Neil Young: Greendale

Scott Hreha

Greendale should be seen as nothing less than a serious achievement by an artist who has never been content to simply rest on his past glories -- an achievement worthy of even more acclaim in a culture where nostalgia outweighs iconoclasm on a daily basis.

Neil Young


Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2003-08-19
UK Release Date: 2003-08-18

At this point in Neil Young's career, one might think that he's pretty much exhausted all the possibilities his prodigious talents can allow. In 35-plus years in the business, he's tried his hand at acoustic folk, garage rock, traditional country, blues, R&B, techno, and rockabilly with varying degrees of success -- an impressive resume if there ever was one. But while his restlessness and refusal to be typecast make him an infinitely more interesting artist than others of similar longevity who consistently choose to play it safe, news of a new Neil Young record has been best taken with a heavy dose of skepticism since somewhere around 1980.

His latest project, Greendale, is certainly no exception to the rule; in fact, when I first heard of the "musical novel" concept Young was working with, every ounce of instinct told me I'd regret having requested the opportunity to review it. So it's with foot firmly implanted in mouth that I deliver the verdict: not only does Young accomplish his goal of creating a musical storyline that transcends the tedium and self-indulgence of your average concept album, but he's also crafted his finest set of songs since at least Freedom and Ragged Glory.

The musical simplicity with which Young surrounds his narrative actually hearkens back a bit further than those two more recent catalog highlights, as it recalls the stark vehicles that made Rust Never Sleeps such a compelling record. While nothing on Greendale is quite as dark or antagonistic as "Powderfinger" or "Hey Hey, My My", it's the unobtrusive quality of Young's music that triggers the comparison -- evocative three- or four-chord progressions that wholly emphasize the plot developments that occur within the lyrics of each song. The stripped-down recording aesthetic used to realize his vision adds focus to the album's lyrical content as well; operating live in the studio, the raw sound achieved by Young and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot (with a handful of minor overdubs along the way) never intrudes upon the storyline.

If anything, the song lengths provide the record's only difficulty -- its mere 10 songs clock in just shy of 80 minutes, with several tracks reaching well beyond the 10-minute mark -- but in the context of the full story, Young is careful not to waste a single line. It's an even more impressive feat when taking into consideration the fact that, except for some spoken-word style free verse on "Bandit", the majority of the plot unfolds in end-rhymed lines just as Young's compositions traditionally have. But what's most fascinating is the way that the music, even though it's not the primary focal point, can tell as much of the story as the lyrics do. Take the second track "Double E" for example: the lyrics set the scene by describing how the folks of Greendale spend their Saturday evenings out dancing at the local watering hole, while the Redwoods jukejoint stomp served up by the band illustrates exactly how the scene would sound in real life.

Since Young's intention was to make a record that flows like a novel, it's really no surprise then that the music takes a backseat to the lyrics in each of Greendale's ten songs. But even though Young has been a gifted storyteller dating back to his Buffalo Springfield days, several of these songs show that he's reached an even higher plateau of accomplishment as a writer, particularly the two consecutive tracks that detail the bulk of Greendale's action -- "Leave the Driving" and "Carmichael". On the surface, "Leave the Driving" simply tells the tale of police officer Carmichael, shot to death by one of the local folks on a seemingly routine traffic stop; yet with the space Young allows himself to flesh out the story, he fantastically depicts the magnified ramifications of such an event when it happens among the residents of a small town (a subject he revisits with even greater facility in "Grandpa's Interview" later on). Similarly, "Carmichael", with its lengthy verses representing a series of eulogies from different points of view (his fellow officers, his wife), finds Young poignantly capturing the love and respect within his characters as sensitively as a prize-winning novelist.

A questionable shift occurs toward the end of the disc, where Young modifies his agenda from small-town tragedy to environmentalist polemic with two songs that introduce a new protagonist, Sun Green. Although her eponymous song adds a touch of surrealism to the story by way of the FBI's sudden interest in Greendale's business and Young's bullhorn-treated vocals, the next and final piece "Be the Rain" closes the album on a slightly anti-climactic note with its more generalized "Save the planet for another day" mantra repeating as Sun Green escapes to Alaska to become a full-fledged environmental warrior goddess.

Oddly enough, Young's tour in support of Greendale -- on which he played the album in its entirety, complete with stage actors and props (another point of comparison with Rust Never Sleeps) -- has more or less concluded by the time of the CD's release. But with a film version scheduled for DVD release in the near future, it's clear that Young's passion for this project has no intention of waning anytime soon. So regardless of a few minor flaws, Greendale should be seen as nothing less than a serious achievement by an artist who has never been content to simply rest on his past glories -- an achievement worthy of even more acclaim in a culture where nostalgia outweighs iconoclasm on a daily basis.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

With The Perfect Nothing Catalog, composer Conrad Winslow explores attention and arrangement with assistance from the Cadillac Moon Ensemble and Aaron Roche.

The album cover, in a way, tells you everything. It's simple: a cardboard box with two pieces of tape: one from the box's original packing, the other haphazardly slapped on. They imply two separate states–ordering and reordering, original state and redefined context. The Perfect Nothing Catalog, the debut recording from Alaska-born, Brooklyn-based composer Conrad Winslow, invokes this very idea of objects and ideas placed, shuffled, and replaced, provoking questions of how arrangement shapes meaning.

Keep reading... Show less

In 'Downsizing' Shrinking Means Big Money and Bigger Problems

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (2017) (Photo by Photo credit: Paramount Pictures - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Being the size of a dog's chew toy might not be to everybody's taste, but it's certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity.

Just imagine you're a character in Alexander Payne's circuitous and occasionally perceptive new comedy Downsizing: You were pre-med, but you dropped out of school to take care of your mother. Now you're an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. You and your wife are treading water both economically and in your relationship. But still, you face every day with just enough gee-whiz optimism that life never quite turns into a grind. But then, something happens. Some Swedish researchers figured out a way to shrink the average human down to a mere five inches tall without any adverse side effects. There are risks to avoid, like not leaving metal fillings in during the shrinking process (exploding heads, you know).

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.