[4 January 2009]
Neil Young’s Greatest Hits is “perfect” because it “offers nothing, NOTHING to the Neil Young fan,” asserted Anthony Miccio in Stylus Magazine’s 2004 review. It panders instead, blatantly and wonderfully, to the casual admirer, the listener to whom ‘greatest hits’ means… well, the ‘greatest hits’ and nothing more. This is an intriguing notion of perfection, under which Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968, Young’s third in a series of archival live recordings, feels like the direct antithesis, and not just because the title track is the closest it comes to a radio staple. The release seems not so much an album as a document, a time capsule of a young, anxious, yet bright-eyed Neil Young that once was and then wasn’t, propelled suddenly toward the harder-edged Crazy Horse interplay of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
The omnipresent tape hiss, crowd coughs, and endless stage chatter betray this genuineness, this focus on capturing a moment in Young’s career rather than producing a flawless live record (as if there’s any shortage of those in the Shakey cannon). Filled with such endearing moments as an instrumental “Winterlong” teaser (“Hey, that’s a new melody!”) and a performance of “Out of My Mind” on request (“Oh, that’s far out. I didn’t know anyone here even bought that or heard that album.”), the recording seems more geared to Neil Young historians than Neil Young fans.
The strictly acoustic November ’68 set finds the artist caught awkwardly between his recent success with Buffalo Springfield and his budding solo ambitions. If hearing, and reviewing, this incarnation feels especially surreal to me, it’s because I saw Young a mere 10 hours ago, reprising his Weld persona (and culling much from that album’s set list) with that unshakeable grimace, clutching Old Black and pounding out distortion with a ferocity unbecoming of any other 63-year-old. Yet the Neil Young character most embedded in our cultural consciousness is the light `70s folk rocker we hear on Harvest. Thus, it’s even more fascinating to note that this Ann Arbor show was planned as a test run of sorts, an experiment to see if that direction, a ‘just Neil and his guitar’ affair, could possibly work. Young was incredibly nervous—he reportedly feared he wouldn’t have enough material for a full-length show—and it shows. He fills the track breaks with incessant, rambling Woody Allen-esque monologues, stories about receiving his first “residuals” or abusing “diet pills” at a bookstore job. Though wholly essential to the authenticity of this portrait, the awkward banter can be a nuisance. Special thanks, though, to Neil for giving each “rap” its own track, after Live at Massey Hall prompted disgruntled fans (my dad included) to edit down their own talk-free mix.
The show took place a month or so before the release of his self-titled debut, but let’s not kid ourselves. That album has no place among Neil’s best. Blandly lovesick pop moments like “If I Could Have Her Tonight” and “What Did You Do to My Life?” could have come from just about any ‘60s folkster, and the rambling, Dylan-aping paranoia of “The Last Trip to Tulsa” is clumsy at best. The real problem, however, is Jack Nitzsche’s weirdly stifling, multi-tracked production, effectively sucking the life from the songs. Sugar Mountain’s arrangements, skeletal and raw, bum notes and all, are a foil to that sterility, exposing much more clearly the vulnerability of “I’ve Been Waiting For You” and the ominously bluesy character study that is “The Loner”. Elsewhere, the singer culls material from his own Buffalo Springfield contributions. “Mr. Soul” is as cryptic as ever (“stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster”), this rendition caught somewhere between the Stonesy stomp of the Springfield recording and the late-night, harmonica-fueled blues of his 1993 Unplugged version. Hearing “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” stripped of their sweeping studio psychedelic excess, however, is truly wonderful. Both display a songwriting promise obscured on his debut. The latter, Neil Young’s own “A Day in the Life”, in a sense, rolls to an emotional peak on its final chorus, only for Young to fade it out awkwardly, fumbling to recreate the studio version’s carnival ending by way of humming.
This uncertainty paired with brilliance is emblematic of the recording, this moment in his career. Sugar Mountain makes sense in conjunction with last year’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 release. Or, more specifically, it’s a direct precursor to the singer/songwriter confidence he exuded three years later. That both albums begin with “On the Way Home” makes obvious this contrast. The Massey Hall rendition sounds bold, gorgeous, and downright assertive compared to the apprehensive ’68 performance. But both albums are essential for the Neil Young fan or historian. Personally, I only wonder where he’s hoarding the Tonight’s the Night shows.