Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Americana

There comes a point in an artist’s career where every album release is accompanied by a the double-edged damning praise statement “it is INSERT ARTISTS NAME best album since….landmark album, usually from about 20 years ago”. There are a few schools of thought when it comes to this:

1. Lazy journalism

2. Truly the artist reached a peak with that landmark album and for some reason has never been able to match that level of artistry since

3. The listener has not gone into the album with an open mind, saddling the artists final work with the listeners preconceived notions of what the album should sound like (usually, but not always tied into #1)

Neil Young seems to be an artist that confounds reviewers. Almost every album since 1989’s Freedom has included some sort of praise saying “wow, this is Neil’s best album since…”. 18 months goes by, Neil puts another album out and the cycle starts all over again. Every reviewer mysteriously comes down with a case of amnesia about the review they had just written a year and a half before. Let’s take a look at what I’m talking about:

  • 1989’s Freedom was rightfully called the best Neil Young album since 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps 
  • 1992’s Harvest Moon was called a long-awaited sequel to 1972’s Harvest, ignoring 1978’s similarly sounding album Comes a Time
  • 2000’s Silver & Gold repeated the above cycle, labeling it the third part in the Harvest series. This was conveniently forgotten by the time 2005’s Prairie Wind came out, since THAT album was also labeled a third part in the series. I kind of feel bad for the slightly more country-ish leaning 1985 album Old Ways since it also fits in comfortably with the sound of these records (a very underrated album in the Neil Young discography)
  • 2003’s Greendale was ushered in with very strong reviews, praising Neil Young for his artistic integrity and ability to create an eco environmental concept record. It is now viewed as a weak spot in his catalog (his version of the Supergrass album In it for the Money)
  • 2006’s damning album about the Bush Mach II administration – Living With War – was rightfully praised as a very raw album with Crazy Horse worthy guitar techniques with relevant lyrics for the time we were living in. It too is all but forgotten just 6 years later (really a shame with this one, it features 4 of my favorite Neil Young songs of all time)
  • 2007’s Chrome Dreams II, 2009’s Fork in the Road, and 2010’s Le Noise ranged from good to masterpiece worthy albums. Again, 2 of them were featured as “…best since..”. 2009’s album wasn’t one of my favorites though it featured two very strong singles in “Cough up the Bucks” (the video is absolutely amazing as well) and “Light a Candle”. 
So here we are in mid 2012 with a new Neil Young record. The catch with this record is that it is his first album with Crazy Horse in 9 years. In some quarters it is being heralded as a “his best and most immediate album since….”. And oh yeah – the ENTIRE RECORD is made up of covers of originals dating from the 1800’s up until the days of Woody Guthrie. Americana indeed. I have to be  honest – when I initially read the press release, I felt absolutely disinterested in the record. Why the hell would Neil Young need to cover ANYONE? The man is John Lennon and Johnny Cash worthy in my humble opinion. I tried to keep an open mind…and then the videos started to leak. First “Oh Susanna” then “Jesus Chariot (She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”. Wow. I’ve had a chance to listen to the album a few times now and I can say – it is an absolutely worthy album. The best since…(just kidding).

Opener “Oh Susanna” can serve as a mission statement for the album. Take songs we knew as children and manipulate them until they sound like Neil Young & Crazy Horse originals. The original was a minstrel song by Stephen Foster (1826-1864), first published in 1848. It starts off with a noodling guitar solo – it can be no other band but Crazy Horse. When Neil sings “Oh, oh, oh, Susannah / Don’t you cry for me (oh Susannah, oh Susannah) / ’cause I come from Alabama with a B-A-N-J-O on my knee” his voice is laced with emotion, the grungy guitars adding an unexpected emotional depth to the proceedings. The original song was very controversial, including a lyric with racial overtones – that verse does not appear in this cover.

“Clementine” is probably known by everyone as a song you sang in music class in elementary school and had a nice sing-a-long feel to it. The original dates from 1884 and was based on another song entitled “Down by the River” from 1863 (and as we know, Neil used THAT title for the timeless track from his 1969 record Everybody Knows this is Nowhere). This cover again feels like an original Neil Young & Crazy Horse song, when Neil hits the famous chorus his voice is wavering in and out “Oh my darling, oh my darling,My darling Clementine”. A garage band run through a childhood classic – stunning!

“Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain) Damn it Neil! I’ve run around all day singing this song at the top of my lungs! This song now belongs to Neil Young – it defines this album, it is perfectly executed, and instantly memorable. Again, the feel is of a vintage Crazy Horse recording – grungy, but also with a classic rock vibe to it. When Neil & choir kick into the line “Oh we’ll all come out to meet her when she comes” it gave me a chill. It repeats when they sing “We’ll all sing hallelujah when she comes” This is a modern-day Neil masterpiece. Perfection.

“Wayfarin’ Stranger” Should be an instantly familiar song – the original dates from the 1944 Burl Ives’ record The Wayfaring Stranger. More recently it was covered by Jack White of White Stripes fame for the movie Cold Mountain. My favorite version of recent years was actually by Johnny Cash on his American III: Solitary Man album. This song represents a full circle of sorts – The Man In Black covered Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and “Pocahontas” on the American Records box set Unearthed. Warm finger picking guitar to open the song. Neil sings with emotion, less deathly than Johnny’s version. As the song progresses Neil infuses his voice with hope and longing in a way that only he can do. It evokes visions of Appalachia under the open sky. Brilliant.

Is it a perfect album? No. No, it isn’t. Is it immensely listenable featuring some great songs by Neil Young & Crazy Horse? Yes. Yes, it is. And sometimes my readers – that’s all you need for a car ride, on your downtime at home, or when you are enjoying the company of your friends. Words & music.

Verdict: An Americana Dream

For Fans of: John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon

Track Listing:

1. Oh Susannah
2. Clementine
3. Tom Dula
4. Gallows Pole
5. Get A Job
6. Travel On
7. High Flyin’ Bird
8. Jesus’ Chariot
9. This Land Is Your Land
10. Wayfarin’ Stranger
11. God Save The Queen

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