[21 October 2007]
Through the years, Neil Young’s erratic output has coalesced into a predictable pattern. Known for indulging any and every creative fancy that triggers neuron firing in his brain, Young will release two or three weird, half-baked, or downright terrible albums in a row before finally realizing he’s tested his loyal fan base’s patience enough. Upon such an awakening, he will run back to what he knows everyone loves about and wants from him: more albums like Harvest. Trace back his discography, and you will see a release in the mold of Young’s 1972 masterpiece about twice a decade: Harvest Moon came in 1992, Silver and Gold in 2000, and Prairie Wind in 2005. In between you get albums like the morose Sleeps with Angels, the conceptually-bizarre Dead Man, and the dreadful Are You Passionate?. Those are only a few highlights of Young’s lowlights from the last 15 years. No wonder he retreats to country-rock every few years.
Most artists couldn’t get away with being so spotty, but Young is afforded such leeway because his audience knows that, given enough time, he will produce something worthwhile. In a way, it’s even admirable that he’s willing to be so brave as to put out half the stuff he does; an artist, after all, can’t possibly be a genius every single day, and Young lets us see a more complete and candid view of what it means to create. Sure, Greendale is a half-assed album built upon a half-assed concept, but it sure sounds interesting, does it not? And if Are You Passionate? is the flattest collection of love songs this side of Michael Bolton, it’s still Neil Young and Booker T and the MGs, right?
Young has finally figured out that instead of making two or three lackluster albums followed by a solid one, he can apply the same technique to a single LP. This is exactly what he has done with his latest release, Chrome Dreams II. A mixture of tracks Young wrote decades ago and new ones, the songs not only span the decades, but also the entirety of his artistic whims. Pastoral folk-country, fuzzy guitar rockers, neo-hippie peace jams with creepy background vocals supplied by a choir of elementary schoolers—it’s all here. In an odd way, it’s consistently inconsistent, and it makes perfect sense in the context of Young’s long, schizophrenic career.
Young is smart enough to begin the album with (what else?) a song reminiscent of Harvest. “Beautiful Bluebird” is practically a rewrite of “Out on the Weekend”, right down to the primitive drum beat and basic chord progression. Perhaps this is because the song is one of three on the album originally written decades ago, so it’s arguably more continuing a style than self-plagiarizing a classic. Either way, it shows what Young does best: crafting slow and swaying folk-country tracks that are stunning in both their simplicity and imagery. He takes the ballad a bit further, however, with “Shining Light” and “Ever After”, both electric guitar numbers that harken back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. “Shining Light”, in particular, possesses a charming nostalgia, its arpeggiated chords reminiscent of classic fifties ballads.
If Young has another strong suit, of course, it’s writing rockers that are gorgeously frayed. There’s no shortage of those here; “Ordinary People” and “No Hidden Path” are just two examples, each so unpolished that it’s easy to see why Young is considered the progenitor of grunge. “Ordinary People” is a raw, hard-hitting tribute to blue-collar folk, and it certainly does rock. At nearly 20 minutes long, though, it’s about 15 minutes too long. Still, how can you really complain about a great song that will last the entirety of your drive to work? Likewise, “No Hidden Path” is unusually long—clocking in at over 14 minutes—but it’s inspired nonetheless.
Not all of the tracks work, however, and it’s easy to see why Young grouped them with the ones that sound like his best work. “Dirty Old Man” is lyrically embarrassing, sounding tossed off (no pun intended—really) when Young was feeling like one himself. “Yeah, I’m gonna get fired,” he sings, “For drinkin’ on the job / Got caught with the boss’s wife / In the parking lot.” True, character sketches are a staple of popular music, but the song reveals nothing profound other than the fact that even masters occasionally have to lean on clichés and stereotypes. “The Way” is also a misfire, trying to accomplish too much while delivering too little. Beginning with a gospel piano groove, it is soon marred by easy sentimentality and trite lyrics. Anytime you have a group of kids chanting, “We’ll share the way / To bring you back home”, you’re walking a dangerous line between innocence and its polar opposite: exploitation. Young doesn’t fall into the latter, but he gets uncomfortably close.
Ultimately, with Chrome Dreams II Young has found a unique coping device for his uneven creativity. Instead of having to suffer the middling albums for years before some sort of payoff, you get a nice mixture here, and thankfully the ratio is reversed in favor of the solid material. Young has said that such an album works in an age when “radio formats are not as influential as they once were”, and he’s right. This album refuses to be an “Album”, which is both its strength and its weakness. If ever an LP were custom made for iTunes, this is it.