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Saturday, December 09, 2023

REVIEW: "Before and After" by Neil Young | The Flying Scotzman

"Before And After" by Neil Young

A TW exclusive review of Neil Young's latest album "Before and After" by Scotsman.

Neil Young’s new album, Before and After—a record of vintage songs played in concert in 2023, but sounding very much like new songs played solo in the studio—is released today (Dec 8). 

But before we talk about Before and After, let’s talk about Harry Styles. 

(I write these words fully aware that I’ve just lost 50% of the readers here. Stick with me, please!). 

Earlier this week, I was listening to one of Harry’s songs, called As It Was (648 million YouTube views, and counting!). It’s the first time I’ve really listened to one of Harry’s songs. 

As It Was is ultra-catchy. It’s the kind of song you’ll find yourself humming three weeks after you heard it. It’s fun and dreamy-sounding and colourfully produced. 

The song is like a musical piece of candy. It ditches nutrition in favour of a sugar rush.

Sugar is an addictive ingredient, and if you can write and produce this sort of pop music, it’s possible you’ll be the one (probably with the help of AI) to capture the hearts of the mass-market with your tunes. 

But there’s no point going half-way with this. Nobody listens to music that’s *only* redeeming feature is that it’s almost catchy. You need to go to the extreme, or not at all.

If not, then a more compelling option might be to write the sort of songs that you’ll find on Neil Young’s Before and After.

Oh, they’re not all heavyweights. And some are presented in a context that doesn’t necessarily flatter them. The previously unreleased If You Got Love, for instance, is the kind of ditty that perhaps demands full-on production. Without that, it comes across as neither here nor there. (Though that gutsy-sounding pump organ brings a smile to the face, doesn’t it?)

But intentionally or not, Neil has mostly chosen songs that proclaim “You know what? I’m one of the best songwriters in the world, and here’s an album’s worth of proof”.

(That’s not an actual quote, of course. That’s me taking this rather modest, delicate and self-effacing record of musical gems and injecting it with some artificial boastful swagger, to demonstrate a point.)

The first clue is that Neil comes out the gate firing with I’m the Ocean. Probably the most impressive track of the 90s — if we define an impressive song as one built around a substance-packed lyric. To use a perverse analogy, It’s the musical equivalent of beginning your war with a barrage of heavy artillery.

(Again, this track is sort of catchy…. but it’s not catchy enough to rest on its laurels. It needs an extraordinary and far-reaching lyric and concept and performance, and it delivers one right on cue.)

Then Homefires, then Burned. Songs harvested from all through the years, united by their generous spirit and musical excellence. 

Musically, we begin in Thrasher territory, here. (By that, I mean the song… not the boss of this blog!). Neil is playing 12-string guitar, amplified in stereo to create the captivating illusion of two guitars in harmony. He’s also singing through a punchy-sounding dynamic wireless mic that allows for the obliteration of most of the noise from the audience. 

This is broadly the same sort of sound you’ll remember from the first two tracks of Rust Never Sleeps. Later on in Before and After, Neil moves on to 6-string acoustic guitar, piano, pump organ, Old Black electric guitar. But it still feels like a record that’s a stablemate of the Boarding House recordings from 1978. 

Two otherworldly piano songs from 1994’s Sleeps with Angels add layers of texture, visitors from another place and time. 

My first (not-set-in-stone) impression is that I don’t like the concept of stringing all the tracks together without gaps. It doesn’t flatter the music, and it never really gives each song chance to breathe or to sink in. As listeners, we need gaps to give our imaginations space to breathe, too. 

(Similarly, notice how I’ve split this rant you are now reading into paragraphs. It would be harder to read if I took out the spaces between the paragraphs, wouldn’t it?).

Neil describes the experience as a “music presentation (that) defies shuffling, digital organisation, separation. Only for listening. That says it all.”

