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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Comment of the Moment: Thoughts on Neil Young’s Duodecennial Albums

Neil Young’s Duodecennial Albums
Discography via Sugar Mountain
(Click photo to enlarge)

Neil Young’s most recent album BARN with Crazy Horse, continues to both delight and confound fans, as indicated by comments here and elsewhere.

To address this range of opinion and reaction to BARN by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, here is the TW  Comment of the Moment on ALBUM REVIEW: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Barn | Waxing Lyrical by Minke, who said:

As usual, completely off-topic, just some desultory and celebratory musings on a Sunday morning. I had been listening to some recent and not-too-recent records, which set me thinking.

In the comments section of this most enjoyable website I repeatedly read disappointment with Neil Young’s more recent work. Of course everybody is entitled to her or his opinion on this. But it is fun to disagree and bicker over taste, because it sharpens the mind and focusses the appreciation. Now for the little it is worth, according to me the past duodecennial – which I think is the right Anglo term for a 12-year period – has been one of the most adventurous and artistically satisfying periods in Neil Young’s creative career.

Not everything was a success, of course, at least in my eyes and to my ears. I must say that I was not completely taken in by NY’s collaboration with Promise of the Real, which may be a nice band in its own right, but is not a match to NY (with qualifications, as bass player Corey McCormick gives NY a great groove, and Micah Nelson adds madness, but Lukas Nelson, with due respect for his other qualities, has not the solidity of Poncho, the versatility of Nils Lofgren, or the rockin’ swing of Anthony Crawford). Although live the team could be great, the albums don’t make it work for me. But these are exceptions in a record output over the last 12 years that is amazing in its width, its explorative character, and musical greatness.

For some reasons – good ones – I constantly return to Storytone, a record of which I will be a staunch advocate until the end of my days. Especially the solo version is an absolute masterpiece, a true love record for the ages, and I am surprised that it gets so little traction and praise. I may be alone in this, as I read very little approval in these posts, or any mention of it at all. Storytone is excruciatingly intimate at times. Great melodies, tender lyrics. Well-balanced in its architecture and variety. We feel the new spirit and love seeping through. They stick and never fail to move. I guess all songs were recorded solo in one day, in a fascinating parallel to Hitchhiker (– which not coincidentally happens to be one of his greatest archives output of the past years). Similarly great, but less intimate is Peace Trail, which is so much a three-man’s band effort, with the subtle rhythms of bass and drums of Paul Bushnell and Jim Keltner graciously garlanding Neil Young’s intriguingly unsteady beat (which may be one of the secrets of his music making). They make me see prairies and pipelines and First Nations and modern wreckage. A decolonial record if there was ever one made by a white man. Those two are the true highlights of this duodecennial -- but Barn is a great contender.

For what it’s worth, I listen to this latter-day NY as somebody that is admirably able to reinvent himself, who keeps on learning to work with the new qualities that his experiences and his maturing and ageing capabilities give him. His Sprechgesang is great – I wish he would use it more – his lower voice intriguing, his faltering high pitch either chilling or extremely delicate. His gradually diminishing vocal capacities give a great patina and depth to his songs. He needs less and less accompaniment, which is borne out by Storytone solo and Peace Trail. He exploits this sparseness very well on Barn too. For that reason he ushered Nils Lofgren to the piano instead of adding a second guitar. Now even he even adjusted his electric guitar playing to this – which makes “Welcome Back” such a compelling masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong – he also has his old grunge spirit intact, but I don’t think that forms the essence of his recent style.

Having followed NY for 40 plus years now, I have learned to listen with new ears every time he came with a new record. They grow on you. They need time, sometimes even years, to be fully grasped and appreciated. I am always amazed at how this works. It seems as if Neil Young is always ahead of your taste. He is in the lead, and leaves you gasping at first, but later on you learn the steps and you kind of follow.

