Defending The Trick of Disaster: Neil Young’s ‘Trans’, Reconsidered

[14 February 2011]

By Zach Schonfeld

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things that I didn’t understand—for getting involved in something that I shouldn’t have been involved in. Well, fuck them.”
—Neil Young, Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography

“Is it strange I should change?
I don’t know, why don’t you ask her?”
—Neil Young, “Mr. Soul”

Trans’ Absence
I discovered Trans as a void, an empty space in my father’s record collection where the album may (or may not) once have sat. Did he sell it back to the store after one spin? God knows my father would have hated it, but still, the absence in his collection seemed puzzling: nearly everything else in Young’s vast discography was there and accounted for, dating back to the 1969 self-titled debut and including rarities like Time Fades Away (out-of-print since the ‘70s, and never released on CD) and the Journey from the Past soundtrack, so why not Trans?

I filled the void.

I can’t recall the precise chain of fascinations that led me to it. I know I found the LP cheap on Amazon (used, of course—the album has never been reissued, and the CD never released at all, in the US), and I know it was more than completist compulsion that drove me to Add To Cart. I was struck more, I think, by the notion of a black-sheep album so warped beyond all recognition, so incontrovertibly screwed-up, as to preclude coherent reconciliation with the rest of a beloved songwriter’s storied catalogue. How do you deal with a Neil Young album that refuses to behave like a Neil Young album?

cover art

Neil Young

Trans

(Phantom Sound; US: 21 Nov 1996)

If that seems attractive to me (and it does), it may hint at a frequent personal gravitation towards the “weird” album in the discography—the one that doesn’t quite fit. Records that ruined careers, infuriated label heads, maybe found an audience a generation later, or maybe not at all. I think of PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?, with its uncompromisingly abrasive textures and twisted character sketches that made fans question the artist’s mental well being. I think of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Slowdive’s Pygmalion, two of my personal favorite records, and two of the best records ever to end record contracts. (Though their sprawling abstractions alienated fans and critics alike, both works found eventual acclaim as landmark precursors to what would later became post-rock.)

And I think of Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man, perhaps the clearest parallel to Trans by simple virtue of its abrupt divergence from the stylistic trademarks of Cohen’s rich songbook. Here, the sparse folk backdrop of “Suzanne” or “Joan of Arc” is violently subverted by Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound production; the music’s swampy texture seems almost to hint at the vulgar lyrical fantasies. Most potently, there is the remorseless obscuring of an iconic, raw voice behind thick sheets of disguise (in this case, chaotic backing vocals and murky reverb) and this, intriguingly, is precisely the same offense that rendered Trans so immensely incomprehensible to so many.

If there’s a problem with the parallel, it’s that Cohen has largely been absolved of blame for Ladies’ Man’s commercial and critical failure. It was Spector’s doing, disapproving fans proclaim—the album has his fingerprints all over it. Popular legend even has the producer threatening Cohen with a crossbow, and literally locking the singer out of the studio to mix the record—to fulfill his own grotesque creative vision—without interference from, you know, Leonard Cohen himself. Trans has no such scapegoat. It was Young’s project to the end. His fingers on the buttons, his hands on the dials.

Direct the Action with the Push of a Button
And so, in 1982 Neil Young became “involved in something that [he] shouldn’t have been involved in”: electronica. Vocoders. Drum machines. Synthesizers. Lyrics about fascist robots and “computer cowboys.” Song titles like “Sample and Hold” and “We R in Control”. Mastered it, called it Trans. Sent the tapes to Geffen.

The bizarre project was to be his first release for the recently founded label. 

Among casual fans and admirers, the album typically inspires more bafflement than it does ire. Bemused chuckles are the norm; shrugs of “What’ll he do next?” as trivializing as they are meaningless. It’s evoked more in the abstract, as an isolated and largely inexplicable event—something Neil did back in the ‘80s and just as quickly left behind—rather than a living, breathing album and enduring document, something one can still, in 2010, acquire and explore and formulate an opinion on.

Among professional critics, bafflement more frequently gives way to outright dismissal. William Ruhlmann, writing for AllMusic, awards the album two out of five stars and concisely affirms the popular verdict: “Trans had a few good songs… but on the whole it was an idea that just didn’t work.” The 1996 MusicHound Guide to Rock echoes the sentiment, lumping Trans together with its immediate follow-up, Everbody’s Rockin’: “[Neil Young]’s biggest failures were wild stabs at different genres.”

Thus, the record becomes a thoughtless reference point, a knee-jerk namedrop alongside other hugely successful artists’ bizarrely self-indulgent experiments that Just Didn’t Work (see: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, John Lennon’s Two Virgins, Dylan’s Self Portrait). It loses its distinctiveness. If it isn’t Neil Young’s most universally hated album, it’s certainly his most misunderstood.

That’s unfortunate. Because it’s one of my favorites. It’s a compelling and wholly singular work; it’s catchy, even, and—yes—sincerely moving, at least in parts.

So I mount my defense.

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
Perform.
Our.
Function.

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”.