Opinion: It says it all only if your first language is Gobbledegook. The translated version (via the Scotzman jargon decoder) is that Neil heard Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom and decided to make his own record to the same blueprint. And although Bob gets points for being quicker off the mark, Neil gets credit for making a record that ripples with present-day spirit and vitality.

Bob’s record is engagingly (almost hypnotically!) performed, but ultimately much of it feels like a history lesson. What inspires Bob today? What makes him feel alive and grateful, or inspired to make the world a better place, and want to share that generous feeling with us? The answer to that question may be where his most engaging music still resides. Perhaps it’s within the sound itself. I don’t know.  

Bob fandom, meanwhile, is full of disciples who are more interested in worshipping than living. And when all you’ve got to do all day is compare “fascinating” differences between 250 versions of Key West or Black Rider, it’s no wonder your own spirit starts to stagnate. 

Neil’s record is melancholy, but it has fire in its belly, too. This record isn’t a history lesson. (Maybe it’s a lesson from history about how to live today.)

Good. Because the truth is we don’t listen to this sort of so-called “Dad rock”, “Legacy Artist” stuff (rather than Harry Styles or whoever else is popular) just to have some grumpy old git inflict his dirges on us whilst swanning around in a stretch limo and playing at being a rock star (even if the game lasts 80+ years).

I listen more selfishly than that. I listen because this music inspires me to live my life more fully. That’s what generous music does. 

And that’s what Neil’s music does. 

One of the most stirring vocal performances here comes during When I Hold You in My Arms:

“Well the older generation, they got something to say
But they better say it fast, or get out of the way” 

Maybe the reason Neil sounds fired-up here is that although he knows he’s now one of the older generation, he’s also still (very literally) Mr Young. There’s a tension between getting older and staying spiritually young. A tightrope many of us will have the opportunity to walk, if we want to. We could perhaps take lessons from this man.

The record closes with Don’t Forget Love, which holds its own amongst giant tracks from years’ past. Neil’s voice does not possess the raw power it once had, at least not on this record. But it has lost none of its expressiveness or nuance.

Before and After isn’t what many people will call a “major record” or an “essential record”… nor does it adventurously explore new territory like 2022’s World Record. Any claims it could make to originality in its “one long track” concept would be dubious.

But it’s a compelling listen precisely because it’s built on the strong foundation of stellar songs and earnest performances. Coming out onstage *firing*, armed with powerful songs and a dynamic attitude, might not be very original. But it’s certainly to be applauded. 


Thanks so much for the review Scotsman!

Also, be sure to check out The Flying Scotzman over on Patreon writing about the remarkable music of Neil Young. 

More on Neil Young Signing Copies of New Album"Before and After"

Neil Young & Daryl Hannah @ TRAFFIC RECORDS - Dec 8
photo by The Reverend Reiderson

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At 12/09/2023 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

I read "reviews" with a strong dose of cynicism these days. Mostly, they are like the sugary song Scotzman discusses (who is Harry Stiles?). And then I read Scotzman and I have renewed faith in high level reviews that have not a single drop of pretension. Scotzman is simply the best I have read and I am truly appreciative of his analysis, creativity, and imagination. Just brilliant.

I need to sign up for his site. I have been working too much.

At 12/09/2023 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

@ Scotsman : I enjoyed your review of Before and After. Thank you.

An old joke: “I just dropped my guitar down the stairs & accidentally wrote a new One Direction song.” Harry Styles’ ridiculous old pop band is like his new song As It Was. I am listening to it right now, & I promise you I will not be thinking of this song at all in the future except as confirmation that he sucks. My daughters like his music a bit, tho, so I don’t say that to them. His new electronic pop beat song is syrupy, Cringy & pathetic. But there is no accounting for taste. It’s in the ear. I don’t listen to new pop.

About Neil Young: I agree that I’m The Ocean is perhaps the most powerful song he released in the 1990’s. I have been hearing this incredible new acoustic 12 string version in my head and heart ever since I heard it live in concert in the Coastal Tour. Abner Snopes & I get the award for “All time biggest fans” of I’m The Ocean. Its cousin “Dream Machine (/Born To Ride)” gives it a bit of competition for “favorite / best song of the 1990’s” -IMHO.

