“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” When Neil Young sang that immortal line, he was 33 years old. That was 35 years ago. Neil Young is still making music.
More, Neil Young is still making music that moves and inspires fans spanning multiple generations. More still, Neil Young might be the only musician past retirement age who is capable of creating brand new fans. That last statement, upon reflection, is unbelievable and quite possibly miraculous in a way.
Upon further reflection, it is also inevitable. Neil Young does not do retirement, and fortunately for him, he picked the type of career that makes not retiring a possibility. That he is reaching audiences new and old is almost beside the point. Young, as anyone who knows anything about him can confirm, has never cared too much about what anyone else thinks about what he does. That makes him, at times, inscrutable and frustrating. Most of all, it is what makes him a genuine iconoclast, and one of the most important — and rewarding — artists of the last half-century.
Young, after all this time, is consistently inconsistent and entirely capable of being surprising.
An example: I could not believe how great Freedom was when it dropped in autumn 1989.
Crazy as it may sound over 20 years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) decade the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how intractable Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.
All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before: utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. He reunited with Crazy Horse, his favorite band with whom he’s made some of his best music, for 1991’s Ragged Glory and while the entire album had uneven moments, its glorious sum far exceeded its unpolished aspects. In particular, two longer workouts, “Love to Burn” and “Love and Only Love” were instant classics, scorching ten minute epics with so much feedback and fury they practically dared — or at least willed — the grunge movement into being.
For me, it’s been an up and down ride ever since, with more bummers than stunners. (I am seemingly among the few who feels Harvest Moon was a tepid, mostly uninspired snoozefest, while the subsequent Sleeps With Angels is a minor masterpiece.) One of the more powerful and memorable tracks from Sleeps With Angels is the fourteen minute-plus “Change Your Mind”: it felt, at the time, and has seemed, ever since, like Young’s last epic, his final extended statement, a slow burn of repetition and resolve. Later, when the legendarily unreleased “Orindary People” saw the light of day (on 2007’s Chrome Dreams II) it was a revelation, but since it was recorded during the Freedom sessions, it could not be considered a return to form or a new landmark in the literal sense. It was sufficient that it was finally available.
It was hard to deny that Young was finding a third (fourth? fifth?) wind in recent years with the back-to-back successes (critically, commercially) of Le Noise and Americana. The fact that the two, released less than two years apart, sound so radically different is a testament to Young’s versatility. Or perversity. Or recalcitrance. Or integrity. Or all of the above, and more. While most of his balding, pre-and-post Woodstock-era compatriots were competing to see who could release another redundant greatest hits collection or milk another reunion tour, Neil continued to walk the proverbial walk that old fashioned way, putting one foot in front of the other. If he no longer hit the highs he could routinely reach in younger years, he had as much restless energy, productivity and purpose as any of his peers, and most of his protégés.
Which brings us to the here and now: on October 30, 2012 Young dropped his 35th studio album, Psychedelic Pill.
I’m not prepared to call it a masterpiece. Or a return to form (whatever that actually means, anyway, particularly with Young: as awe-inspiring as On the Beach was, it didn’t sound much like anything Neil had done before; it didn’t invoke Harvest or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and that was the whole point). What I am prepared to do is declare it important, engaging and an album I know I will be listening to more than many others (by him, by others). That is enough; it is more than enough.
The highlight and centerpiece of his latest work is “Driftin’ Back”, which opens the proceedings and clocks in at 27:36. As in, 27 minutes, 36 seconds. Stop and consider that this is only ten minutes shorter than the entirety of 1975’s Zuma. Of course, Young is reunited with Crazy Horse, and when Neil reunites with Crazy Horse long songs tend to ensue. But how could anyone have guessed, or reasonably hoped for something this strong? It starts off slow, acoustic guitar almost lulling you to sleep, or at least into a false sense of security: Oh, it’s the older, wiser and gentler Neil, reminiscing and doing the grizzled old veteran thing. And then with an intentionally dream-like, distorted echo of the line “I’m driftin’ back” you realize he is about to take you on a trip (literally, figuratively, whatever): the band plugs in and away they go. First reaction: hearing Young energized reminds us how wonderful it is that he can reconnect with Crazy Horse, and how liberated and unrestrained they make him feel. After more than four decades (!) Young fronting Crazy Horse –the all-time best garage band– is like the rest of us drawing breath: it’s instinct and you never forget how to do it.
