Monday, October 22nd, 2007
“The success of Harvest and “Heart Of Gold” had put me right in the middle of the road. So I decided to head for the ditch. It was a rough ride but I met more interesting people there.” – Neil Young
Possibly Neil Young’s most famous quote (and he’s a quotable guy), it was originally uttered in the context of explaining why he followed up his most commercially successful works in the mid-70s with some of his most difficult (though arguably his best), the so-called “Ditch Trilogy” – Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach. But it’s also applicable to his entire storied career – winding, meandering, doubling back and stumbling forward for over 40 years now.
So when it comes to assessing his latest album Chrome Dreams II, out tomorrow, I think it’s best appreciated in the broader context of where it comes in his career. Because taken strictly on its own merits, it’s a slightly above-average Neil record – maybe his best since 1994’s Sleeps With Angels – but there’s nothing that would stand up against his best material. Reminiscent of, perhaps, but not even close to equaling let alone surpassing. But considered relative to where Neil’s mindset might be at this stage in his life, it’s a much more revealing and, for all its flaws, appropriate release.
Unlike much of his classic rock brethren, Neil has always indulged his creative muse wherever it takes him, regardless of who it alienates or confounds. In some ways, his “ditch” years have never ended. And though he’s steadfastly resisted for a long time, that muse has recently led him to look back on his career and celebrate all that he’s done. The long-delayed Archives series is finally coming to light (though when I picked up the Live At Massey Hall 1971 CD this weekend, I had to laugh at the “coming Fall 2007!” flyer in the slipcase for the first volume), last year’s Heart Of Gold concert film may as well have been shot in sepia it was so steeped in nostalgia and Chrome Dreams II, though ostensibly new material, is also planted firmly in the past.
Firstly, it’s named as the sequel to an album that was never released, Chrome Dreams, but on which some of his most classic songs were originally slated to appear. Further, the first three songs date back decades in his repertoire and in the case of “Ordinary People”, even uses a 19-year old recording. And while the rest of the record is all newer material, you don’t have to look too hard to find musical or thematic analogues in his back catalog. File “Dirty Old Man” alongside “Piece Of Crap” and “Sedan Delivery”, you’d have to double-check the credits on “Spirit Road” to confirm that it’s not Crazy Horse backing the man and album closer “The Way” features a children’s choir – a recurring device in his last few records. And of course, there’s the two epic-length numbers in the aforementioned “Ordinary People” and “No Hidden Path” – not quite as ragged or glorious as some of his ’70s marathons, but still vintage Neil.
It’s like a stylistic best-of, only consisting of new songs. So for long-time Neil fans, Chrome Dreams II is instantly familiar and welcoming, yet still sufficiently challenging and possessed of his iconoclastic spirit to prove he’s not getting soft. Neil may not be leading us through the ditch on his ongoing journey through the past, but makes sure to remind he still knows where it is and that a hard, sudden detour is never out of the question.
To mark the release of Chrome Dreams II, An Aquarium Drunkard has gone digging through his own archives and posted the bootleg version of Chrome Dreams which has circulated amongst collectors for decades now – almost every song has been released in some form but to hear them in the context of that record and in the simpler, more embryonic versions that were slated for that release makes for fascinating listening. He’s also got a set of what he’s calling Chrome Dreams companion tracks, more Neil rarities from around 1976/ Seattle Weekly also contemplates Chrome Dreams II relative to Neil’s output for the past decade or so and Metacritic has collected all the major reviews online so far.
Neil kicked off his Fall tour in support of Chrome Dreams II last week and judging from the set list from the opening show in Boise, this theatre tour – including the three shows at Massey Hall – especially the three shows at Massey Hall – at the end of November – is going to be something very special indeed. Just don’t call it a victory lap within earshot of Neil, or he’s likely to opt to play Re-Ac-Tor in its entirety, just to spite.
MP3: Neil Young – “Ordinary People”
Video: Neil Young – “Dirty Old Man” (YouTube)
Video: Neil Young – “The Believer” (YouTube)
Video: Neil Young – “The Way” (YouTube)
Video: Neil Young – “Spirit Road” (YouTube)
MySpace: Neil Young
The Nova Scotia Chronicle-Herald talks to the author of the just-released The Top 100 Canadian Albums about reactions to his book. I’ve only seen part of the results but it’s predictably Neil-heavy – three of the top 20 including #1 – but I can think of at least seven of his albums that can and should be in there. And that’s me speaking impartially.
And tangentially to the 100 greatest list, The National Post attempted to compile a list of the top 10 overlooked Canadian albums of all time, but instead mixed that up with the author’s “top 10 albums I listened to a lot in the 90s and man, weren’t they great?” list. Moxy Fruvous? No.