Music

Neil Young: Greatest Hits

Zeth Lundy

As a one-disc career-spanning compilation, Greatest Hits manages well, even if the two-disc retrospective Decade (1977) offers more in-depth analysis.


Neil Young

Greatest Hits

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2004-11-16
UK Release Date: 2004-11-15
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"Quality has taken a hit in recent years, but it's starting to come back thanks to DVD-stereo. There is just no comparison between DVD-stereo and a regular compact disc or even 5.1 sound.... I've always been a strong believer in analog and this is about as close to the rewarding listening experience of vinyl as the real thing."

So says Neil Young in regards to the DVD-stereo version of his Greatest Hits collection (also available in standard CD format). It's difficult to visualize Young as an endorser of anything, let alone progressive technology. He has been rock's most vocal opponent of digital dissemination, a steadfast champion of vinyl's more "faithful" audio representation. It's a traditionalist's crusade that gets harder to wage as music continues to be swallowed by a succession of 0s and 1s -- so hard, in fact, that even Young himself conceded to issuing four more albums on CD for the first time last year (On the Beach, American Stars 'n' Bars, Hawks & Doves, and Re-ac-tor).

Either the technology he once routinely abhorred has advanced to the point of near-perfect replication, or Young is joining 'em, having failed to beat 'em. The objective answer may lie somewhere in the middle. To the listener or fan who actively seeks out fidelity discrepancies, you'll notice a subtle, but important, difference in the DVD-stereo format. The frequencies are comfortably uniform and the mix is warmer; in contrast, the standard CD version boosts the bass frequencies and attacks with the heat of contemporary album mastering. The gap in sound quality may not be as wide as it is between vinyl and digital, but it's noticeable enough to warrant a gentle endorsement of Young's opinion above.

That objective answer, however, could simply be the product of a deceptive mimicry. Each song on the DVD-stereo Greatest Hits is accompanied by visuals of the original vinyl spinning in real time on a turntable. As the records rotate clockwise, reflecting hypnotic glistens of light off their black surfaces, it's easy to be swept up in the illusion of it all. Those very images undoubtedly work their way into the subconscious, assimilating what is being seen with what is being heard, and in the end, what is being believed. The visuals act as a reinforcement of Young's comment and the DVD-audio's purported allegiance to the analog experience.

As a one-disc career-spanning compilation, Greatest Hits manages well, even if the two-disc retrospective Decade (1977) offers more in-depth analysis. Greatest Hits features three songs apiece from Young's definitive solo albums: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere ("Down by the River", "Cowgirl in the Sand", "Cinnamon Girl"), After the Gold Rush ("After the Gold Rush", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Southern Man"), and Harvest ("The Needle and the Damage Done", "Old Man", and "Heart of Gold"). Also included are some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gems (the gorgeous "Helpless" and cautionary "Ohio") as well as the title track from Comes a Time and the ferocious live version of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)". Unlike Decade, Greatest Hits skips out entirely on selections from Young's tenure in Buffalo Springfield and drops the darker descents of Tonight's the Night and On the Beach. In sequencing songs "based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history", Greatest Hits also makes a jarring jump in its conclusion, fast-forwarding from 1979's Rust Never Sleeps to end with 1989's "Rockin' in the Free World" and 1992's "Harvest Moon".

Such is the fate of a one-disc package; still, while a few lesser-known favorites may be missing, you'd be hard-pressed to argue with Greatest Hits' track listing. Every song included is inarguably a classic. From the ten-minute electric guitar workouts to the two-minute acoustic introspections, each tune is essential in completing a full portrait of Young's musical persona. Most of Young's fans already own all of this material on the original albums (or on Decade), leaving the DVD-stereo version as the set's sole attraction. If, like Young, you continue to long for vinyl's purity (minus the crackles and pops, which would have been a nice touch, come to think of it), the DVD-stereo may walk you one step back towards a reunion with that sound. Or, at the very least, its deft audio/visual mirage will offer the next best thing.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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