With his new album, Barn, Neil Young again teams up with Crazy Horse fixtures Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums), as well as guitarist Nils Lofgren, who rejoined the group on 2019’s Colorado, replacing Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who retired following the release of 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. While not necessarily breaking new ground, Young’s latest set resonates as fervently composed and heartfeltly topical, and the band are as committed as ever to authentic and vigorous performance.
The project opens with “Song of the Seasons”, Young’s percussive strum pattern intermittently reminiscent of 1972’s “Heart of Gold”. The harmonica and harmonium add a rustic tone to the track. Lyrically the piece is a desultory tribute to a relationship that has withstood numerous challenges (“We’re so together in the way that we feel / That we could wind up anywhere”). The opening measures of “Heading West”, featuring open chords soaked in distortion, hearken back to Young’s second solo LP and first with Crazy Horse, 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Young’s vocal is airy and unpretentious, indicative of his often espoused “first take, best take” mantra.
“Canerican” is a satirical take on American politics (“I am American, American is what I am / I cast my vote and now I got my man”). Young’s melodic runs contrast dynamically with Lofgren’s loosely staccato licks. Talbot and Molina maintain a steady but accent-filled rhythm. Young’s explosive solo, replete with whammy-bar bravado, is concise yet viscerally gratifying. On “They Might Be Lost”, a sultry melody and rambling narrative about a loner/outsider waiting “for the boys to come get the goods” bring to mind “Trans-Am” from 1994’s Sleeps with Angels and “Crime in the City” from 1989’s Freedom.
“Welcome Back” launches with a rhythmic intro that resembles the signature riff of 1969’s “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Young implicitly alludes to climate change, world hunger, and systemic inequities while also pointing to human ingenuity and our ability to adapt. In this way, he strikes a balance between dystopianism and faith, as he did most evocatively on 1970’s “After the Gold Rush.” As the tune unfolds, Young’s wiry notes and fluid passages, euphonies, and discords alternately evoke a sense of exhilaration and anxiety. The closing “Don’t Forget Love” is a wistful reminder that positive change and sustainable meaning depend on the presence and cultivation of love.
Even when Young and Crazy Horse employ familiar audial and thematic elements, as they do on The Barn, their offerings rarely sound rote or feel formulaically generated. Their navigations of sublimity vs. subtlety, maximalism vs. spaciousness, and free improvisation vs. precise composition are like inexhaustible stylistic lodes, influencing many of popular music’s major movements, including art-rock, noise-rock, shoegaze, and grunge, as well as these genres’ contemporary heirs. To reference Young’s 1976 collaboration with Stephen Stills, long may they run.