A very eclectic album without being uneven. You get a real sampling of almost all aspects of Young’s music, from mellow country-rock to angry rockers. This was the sequel (of sorts) to the unreleased 1977 album Chrome Dreams. The highlight is “Ordinary People.” Operating in Bruce Springsteen mode, Young really delivers on a working man’s epic. It was dug up from the archives (from the This Note’s for You era) for this release. The only problem at this point is that younger listeners may have no context for a song about factory workers losing jobs. The song was from just after the first wave of the neoliberal assault on working America, wresting power and wealth away from industry and average folks (labor) to be placed in the hands of the Capital class and the FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate). The first assault was against unions (key in the auto industry), shifting election funding toward purely business sources, with corporate raiders (like in the popular movies Wall Street and Pretty Woman) pillaging assets and pensions, and in adjusting tax codes to drastically reduce taxes on the rich and drastically reducing payments toward programs that benefited the poor and middle class. The second wave of the neoliberal assault would be completed in a few years, with “free trade” agreements eliminating the possibility that domestic industry could be viable any longer, instead shifting focus to currency speculation that pillaged foreign central banks and with labor arbitrage “offshoring” jobs to distant locations with pauper labor. So Chrome Dreams II comes during the “post-industrial” era of the USA. Most factory jobs are long gone, so there haven’t been any to lose in a while. Its ambitions are futile now, but Young’s “Ordinary People” narrative still resonates with conviction the heartbreak and sadness and grim determination that transcends changed circumstance — today the narrative would be about a Midwest Methland where the factory is long gone and rural methamphetamine labs open up amid the whirlwind of lives and local economies circling the drain. In the end Chrome Dreams II proves that Neil Young is a more honest and genuine rock and roller than just about anybody else out there. Here’s to lost causes like that.
Neil Young was among the most interesting rock artists of the 1970s. Aside from his landmark After the Gold Rush, and the commercially successful Harvest, he made his so-called “ditch trilogy” (or “doom trilogy” or “gloom trilogy”) of albums: Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night. Unlike the other two albums, though, Tonight’s the Night is not melancholic or rancorous but ominously morose. Yet it is also cathartic. It isn’t music for a sunny day or a party with friends. It is for solitary, late night introspection.
Young had fired Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten in late 1972 just before a tour, due to drug abuse limiting Whitten’s performance. Shortly after, Whitten died of an overdose. Then a few months later former Crosby, Stills Nash & Young roadie Bruce Berry died of an overdose too. The standard narrative is that Young’s “ditch trilogy” was his reaction to Whitten and Berry’s deaths, and his feelings of responsibility and complicity. That seems fair enough. Yet Young’s music of this period is lasting because it captures more than just coping with Whitten and Berry’s deaths. This music is also about the death of the countercultural project of the 1960s.
Tonight’s the Night has some resemblances to John Lennon and Harry Nilsson‘s infamous “Lost Weekend” escapades. It has the feel of being caught at daybreak after a full night of partying. The album stumbles about, a bit angry, disenchanted, heartbroken, unsure, drugged-out. It is about coming to terms with the “loss” of Whitten and the 60s project, but also getting out all the feelings that engenders and then getting past it all to get ready for something else. In this way, Young’s reaction to the situation of the early/mid 70s was to not give up on what had happened before, coast into comfortable (and forgettable) soft rock that sort of fit commercial expectations from the sorts of institutions that really crushed the 60s experiment. Promoter Bill Graham lamented how the old rock scene died when acts became more interested in money than music. Young cut against all that.
Young has better individual songs elsewhere, but for pure mood Tonight’s the Night is a a killer. This is a “warts and all” sort of affair. The songs are sloppy, because Young didn’t want his band to be too familiar with the material prior to recording, and that is a drawback for some. Still, the reason this matters is that Young stubbornly stuck with 60s idealism even after those forces had, by late 1973 (when most of the album was recorded), conclusively lost, and the era of the Powell Memorandum had begun. Young didn’t pretend that the 60s project was still alive and well, nor did he capitulate and join the reactionary counter-revolution. He affirmed what was good all along in the 60s project — and the spirit of what Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry’s lives represented — that sought something outside the established, rigid and oppressive rules of the early post-war period, while grimly accepting its limitations and failures. William Davies wrote that
“from the Enlightenment through to the present . . . unhappiness becomes a basis to challenge the status quo. Understanding the strains and pains that work, hierarchy, financial pressures and inequality place upon human well-being is a first step to challenging those things. This emancipatory spirit flips swiftly into a conservative one, once the same body of evidence is used as a basis to judge the behavior and mentality of people, rather than the structure of power.”
Neil Young is one of rock music’s shining examples of somebody who resisted the “flip” to the conservative side of all this. He kept tilting against the establishment. “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” encapsulates that feeling best, with a calm acceptance and determination, soildering on, moving past the escapism of “Mellow My Mind” with a buddy stoner charm, only to have the hopes that “Roll Another Number” implies evaporate with the existential road trip narrative “Albuquerque.”
