The news came enigmatically, in classic Neil Young fashion. Late in January a mysterious video popped up on the home page of Young’s website. The scene zoomed tantalizingly in an unmanned recording studio stocked with vintage guitars (including Old Black, Young’s trusty ‘53 Les Paul) and an analog recording console, its clocklike needles swaying to an audio track awash in the über-distorted garage rock that has been missing from Young’s sound for far too long.
It became immediately clear that after nearly 15 years in the stable, the Horse would ride again … Crazy Horse, the band which helped Young ignite the first flame of grunge rock with the seminal record Everybody Knows This is Nowhere in 1969. (Listen to that album’s closing track, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and I defy you to find a heavier sound, ever before or ever since.)
Young has toured and recorded with Crazy Horse off and on throughout the decades whenever the rawer side of his muse calls for the Horse's ragged brand of rock, issuing such classic records as Zuma (1975), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), and Ragged Glory (1990), among others. Many fans have been itching for the Horse for quite some time, and recent news of an impending Neil Young and Crazy Horse album soon lit up the blogosphere.
But as more details about this project have emerged, many of Young’s longtime fans find themselves engaging in a perennial debate - one that surely applies to any legendary artist, like Young, with a decades-long career - pitting fans of Young’s more vintage material against those who also celebrate his newer work. The debate raises questions about how an artist maintains his or her relevancy amid change and age.
On one side of this debate are fans who loyally and uncritically accept Young’s decisions as an artist to follow the muse wherever it takes him. After all, Young has made a career of zigzagging through different genres, band lineups, choices of instrumentation, style and mood; such hairpin turns have kept his music vital throughout the decades and make him the legend that he is.
Meanwhile, another set of fans, like myself, are more prone to question some of the artistic decisions Young has made in recent years. For these fans, the return of Crazy Horse is particularly welcome news, igniting our hopes that the more spirited side of Young’s multi-dimensional creative self will emerge once again.
To me, the specific issue with Neil Young’s music over the past decade (since Are You Passionate? in 2002) is unrelated to genre, style or instrumentation; rather, the problem has to do with his songwriting, most of which, in the past ten years, has ignored the classic literary dictum to “show” not “tell.” This concept is familiar territory for writers of fiction. For example, a novelist could explicitly “tell” readers that a character “felt confused" or instead he or she could vividly “show” the reader a character’s emotional state using description and gesture, as in “his face scrunched inward as he scratched his head.”
In daily life, we navigate a world of gestures, unspoken words, enunciations, behavioral patterns and other outward clues that communicate meaning or provide a window into other people’s conscious or unconscious experiences. To make his or her work interesting, an artist needs to strike the right balance between “showing” and “telling” - even when using the blunt instrument of rock and roll to tap into our more primal emotions.
At one time, Young’s songs leaned more on the evocative, mysterious and enigmatic side. He was masterful at achieving a type of songwriting that was literary, creating different personas and levels of narration. (For example, read my analysis of the often misunderstood lyrics to “A Man Needs a Maid,” from Harvest, here.) Even the more ragged Neil Young and Crazy Horse classics like “Powderfinger” and “Sedan Delivery” have the magic of poetry. They use "showing" to develop a scene or story.
But in the last decade, Young’s music has leaned way too heavily on the ham-handed “telling” approach, be it his preachy political screeds from the Bush-Administration-era “Let’s Impeach the President” on Living With War (2006) or Young’s attempt at musical theater in Greendale (2003), with its lyrical narration forced clumsily like square pegs into the round hole of the musical landscape. Even Prairie Wind – which came at a time when Young suffered a life-threatening aneurism and confronted the deaths of people very close to him (including his father, the mother of his first son, and Buffalo Springfield bass player Bruce Palmer) – did not live up to the vital nature of the life-material that inspired and informed it.
On first blush, the return of Crazy Horse for a full-length album offers some real catharsis for fans seeking a return to something more vital in Young’s music. But instead of using the Horse to showcase some exciting new original material, the upcoming Neil Young and Crazy Horse album Americana is instead saddled with American songbook classics from yesteryear, including “Clementine,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Oh Susannah,” and “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.”
While these are great songs from the American tradition that stand the test of time, they don’t promise the kind of catharsis that many of Young's fans, myself included, yearn for.
I suppose we will just have to wait and see if Young’s treatment of the songs we sung in elementary school will have us look at those songs anew or if Americana, as I suspect, will simply squander the opportunity for a great band to shine once again with the kind of urgency we have come to expect, and need, as devoted fans of Young’s music.
Roger Noyes is a musician from Albany, N.Y., who plays guitar, bass and, now, pedal-steel guitar in a number of area bands, performing everything from jazz to "Americana" and rock. Sound clips as well as information on his various music projects and show dates are at rogernoyes.com. He is also a local writer and a communications professional during his day gig.
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