Defending The Trick of Disaster

Neil Young’s 'Trans', Reconsidered

by Zach Schonfeld

14 February 2011


Neil Young Had Been Abducted, but Not By Aliens

I concede: on first listen, Trans can be a bit jarring. And by “a bit” I mean very, and by “jarring” I mean shocking. I mean—to quote an online record reviewer who goes by “Capn Marvel”—its wildest moments sound “so far out of character stylistically as to sound as if not only has the real Neil Young been abducted by aliens, he’s now beaming down the new songs he’s written using the satellite transmitter dish embedded deep in the recesses of his colon.”

To mainstream audiences, gone entirely, on at least six of Trans’ nine tracks, are the comforting hallmarks of beloved folk-rock staples “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”. Gone is that familiar, searching whine, obscured—obliterated, really—by a veritable arsenal of vocal effects. Gone, too, are the leisurely folk tempos (in their place, pulsing New Wave-y metronomes), and the lilting acoustic twang, the pleasantly hummable melodies of Harvest or Comes a Time.

Witness Trans’ alarming reimagining of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”, for example, which mutates the Stonesy riff of the original into a terrifying robotic stomp. Or consider “We R In Control”, where an ominous bass riff and whirring synth effect deftly complement one of the singer’s most chilling vocal performances ever. Young sounds utterly possessed on the track, his voice electronically lowered to robotic depths as he unleashes a nightmarish 1984-style manifesto:

We control the TV sky.
We control the FBI.
We control the flow of heat.
We will prevail, and

Stripped of all basic human qualities, the song’s a far cry from “Tell Me Why”—really, it sounds more like Devo on some terrifying acid trip, except it works, because it’s daring and melodically rich and wild; it’s unapologetically dramatic and absolutely eerie. All descriptors that could be just as easily applied to Young’s best and most moving prior work—say, “Will to Love”, or the similarly misunderstood (and equally haunting) Irish wake of an album that is Tonight’s the Night.

Trans, however, is different. Gone, in short, is just about everything that made Neil Young the multiplatinum singer-songwriter ‘70s FM radio knew and loved. In its place: all varieties of “whizzers and twizzlers and doohickeys and things that go ‘BWOINGG!’ in the night” (again, Capn Marvel). Yes, Neil Young had been abducted, but not by aliens. Rather, he’d been abducted by an insatiable vocoder fixation and a distressing family crisis, the depths of which even many of his greatest fans never knew.

Cold Yet Passionate
Though steeped in cold, processed synths and mechanical textures, Trans is far from emotionless. Pay attention and you’ll find some of the most personal and chilling music Young ever recorded, its emotional core endlessly belied (but never undermined) by the icy, Kraftwerk-style exterior.

But maybe you’ll need the backstory first.

Young’s son Ben suffers from severe cerebral palsy—is, in fact, rendered unable to speak. Young’s struggle to achieve communication with Ben was heartbreaking and endless and, by 1982, it brought about his sudden interest in voice manipulation technology as a reflection of this wrenching communication breakdown. On Trans, the vocoder is the dominant instrument, disguising Young’s vocals behind an impenetrable sheen of eerie, inhuman ambience.

So Feel That
On its wrenchingly direct centerpiece, “Transformer Man” (which PopMatters’ Matt White eloquently discusses in a Sound Affects post), atop a winding, ageless melody, he explicitly addresses the devastating barrier. The song’s detached, synthetic rhythm section complicates the startling warmth of its melody and lyrics—both of which became undeniably apparent on Young’s acoustic reinterpretation of the song a decade later, for MTV’s popular Unplugged series.

So many things still left to do
But we haven’t made it yet…
Unlock the secrets.
Let us throw off the chains that
Hold you down.

The song’s lyrics, addressing Ben in the second person, poignantly grapple with that inability to achieve basic human expression. But its sonic qualities recreate it in startling ways. “You gotta realize, you can’t understand the words,” said Young of the song, “And I can’t understand my son’s words. So feel that.” And I do.

In fact, Trans sounds a hell of a lot less artificial and stilted than the retro rockabilly one-off that immediately followed it. “Make a rock `n roll album,” cried the masses. And so, within eight months, Trans was followed by Everybody’s Rockin’ [1983], a nauseatingly tongue-in-cheek 25-minute tribute to ‘50s rockabilly, and then Old Ways [1985], an equally bland country-and-western throwback.