As reviewer BradL wrote, echoing Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone, “there’s not a touch of self-indulgence on the record because Young is as honest and hard on himself as anyone else. He doesn’t want your pity, nor even your forgiveness[.]” On “Speakin’ Out” he calls himself a fool, on “World on a String” and “Borrowed Tune” he finds no meaning or significance in being at the top of the music business. So let’s appreciate Young’s unhappy, depressing music like Tonight’s the Night for all it stands for: an attempt at something better than the status quo.
There are plenty of bluesy classic rock riffs. The second half has more conventionally catchy classic rock. But, hell, even the archival live performance from 1970 with Whitten (adding vocals) on side one, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” manages to be a rousing affirmation of what the entire album sets out to do. Still, in spite of the anthemic charge of many of the melodies, the band is loose, imprecise.
“Tonight’s the night [duh-da–dah—duh___]
Tonight’s the night”
The significance of chanting these vacant lines on the first version of the title song, traded against some briefly tinkling piano and a bass line that rises and then suddenly falls, are a challenge: to figure out what tonight is the night for. It is the struggle for meaning that gives this music its power. If the 60s project failed, and Whitten and Berry died, how can Young, or anybody else, carry on the core ideals of what it and they proposed without failing, without being snuffed out? What makes Tonight’s the Night one of Young’s finest moments, is that it denies any sort of assurance that there is an answer to that question. No one knows — sure as hell not Young. But he rattles the cage of his own mind, and puts that on record for the world to hear, trying to take some kind of step forward on terms that he himself sets.
Neil Young’s debut album might be his least memorable. It isn’t his worst, exactly. But it is an album that lacks the indomitable personality that made his later albums so great. This sounds like a typical late 1960s album from L.A. In fact, there are a lot of similarities to Harry Nilsson of the era. There are tunes that have a heavy psychedelic folk sound, a psychedelic rock sound, and a country rock sound. Rather than have Young sound like himself, he’s sounding like what was popular at the time. This is the same problem with most of the first part of Willie Nelson‘s career. There isn’t much of an attempt to register dissatisfaction here, which is really Young’s strength. Anyway, Young accomplished a complete turnaround with his follow-up with Crazy Horse, the excellent Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969).
After his “Gloom Trilogy” and the slightly overrated Zuma, the somewhat scattershot American Stars ‘n Bars seems like the perfect move for Neil Young. First of all, he sounds like he’s having fun making music for the first time in years–even if those intervening years produced amazing recordings. Side one is the real highlight. Carole Mayedo, Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson make great contributions. It’s country rock, but with a ragged rock ‘n roll heart that Neil wears so proudly on his sleeve. “Saddle Up the Palomino” has a little up and down runs played so slowly you can almost picture Young in the studio waving his arms wildly like a conductor, in a vague and comically half-hearted attempt to coax the musicians gathered for a late-night session that hadn’t been sober for hours, if it ever was to begin with. “Hey Babe” is Neil Young the sweetheart, at least, Young the sweetheart singing double entendres in a quaking, nasal falsetto. This less wholesome attitude comes back with a vengeance on the rockingest track on the first side, “Bite the Bullet.” Side one goes many places, most of them mapped out on the opener “The Old Country Waltz,” which simultaneously proves Young’s bona fides in the realms of country and rock. It’s a song with smooth three-part vocal harmonies, a slurred fiddle, pedal steel guitar and room for a rather steady strum of an acoustic guitar and heavy drum beats on a snare. No concern for precision stands in the way of matters to the heart of the song.
The second side is made up of leftovers from a couple of aborted album projects from the previous three years. The country leanings of side one are gone, in its place some harrowing, solitary folk (“Will to Love”) and a hazy, laid-back guitar anthem set against sustained, spaced-out keyboard chords (“Like a Hurricane”). It is somewhat fitting that after the completely wasted sound of side one Young has to mail in last week’s homework for side two–his own kind of Sunday morning coming down. The thing is, most artists would never make stuff as good as anything on side two, much less have it around to use as filler! Young makes that sort of complete indifference the noble, slacker heart of the album.
There are definitely different sides to Neil Young, but the side of him that favors a wild ride, replete with a few “fuck off and let me do my thing” laughs, and revels in bawdy inside jokes, was one that made only more tentative appearances in the coming years. That makes this a little special. Of course, all that is tempered with a sensitive side that suddenly drops all pretense and demonstrates inquisitiveness and vulnerability. He does all that, and owns the contradictions. This is Neil Young the perfect anti-hero rock star, one who comes across as simply too well-adjusted, by comparison, to be a “real” rock star. In other words, one for the rest of us. Dean Stockwell‘s album cover concept sums this one up.
