Monday, September 26, 2005

Back From The Brink?

Neil Young's 'Prairie Wind'

It's somewhat appropriate that I should return from Canada just in time for the latest release from one of Canada's most famous artists. Neil Young has been treading water for quite some time now, from the pleasant but unremarkable 'Silver and Gold' to the ludicrous folly of 'Greendale'. Even the dogged 'Are You Passionate?', recorded with Booker T. Jones, seemed to lack inspiration. 'Prairie Wind' is therefore the first Neil Young album for several years that can come with a sticker attached generically describing it as 'the critically acclaimed new album from Neil Young' without breching the trade descriptions act. Sadly, it's arguably telling that they couldn't find anything more interesting to say about it.

In fact, the whole marketing campaign for 'Prairie Wind' has been a bit bizarre. Reprise are promoting it as the concluding part of the the 'Harvest' trilogy, following 'Harvest' and 'Harvest Moon', obviously in the hope of recapturing some of Young's fans lost in the recent years of underachievement. Hang on a minute though - wasn't that exactly how 'Silver and Gold' was promoted? It seems that Young has conveniently forgotten that he ever recorded that album, such is the similarity of 'Prairie Wind' in outlook, style and even artwork. Anyone expecting Young to return to the tempestuous charms of 'Sleeps With Angels' following his life-threatening brain aneurysm will be sorely disappointed with this defiantly nostalgic, reflective and relaxed work. The themes here are dreams, love, and family, all set against that delicate but wide landscape with which we are now so familiar.

Reviewers have hailed Young's vocals here as his most sensitive and affecting in years. To my ears, 'Prairie Wind' demonstrates marked vocal deterioration, sadly not a return to the ravaged growl of 'Tonight's The Night' or 'On The Beach', but in a slight tendency to drift slightly off-key. It's a more subtle change than the complete loss of control suffered by Bob Dylan, but it's worth noting nonetheless.

It doesn't help that the lyrics are largely mawkish and sentimental, however genuine the sentiment may be. Young should not be condemned for making such an unfashionably conservative record as this, but he can surely express his feelings a little more expressively than 'I just want to tell you you sure mean a lot to me/It may sound simple but you are the world to me'. It does indeed sound simple. Elsewhere, he's frequently pining for his youth and his Daddy, from the initial memory of being 'a growing boy rockin' on my Daddy's knee' in 'Far From Home' or, rather better in the title track, 'tryin' to remember what my Daddy said before too much time took away his head'.

The themes of 'Prairie Wind' only carry real bite when they are aligned with the desolate windswept landscape for which Young also harbours sincere affection - from the rolling red river in 'It's A Dream' to the wheatfields and northern sky of the title track and the 'amber waves of grain' in 'No Wonder'. Best of all is his desire to be buried 'where the buffalo used to roam' in 'Far From Home'. There is an evocative language here trying to escape but, perhaps with a sense of mortality hanging over him, Young doesn't quite seem to have given himself enough time to capture it coherently. Young is famous for his frequent political U-turns, but he seems to strive to forget the outside world entirely here. He threads memories of the immediate post 9/11 environment into 'No Wonder', but does so via references to Willie Nelson's rendition of America The Beautiful and some comments from comedian Chris Rock, rather than anything more contentious. He begins 'It's A Dream' trying to 'ignore what the paper says'.

Musically, it has a handful of highlights (although nothing compares too favourably with any of Young's real career peaks). 'No Wonder' benefits from a more beefy, bluesy sound and an intricate vocal arrangement. It's most reminiscent of Young's best work with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Similarly, the title track is also ambitious and powerful, with as forthright a sound as possible with the constrictions of an acoustic band. It sounds passionate and soulful. 'Far From Home' is whimsical, but lifted by the outstanding horn arrangement, whilst 'It's A Dream' features strings strongly reminiscent of Young's collaborations with the legendary Jack Nitzsche. There's plenty of context here, but the ideas are never really developed beyond references or vague memories.

'The Painter' and 'Falling Off The Face Of The Earth' are pretty on the surface, but they are also pretty inconsequential underneath. Young is on autopilot here - we know he can write songs like this in his sleep. Both could have fitted comfortably on 'Silver and Gold', but neither compare well with the more incisive and moving songs he wrote for 'Harvest Moon'. If we can't here another song as good as 'Birds' or 'Harvest', we could at least hope for something of the quality of 'From Hank To Hendrix' or 'One Of These Days'. Instead we get some cliched nostalgia for Elvis in 'He Was The King', a song that has been written so many times, and perhaps perfected by Gillian Welch in her wonderful 'Elvis Presley Blues'.

It all ends with 'When God Made Me', which is either a testament of personal faith or a questioning of fundamentalism, it's lyrics coded in a series of rhetorical questions. The song seems to have caused a great deal of controversy on the other side of the pond, but it's not explicitly confrontational. The music is uncomfortably turgid, which probably only serves to heighten the rather icky nature of the lyric. It's rather an unfortunate note on which to end such an imperfect collection.

I really hope there is another great album left in Neil Young, but whilst his live concerts with Crazy Horse continue to tend towards the indulgent and portentous, his solo work sees him repeating himself once more. Can Young, like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have done, find an incisive outlook on encroaching mortality to reinvigorate his artistry?

3 comments:

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