Better to Be Fearless and Reckless

Strangest of all,  Trans is entirely reconcilable with the rest of Young’s career. What the album’s most pointed critics fail to realize is that Young’s prolific output (an average of about one album every 18 months between 1969 and 2011) has always tended towards the wild impulse project. Immediacy is key—if too measured and anticipated and composed, Young seems to think, the music loses its bite; better to be fearless and reckless, and if this generates some missteps along the way, at least he’s not playing it safe (see: the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, occasional bandmates Crosby, Still & Nash).

The ‘80s brought us a rapid-fire succession of wildly unstable genre excursions: into trash-rock (Re-Ac-Tor), electronica (Trans), rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’), country (Old Ways), synth-pop (Landing on Water), and blues (This Note’s For You). Beyond that controversial decade, there’s 1975’s Tonight’s the Night (recorded in 1973), a wrenchingly candid tribute to recently deceased friends, written largely in the studio and recorded in single takes over a few raucously drunken nights of tequila-fueled grief.

There’s 2003’s Greendale, a convoluted rock opera about God-knows-what, and there’s Fork in the Road, a 2009 concept album involving Young’s adventures developing electric car technology, and even 1992’s Harvest Moon, a strikingly gorgeous folk-ballad record that followed directly on the heels of Crazy Horse’s most blistering, feedback-laden tour in over a decade (which resulted in 1991’s Weld). Recall, too, that CSNY’s iconic “Ohio” was recorded a mere 11 days after the 1970 Kent State shootings it’s about. Following a similar model, 2006’s Living With War—a fiery, choir-driven protest record dealing explicitly with the Iraq War—was written, recorded, and released entirely within a month’s span.

The point remains: Trans’ particular direction may be especially extreme, or indisputably bizarre. Its spirit—of adventure and whim, of careening, uninhibited artistic impulse—fits squarely within the context of an artist who refuses to keep his wilder inclinations in check. The tendency operates occasionally to mass frustration, to mainstream listeners’ chagrin. It’s also part of what makes Young’s music so frequently exciting, even 40 years into his career. Trans may be his most intensely personal, baffling experiment. It’s also one wildcard excursion among many.

Trans’ greatest failure, then, lies not in its music or lyrics. It lies in its presentation and promotion—or lack thereof. Young failed entirely to convey its personal context to an indifferent audience. He fought confusion with more confusion: the inscrutably sarcastic, if not utterly meaningless, Everybody’s Rockin’.

He even found himself caught in murky legal waters. A $3.3 million lawsuit with Geffen Records followed the release of that record in 1983.Young’s music, Geffen alleged, had become “musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings.” The suit backfired—the prominent label founder later apologized for interfering with his client’s creative process—but its basic complaint expressed a popular sentiment among the singer’s confused audience: Neil Young had successfully alienated his listeners on a creative and commercial level, and Trans would come to be regarded as the fatal turning point in that process.

For that album, the explanation only came years later, explained best in Young’s biography, Shakey:

That’s what the record’s about… It’s the beginning of my search for a way for a nonoral person, a severely physically handicapped nonoral person, to find some sort of interface for communication…  That’s what I was getting at. And that was completely misunderstood.

If ever there was a lucid link connecting Trans The Concept (as conceived by Young) to Trans The Album (as perceived by just about everyone else), however, it existed only inside the artist’s head. During the album’s aimless promotion, Young approached Geffen with an idea for a music video—something to tie together Trans’ baffling loose ends, or at the very least provide a visual counterpart to its confusing aural explorations. The video would take place in a hospital room, where swarms of electronic-voiced nurses and doctors bustle around, consumed with the same simple task: to teach a baby to push a button.  The vignette was to symbolize Young’s central focus: seeking a venue of communication for one to whom the most basic communication is denied, even (or perhaps especially) if that venue is utterly mechanical.

The video, however, was never made. MTV was too new to have demonstrated its commercial potential, and Geffen refused to put up the money—even after Young offered to spend $200,000 of his own. Would such a mystifying vignette even have made a difference anyway? The album bombed, and Young took it hard; his concept, in all its personal and social and musical relevance, had been completely and utterly lost in translation.

How appropriate, then, that this album, so consumed by an unceasing desire to breach the communication barrier, was hopelessly mired by Neil Young’s inability—or unwillingness—to communicate that theme to his baffled listeners. “It’s communication,” quipped the songwriter later, “but it’s not getting through. And that’s what my son is.” Maybe that’s what Trans is, too.

But, maybe that’s what it should be.

Zach Schonfeld is an associate editor for PopMatters and a reporter for Newsweek. Previously, he was an editorial fellow at The Atlantic Wire and graduated from Wesleyan University, birthplace of Das Racist, MGMT, and the nineteenth-century respiration calorimeter, where he served as the editor of Wesleying, a popular student-life blog. In his spare time, he enjoys visiting presidential birthplaces and teaching his dog to tweet. In addition to PopMatters, his writing has appeared online at Rolling Stone, TIME, Consequence of Sound, The Nation, USA Today College, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Rumpus, Paste Magazine, and the Hartford Courant. He can be reached at zschonfeld(at)gmail(dot)com or on Twitter @zzzzaaaacccchhh.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/135763-defending-the-trick-of-disaster-neil-youngs-trans-reconsidered/