Musician-of-all-trades/living legend Neil Young has driven his career through as many musical territories as one could imagine. In the 1980s, the decade of new-wave electro-pop and over-the-top, hard rock “hair bands”, he became especially interested in allowing his mix of rock and roll and singer/songwriter folk to be infiltrated by other musical stains, like rockabilly, blues, traditional country and Kraftwerk-style electronic music. On his 1986 album Landing on Water, reissued in 2000 by Geffen Records, he took two of the ‘80’s key sounds, hard rock guitar riffs and loads of synthesizers, and placed them ever-so awkwardly into the “Neil Young sound”.
While the dominance of synthesizers on the album might lead one to expect a happy-go-lucky album of pop music, Landing on Water is a rather dark, moody experience, both stylistically and lyrically. The musical style throughout is an entirely uneven one, with upbeat synth-pop and unusually glossy programming mixing with completely unsubtle blocks of hard-rock guitar. The combination of the two sounds on one album is one thing, but here they’re combined within each song, in an intermittent and bulky fashion.
Though on the first track, “Weight of the World”, Young sings of being saved from worries and “the darkness inside” through love, the rest of the album has a bleaker outlook. On one track, he’s fighting “to control the violent side”, of his being and of society. On the next, he chronicles the death of the “Hippie Dream” of peace and love. On others, his lyrics track the rise in homelessness and poverty, and in general relate a feeling of desperate helplessness. In retrospect, it’s fitting that such a glossy album would include deal with hard times, violence and poverty, given the historical context at the time, the dark underside of the theatre of the Reagan years (though it’d be a mistake to read this album as a purposeful critique of Reagan, given the flack Young got for his support of Reagan).
For the most part, Landing on Water deserves it reputation as one of Young’s lesser albums. Still, it is an intriguing affair. Young might have been imitating the sounds of the day, but his personality and talent keep him from doing it in a by-the-books way. This might not sound like your average Neil Young album, but it doesn’t sound like your average 1980s album either. It just sounds weird, with instruments melding awkwardly and lyrics walking the line between social commentary and empty nothings. Musically, a few songs are odd enough that they work, like “Bad News Beat”, where Young’s sensitive singing somehow suits the synth setting, or “Weight of the World”, which rocks enough to overcome the shininess. But other songs, especially “Touch the Night” and “People on the Street”, fail terribly by trying to tap into the pump-your-fist stadium energy of a Bon Jovi or Poison. Even at the album’s worst moments, though, you have to give Young credit for trying new things, for not being afraid to shake up his act a bit. Plus a career as packed and as generally solid as his is bound to have a few missteps.