Neil Young: Greendale and reissues

NZ Listener

Neil Young returns with a new, mad concept album - and a collection of back releases finally available on CD, including his gloomy masterpiece On the Beach.


Neil Young’s greatest music is as great as rock gets, and yet he is frustratingly hit-and-miss. The recent feast of Young releases – four albums from the 70s and early 80s issued for the first time on CD, and a brand new album, Greendale, with live DVD – shows him at his best and worst, and various points between.

Young tends to make his worst records when he gets hold of a big idea. Flicking through his discography, it’s titles such as Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’ and This Note’s for You that sound alarm bells – albums where Young has let his ideas run beyond the boundaries of a single song and into personas, themes and grand concepts.

Greendale is Young’s grandest concept yet: 10 thematically linked songs concerning the inhabitants of a fictitious American town.

Although Young is prone to these big ideas, he is also spontaneous by nature. And this is why rock’n'roll has suited him so well; a medium in which impulse prevails over perfection, where the right scattered images and gnarly chords can conjure whole worlds.

In creating Greendale he has tried to have a bob each way. He has written an opera, but in a way that retains some of the rock spontaneity he depends on so much. As he explains, he had no idea where each song was leading the story until he had finished writing it. He didn’t even realise there was a story until he found that the same characters were popping up in consecutive songs. Each song was recorded as it was written.

Which means that in many ways Greendale sounds like a typical Young album. It finds him reunited with the rhythm section of Crazy Horse (guitarist Poncho Sampedro had better things to do) who clump through these three-chorders with the engaging amateurism that has been their distinguishing feature for more than three decades. And it features plenty of the homespun surrealism, off-centre philosophy and goofy non-sequiturs that have given Young’s work much of its character. It starts promisingly with a joke: “Grandpa said to cousin Jed, sitting on the porch, ‘I won’t retire, but I might retread.’”

But the gags peter out as Young’s modern American parable takes over. Within a few songs Grandpa is dead, Jed is in jail, and we have met other members of the Green family: Earl, a Vietnam vet and painter of psychedelic visions, his daughter Sun, a burgeoning ecological activist; along with grandmothers, uncles, a dead cop and the Devil – who is more or less to blame for all the trouble that ensues.

As storytelling it is badly flawed. The spontaneous nature of its creation has left it full of loose ends and untidy subplots. For instance, in one song we are introduced to Captain Green, Grandpa’s mariner brother, who is engaged in a moral debate with a member of his crew who quotes John Lennon. Both characters then vanish from the story, having influenced its outcome not one iota.

Grasping for a conclusion, Young leaves us on a cliffhanger with Sun Green – representing, as Young explains in the liner notes, “youth making a difference” – heading off to save the planet (“Save Alaska! Let the caribou stay/Don’t care what the governments say/They’re all bought and paid for anyway”) with a boyfriend who, unknowingly, has had his drink spiked by the Devil. The finale (“Be the Rain”) has to be one of Young’s worst songs ever: a banal quasi-anthem that would not have been out of place in Godspell.

The hero of Young’s shambolic saga is obviously Sun Green. But the character who most resembles Young is Grandpa, a loveable old coot who sits on his front porch dispensing loopy wisdom, grumbling about what he reads in the papers and waxing nostalgic about a folksy pre-media American past.

In some ways the solo acoustic version of Greendale on the accompanying DVD is more palatable. Recorded earlier this year, it catches Young introducing his cycle to an attentive Irish audience. With his rambling between-song patter he fills in much of the background to his tale. It’s charming. It’s also a little mad.

But Greendale isn’t the worst of the recent Young releases. That distinction goes to Reactor, the 1981 album he cut with Crazy Horse during a period in which his life was dominated by a gruelling therapy programme for his disabled son. The crushing regularity of the riffs and dull simplicity of the lyrics mirror the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the programme (Young and his wife switched to an alternative therapy soon after). I wish I could declare this album a misunderstood masterpiece, but the truth is it’s a bore.

From either side of 1979′s monumental Rust Never Sleeps come American Stars and Bars and Hawks and Doves, respectively. Both are patchy; still, they contain gold: the proto-Tall Dwarfs home recording of “Will to Love”, the air-guitar anthem of “Like a Hurricane”, plus some lesser yet lovely material. Try “Bite the Bullet” (from Stars and Bars) as a substitute for “Cinnamon Girl”, or Hawks and Doves’ spooky “Old Homestead”.

But by far the best Neil Young CD to come out this year is 1974′s On the Beach. Four years ago I spent a page in this magazine bemoaning the unavailability of this lost masterpiece. At last it is here.

Made with a motley mix of producers and musicians (including members of Crazy Horse and the Band), it has the feel of several unfinished albums spliced together. And yet the eight tracks combine to present a picture at once more abstract and more whole than the seamlessly conceived Greendale.

“Revolution Blues” is the centrepiece, and the scariest thing that Young has ever sung. Written from the point of view of a Manson-style survivalist, it makes Greendale’s Devil look like a cheap vaudeville act. The green themes of Greendale are tackled more effectively here, too, in the wry, sinister “Vampire Blues” (“I’m a vampire babe/sucking blood from the earth/I’m a vampire babe/Sell you twenty barrels worth”). In other songs – the psycho-bluegrass “For the Turnstiles”, the epic, dumb-joke-strewn “Ambulance Blues” – it’s harder to say what he’s singing about, and maybe he doesn’t even know himself.

If there’s any theme running through these songs, it’s the accidental one of things falling apart. He’s just doing what he’s best at, running on instinct.

Tags: neil youngon the beachcrazy horse

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