of records:

Le Noise
Psychedelic Pill
A Letter Home
Storytone solo

At 3/27/2018 07:24:00 AM, Blogger Rog said...

Wow, who else has released so much in the last 18 years?! My thoughts:

Silver and Gold - I like this album, but it's not one I come back to very often. Song quality is good.

Road Rock - I think this sounds decent, but I'd rather have a full gig, so I'm more likely to put a bootleg on. The DVD from this tour is great though.

Are You Passionate - I've never understood why this gets a hard time, I love it! Particularly Mr Disappointment, Let's Roll, Goin' Home and the title track.

Greendale - absolutely brilliant! Sun Green especially.

Living With War - When Neil Young used to protest something, he would write a song. From the 00s onwards, he would write an album instead. This is one of the successful ones, it still feels concise and has a great sound. After The Garden is a highlight for me.

Prairie Wind - Lovely record. Even with the Nashville/Harvest connection, I don't think this is quite like anything else.

Chrome Dreams II - His last brilliant "songs" collection. Ordinary People throws it a bit off balance, but Spirit Road, No Hidden Path, The Believer, all brilliant.

Fork in the Road - a couple of good tunes only, this should have been the theme for a song or two, not a whole album (see LWW comment). His weakest in years.

Le Noise - could have done with a little more variety, but it's a great sounding and interesting record. Again, it's like nothing else. Unusual for someone who has done so much to keep making such unique moves.

Americana - this is a fun record

Psychedelic Pill - I'm not interested in lyrics about MP3s, but it's a great record all the same. I like that they went for a pure style this time, instead of editing the jams down to traditional lengths. Walk Like A Giant was amazing on the tour.

A letter Home - Just horrible, the spoken word stuff is cringeworthy.

Storytone - Awful syrupy songs. Too Disney. No edge. Could barely get through it. Loved the Horse version of Who's Gonna Stand Up, glad that at least got an EP release.

The Monsanto Years - Again, full album on a theme which could have just been a song or two. However, it's saved by how good the music and production is. It's a great sounding record! Big Box and Monsanto Years especially. Really like the Promise Of The Real stuff.

Earth - Unconventional live album but a great listen.

Peace Trail - A bit slight, but some good stuff here. Particularly the title track.

The Visitor - Decent. His most varied record since Chrome II. A grower.

Whilst I'm still hungrily waiting for a slice of Toast, the archive releases have also been superb. Particularly Massey Hall, Cellar Door and Bluenote Cafe.

At 3/28/2018 06:06:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Neil's album I love the most from the last 18 or so years is 'Peace Trail', it's been my most played album, especially the LP. Love it. My least favoured album is 'Fork In The Road', I say favoured because I have time for all of Neil's albums, there is always something to like and consider. I'm looking forward to 'Paradox', the album title describes Neil better than any other adjective. I've really enjoyed reading the comments on the albums of the last 18 years. Peace & Love, Richie.


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