Some aging rock stars can do no wrong. What about Neil Young?

It remains remarkable how some rock stars can no longer do any harm at an older age. From civilian terror to unsavory rebels, they have become new saints of modern culture, who go on and on. Leading the way is Mick Jagger (79), who is still playing his young self after half a century. But there is also veteran Bob Dylan (81), who does not repeat himself, but has reinvented himself in a masterful way.

Somewhere between the two extremes of nostalgic reuse and artistic innovation we find Neil Young (77). The originally Canadian singer, now American, continues to release new and old albums. Most recently his 42nd studio album (and his fifteenth with the band Crazy Horse), World Records. Hot on the heels of a deluxe jubilee edition of his most famous LP, Harvest (1972), the record that launched him to mass stardom.

The ‘Christmas’ combination – an at times excited new album with band and a tranquil classic – is striking. Neil Young has always had two incarnations: the loner with guitar and jew’s harp, and the electric rock beast who indulges in therapeutic indulgence on six strings. He has continued to swing between these two extremes, with his integrity as the most important virtue. Young has always followed his own whims and intuition in an uncompromising, almost childlike way, albeit with gradually diminishing returns.

on World Records he again surrenders to his muse, who is now in the service of the climate and Mother Earth. Young is a convinced eco-activist who, he said recently, no longer wants to tour halls that source food from factory farming. He also sings about the endangered planet on this album. The fun of the man and his old companions from Crazy Horse, once described as “a rusty tractor,” is evident and will please die-hard Young fans.

Yet the album, the best of Young’s three consecutive with Crazy Horse since 2019, sounds like yet another repetition of moves. With a very sweet ballad (‘Love Earth’) and the inevitable elongated rocker (‘Chevrolet’, which clocks in at around fifteen minutes). Lyrically there is again little to experience on the album, the edifying lyrics are of the caliber the sky was blue, the air so clean/ the water crystal clear.

Pissing into the wind

Now, for years, Young has been known for his tendency to spontaneously release whatever his muse tells him, once held back by his assertive manager and producer, who dared to tell him when he was “pissing into the wind.” California veteran Rick Rubin, known from the Beastie Boys, AC/DC and Metallica, signed for the production of this album. That is paying off, especially compared to records that Young produced himself. But it cannot disguise the predictability of the material.

How bad is that? You don’t want to blame the 77-year-old’s energy and relentless production as time is running out. In the final of his career, Young is busy setting up a mausoleum for his music.

Occupied in that monument Harvest, turned gray in countless teenage rooms, a place of honor. For Young, this album (with his only number one hit, the clichéd but irresistible ‘Heart Of Gold’) became a watershed. The record made him an icon of the early 1970s. “Where Dylan was once a kind of God, at least a higher thing, Neil Young is the comrade who puts a comforting hand on your shoulder,” wrote Hague Postpop journalist Bert Janssen in 1975. Janssen, a fan for some time, thought Harvest incidentally, Young’s “most shaky record” to date.

That wobblyness was the charm. The hypnotic rhythm of the slow songs, the thin steel guitar, striking melodies and Young’s uncertain, high-pitched vocals – it all fit the zeitgeist like a glove. Just like the fact that the always eccentric Young had partly recorded the album himself in a barn on his farm in Northern California. The story goes that he rowed his friend Graham Nash on a boat to his private lake for a stereo preview of the album, which blasted from speakers in his house (left) and shed (right). “More Barn!” Young must have shouted to his crew.

Young found no comfort in himself. The 27-year-old superstar had an allergic reaction to the success. ‘Heart of Gold’, which quickly became supermarket muzak, landed him „in the middle of the roadhe later complained. “I got bored of that quickly, so I drove into the ditch. A more difficult ride, but I saw more interesting people.”

The commercial pressure from his record company and a series of personal dramas – a threatening breakup, friends dying from drink and drugs – didn’t help either. A monster tour of sports halls to celebrate the success of Harvest turned into bitter, alcohol-fueled quarrels.

Stripping rock

Young’s drive through the ditch quickly produced albums that were not instant success, but each of which is now considered the pinnacle of his musical oeuvre. A live album (Time Fades Away) that sounds like a nervous exercise in proto-punk; a nightly dirge about the Hollywood dope scene (Tonight’s the Nighthailed as his most penetrating work) and a hushed album that sounds half like a whispered call to a helpline (On the Beach). Fit with the lashing rock of Zuma (1975) Young found fun in life again.

Fifty years later sounds Harvest just as autumnal and hypnotic. Apart from the bombastic orchestration of a single song, which already hit many listeners in the wrong ear at the time. As a bonus to the anniversary box, three previously unreleased songs from the barn, a (known from bootlegs) BBC performance by Young from 1971 and a home video about the creation of the album. The grainy images from the barn seem like an intimate, Proustian belch from a distant past.

Of the hip quintet sitting there on straw bales, only Young himself is still alive. Pianist Jack Nitzsche, session drummer Kenny Buttrey, steel guitarist Ben Keith and bassist Tim Drummond have all passed away and, in Young’s words, friends who “leave their mark in sound” have disappeared.

And what sound. It’s an unfair comparison, but still. World Records is at best an energetic reminder that Young himself is very much alive, but quickly fades away with the first, wistful harp notes of Harvest. Or that one gruff guitar solo in the slow trudging song ‘Words’. Young himself seems to realize that too. His most recent Dutch concert, three hours in the Ziggo Dome (2019), was supported by a wide selection of his 1970s work. Not for nothing.

Read also: Neil Young to Joe Rogan: Is Spotify a publisher or a search engine?

Leave a Comment