Music

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

Zach Schonfeld

Nearly 30 years later, Trans remains the most baffling, bizarre, and misunderstood project in Neil Young’s oeuvre. Here’s why it’s great.

“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?

Artist: Neil Young

Album: Trans

Label: Phantom Sound

Release date: 1996-11-21

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/n/neilyoungtrans-cvr.jpgIf 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.

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