Neil Young was born in Canada in 1945, where his father was a famous sports broadcaster. Before fame, he played in the Mynah Birds, with a young Rick James, before relocating to Los Angeles where he joined Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield. Initially, Young took a back-seat role, allowing Richie Furay to front some of his compositions on the band’s first album, although his ringing guitar was an important component of the band’s breakthrough hit ‘For What It’s Worth’. Young’s confidence grew on Buffalo Springfield Again, where he contributed the orchestral and ethereal ‘Expecting To Fly’ as well as the ambitious, multi-part ‘Broken Arrow’, although tensions between the band members and bassist Bruce Palmer’s run-ins with the law meant that the group never reached their potential.
Although his songs with Buffalo Springfield had established Young as a writer with an individual voice, his 1968 solo debut was tentative. On his second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, he recruited Crazy Horse as his backing band, and their primitive stomp was the perfect backing for songs like ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Down By The River’. Young then infiltrated the mainstream as he joined Crosby, Stills, and Nash for Déjà Vu, and released two popular solo albums, including Harvest, which reached the top of the US charts on the back of number one single ‘Heart of Gold’.
The loss of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry in drug-related deaths were among the factors that caused Young to pull away from the mainstream; as he famously wrote ‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. The ensuing “Ditch Trilogy” was rawer and less accessible, although 1974’s mournful On The Beach is one of Young’s best realised albums. Other highlights of Young’s 1970s included reforming Crazy Horse for 1975’s Zuma, and 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, with its acoustic and electric halves showcasing some of Young’s finest work.
Young signed with Geffen Records in 1982, where he recorded a series of erratic, genre-hopping albums, ranging from the electronic Trans to the country of Old Ways. He refocused with 1989’s Freedom and 1990’s Ragged Glory, and enhanced his reputation by his engagement with 1990s alternative rock; Kurt Cobain quoted Young in his suicide note, while Young collaborated with Pearl Jam on 1995’s Mirror Ball. Even in his late career, Young has continued to release new albums frequently.
Neil Young is recognised as one of the rock music’s premium solo artists. His voice, high and creakily off-key, can be an acquired taste, and his work is often primitive, especially when accompanied by Crazy Horse. His lyrics impulsively veer from supporting Reagan in the 1980s to suggesting the impeachment of George W Bush. A lot of Young’s work falls into three main templates; abrasive guitar rock like ‘Cortez The Killer’, gentle folk, or country.
Most of what Young recorded in the 1960s and 1970s is worth hearing, but he’s so prolific that his discography is intimidatingly large. I’ve covered all of his studio albums through to 1982’s Trans, but I’ve only reviewed select albums after that point. I’ve listed Neil Young’s albums of new material up to 2016 below and marked the ones I’ve covered in bold. If I was to go further into his discography, Silver and Gold, Le Noise, and Psychedelic Pill are the records I’m most interested in, but covering 26 Neil Young releases is a respectable effort.
Neil Young (1968)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
After the Gold Rush (1970)
Time Fades Away (1973) [live album of all new material]
On the Beach (1974)
Tonight’s the Night (1975)
Long May You Run – with Stephen Stills (1976)
American Stars ‘n Bars (1977)
Decade (compilation, 1977)
Comes a Time (1978)
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Live Rust (1979)
Hawks & Doves (1980)
Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983)
Old Ways (1985)
Landing on Water (1986)
This Note’s for You (1988)
Eldorado (EP, 1989)
Ragged Glory (1990)
Harvest Moon (1992)
Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Mirror Ball (1995)
Broken Arrow (1996)
Silver & Gold (2000)
Are You Passionate? (2002)
Prairie Wind (2005)
Living with War (2006)
Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Fork in the Road (2009)
Le Noise (2010)
Psychedelic Pill (2012)
A Letter Home (2014)
The Monsanto Years (2015)
Peace Trail (2016)
Neil Young Album Reviews
Neil Young’s first solo effort is one of those debut albums where a newly liberated solo artists tries a bunch of different ideas. Freshly released from the talent laden and competitive Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young tries everything from a country instrumental on the opening ‘The Emperor of Wyoming’ to a rambling, sub-Dylan effort on the closing ‘The Last Trip To Tulsa’; some of these ideas stick and some don’t.
Most characteristic of his later career is the rocker ‘The Loner’, with Young’s distinctive fuzz guitar, while the organ and dramatic guitar riff of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ is another keeper. The most successful of the more experimental pieces is ‘The Old Laughing Lady’, which starts off atmospheric and acoustic, before taking a left turn into gospel with the backing singers. Even though the ten minutes of ‘The Last Trip To Tulsa’ are unique in Young’s catalogue, with their loping, cryptic story-telling, it’s not one of Young’s better songs.
