Year of the Horse, Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 filmic snapshot of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, depicts the four musicians as a long-lasting force of energy and power, stirring up a certain indescribable feeling through the way their instruments interact. Through the years, they’ve made a handful of albums together that really capture that Crazy Horse sound, that rolling, guitar-heavy thing. These were either recorded live or feel live, like Live Rust, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Ragged Glory and Weld. And they’ve made other albums together that are just as classic or as powerful, but which don’t have that wall-of-sound feel to them, albums that bear Crazy Horse’s name but could just as well be billed only to Young, albums like After the Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night. The 1987 album Life, reissued in 2000 by Geffen Records, fits with those last two in that the raging presence of the Horse doesn’t surface all that much. But unlike those two, it isn’t a classic.
Life came directly after Landing On Water, an awkward attempt to meld Young’s songs with the sounds of the ‘80s: new wave and hard rock. Life retains traces of that attempt, especially through the presence of keyboards on many of the tracks, but also feels like a stab at what Young was doing in the ‘70s, when he would alternate between rock songs and gentle, countryish songs. The difference between Life and an After the Gold Rush, though, is a simple matter of song quality. These songs are, for the most part, more obvious and less artful than his best.
While Landing On Water saw Young looking inside himself and our country and not liking what he saw, the first few tracks on Life have him doing the same with the rest of the world. On “Mideast Vacation”, “Long Walk Home” and “Around the World”, two rockers and a harmonica-laden ballad, Young manages to convey a sense of disgust at the power plays and violence going on in other countries, without making any clear statements or focusing on any particular countries or problems. On the fourth track, “Inca Queen”, he taps into the ancient-world nostalgia that served as a backstory on “Cortez the Killer”, Young’s idea that life was somehow purer in the centuries that used to be.
From that point, the focus gets less global and more typical of Young, dealing with two of his favorite subjects, love and rock and roll. The rest of the album also uses Crazy Horse to greater effect. The best of the album’s rockers, “Prisoners of Rock N’ Roll”, uses Crazy Horse’s raw power to sum up the band’s unbreakable link to rock. “Too Lonely” and “Cryin Eyes” take that commitment and use it to amplify so-so songs into adequate rockers.
The album ends with two ballads, “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” and “We Never Danced”. While the first is a bit too by-the-numbers, the second is a stunner, both the only track on Life that uses keyboards effectively and the first to conjure up that wonderful side of Young that writes mysterious ballads that get at love’s beauty, power and sadness without communicating a simplistic message. It’s the kind of song that reminds listeners why Neil Young is NEIL YOUNG, a living legend, and demonstrates that even his most mediocre albums contain true gems.