Did you come to see me hang?
This far along in the career of one of the two or three most important artists in rock history – sure, debate me, but I’ll win – we have all come to expect diminishing returns. The Neil Young that changed the landscape of pop music with his contributions to Buffalo Springfield in the mid-1960s; who rebuilt garage rock in his own image with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere as that decade closed; who established a new template for the patchwork record album a year later with the organized chaos of After the Gold Rush; the fearless man afeared who produced the run of exquisitely dark, penetrating masterpieces in the mid-1970s from On the Beach through Zuma; the re-energized megastar behind Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust as that decade ended; the big, pulsing middle finger raised at the music industry that would play him for a cash cow through the 1980s; the man who was reborn “Godfather of Grunge” and reigned supreme through the early 1990s…has been somewhat less inspiring in the couple decades since.
What happened? This: he mostly stopped writing good songs around 1996 when he released Broken Arrow, his last album of generally great material. (Moreover, many of the very best songs on his albums since 1996 such as “Silver and Gold”, “Razor Love”, and “Ordinary People” were written and first played live back in the 1980s.) The single biggest problem with the post-1996 Neil Young has been that, although he has continued to chase his Muse, to follow her through a seemingly endless array of whiplash direction shifts, he has mostly lost his gift for crafting a simple, timeless melody and attaching it to compelling lyrics. Though he has been much maligned for his run of genre exercises in the 1980s—the hated doo-wop of Everybody’s Rocking and the baffling synth-pop of Landing on Water leap to mind—it is his recent run of soft, sometimes syrupy-sweet, old-married-guy records, mingled with awkwardly on-the-nose political antheming, that most complicates his discography. His last eight albums have all been big brash statements of some kind (artistic à la Greendale, personal à la Are You Passionate?, political à la Fork in the Road, sonic à la Le Noise), but none have worked, not really. Musically, they have been attractive—despite whatever else you want to say about him, Young is an aural genius whose records have never failed to convey deliberate and meaningful sound design—but lyrically inert. I could list a series of examples, but if you have heard these records, you know what I am saying.
All of this to say, when I popped Neil Young’s latest record into my CD player, I honestly did not have high expectations. Though featuring Crazy Horse (his best and most effective backing band for 40 years) and boasting yet another high-concept premise that, on paper anyway, sounds terrific—garage rock reinterpretations of classic American folk songs—I felt inclined to steel myself for a Greendale-esque slog. But then again, Neil wasn’t writing any of the songs, just arranging them. So.
Americana, Neil Young’s 33rd studio record, features 11 covers of mostly radically reimagined old and older songs that have either inspired or compelled him for one reason or another. Opening with a batshit version of the kinda batshit Stephen Foster number “Oh Susannah” (which has been cleverly filtered through Shocking Blue’s 1969 blast “Venus”) , and running through stuff like “Clementine” (“Oh my darling”, indeed, now a minor key fever dream), “Tom Dula” (an overlong but powerful murder-blues stomp), and the I’m-about-to-hang chiller of “Gallows Pole”, you are awash in slaughter, terror, and dread by the time you get to the end of the first half of the album. But then Young offers up the unlikely cover of “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes, shattering the mood by introducing a modern folk style (doo-wop), though now some 60 years dead and buried as a popular form.
The second half of the record is much less doom and gloom, though it has its moments. The album highlight is a powerful cover of the Billy Edd Wheeler classic “High Flyin’ Bird”, a concert staple for the Jefferson Airplane and favourite of Haight-Ashbury acidheads with its spooky juxtaposition/conflation of freedom and death, and he also offers country (“Travelin’ On”), gospel (“Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain)”), and a good old campfire singalong (“This Land is Your Land”, with the oft-elided Old Left politics of Guthrie’s original lyrics all up front). In an inspired moment of autobiography through appropriation, Young winds up the record with a muddied-up take on “God Save the Queen” with lines from “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” grafted overtop. For Young, who grew up in Canada in the years prior to the adoption of “Oh Canada” (1965), “God Save…” was the Canadian anthem, the song sung every morning as the school bell announced the start of class. To tangle this up with the old neglected ex-anthem of the United States—“The Star Spangled Banner” became official in 1931, pushing this one out of the spotlight—is both creative, and (in effect) thrilling.
What is most apparent on this record is the sheer fun Young and his bandmates are having with the material, with the sloppy and triumphant Horse in fine form throughout. Tracks open and close with just-decipherable banter between them, as well as laughter. At various points guitars find the wrong chord, drum beats feel a drag, vocals hit sour notes. Are these first takes? Surely, apart from the addition of a choir (which provides some majestic backing vocals), everything is recorded live off the floor. The overall feel of the album is perhaps its very greatest strength; for like 1990’s Ragged Glory (maybe their finest album together), there is an immediacy to the performances that pulls you in, brings you right up close to the amplifier, hits you in your inner guitar hero gut and makes you smile. Are the songs overlong? Perhaps. (“Tom Dula” certainly does not need to be eight minutes plus.) But, who wants to cut the jam short when it feels this good? When it sounds this good?
Americana is, finally, Neil Young’s best and most complete record since 1994’s Sleeps With Angels. It is a swirling confusion of noise, grooves, darkness, joy, and horror. It is a grinning saturnalia to fete the “Old, Weird America” that Greil Marcus has written so beautifully about, even as it is an obliteration of any expected notions of same; it is a love letter to a time forgotten and gone, swept under rugs and blowing in some imagined Prairie Wind; it is a trickster shadow playing across an endless and shapeless and forever unrediscoverable terrain.
It is an album, ultimately, of folk music (which is how most of these 19th-century-era songs would have been categorized by the 1950s), a music that wallows in murder, sex, danger, fear, but also political turbulence and workingman’s blues, a music that studies the textures of daily dread, of the ongoing reality of a world in which death is swift, meaning is elusive, and real justice is rare. Equal parts Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads and Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong, this is Neil Young’s blissful evocation of a past that nevertheless haunts him, haunts us still. Americana, indeed.