It has its moments, but Neil Young is an erratic start to an erratic (but stellar) recording career.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
For his second solo album, Neil Young recruited garage band The Rockets. Renaming them Crazy Horse, they’ve served as his backing band ever since – their primitive stomp is the perfect complement for Young’s distorted guitar and scratchy vocals, and Young is more comfortable here than on his tentative debut.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is essentially dominated by three behemoths. The punchy ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is a three minute piece of scything guitar pop that’s a good candidate for the best song that Neil Young has ever written. The two guitar epics, the nine minute ‘Down By The River’, with its famous one note guitar solo, and the ten minute ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, are also rightfully recognised as among Young’s finest achievements.
The remainder of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is devoted to more downbeat folk material; ‘The Losing End’ feels like a throwback to early sixties pop, but ‘Running Dry’ and ‘Round and Round’ both outstay their welcome – the only memorable song is the title track, with its singalong chorus.
Of course, few songs look good when they have to share space with ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Down By The River’, and its highlights are enough to make Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere a seminal effort in Young’s canon.
After The Gold Rush
Young gained popular recognition with his involvement in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu, and followed it up with the excellence of After The Gold Rush. After The Gold Rush is perhaps the quintessential Neil Young album, a diverse set that shows his main stylistic interests, from gentle folksy ballads and mournful country to loud guitar rockers. Most of the album was recorded with Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, CSNY bassist Greg Reeves, and an eighteen year old Nils Lofgren who was plucked from obscurity to play piano on the album despite having little experience with the instrument.
After The Gold Rush is packed with highlights; the gentle title track sees Young accompanied by piano, intoning astounding ecological lyrics, while a flugelhorn player contributes a splash of colour. ‘Southern Man’ and ‘When You Dance (I Can Really Love)’ are arresting rockers, while a cover of Don Gibson’s country standard ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ is also successful. The sweet acoustic ballads ‘I Believe In You’ and ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ are beautiful, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is haunting and enigmatic, and even the song fragments of ‘Till The Morning Comes’ and ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’ are memorable.
After the Goldrush demonstrates a full breadth of Young’s capabilities and is a great place to start an exploration into his extensive catalogue.
Harvest topped the U.S. charts and spawned a number one single in ‘Heart Of Gold’ – difficult to imagine from someone whose songs include ‘Roll Another Number (For The Road)’, and ‘Let’s Impeach The President’. Alongside Comes A Time and Harvest Moon, which both recreate the same aesthetic, Harvest is Young’s most palatable album, recorded with a group of Nashville session pros rather than Crazy Horse, and the songs sweetened up by backing vocals from James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Harvest isn’t particularly coherent; the three orchestrated tracks are often overbearing, and are jarring alongside the gentle country-rock that comprises the majority of the album.
Of the orchestral tracks, ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ is terrific and one of Young’s most fascinating tracks, with its rich orchestration rubbing against Young’s fragile voice, and its simultaneously vulnerable and misogynistic lyrics. The title track and ‘Old Man’ are two low-key but top drawer songs, while the solo ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ is a warning against heroin addiction, delivered over a terrific chord sequence. The hard-rocking ‘Alabama’ is akin to ‘Southern Man’, and was part of the song dialogue between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
There are plenty of strong songs on Harvest, but despite its commercial stature it’s not among the top tier of Neil Young’s albums.
Time Fades Away
A live album featuring all new songs, Time Fades Away was constructed under the shadow of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten’s death. Whitten was invited to be the second guitarist on the tour, but it was obvious he wasn’t well enough to contribute, and he died on the day that Young dismissed him from the band. Young felt responsible for Whitten’s death, and although many of these songs were presumably written before Whitten’s overdose, Young’s guilt informs the album’s atmosphere; Time Fades Away is more ragged and personal than anything Young had released previously.
The lengthy ‘Don’t Be Denied’ is almost like a self-help mantra mixed with autobiography over a repetitive blues riff. ‘Last Dance’ is more powerful riffing, while ‘L.A.’ and ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ slip memorable hooks into their chaotic structures. Despite the overall chaos of Time Fades Away, there are stripped down moments; ‘Love In Mind’ is a short, gorgeous piano ballad, while ‘Journey Through The Past’ is Young accompanying himself on piano, complete with wrong notes. The simple, elegiac ‘The Bridge’ is one of Young’s strongest songs.