Lyrics have always been Neil Young’s weakness. Here–surprise!–he delivers his best all-around showing since After the Gold Rush (and this would remain his best songwriting across an entire album for at least a decade more). There are a number of very strong numbers here, like “Goin’ Back,” “Comes a Time,” and “Lotta Love” (backing singer Nicollette Larson would have a big hit with her own solo version of the latter). Still, the album has a few faults. Its country-rock style feels a little self-conscious at times, and some of the songs seem to coast by without a lot of ambition. The bleary weirdness of American Stars ‘n Bars. This nonetheless remains one of the stronger second-tier Neil Young albums.
Neil Young has continued to zig and zag in his later career. That is the best thing about him. The obvious gimmick of A Letter Home is that it was recorded with an antique amusement park recording booth more than 60 years old, one never intended in the first instance to produce “professional” quality recordings. With it, Young records an introduction to his deceased mother and then plays songs of famous songwriters he admires–all ones from eras after that of the recording booth. The equipment provides a way to focus attention on the performances. The lack of fidelity, the gaps and clicks and pops, they all impress upon the listener that not everything is captured. The recording is a partial document. But the vintage equipment doesn’t allow a conscious selection and control of the final product to the degree assumed by contemporary standards. The creates the possibility for the audience to wonder what it is really about. At that point, with the audience properly oriented, Young delivers some rather wonderful performances. Gordon Lightfoot‘s “If You Could Read My Mind” is the least predictable, and best, of them. Some Willie Nelson songs, particularly “On the Road Again,” fail to impress to the same degree. At its finest, A Letter Home has Neil Young not on a pedestal, but somebody hacking away with the sort of materials and technological residues available to anyone else, making a mark only so much and so far as his talents alone permit. IT would seem they can take him quite a way indeed.
Neil Young’s career reached its peak around the early part of the 1970s. He has kept on recording and performing long past that time of course. In his later years it would seem that it became more of a challenge for him to maintain a necessary level of interest in his music. That’s nothing new really. Most rock stars of the 1960s that kept on going faced the same challenges–Bob Dylan comes to mind immediately. Young faced the challenge in his later years by jumping between styles. In the 1980s, this meant a lot of albums that flirted with various genre experiments, from krautrock (Trans) to vintage 50s rock-n-roll (Everybody’s Rockin’) to contemporary country (Old Ways) to modern hard rock (Landing on Water) to blues/R&B rock (This Note’s for You). Still later, into the 2000s, he kept jumping between different styles, sometimes at album length but more often within the space of a single album. While that kind of approach may have helped Young maintain an interest in his music (just like how Bob Dylan amuses himself by radically reworking his old songs in his late-career concerts), it doesn’t always translate into great music. Now, it does help. It just doesn’t always produce something that reaches the heights of Young’s best work. It may elevate Young’s own interest enough to keep him plugging along, but it isn’t always conducive to a burst of inspiration that produces profoundly memorable music. So listeners of Young’s late career material should expect music that is sturdy and enjoyable, but rarely amazing. But that’s life. Artists can’t always give that much of themselves to their music over an entire lifetime. With music, listeners need to find smaller and more narrowly-defined pleasures in a particular artist’s music to follow along over the long term.
One other thing that Young has done in his later years is an ongoing Neil Young Archives project (Vol. 1 (1963–1972) being the first part), where Young goes back and digs out and presents archival recordings. While this may seem like something only for his most dedicated fans–and that’s true in the most direct sense–it also offers a chance for live recordings from his most vital period of his career to finally see release. If and when the performances and songs are good, there is the chance that the music can appeal to more than completist fans.
Live rock records have an awkward history. For some rock groups, live recordings simply reproduce studio efforts, with sometimes sloppier performances, reduced recording fidelity, and added crowd noise. Those kinds of records don’t offer a whole lot. But other groups do things in concert that can’t be captured in a studio recording. Groups that improvise can offer vast variations on the same material over the course of different live performances in a way that is unique from any single studio version. Also, sometimes live recordings can offer a chance to hear new (if pre-planned) arrangements of familiar material, like a solo acoustic version of a song that was recorded with a full electric band on the issued studio version.
Live at Massey Hall 1971 was released as part of work on the Neil Young Archives project. It’s an excellent record. It captures Young just after he released his amazing After the Gold Rush album (probably his very best) and just before the release his most commercially popular album, Harvest. He is featured in a solo acoustic setting. This allows him to present new arrangements and new contexts for what are really some of his best songs. Young is at the peak of his powers. Many of the songs he previews from Harvest sound almost superior here free from studio embellishments. While no, this isn’t the place to start with Neil Young, it is a very important release for admirers of his music and a worthy collection of fresh live renditions of some amazing songs that capture the confused sensations of hope, fear, wonder and longing brought on by what seemed like new found freedoms and the paralyzing responsibility of figuring out what to do with it.