Electric guitar-wielding noise merchant, peaceful acoustic troubadour and electronic pioneer – Neil Young has been all these and more in a career that stretches back over 40 years. David Davies salutes the original ‘changing man’.
There has always been something of the outsider about Neil Young. Right from his first flush of fame playing guitar alongside Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield, through his controversial adoption of vocoder and electronic treatments in the early ’80s, to his no-punches-pulled attack on George W Bush on latest album Living With War. Whether you attribute this to his parents’ separation, a childhood brush with polio or the onset of epilepsy during his teenage years, Young has been relentless in following his own instincts – whatever the cost.
This artistic restlessness has certainly made the Canadian-born Young frighteningly prolific, with around 40 original albums (excluding live sets, reissues and so on) to his name. As a crude generalisation, these break down into electric guitar dominated albums made with Crazy Horse (Zuma, Ragged Glory) and more contemplative, acoustic-oriented ones (Harvest, Comes A Time), although the dichotomy falls apart completely in the ‘80s when the great man embraced everything from Kraftwerk-influenced electro-pop (Trans) to ‘50s rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’). But then the ‘80s was undoubtedly Young’s difficult decade – he declared his support for Reagan at one point, for God’s sake – and almost begs to be partitioned off and considered as a weird cultish career in its own right. Still, for the uninitiated, it’s an intimidatingly large body of work, so where to begin?
The answer has to be Decade, Young’s own extensive 1977 compilation. Chronologically ordered, it tracks his development from member of the short-lived but sporadically brilliant Buffalo Springfield (‘Mr Soul’, ‘Down to the Wire’) to fully-fledged solo star (highlights from reputation-sealing albums like After the Goldrush and Harvest). Still the best possible case for Young as both songwriter and performer, Decade should leave you hungry for more, in which case you’ll be wanting the so-called Doom Trilogy. Consisting of Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (‘74) and Tonight’s the Night (‘75), these find an often tormented Young musing on the death of ‘60s idealism and its replacement by a more cynical, avaricious age. The urge towards self-destruction is also a constant subtext, doubtless inspired by the drug-related deaths of original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. The result is messy, unsettling, often passionate music, and it’s a shame that Young has still not seen fit to release Time Fades Away on CD. However, the other two are available and are the bedrock of any serious Young collection; buy them alongside 1975’s Zuma, and you can hear him emerge from the darkness into a more optimistic phase.
But the truth is that, the patchy American Stars ‘N’ Bars aside, you can’t go too wrong with any Neil Young record from the 1970s. At the peak of his artistic powers, Young reflected an America undergoing unprecedented change in a sequence of melodic, wilful albums that still crackle with life in 2006. Never inclined to pursue the search for multitrack perfection practised by peers like the Eagles, he became master of the one-take approach and was consequently spared by punk’s ‘war on the dinosaurs’ at the decade’s end. Indeed, in 1979’s blistering Rust Never Sleeps, he came up with his own skilful response to the movement’s back to basics cry.
The ‘80s, of course, proved more problematic, but then that was the era during which pretty much all of the previous decade’s greatest artists (Dylan included) lost the plot. And in Young’s case, it was hardly surprising – with two young children suffering from cerebral palsy, his mind was on more important things than the next record. Finally, after several misfires – including an ill-fated regrouping of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – he rediscovered his form once more, firstly on the Japanese-only EP ‘Eldorado’ and then the album Freedom (1989, and including several of the ‘Eldorado’ tracks). Bringing together the acoustic and electric sides of his work for the first time since Rust Never Sleeps, Freedom found Young waking up to the ‘every man for himself’ horrors of Reagan’s America, particularly on the anthemic ‘Rockin’ In the Free World’. Happily, the album was not a one-off, and the next few years saw Young – batteries clearly recharged – release a series of strong albums, including the grungified Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon, a successful return to pastoral folkie mode.
A final personal recommendation would be 1994’s Sleeps With Angels, a haunted-sounding collaboration with Crazy Horse that sometimes bears little resemblance to their other work together and is, in part, a reflection on the then-recent death of Kurt Cobain (who, despite barely acknowledging Young in interviews during his lifetime, chose to quote from ‘My My, Hey Hey (Into the Blue)’ in his suicide note). The decade-plus since that album’s release has been anything but predictable, and the current Living With War – essentially a long one-fingered salute to the Bush government – shows that, even past 60 and regardless of recent treatment for a brain aneurysm, Young retains the capacity to surprise. And let’s face it, of which other artists of his generation can you still say that?
Living With War is available now on Reprise. The extremely long-awaited Archives Vol 1 boxed set, collating scores of previously unreleased studio and live performances, may now be released this autumn – although TMOnline advises you against breath-holding procedures