Young has never allowed Time Fades Away to be released on CD. Despite the legend that’s built around it due to its unavailability, the ragged Time Fades Away is not among Young’s finest albums, but due to its personal and intimate nature, dedicated Young fans will find it fascinating.
On The Beach
The second installment in Young’s “Ditch Trilogy”, On The Beach is restrained compared to the ragged Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night, yet it’s the most effective of the three. The raw catharsis of those records is largely gone, and instead there’s an eerie, world-weary calm. Backing musicians include David Crosby on rhythm guitar, Graham Nash on Wurlitzer, Rusty Kershaw, and The Band’s rhythm section, as well as assorted members of Crazy Horse and the Stray Gators.
The first side of the record is devoted to shorter songs, and it’s the first three that stand out musically – ‘Walk On’ is a bouncy riposte to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘See The Sky About The Rain’ is a gorgeous ballad based around Young’s electric piano riffing, while the startling ‘Revolution Blues’ finds Young entering the character of an unhinged Charles Manson figure. His delivery of the final frightening verse, “I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains/And ten million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains/Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars,” is one of the most memorable moments of his career, while the Danko and Helm rhythm section puts in a compelling performance. The second side is dedicated to three excellent slow and weary pieces – the highlight is the weary ‘Ambulance Blues’, with its sombre violin, which gently unfolds over almost nine minutes.
While On The Beach isn’t one of Young’s most accessible albums, it’s easily one of his most consistent and it captures a mood of mature resignation that’s not a common feature in rock and roll.
Tonight’s The Night
The second of Young’s “Ditch Trilogy” to be recorded but the third to be released, Tonight’s The Night was withheld for two years due to a lack of commercial appeal, eventually appearing after the calmer On The Beach. Recorded with the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Molina and Talbot, as well as Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith, the record is inspired by the drug-related deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist and roadie Bruce Berry. The booklet art includes a pointed Danny Whitten caption under an empty spot on stage, while Whitten’s ‘Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’, recorded with Young and Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East, is featured, underlining his wasted potential. Meanwhile, Berry is eulogised in the repeated title track: “Bruce Berry was a workin’ man, he used to load that Econoline van.”
There’s a feeling of indifference and weariness, which is matched by the music – there are accessible tunes, but most of them sound not only like they’ve been recorded first take, but that they’ve been recorded first take while drunk. ‘Mellow My Mind’ features probably the most out of tune vocal to ever appear on a major label recording, while Young’s piano playing in ‘Speakin’ Out’ is bordering on incompetent. Most of these songs are downbeat, although the two rockers ‘Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown’ and ‘Lookout Joe’ are far more lightweight, as is the hilariously drawn out chorus hook of ‘Albuquerque’. Elsewhere, Young’s is emphasising beauty; ‘New Mama’ falls into a beautiful wall of harmonies, while “Borrowed Tune’ is gorgeous in its despair. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and ‘Tired Eyes’ are simultaneously anarchic and jaded.
Most of these songs rely on emotion rather than necessarily strong writing, yet as a whole, Tonight’s The Night is captivating and cathartic.
After aborting a reunion album with Crosby, Stills and Nash and ending his difficult relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass, Neil Young reformed Crazy Horse with guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro replacing the deceased Danny Whitten. The result, named after the beach it was recorded at, is Young’s most relaxed, sunniest album for quite some time; while there’s venom, presumably directed at Snodgrass, in songs like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Drive Back’, generally Zumais one of Young’s least introspective records. Instead, he lets his guitar take centre stage on extended workouts like ‘Cortez The Killer’ and ‘Danger Bird’, while acoustic songs like ‘Pardon My Heart’ and the Crosby, Stills and Nash leftover ‘Through My Sails’ also contribute to the more relaxed feel. Zuma isn’t as substantial as his best works, and it often fills the role of fan favourite in his discography from enthusiasts wanting to avoid clichéd choices like After The Goldrushor Tonight’s The Night.
The centrepiece on Zuma is the seven and a half minutes of ‘Cortez The Killer’, with lyrics showing Young’s fascination with native American cultures and an extended guitar workout. According to urban legend, a power cut occurred halfway through recording, before quickly coming back on, meaning that a fabled middle part of the song is absent and that the final product is a result of the beginning and the middle being spliced together. The acoustic folk of ‘Pardon My Heart’ is the other standout here, with its sparse acoustic arrangement where the monotone backing vocals of Talbot and Molina provide an effective counterpoint for Young’s heartfelt whine. The upbeat country rock of ‘Lookin’ For A Love’ is symptomatic of Young’s renewed optimism, while ‘Barstool Blues’ and ‘Don’t Cry No Tears’ are memorable riff rockers.
