“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I didn’t understand… for getting involved with something I shouldn’t have been involved with… well, FUCK THEM."
-- Neil Young, in the biography Shakey
In 1982 Neil Young released the album Trans, a synthesizer heavy, electronic rock album with Young’s vocals rendered virtually unrecognizable by use of a vocoder on all but three of the nine songs. At the time it was a commercial and critical flop but in recent years has begun to be reassessed and appreciated, if for nothing else the boldness of such a release from a mainstream artist, another example of Young’s total commitment to doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.
It’s easy to dismiss Trans (and much electronic music) as “cold” or lacking in emotion due to its synthesized drum machine beats and robot sounding vocals. This would be a mistake. Trans is one of Young’s most personal, heartfelt, and affecting albums of his career. In 1982 Young was going through an incredibly trying time in his personal life. His son Ben had been born with severe cerebral palsy, rendering him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil couldn’t understand his son’s words, so he made an album where the listener can’t understand the singer’s words.
Perhaps the most well-known song from Trans, probably due to it’s inclusion in Neil Young’s 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged, is “Transformer Man”. The only song on the album to not feature a single guitar, it is driven by a drum machine, keyboards and Neil’s voice processed to a computerized falsetto by the vocoder. It has a serene, lilting quality to it that immediately defies the cliché of synth-pop as “cold”. The song benefits from the vocoder immensely, the vocal sounding like a sad cry from the deep reaches of space. The keyboards are warm and unassuming, the drum machine beat is simple but the emotional punch of the song comes from what Young is singing.
A long time train aficionado, one of the ways Neil was able to connect to his son was through model trains. He even developed a remote control that enabled Ben to properly use the trains on their tracks. With this knowledge it becomes immediately apparent when you hear the lyrics (although reading along with a lyric sheet might help) that Transformer Man is Ben: “You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with the push of a button / You’re a transformer man”. The most touching moment comes in the chorus, when Young sings “Every morning when I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you”. It is at this point that the song becomes, in my opinion, one of the most moving songs of Neil Young’s career.
Neil never pursued electronic music further after Trans and I think it’s kind of a shame. I would love to hear what Neil Young in 2009 would do with the genre. Knowing Young’s penchant for bucking preconceived notions, an electronic album might not be that improbable.