I don’t find the “All-one-song/track” format off-putting. It’s fine with me. I am a sponge, soaking it up, and reveling in each song, regardless of separation. I also don’t care if the crowd noise is gone. Rust Bucket hits my ears and heart perfectly. But then I have shut down loud drunks at more than a few shows with assertive intervention. I could not “reach” the walking, screaming drunk linebacker in the crowd at White River Coastal, but I did get him to shut up & sit down next to me for a while, to the relief of a large number of fans in the crowd. He was absolutely blind drunk, does not remember anything from that show, I am sure.

Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom is a very good album. He rewrites a slew of lyrics and sings better than he has in 10-15 years. He reinvents the songs with a fresh studio band, much as he did At Budokan, which has now been released as a complete 2 show album, expanded and redeemed from its bad reviews at time of first release. I always thought it was a classic, & gorgeous too!

I am a Dylan fan but I have been quite bored by his 4 “Sinatra songbook” albums big time. I don’t tend to listen to his last 3 albums at all, mostly due to poor singing. Murder Most Foul is a worthy exception. Duquesne Whistle is a great song with a crappy singer. If only Bob had not smoked cigarettes through the many decades, we could hear his voice sound so much better! But somehow Shadow Kingdom is phenomenal, a masterpiece. I can only hope he matches it again in this lifetime.

Once upon a time I used to wonder which Artist I loved more, Neil or Dylan. But that question was answered by their output. I am a “Neil Head” (and to think I was once a Deadhead!). I got picky. The singing voice is key. Neil is a triple threat. I am just glad Bob is back in the Arena, so to speak.

{@ Dan : But it is true: “On a good night, there was nothing like the Grateful Dead (but it helped to drop Acid)”}

Before And After is a classic, a Masterpiece. Thank you Neil Young! Long May You Run!

Your brother Alan in Seattle

At 12/09/2023 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

I want to just say that I LOVE Dylan and I have every single Bootleg Series album he has released, what is it, like 1-18 now?

I don’t mean to diss Dylan or the Grateful Dead. I love them. I even got to see them play together as one band in 1987 Anaheim. I got to see Dylan 10 times and the GD 40 x and I am a Lucky Bastard, I know.

Long live Dylan, Long live “The Dead.” Jerry left us in’95 to go play guitar at the Great Gig in the Sky, of course.

Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 12/09/2023 12:58:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@Abner - thanks and so glad you found Scots review of value.

As mentioned, he has a Patreon site w/ all of his Neil writings. As a subscriber we can say the nominal monthly subscription is well worth it.

and while we're on the subject of paid subscriptions, this has come up repeatedly over the years here @ TW.

Our preference is certainly to keep TW as freely accessible as possible.

But we have contemplated about putting the 25 years + behind a paywall.

not really sure and never fully explored the hows's, fees etc

much of this contemplation was pre NYA. We now know that Neil music fans will gladly subscribe to the pay model.

As we've noted before, it's been tough being independent media in the age of censorship.

Our advertising partnerships -- camceled, ability to run Google Ads --blocked, our Twitter account -- hacked, our PayPal account -- fraudulent transactions filed, the ISP service of our partner and Thrasher's Wheat Radio --disrupted, our Amazon partner links -- screwed, Willie for a Nobel campaign -- jerked around by capping our LIKES and unsub'g folks automatically, our once robust reader comments eco-system -- throttled suspending the Gigs for the Gulf page based on false copyright infringement claims, trying to make exposing environmental crimes a crime, disrupting freedom of speech and assembly, or humiliating and mocking our efforts when we try and stand up, algorithmic censorship to lower our rank off of Top 10 Search results or gaslighting us with "fake Neil news", sending in all sorts of trolls and spammers to disrupt the Neil community, or making exposing a war crime a war crime or blasting us with near Stuxnet-like levels of crippling attacks on our servers, de-platformed from Google News as a legitimate (non-fake) news source, de-platformed from Facebook, etc

but we carry on and will never bow down to the thought police.