Zuma is a very representative Neil Young album, and it’s solidly enjoyable even if it’s not quite first rate.
American Stars ‘n Bars
American Stars ‘n Bars was compiled from several aborted album projects, including Chrome Dreams and Homegrown, and accordingly it feels like a Neil Young sampler. There are a couple of top tier songs with the blistering guitar epic ‘Like A Hurricane’ and the compelling, hypnotic ‘Will To Love’.
But much of the remainder of American Stars ‘n Bars feels like slight, second-tier material, especially the first side which is largely generic country like ‘Hold Back The Tears’ and ‘Hey Babe’. Emmylou Harris guests on the pretty ‘Star of Bethlehem’, and there’s some variation with the singalong of ‘Homegrown’ and the hard rock ‘Bite The Bullet’ with its gospel chorus.
Despite a couple of major highlights, American Stars ‘n Bars is one of Young’s more dispensable albums from the 1970s.
Decade is an early example of a box set, cramming 35 great Young songs onto 2 compact discs. Neil Young was incredibly prolific during his first ten years; the songs on Decade draw from fourteen studio albums, as well as six previously unreleased tracks. The album begins with Young’s highlights from Buffalo Springfield, including the previous unreleased ‘Down To The Wire’, while his solo career begins with ‘Sugar Mountain’, a folk song he recorded on his home stereo on his 19th birthday.
Decade peaks with the material from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Goldrush, and Harvest, but loses momentum towards the end, as though Young hadn’t gained enough distance from his later material to judge it objectively; for instance, the scratchy ‘For The Turnstiles’ is arguably the worst song from On The Beach.
Decade is a good shortcut to Young’s work – there are a bunch of Young albums that are dispensable if you own Decade, although After The Gold Rush, On The Beach, Tonight’s The Night, and Zuma all have a lot to offer, and Time Fades Away isn’t covered by the set at all. Even if you have all of Young’s albums, Decade is still essential for the handful of outtakes like ‘Winterlong’ and ‘Deep Forbidden Lake’, and Young’s delightful handwritten liner notes.
Comes A Time
Comes A Time is gentle folk rock, a Neil Young album that’s more commercially appealing than anything since Harvest. On the cover Young has an acoustic guitar and a goofy smile on his face, and the enclosed album captures him at his most settled, a series of relationship songs dedicated to his new marriage. The only songs that break from the melodic, well written folk template are tucked towards the end of Comes A Time; the bluesy duet with Nicolette Larson on ‘Motorcycle Mama’ and the country hoedown of ‘Field Of Opportunity’, while there’s also a rare cover in the form of folk standard ‘Four Strong Winds’.
‘Goin’ Back’ sets the agenda, while the title track, ‘Look Out For My Love’ and ‘Lotta Love’ take in elements from country, blues and pop respectively. The latter in particular is one of the catchiest songs in Young’s oeuvre, with its distinctive electric piano part and touching lyrics. The more diverse stuff fits in fine, adding some fun to the record: the electrified ‘Motorcycle Mama’ provides a nice change of pace, while the goofy ‘Field Of Opportunity’ (“it’s plowing time again!”) is still melodic and well written.
It’s lightweight, but Comes A Time capture Young at a point where he’s relaxed, content, and full of great songs.
Rust Never Sleeps
Neil Young’s albums in the late 1970s feel unusually focused, culminating in Rust Never Sleeps. It’s divided into an acoustic side, where Young plays the clean-cut folkie, and an electric side, where Crazy Horse tear through an aggressive set. The key track appears on both sides, an acoustic version titled ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ and an electric version titled ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)’, affirming the power of rock music and comparing the legacies of Elvis and Johnny Rotten. There’s a clear sense throughout Rust Never Sleeps, implied in the album’s title, of Young declaring his intention to stay relevant, whether he’s criticising the complacency of his former band mates Crosby, Stills and Nash in ‘Thrasher’ (“I got bored and left them there/They were just deadweight to me”) or adopting a punk-derived thrash in ‘Welfare Mothers’ and ‘Sedan Delivery’.