Now looking back over the past 12 years, it amazes me how outstanding and innovative his output has been in this . Fork in the Road is a great, and greatly underrated record. It’s crisp, fun, unpretentious but not ordinary. LeNoise is unique in Neil Young’s oeuvre and does not fail to grab you at the throat, the loudness and power of a one man’s orchestra, with a series of unfailingly great songs. Then Psychedelic Pill, reanimating Crazy Horse in a way that is completely over the top, but works like a 72-hour train ride across continents. I talked about Storytone and Peace Trail, which are absolutely mind-blowing NY late brilliance galore. And the duodecennial ends with Colorado, which actually is an extraordinarily good record – and Barn. When I listen to Colorado, it is still with the ears of Peace Trail, but played by his coffee grinding pals of CH. It is too early for me to give a full evaluation of Barn. It is still growing. But it seems that Neil Young reinvented Crazy Horse, and Crazy Horse reshaped him. On the first listens, the record seemed less coherent and balanced than Colorado, but it contains more highlights than its predecessor, and intriguingly, some of the songs that did not particularly appeal at first listen, continue to grow on me. I may be a slow adapter.

In all, the past 12 years have been a fantastic ride and his output, so disappointing to some, to me forms a true monument to the creative powers of an artist working in the lingering dusk of the northern Summer. I wonder how a ‘best of’ of post-2009 would sound. In any case, put Storytone solo on a pedestal. Did you pay attention, you lazy bunch of writing rock critics?

Sorry to have bored you. Great Sunday to all and T&T in particular.


A most excellent comment Minke, not off-topic whatsoever and never boring. 

Thanks so much for putting these thoughts together on Neil’s duodecennial albums.  Such an intriguing angle of analysis and delightful perspective.

We'll just make the point that this sort of approach to listening to an artist's output over a long period is really quite fascinating.  Yes, we receive incremental bites every year, but stepping back for the long arc of history is truly enlightening and what keeps many rusties and grainers coming back for more.

As you succinctly wrote: "But it is fun to disagree and bicker over taste, because it sharpens the mind and focuses the appreciation."  And that in a nutshell is what we try to do here everyday @ TW.  Please come back again soon and share more "desultory and celebratory musings on a Sunday morning"!

More on ALBUM REVIEW: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Barn | Waxing Lyrical.

Crazy Horse, 2021
 photo by dhlovelife


More BARN!!! @:
Crazy Horse, 2021
photo by dhlovelife

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At 1/23/2022 01:14:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

A very convincing, insightful and enjoyable reflection. I am going to go back and listen to Storytone. It might be the case that some of the skeptics, just because they are now skeptics, and not listening hard enough to the new records. I will use myself as an example and I am not even a skeptic. I did not bother with Storytone. I have not listened to Barn more than twice all the way through: I think this might eliminate me as a qualified opinion or judge. It is easy to reference the older work.

At 1/23/2022 01:15:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

"are not listening" sorry again for then typo. I have been working too much

At 1/23/2022 02:54:00 PM, Blogger wardo said...

Still sending happy thoughts your way, Thrasher. Here's my Barn take if I haven't sent it 20 times yet:

At 1/23/2022 03:17:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Storytone is an incredibly personal record, and Neil’s unwavering willingness to be so open about his new found love (especially at that point in his life) was such a bold illustration of just how fearless he is as an artist. I relate deeply to Storytone because I too had a similar event in my life years earlier, so perhaps this effects my personal perspective. But I see it as a true masterpiece.

This record is so deeply personal, vulnerable, and executed with such grace and artistic flair. Giving each song two different versions still remains as a brave artist choice. The solo acoustic versions are allowed to breathe in solitude, while the orchestral versions dance in opulent grandeur.

Some may not appreciate the tenderness of Storytone because the subject matter may live outside their world view, but I found it a real world validation for unconditional love. And that is something we could all use more of in this life.

Peace 🙏

At 1/23/2022 03:19:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

The beautiful part is, if Barn isn’t scratching your NY and/or CH itch, there’s so much else here to choose from!

Abner, Storytone is worth a try for sure! I haven’t brought it up recently, but largely agree with the assessment above—with the proviso that I personally lean to the orchestra and big band versions in most cases. I think the big sound suits and elevates most of the songs. My fav take on Who’s Gonna Stand Up? is actually the electrified Crazy Horse tour version that was released separately.

