It goes without saying that Neil Young’s two finest hours were his roles in Buffalo Springfield and The Last Waltz (I cry like a “Helpless” baby when I get to that part of the concert.) But what has he done for us lately, you ask?
October’s Psychedelic Pill and May’s Americana. And a sweet autobiography called Waging Heavy Peace . And by sweet I mean rambling. And old mannish. And, from the little I’ve heard read aloud from my wife, impossible to put down or dismiss.
But the inspiration for this post comes entirely from Psychedelic Pill. It is a mammoth undertaking, and after the very ill-conceived Americana (Oh Susanna done to the chord progression of Venus? Really?) it packs a wallop I wasn’t expecting. The first thing you have to notice is how he sounds now exactly the way he did in the early 70s. Virtually no change. From the amount of drugs and rock and roll antics chronicled in his book, this is a welcome surprise. It’s a wonder how he didn’t end up like one of those California Raisins from London. Or just dead.
Anyway, when you’ve got a double-LP in which 4 songs clock in at over 8, 16, and 27 minutes, and you add the overdrive power that Crazy Horse brings, you have the most sprawling-in-a-good-way, legitimate rock-jam album of the past decade.
But then there’s also 2003’s concept album Greendale which a new friend recently loaned me. It was the last thing Young did before Americana, and for any naysayers that say Young hasn’t offered anything exciting or new since “Rockin’ in the Free World,” you’ve got to get ahold of this one. A musical novella about a coastal California town called Greendale, I think it’s what the Killers were striking at with Sam’s Town, but this precedes it and is more complex (as you would imagine; all due respect to Brandon Flowers.) It also mimics Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town.
Young gives his characters true-to-life flesh and warmth while chronicling their celebrations and struggles. And really it’s the kind of town where nothing ever happens, so every event is simultaneously commonplace and infinitely unique – meaningless in the wider realm and all-important to those who are living it. Ol’ Neil Young captures that in such a way that one assumes Garrison Keillor must have been a collaborator on the album. Its basic mood is melancholy, deep, poignant; at its conclusion one is left with a fond sadness for the characters and an acknowledgment that this is masterful creation.
I’ve yet to see the accompanying movie, and I hear that the graphic novel is worth a gander as well. I feel blessed to live in a time when an old folkie from the summer of love days is still pouring such richness and depth into our increasingly shallow world.