The album’s centre piece is the epic ‘Powderfinger’, not only providing the name for an Australian punk band, but another portrait of a loner character, this time a young man left to defend his family farm from raiders. It’s a guitar epic, akin to ‘Cortez The Killer’ or ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, but the remaining electric songs are leaner and punchier, with the simplistic and repetitive lyrics of ‘Welfare Mothers’ appearing to parody the punk genre. The acoustic half is often gorgeous, there’s a gentle purposefulness to these songs and performances, calm yet expressing Young’s restlessness. ‘Thrasher’ is perhaps the most solidly written, but the shorter songs are idiosyncratic, with interesting lyrics.
Rust Never Sleeps is Neil Young’s last great album of original material – he released plenty of worthwhile material in the subsequent decades, but nothing to match this.
I’m apathetic towards Live Rust; it’s a strong live album, but it’s nothing revelatory. Young’s studio recordings are typically raw, so a lot of these songs aren’t noticeably different from their studio counterparts. Live Rust was recorded during the Rust Never Sleeps tour, famous for its over-sized amps and for making the road crew dress as Jawas. A two record set fitting on one CD, like Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust is divided into an acoustic and electric half, although Crazy Horse are the only backing musicians throughout.
The opening pair of ‘Sugar Mountain’ and ‘I Am A Child’ aren’t a promising start, as two of the more sentimental and rambling pieces in Young’s catalogue. It’s nice to hear live versions of Young classics like ‘After The Goldrush’, ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and ‘Lotta Love’, but the only song that’s substantially altered is the bizarre reggae ending to ‘Cortez The Killer’.
1991’s Weld often gets singled out as a great live record, so that might be a better option than Live Rust if you have a hankering to hear Young live.
Hawks & Doves
Neil Young, ever the contrarian, followed up the excellent, acclaimed Rust Never Sleeps with the slight Hawks & Doves. The previous album it feels most akin to is American Stars ‘N’ Bars – like that album it often has a country feel, and it’s patched together from various sessions; side one is comprised from leftovers from the mid-1970s, while side two was recorded in 1980 specifically for the project.
The first side (labelled as Doves) is stronger; the solo acoustic cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ is gorgeous, while ‘Captain Kennedy’ feels like the most significant song on the album, although its meaning has always been obscure for me; I’m unsure if it’s an anti-war song, a song about America’s decline, or a metaphor for JFK.
While side one is substantial, the Doves side is more problematic, with an upbeat country groove that doesn’t serve the material well, and causes the songs to blend into each other; ‘Union Man’ and ‘Comin’ Apart At Every Nail’ almost feel like the same song.
There are a couple of very strong pieces on Hawks & Doves that are well worth hearing, but overall it’s one of Young’s less convincing efforts; at the time Young was dealing with domestic issues – his newborn son was seriously affected by cerebral palsy – and pieced it together quickly.
Stylistically, Re-ac-tor is very different from Hawks and Doves – it’s a heavy album, centered around Neil Young’s electric guitar. But it also has a lot in common with Hawks and Doves – it’s an unfocused album that carries a few gems among a bunch of generic toss-offs. Like Hawks and Doves. it’s easy to have the impression that Young was preoccupied with domestic issues at the time, and it’s tempting to curate a half-acoustic, half-electric album from Hawks and Doves and Re-ac-tor, just like Rust Never Sleeps.
The most infamous song on Re-ac-tor is the pounding, repetitive ‘T-Bone’, which goes on for close to ten minutes with lyrics like “Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got my t-bone”; its primeval stomp isn’t without charm, but it’s hardly a major work. Songs like the generic rockabilly of ‘Get Back On It’ and the crunching riff of ‘Opera Star’ also sound like throwaways. But there a couple of gems tucked away here; the train song ‘Southern Pacific’ feels like the most purposefully written piece, while the long ‘Shots’ is urgent and its solos are almost pushing into atonal territory.
Re-ac-tor is the end of an era; Young’s last album with Reprise before his infamous stint with Geffen. It’s difficult to justify paying too much for an album with so many throwaways, but there are a couple of great songs, and it has enough of the classic Neil Young sound to be a competent entry into his discography.
Even in Neil Young’s erratic catalogue, Trans is his most atypical album. Trans was inspired by Young’s difficulty communicating with his cerebral palsy affected son. Young filters his vocals through a vocoder, creating an unsettling electronic effect, but the album still features prominent guitars; it’s not so far removed from Young’s usual strengths to be inaccessible to fans. The album’s biggest problem is that it comes across as a novelty record; some of the electronic effects haven’t aged gracefully, and it’s hard to take the technological themes seriously for the same reason. Strangely, each side of the original LP opens with a relatively straightforward and innocuous country rock tune.