The paradox, then, is that Young’s excursions into what should be raw, earthy, and wholly familiar styles can seem so artificial and so botched; that his seemingly bewildered flirtation with electro-pop textures can seem so sincere, emotive, and direct by comparison. Everybody’s Rockin’ embraces formula and cliché and sheer style for the sake of style. Trans forges its own bold path; if its style is just as jarring, at least it enhances rather than replaces substance and depth.

Trans demonstrated, well ahead of its time, that electronic music and candid emotional depth need not be mutually exclusive. Nor must they be regarded as inherently conflicting impulses, even if the dominant instinct is to place James Taylor on one side of the spectrum and Kraftwerk on the other. Rather, that central juxtaposition, between sincere, human emotion and cold electronic texture—in Young’s words, “where chemistry and electronics meet”—can be surprisingly potent.

In a 1982 TV interview, Young articulated his feelings on the subject:

Electronic music is a lot like folk music to me… it’s a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll—it’s so synthetic and antifeeling that it has a lot of feeling… So I think that this new music is emotional—it’s very emotional—because it’s so cold… I have my synthesizers and my computers and I’m not lonely.

Readers at the time surely thought the guy was insane, but countless artists dabbling with or working entirely within the realm of electronica surely caught on. Well before Daft Punk took on the role of vocoder-voiced robots seeking through techno music a paradoxical bridge to genuine human love and affection (see: “Digital Love”, “Something About Us”), there was Trans—and specifically “Sample and Hold”, which seems to describe a design-a-mate robot service. (The Flaming Lips explored near identical themes, though not from the first-person perspective, on 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and, in particular, “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21.”) Long before the Beta Band merged folk sounds and instrumentation with electronic beats and song structures on 1999’s The Three EPs (critics wisely dubbed the fusion “folktronica”), there was Trans. And before Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens deftly culled vocoders and other distinctly electronic textures into primarily folk-based indie pop, there was Trans.

The album’s reverberations in the world of modern pop music are anything but linear or clearly defined, but they are lasting and they are real, and they are pertinent to any discussion of Trans within its musical and cultural context.

The Normal Is the Weakest
As if the album wasn’t baffling enough, Young inexplicably begins each side with a bright, flowery love song, absurdly detached from the jarring lyrical and musical themes that color its key tracks. Wholly devoid of Trans’ trademark synth-and-vocoder pairing, “Little Thing Called Love” and “Hold On To Your Love”—plus the overlong album closer, “Like An Inca”—were recorded in Hawaii in 1981 for an aborted project to be titled Island in the Sun. And they’re decent if unremarkable pop songs—acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and lush back-up vocals abound; Young sings in his natural, unaltered register, and the former two’s lyrics are as breezily forgettable as their titles suggest. They simply beg the obvious question: what on earth are they doing on Trans?

Young’s dubious initial explanation suggested Trans as a concept album charting the evolution from man to machine; consider the iconic cover shot, which has a human Young hitchhiking on one side while a mirrored robot double mimics from across the digital divide. If “Little Thing Called Love” functions as the plainly human starting point—the right side of the album cover—then “Computer Age” seems a gentle enough initiation into Trans’ key lyrical and musical motifs (at least compared to the frenzied assault of “We R In Control” and “Computer Cowboy”). Though rigidly governed by a pulsing drum machine and synth line, the song was still essentially rock-driven enough for Sonic Youth to cover on a 1989 tribute album; and tellingly, Young sings a whole verse before transitioning into the vocoder voice, which remains dominant until “Hold On To Your Love” four tracks later.

Young later conceded that the Island in the Sun tracks had no real place on Trans—they constituted a muddy attempt to mask the album’s eccentric interior by bookending it with excerpts from a more accessible but far less compelling project. As famed record review Mark Prindle argues, these conventional tracks entirely lack the purpose and vision of Trans’ weirdest (and supposedly misguided) moments; the blandness of “Little Thing Called Love”, for example, only highlights the haunting melodic and lyrical drive that makes “Computer Age” so brilliant (“And I stand before you / Or else we just don’t see the other”, Young sings in a high-pitched, computer-voiced quiver, again bringing to mind his son Ben). And “Hold On To Your Love” has nothing on “Sample and Hold”, an absolutely scorching eight-minute tribute to robot love that features some of Young’s most frightening guitar work this side of “Southern Man”.

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