In Fact, there are three Storytone variations: solo acoustic, orchestra/band, and mixed pages, a remix that uses elements of both blended. Plastic Flowers, Say Hello to Chicago, Tumbleweed, All Those Dreams are touching, overlooked cuts. I will say the solo piano recording of Chicago is a brilliantly moody contrast to the swinging band.

I’d add CDII and FITR to the epoch of albums highlighted here, even though that carries us back to the late ‘00s. For me, CDII is the beginning of a “new” phase that carries all least until the POTR albums, of which I maintain that The Visitor is a crucial, tremendously fresh and vital album. And in saying so, I don’t consider myself “taken in”. If anything, where NY is concerned, I am still taking it in.

And for those struggling with Neil’s political songwriting, may I suggest this short piece from Virginia Woolf?


At 1/23/2022 03:42:00 PM, Blogger Richie Cruz said...

To be fair, I can't really count the live archival stuff from the past here, so I'm focusing only on new releases since Le Noise.

Truly upper echelon: Psychedelic Pill

Excellent Neil: Le Noise, Americana, Peace Trail

Well worth checking out: Storytone, A Letter Home, Barn

At 1/23/2022 05:01:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

Agreed that Psychedelic Pill is probably the high point for the 2000’s as far as the longer intense explorations where the Horse are concerned.

Le Noise is definitely in a class all by itself, and when we saw that tour just before it was released, it was one of the absolute best solo shows I’ve ever experienced with Neil. And I’ve seen my share. Magnificently intense would be an understatement.

A letter Home seems to be disregarded by so many fans, but I just loved the whole concept. Here Neil was; expounding on the value of the best sound quality, and he goes and records in a antique recording booth. I actually think it was a brilliant move, and I love the record. After all, It was just Neil being Neil, and it is a great album/statement.

I also agree that Chrome Dreams II is definitely a major turning point in the NY universe. Definitely a landmark release and indications of what was to come. Ordinary People would have been enough just by itself, but no… there was more. No Hidden Path, Spirit Road, Box Car, The Way….etc. etc. etc. That whole album could have been the only thing Neil released in the 21st century and we would have been be happy……. Maybe.

Promise of the Real definitely gave Neil a chance to explore his music from a completely different perspective, and he got an energy boost in the process. He was playing 3+ hour shows night after night, and never leaving the stage, which is extraordinary for a guy his age (at that time, or any time).

Looking back at the last 21 years, I just can’t imagine what it would have been like without Neil’s output. It has been just amazing to still have him around producing such focused new material after so many years. F
Very few artists in that category these days.

I can only imagine what he’s got up his sleeve for this year with new music, let alone the vast amount of archival material planned. It’ll be a fascinating ride, and I’m grateful to still be here with him.

Peace 🙏

At 1/23/2022 06:17:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Dan: Yes, CDII reaches back to the past (Ordinary People, Bluebird, the allusion to the original Chrome Dreams) and looks ahead. No Hidden Path is the most obvious example of this forward gaze: “Will the Northern Lights still play as we walk our distant days?” I’m not even sure how to comment on that line.. . talk about the big picture.

At the same time, I think our favorites can say as much about us as about the artist. Without presuming too much, the fact that Pill and even Americana too lists of “best” recent albums suggests, to me, a strong yen among fans for unfettered Horse jams. And to be fair, Drifting Back still holds my attention for all of its 27 minutes, yet I maintain that NY has done some of his most exciting, original songwriting outside the snug, hand-in-well-worn-glove fit of the Horse. Somewhere around 20-2-13, I actually wondered out loud how many albums of 17-minute Horse barnstormers Neil could release back to back before people finally decided it sounded samey. Maybe I’m being cynical, though I prefer to think of it as sympathy for NY’s artistic need to do new things.

Albums like Sleeps with Angels and Colorado, of course, show the Horse can be just as freely experimental. Barn gets back to some of that ethos, particularly Welcome Back and Don’t forget Love.

“Don’t spook the Horse” is the conventional wisdom. Paradoxically, though, the best Horse albums are often (for me) the spookiest.

At 1/23/2022 06:19:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

*sigh* Meant to write that Pill and American sometimes *top* lists of folks recent favorites.