The lengthy ‘Like An Inca’ is perhaps the most quintessentially Young song here; it would have been a standout on any of his seventies albums, but its repetitive riff fits the style of Trans perfectly. Electronics come to the fore in the highly entertaining ‘We R In Control’ (with phone tones used amusingly as percussion) and ‘Sample And Hold’. Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’ is reinvented electronically, although it still features the same guitar riff, while ‘Transformer Man’ holds up well as a song in 1993’s Unplugged rendition.
Trans is a surprisingly strong collection of tunes and completely different from the rest of Young’s catalogue, and more open minded fans would be well advised to check it out.
Largely collated from Young’s five 1980s albums on the Geffen label, who famously sued Young for making noncommercial music, Lucky Thirteen is a somewhat bemusing trawl through some of Young’s more perverse music making. Young’s five Geffen albums were the electronics of Trans (1983), the rockabilly of Everybody’s Rocking(1984), the country of Old Ways (1985), the mid-eighties generic rock of Landing On Water (1986), and the Crazy Horse reunion Life (1987). While Geffen planned to release Young’s singles from the era, Young took control of the project, omitting hits and including studio outtakes, live recordings, and alternate versions. Additionally, the last two songs are drawn from his first album back on Reprise, 1988’s R&B This Note’s For You. Based on the tracks featured here, I wouldn’t be tempted to hear most of these individual albums – Lucky Thirteen is a useful shortcut to the most bizarre phase of Young’s career.
On the other hand, it’s probably fine to skip over this era of Young’s career altogether unless you’re a serious fan. ‘Sample And Hold’ is enjoyable, and it’s a shame that the other epic Trans song, ‘Like An Inca’, isn’t also included. The three selections from Old Ways are melodic and sincere, if generic; the sentimental ‘Once An Angel’ is a touching song of devotion , while Waylon Jennings sings backing vocals on ‘Where Is The Highway Tonight?’. ‘Hippie Dream’ tends towards generic eighties rock, but it’s at least intense and provocative (“And the wooden ships/Are a hippy dream/Capsized in excess”). Best of all, ‘Mideast Vacation’ presents a less sympathetic update of ‘Powderfinger’ story over a surprisingly effective eighties backing.
Beyond the above listed songs, there’s little to be excited about on Lucky Thirteen; plastic rock, bad rockabilly and hokey R&B, although the lack of inspiration through this era is far more telling than the distracting style jumps.
The EP Eldorado was filleted from an aborted rock album Times Square, and there are only 5000 copies in existence. While the subsequent album Freedom was hailed as the significant return to form, Eldorado packs even more of a punch over its five tracks. Working in a three piece named Neil Young and the Restless, Young is very focused and dealing with good material; apart from the flamenco styling on the title track, Eldorado is straight hard rock.
‘Don’t Cry’ (presented here in a slightly longer, unedited form), the title track and the hard rock cover of ‘On Broadway’ are three of the best songs on Freedom, while the otherwise unreleased ‘Cocaine Eyes’ is arguably the best song on the disc. ‘Heavy Love’ is the least memorable piece, but it’s still stylistically appealing. Given the track crossover, it’s not essential if you already have Freedom, but at the same time Eldorado is a more consistent and more invigorating record than Freedom, and it’s worth hearing ‘Cocaine Eyes’.
After a largely indifferent 1980s, Freedom signals a creative rebirth for Neil Young, back dabbling in his preferred styles of hard rock and gentle folk. Two alternate treatments of ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ bookend Freedom: a rock anthem begins the album, while it ends with an acoustic live version with a crowd that is too busy cheering along to the ironically peppy chorus to listen to the despairing social commentary of the verses.
Just like they did on the Eldorado EP, ‘On Broadway’ and ‘Don’t Cry’ rock hard, and Young balances them with tender ballads ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Too Far Gone’, and ‘Hangin’ On A Limb’, with harmony vocals from Linda Ronstadt. Like a lot of albums from its era, Freedom suffers from bloated CD lengths – it could have been a great 40 minute album, but at sixty minutes it’s carrying long running times and weak songs; ‘Ways of Love’ is a 1970s discard that would have been better suited to an outtakes collection than a proper album.
There’s a lot to like on Freedom, but it’s not quite fit to rank alongside Young’s best albums from his heyday.