“Driftin’ Back” is a jam that never noodles; it’s obviously an improvised piece that maintains focus and purpose. Above all, at over 27 minutes, it doesn’t come close to running out of steam. Is it even possible to say the song is too short? It is. At least for this listener. The song could have chugged along for another 600 ticks and I could care less. It is definitely the best thing Young has done since 1994 (and might be the best song since “Love to Burn”, which was almost a quarter-century ago). If Young had once been inclined, or tempted to say either/or to the burn out/fade away options, he is now declaring neither/nor.
The music speaks for itself, and if it doesn’t speak to you, it’s likely you’ve never dug Neil Young, or at least Neil Young with Crazy Horse. (What’s the matter with you?)
You listen to the lyrics and… well, Neil has always picked his spots and at times been a keen eyewitness to life and illustrated, in bursts and spurts, an enviable ability to document them in writing. The rest of the time, let’s say his lyrics tend to be overshadowed by his voice and his guitar playing. But Neil is usually after feeling, anyway. All rock musicians are, ultimately, about feeling, or at least they should be. With Neil it’s as much a destination as a function of his limitations, which he seems to acknowledge if not embrace. It usually works in that pre-punk ethos where spontaneity, honesty and unguarded expression count for more than cleverness or even proficiency.
So yeah, the lyrics. As is so often the case you listen and find yourself wishing he employed an editor, or was able to restrain himself. (We writers know the rules: don’t write it once when it can be written a dozen times, and then let it sit, ignored, until it can be returned to with fresh eyes. In other words, an approach that is advisable for prose and often anathema for rock and roll.) You listen to all these songs, spilling into, around and over one another and can’t help, at times, thinking: if only Neil would — or could — keep his powder a bit more dry and wait until he had stronger material suitable for a more solid release, even if it resulted in fewer but more consistent albums. And then, hopefully, you realize (yet again): that’s not his job, that’s our job, to sift through the ever-expanding hay bail and find those needles while discarding the damage done.
And let’s face it, even before the Geffen years Young left a lot of filler in the ditch. He is not an OCD singles hitter, he is a slugger in batting practice, needing to hit his share of foul balls, line drive outs and pop flies in order to work up a sweat and get into a groove before he starts uncorking four-hundred foot bombs. Or else he is the painter who has to spray colors all over the canvas and it’s only once the white slate has turned into a kaleidoscope, which looks like a disjointed prism to anyone on the outside looking in, that he makes shapes and sense out of the mess, converting it into a cohesive whole. Consider a less than perfect album like Tonight’s The Night, which is perfect because of its imperfections. Indeed, it may be not merely the most perfect imperfect album (more so than, say, Exile on Main Street or London Calling or even The White Album), it is arguably the first –and best– record to make a kind of art out of purposeful imperfection. How else to explain a near spontaneous, sui generis treasure like “Tired Eyes” (or “Mellow My Mind” or “Albuquerque”)? It’s messy, awkward, occasionally embarrassing but always unashamed (and therefore brave); it’s a lot like the subconscious playing out in real time, being recorded.
Or how about this: Neil Young’s catalog could be considered an extended series of dreams that actually got remembered and written down. Only they are someone else’s dreams, and you pick through them to see what registers and what you remember. See what makes sense. And two things eventually occur: it’s inexorably the things that don’t register (immediately or ever) that surprise, then stick with you, and over time you make them part of you. Then, after a while, you realize he was talking about you all along. This is what art is. This is what art does.
So Neil keeps going. He has to get it all out. We can a learn a lot from this, whether or not we have a creative bone in our individual bodies. It’s a model for art, but it’s also a recipe for life. Young’s music is ceaselessly autobiographical not because he writes about himself so much as he is a part of everything he composes: it can be messy and it can be confounding but it is seldom safe and it’s rarely calculated. It might be difficult to deny that he has emphasized quantity above quality, but who can — or should — say which songs satisfy? That is the ragged glory of his life’s work, one that is very much still in progress. The fact that he is demonstrably far from done validates why he is still making music. Because he can. Because he has to.