Neil Young & Crazy Horse

I grew up on Neil Young, his music was just part of the background in my parents’ home.  And he was kind of everywhere, my high school girlfriend’s dad grew up with Young in Winnipeg.  Canada isn’t usually like that, despite what Americans think.  No, really, I don’t know your cousin’s ex-girlfriend’s son, Mark, who lives in Edmonton.  But this time it did work like that.  My first real conscious bit of Neil Young was unfortunate, during his late 80s anti-commercial phase, and his This Note’s For You album and the ubiquitous eponymous opening track.  No thanks.

But then, a couple of years later, Young released Freedom in 1989.  This was his re-birth, the 80s had not been kind to him, really, and frankly, This Note’s For You reflects his artistic stagnation.  But.  Freedom and its massive hit single, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World,’ a devastating critique of American society, was everywhere.  And then, in 1990, he got back together with Crazy Horse, his best backing band, and released Ragged Glory.  I love that album.  When grunge broke the next year, Young was regarded as the ‘Godfather of Grunge.’  He toured with Sonic Youth.  He became our crazy uncle.

There are really two Neil Youngs.  One plays acoustic guitar and sings pretty-ish songs (his voice kinda guarantees no song he writes will be pretty).  And then there’s electric Neil.  I’m really only interested in the latter version, especially when Crazy Horse show up to the party.  I’ve seen some pretty epic Neil Young & Crazy Horse gigs over the years in various places.  Damn, they’re great.

And so, Colorado is Young’s 39th album.  And it’s his 15th album with Crazy Horse, and the first since 2012.  Young has just turned 74 years old.  Colorado shows us how to get old and still rock hard.  With Crazy Horse, Young and the band create greasy, dirty, slightly atonal, nasty guitar-based stompers.  The volume is turned up to 12, and usually, the sheer volume means poor song-writing can be glossed over.  But that’s not the case here.

‘Think of Me’ starts like an old 60s blues stomper, with harmonica, acoustic guitar and an easy beat, as Young expresses both his amazement at being an old man, and is, in a way, it sounds like a love song to his new wife, Darryl (as in Hannah), or maybe it’s more an ode to sex.  I can’t tell.  It doesn’t matter.

On the second track, ‘She Showed Me Love,’ we get Young at his best.  He’s singing about Mother Nature, not his wife, and expressing his long-held frustration with all the ways we’ve destroyed, and continue to destroy the environment.  It’s an optimistic song, though, noting that he’s an old white guy, and he’s seen some things, including a bunch of other old white guys trying to destroy the environment.  But, he’s also seen ‘young folks trying to save Mother Nature.’  And that’s part of this song, but it’s also 13 minutes and 6 seconds long, and is a classic 60s rocker, in its own way, particularly with the chorus line, sung in a chorus, of ‘She showed me love.’  But then, the guitars.  Nils Lofgren has taken up the six-string for Crazy Horse, or rather, he’s returned to the spot he occupied back in the early 70s, replacing Poncho Sompedro, who retired from the music business a few years ago.  At any rate, this is a guitar track, as Lofgren and Young trade licks and riffs, all in that wonderfully sloppy, almost seemingly haphazard way that is Young at his best in terms of his songwriting.  This is my favourite track.

My other favourite track on this album is ‘Help Me Lose My Mind,’ which is built around a nasty riff, as Young puts proof to the idea art only comes from misery, more speaking than singing his lyrics.  The song is two verses long, sandwiched after a classic Young guitar solo.

Nothing bothers me ’cause I’m so happy
Might look like it does, but that means nothing
I got a face that gets me in trouble
I got a voice that does its damage
But I’m rescued? now and this is all in my head
I gotta win somehow and lose this mind instead
It’s always working on finding my weakness
How I was made to feel and can’t forget, can’t forget
Can’t forget, can’t forget

‘Shut It Down’ is a loud stomper.  With Young growling about shutting the system down, and singing about, well, the environment:

(Have to shut the whole system down)
All around the planet
There’s a blindness that just can’t see
(Have to shut the whole system down)
They’re all wearing climate change
As cool as they can be

The thing that really does strike me about Colorado is that Young really is preaching about the environment, and climate change, and impending disaster.  But, he doesn’t sound preachy.  He sounds pissed, he sounds resigned, he sounds hopeful, but he does all of this within the larger framework of excellent song writing.

Olden Days,’ to me, is a re-visit of Ragged Glory‘s ‘Days That Used To Be,’ about getting old and missing old enemies, or frenemies, as it may be.  ‘Olden Days’ is the first more muted track on the album, but that’s only relatively speaking.  Imagine the difference between a jackhammer and a plane.  But Young and the Horse do mellow out some on ‘Green is Blue,’ which is one of those almost pretty songs of his, as he sings about the environment (see a theme here) and how we’ve allowed ourselves to get to the point where climate change is real.

The album ends with two songs, first, ‘Rainbow of Colors’ and ‘I Do.’  ‘Rainbow’ sounds like an old 60s song, as does much of this album, in all the best ways.  But this one, in particular, sounds like it could’ve been recorded by Crosby Stills Nash & Young, at least the vocals.  Not so much the music, which is pure Crazy Horse.  On a slow burner of a track Young castigates the right and xenophobia and racism:

Now I know some might tell me
That there’s not room for all
And they should just go back
To the places they fall
Where their lives lie there broken
With no chance left at all
And the leaders have spoken
On that side of the wall

Meanwhile, on the acoustic and almost pretty ‘I Do,’ Young is either singing to Hannah or Mother Nature, it’s frankly hard to tell.  But, given he and Hannah got married last year, I’m going to presume it’s the former.

Taken as a whole, Colorado shows us that the old dog still has a few tricks.  As I’ve been listening to this album over the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on ageing rock stars, and ageing artists in general.  Some, like Young, have no real need, financially, to keep at it.  Some, like the variants of Steppenwolf in the world, just do the nostalgia thing.  Some, like U2, try to evolve with the times, but lost whatever magic they had two decades ago (though most would say three decades ago, I love their 90s output).  And others, like the Rolling Stones do record new albums, but nobody cares.

Artists who can continue to have something to say and to say it in such a way that people actually want to hear it are rare.  Neil Young is one of them.  He doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, he doesn’t try anything new.  He doesn’t have to, in  part because he’s Neil Young, but also because three chord, loud rock’n’roll is a fertile ground for exploration.  Still.