Freedom might have been inconsistent, but its best moments unequivocally showed the re-emergence of Young as a relevant artist. To complete his renaissance, Young reunited with Crazy Horse for the most ferociously electric set of his career. The “Godfather of Grunge” tag that Young enjoyed during the nineties largely springs from Ragged Glory, released just a year before the emergence of Nirvana, Pearl Jam et al, laced in distortion and feedback, raw and pared back to a simple four piece. Perversely, if the social commentary of Freedom felt relevant and forward-looking, much of Ragged Glory is firmly set in the sixties: ‘Farmer John’ is a blazing cover of a Nuggetsstaple, while ‘Days That Used To Be’ is a blatant cop from Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’. The opening ‘Country Home’ even states “I’m thankful for my country home/It gives me peace of mind/Somewhere I can walk alone/And leave myself behind.”
The aggressive ‘F*!#in’ Up’ is the only song that’s angst ridden enough to fit on an actual grunge album, and it’s no coincidence that it’s made Pearl Jam’s live set. It’s difficult to find anything else as unambiguously sleazy as ‘Farmer John’ in Young’s catalogue; as simple as his writing can be, he seldom writes anything as gloriously stupid and he attacks it with relish. The only song that varies from the hard rock formula is the closing ‘Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)’, an awkward attempt at a universal statement on environmentalism. The heart of the album lies in the long epics like ‘Over and Over’ and ‘Love and Only Love’, and even if they’re not as memorable as earlier Crazy Horse epics, they’re melodic and enjoyable.
While a lack of diversity and long track running times do dull its impact somewhat, Ragged Glory is a surprisingly tuneful and vital record.
An equally appropriate title for Harvest Moon would be Neil Young Calms Down and Makes Bland Music for His Mellow Fans Who Don’t Like His More Raucous Music. Young experienced hearing difficulties after 1990’s Ragged Glory, and was forced to record something quieter. The lightweight Harvest Moon became Young’s highest selling release since the original Harvest in 1972.
Harvest Moon is pleasant but that doesn’t compensate for the dull songs. The ballad ‘Such a Woman’ is strangely affecting, the opening pair of ‘Unknown Legend’ and ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ are slight but well written, and the closer ‘Natural Beauty’ is much more ambitious than the rest of the album. At over ten minutes long, unplugged and using the same four chord sequence that Young used for ‘Cortez the Killer’, ‘Natural Beauty’ is monotonous, but is carried by the engaging lyrics like “I heard a perfect echo die behind an anonymous wall of digital sound.”
But there are too many trivial songs like the dead dog tribute ‘Old King’ and ‘You And Me’, and overall Harvest Moon is too bland to be interesting.
Recorded at a time when everybody from Mariah Carey to Nirvana was appearing on MTV and unleashing the results on the public as Unplugged records, I daresay that Young’s effort was one of the better efforts to emerge from the movement. A more idiosyncratic revisiting of his back catalogue than the career overview of Live Rust, it’s more interesting to long-time fans, throwing in rare songs and drastic reinterpretations alongside a handful of Young standards and material from the recent Harvest Moon. Young is supported by most of the Stray Gators, his backing band from Harvest, along with Nils Lofgren on guitar, and Nicolette Larson, who popularised ‘Lotta Love’, on backing vocals.
The most notable song here is the Stephen Stills tribute ‘Stringman’, written in 1976, but never officially released until this album, possibly because of its personal nature; it’s a gentle piano piece, with lines like “There is no dearer friend of mine/That I know in this life/On his shoulder rests a violin/For his head where chaos reigns.” From the drastic reinterpretations pile, ‘Like A Hurricane’ is given a dramatic pump organ backing, while the previously electronic ‘Transformer Man’ stands up as a solid song in acoustic form. As much as I find Harvest Moon monotonous, the three songs from it here sound fine when they’re nestled alongside some of Young’s more idiosyncratic songs like ‘Old Laughing Lady’ and ‘World On A String’.
Like most live albums, Unplugged isn’t essential, but it’s a nice little addition to Young’s catalogue nonetheless.
Sleeps With Angels
In his suicide note, Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young’s line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. Young responded with the song ‘Sleeps With Angels’, dedicated to Cobain, while the terminal illness of producer David Briggs, a longtime Young collaborator, also casts a shadow over Sleeps With Angels. Angels has thematic weight and it successfully updates Young’s 1970s’ style with a heavier, more distorted production. Yet, it’s also a little underwhelming; the songs rarely are much more than competent, the best song is drawn out to almost fifteen minutes of running time, while two of the other songs even go as far as sharing the same melody.