At 1/23/2022 07:31:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature On The Run said...

I envy anyone who is instantly smitten with "Barn" -- the way I was with "After the Gold Rush" or "Harvest" "TTN" "CDII" "PW" "Storytone" "Pill" "Le Noise."

I heard a piano pulling at my heart strings and luring me over to a barn. Then, I lost the connection. I am not the same person when I first fell in love with Neil's music, either. I never needed Neil's songs to grow on me. It was always love at first sound bite.

I was expecting the fragility of a tumble down and weather beaten barn. Instead, I felt an instant weight, repetition, and predictability of passing time trapped in logged wood made to keep me out, not let me in.

At 1/23/2022 07:48:00 PM, Blogger Richie Cruz said...

My earlier comment was based just on the records in the picture at the top of the thread, beginning with Le Noise.

If we're talking all of the 2000's, then Greendale, LWW, and Prairie Wind are definitely high quality Neil albums. I think Greendale is Neil's greatest work of the 21st century thus far.

I think I need to give Chrome Dreams II another listen. I remember not thinking all that much of it, but it's definitely possible another listen may make me feel differently.

At 1/23/2022 09:13:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature On The Run said...

If you saw him in concert in 2008 and 2009, you would not forget No Hidden Path, Spirit Road, and Box car. (Dirty Old man is the only real stinker.)

At 1/23/2022 10:44:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

On CD II, I defer to Neil's words, from the press release way back:

"It's an album with a form based on some of my original recordings, with a large variety of songs, rather than one specific type of song. Where Living with War and Everybody's Rockin' were albums focused on one subject or style, Chrome Dreams II is more like After the Gold Rush or Freedom, with different types of songs working together to form a feeling. Now that radio formats are not as influential as they once were, it's easier to release an album that crosses all formats with a message that runs through the whole thing, regardless of the type of song or sound..."

--About sums it up for me. Because CDII has so many different kinds (i.e. genre or style) of song, it's occasionally been talked about as disjointed or scattershot. Moreover, the rest of the album tends to get overshadowed by Ordinary People, but I take the decision to finally release OP as a sign of confidence that other tracks can stand up beside it. It's always been clear, to me, that most of the songs are thematically related to each other. I enjoy the variation as opposed to Neil locking into one style for the entire album, hearing how all the songs--electric, acoustic, country, blue-eyed soul, garage rock--all fit together.

Barn shares this quality to some extent, although not quite on the scale of CDII. Where CDII was love almost at first exposure, Barn has been a slow grower for me, highlighted by several key tracks.

At 1/24/2022 10:48:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ MNOTR - Good to see you Mother! It's been awhile.

We know you've been on the run for awhile now in the 21st century, but thought you were just catching your breath?

Well, off you go again....

At 1/24/2022 12:41:00 PM, Blogger mrtew said...

I think after Prairie Wind he lost it. I don't like anything since then besides Americana/Psychedelic Pill I can't even make it through more than two or three songs of any of his other recent albums without giving up and playing one of his old great sounding albums to clear my brain. I even agree with his politics and sentiments but his lyrics are so awkwardly cringey and his voice so creaky and whiney and tuneless that it's not worth the work. HIs music used to be such a pleasure. Thank god for his beautiful old archive stuff. I sure love Summer Songs. "I never needed Neil's songs to grow on me. It was always love at first sound bite." from another post in this thread said it best. Other artists, such as Radiohead, make music that grows on me through the hard work of listening to it but I don't think I've even grown to appreciate any NY songs that I didn't like right out of the gate. They just grow more and more grating each time. And this is coming from someone who loves Trans and Landing on Water!

At 1/26/2022 05:08:00 AM, Blogger Steve L said...

I've listened to Barn maybe a dozen times. The only song I don't like is the last one - the album would be stronger without it, in my view.

The post-2010 album I play most often is almost certainly A Letter Home. I like his POTR studio albums too. A shame in my view that Earth has those barnyard sounds - could we have a "clean tape" version too please Neil?

The album I like the least (by far) is the orchestral version of Storytone. I'm not mad keen on Colorado TBH, but maybe I need to give it more listens and I might start to appreciate it...


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