At 12/09/2023 01:01:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Alan - ahh yes, Bob & Neil, one of our fave topics.

we can not begin to tell you how at Farm Aid this year, when Dylan came out, how we were just dreaming of Neil coming out and scorching w/ Bob on Watchtower.

Alas, not to be.

But still seeing Neil, Bob, & Willie -- a true musical hero trifecta - all in the space of ~90 minutes was some of the finest times we've had at a concert. ever.

At 12/09/2023 01:13:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Scots - thanks again for the opportunity to showcase your work here on TW.

A true honor an privilege.

Regarding the all one song -- literally -- format concept, here's our take.

We think Neil's onto something here by creating an album which is truly un-shuffleable. No singles. No bonus tracks. No record label gimmicks.

It's a bold stand in our accelerating digital world as our humanity is slowly squeezed.

btw, notice Neil's hat yesterday at the record signing?

we're not just getting lost on the human highway, humanity itself is being lost it would seem.


At 12/09/2023 03:52:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Alan, my brother in Seattle, I'm the Ocean just blew me totally away like no other song. It does not have the drama of Like a Hurricane, the music sounds like labor. The lyrics are from a deep and mysterious place, but they grab on to reality in a fierce way. The tie to the first two songs on Mirror Ball is undeniable and beautifully sad.

Circling back, I could not believe the reviews of Mirror Ball. In general, they missed the deep importance of I'm the Ocean as a songwriting tour de force.

At 12/09/2023 08:27:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

@ Abner Snopes : It’s all in the family here at the TW fireside. ITO blew me away and I love the whole Mirrorball album, pretty much. That album was largely rejected by PJ fans. I think I Got I’d is extremely powerful, with one of the all time heaviest NY electric solos. It’s my favorite PJ song by a long shot! But yes, ITO is so intense to me, I literally feel the Giant Undertow of a very stormy ocean.

@ Thrasher : I am finally going to send you some cash instead of asking others to send it. I am working overnight shift for Double Time a few nights in the next week and that will be a good cash infusion into my always-scarce coin pouch. At least I have a pile of Neil Young audio gold to enjoy! A paywall would not keep me out, I am glad to say this week! Do what you gotta do. This blog and NYA have my full undying gratitude.

@ Scotsman : I usually like your opinions & writing. It’s random that I found some things to “agree to disagree” on this time. Maybe I was grumpy because I am about to pull an all nighter for cash. When I was 17, 20, that was more common and easier to recover from.

Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 12/09/2023 08:34:00 PM, Blogger Alan said...

@ Thrasher : I love that mini set Dylan played for you at Farm Aid! He was in good voice! He may have finally quit smoking(!). That was a hell of a Trifecta!

My last Dylan show was a blissful & euphoric experience. It was in a concrete basement venue of our local soccer stadium. The Boom Boom room…. My aged compadres had to sit in the back where you can’t hear; their legs were tired or something. I must have got sprayed by a skunk that night, at least that is what security thought when they caught a whiff of me! 😁

I thought I was done seeing Dylan but after your mini set, & this new Shadow Kingdom album, I think I need to give Zimmy another chance, whether he has the Heartbreakers or not!


Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 12/12/2023 05:46:00 AM, Blogger Flyingscotzman said...

Thanks all for perceptive comments—as always—and very generous response to my review. Much appreciated.

Thrasher: At the Hyde Park gig in 2009, I was hoping Chrissie Hynde would join Neil for Watchtower. Instead, as you know, Paul McCartney came out for A Day in the Life. Even more of a surprise!

Alan: No problem sir! If we needed all the people we respect to agree with absolutely everything we wrote before putting pen to paper, the paper would be empty. And if Neil Young followed the same path, he wouldn't have any albums.

Good to read your comments, and in particularly good to see Mirrorball getting the appreciation it deserves!

Abner: Just thanks.



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