The fifteen minutes of ‘Change Your Mind’ is arguably a wasted opportunity, it’s melodic and hooky and could have made a great three minute single a la ‘Cinnamon Girl’. The other standout is opener ‘My Heart’, with Young playing creaky tack piano and cracking his voice. The punk of ‘Piece Of Crap’ has terrific anti-materialist lyrics (“Saw it on the tube/Bought it on the phone/Now you’re home alone/With a piece of crap”), and is a welcome change of pace from the more torpid songs here.
Sleeps With Angels is one of Neil’s more substantial post seventies records, but it’s a little too padded out to be among his best.
After collaborating with Pearl Jam on stage, Neil Young spent four days recording with them and Brendan O’Brien in Seattle. Mirror Ballhas a purposely off-the-cuff feel; most of the songs were allegedly written by Young during the recording sessions, and are recorded live in studio. Pearl Jam are an appropriate backing band for Young, but the live in studio approach makes all the songs effectively sound the same. Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder was absent for most of the recording sessions, and on ‘Peace and Love’, the sudden insertion of his voice accompanied by Young’s swirling organ create the most memorable moments of the album. There are nice tunes like ‘Big Green Country’ and ‘I’m The Ocean’, but as a whole Mirror Ball is underwritten and too homogeneous to be anything more than an interesting curiosity in Young’s catalogue.
Neil Young confounded his live audiences in 2003 by beginning his shows with performances of the eighty minute Greendale album in its entirety, before a brief encore of more familiar songs. Greendale is essentially a rock opera (Wikipedia describes it as an “Audio Novel”), detailing the lives of a family in smalltown America, most notably a crotchety grandfather, who’s surely a proxy for Young himself, and young environmental activist Sun Green. Greendale is musically rudimentary, even by Young’s standards, and without Frank Sampedro the sound is thin. This shifts the focus onto Neil Young’s narrative, which features lines like:
The FBI just trashed her room
One of them kicked her cat
Greendale gains momentum towards the end, and the two closing cuts, ‘Sun Green’ and ‘Be The Rain’ are the most memorable as the likable Sun Green takes the limelight. But overall, Greendale is not an album that rewards repeated listening – its strong point is the narrative, in which Young draws attention to environmental issues and corruption. Greendale is a worthy project, and if you’re a Neil Young fan you should make an effort to hear it, but just like it’s unusual to read a novel too many times, this audio novel also probably doesn’t need to be heard too often.
Neil Young was confronted by his own mortality in 2005, losing his father to a long illness and suffering an aneurysm during the recording of Prairie Wind. The result is an acoustic album with songs that gently deal with themes of ageing and death, in a dignified way that befits a man of 60. If Young had named the album Harvest Wind it would have sold many more copies; it’s in the same acoustic, folk mode as Harvest and Comes A Time, and it’s impressively strong for an album in Young’s sixth decade as a recording artist.
Songs like ‘It’s A Dream’ and ‘Falling Off The Face Of The Earth’ are beautiful. ‘When God Made Me’ is an interesting look from a member of the 1960s counterculture survivor at issues of faith, asking questions like “Did he say there was only one way/To be close to him?” ‘No Wonder’ tackles political and environmental issues, building into a heavy guitar climax, while the Elvis tribute ‘He’s A King’ provides a change of pace.
On Prairie Wind, Young’s exploring gentle and emotional territory that’s fully appropriate for a gentleman of his age, and it’s impressively nuanced and convincing.
Living With War
After watching a news item about US soldiers in Iraq, Young responded by writing nine songs in a week. He recorded them quickly with the same power trio of Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell who performed on Freedom in 1989, and backed them up with a 100 person choir. Young purposely wrote Living With War as a coherent whole, allowing it to stream only as a full work, and ending it with a cover of ‘America The Beautiful’. It’s certainly provocative, with songs titles like ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ and ‘The Restless Consumer’.
Musically Living With War is more satisfying than some of Young’s quickly developed recent albums – the three piece band sounds terrific, and ‘After The Garden’ is one of my favourite Young album openers ever with its splashy feel and harmonised chorus. ‘The Restless Consumer’ lands some telling lines (“How do you pay for war/And leave us dyin’?/When you could do so much more/You’re not even tryin’”). But as a quickly written, spontaneous creation, Living With War feels melodically lazy sometimes – ‘Flags of Freedom’ is transparently a rewrite of Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ – and there aren’t quite enough memorable songs to sustain it.
But Young’s heart is in right place, and Living With War is a likeable, if slight, late career effort.
Ten Favourite Neil Young Songs
Down By The River
See The Sky About To Rain
Cortez The Killer
After The Goldrush
A Man Needs A Maid
Like A Hurricane