At this point in Neil Young’s career, one might think that he’s pretty much exhausted all the possibilities his prodigious talents can allow. In 35-plus years in the business, he’s tried his hand at acoustic folk, garage rock, traditional country, blues, R&B, techno, and rockabilly with varying degrees of success—an impressive resume if there ever was one. But while his restlessness and refusal to be typecast make him an infinitely more interesting artist than others of similar longevity who consistently choose to play it safe, news of a new Neil Young record has been best taken with a heavy dose of skepticism since somewhere around 1980.
His latest project, Greendale, is certainly no exception to the rule; in fact, when I first heard of the “musical novel” concept Young was working with, every ounce of instinct told me I’d regret having requested the opportunity to review it. So it’s with foot firmly implanted in mouth that I deliver the verdict: not only does Young accomplish his goal of creating a musical storyline that transcends the tedium and self-indulgence of your average concept album, but he’s also crafted his finest set of songs since at least Freedom and Ragged Glory.
The musical simplicity with which Young surrounds his narrative actually hearkens back a bit further than those two more recent catalog highlights, as it recalls the stark vehicles that made Rust Never Sleeps such a compelling record. While nothing on Greendale is quite as dark or antagonistic as “Powderfinger” or “Hey Hey, My My”, it’s the unobtrusive quality of Young’s music that triggers the comparison—evocative three- or four-chord progressions that wholly emphasize the plot developments that occur within the lyrics of each song. The stripped-down recording aesthetic used to realize his vision adds focus to the album’s lyrical content as well; operating live in the studio, the raw sound achieved by Young and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot (with a handful of minor overdubs along the way) never intrudes upon the storyline.
If anything, the song lengths provide the record’s only difficulty—its mere 10 songs clock in just shy of 80 minutes, with several tracks reaching well beyond the 10-minute mark—but in the context of the full story, Young is careful not to waste a single line. It’s an even more impressive feat when taking into consideration the fact that, except for some spoken-word style free verse on “Bandit”, the majority of the plot unfolds in end-rhymed lines just as Young’s compositions traditionally have. But what’s most fascinating is the way that the music, even though it’s not the primary focal point, can tell as much of the story as the lyrics do. Take the second track “Double E” for example: the lyrics set the scene by describing how the folks of Greendale spend their Saturday evenings out dancing at the local watering hole, while the Redwoods jukejoint stomp served up by the band illustrates exactly how the scene would sound in real life.
Since Young’s intention was to make a record that flows like a novel, it’s really no surprise then that the music takes a backseat to the lyrics in each of Greendale‘s ten songs. But even though Young has been a gifted storyteller dating back to his Buffalo Springfield days, several of these songs show that he’s reached an even higher plateau of accomplishment as a writer, particularly the two consecutive tracks that detail the bulk of Greendale‘s action—“Leave the Driving” and “Carmichael”. On the surface, “Leave the Driving” simply tells the tale of police officer Carmichael, shot to death by one of the local folks on a seemingly routine traffic stop; yet with the space Young allows himself to flesh out the story, he fantastically depicts the magnified ramifications of such an event when it happens among the residents of a small town (a subject he revisits with even greater facility in “Grandpa’s Interview” later on). Similarly, “Carmichael”, with its lengthy verses representing a series of eulogies from different points of view (his fellow officers, his wife), finds Young poignantly capturing the love and respect within his characters as sensitively as a prize-winning novelist.
A questionable shift occurs toward the end of the disc, where Young modifies his agenda from small-town tragedy to environmentalist polemic with two songs that introduce a new protagonist, Sun Green. Although her eponymous song adds a touch of surrealism to the story by way of the FBI’s sudden interest in Greendale’s business and Young’s bullhorn-treated vocals, the next and final piece “Be the Rain” closes the album on a slightly anti-climactic note with its more generalized “Save the planet for another day” mantra repeating as Sun Green escapes to Alaska to become a full-fledged environmental warrior goddess.
Oddly enough, Young’s tour in support of Greendale—on which he played the album in its entirety, complete with stage actors and props (another point of comparison with Rust Never Sleeps)—has more or less concluded by the time of the CD’s release. But with a film version scheduled for DVD release in the near future, it’s clear that Young’s passion for this project has no intention of waning anytime soon. So regardless of a few minor flaws, Greendale should be seen as nothing less than a serious achievement by an artist who has never been content to simply rest on his past glories—an achievement worthy of even more acclaim in a culture where nostalgia outweighs iconoclasm on a daily basis.