Monday, December 03, 2007

Only In Dreams...

Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II

I feel somewhat ambivalent towards Neil Young these days. He’s written a number of my favourite songs of all time, and discovering his prodigious output (and its influence on the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam) was a key chapter in my musical adolescence.

It’s now been a very long time since he’s produced a record worthy of his talent though. Where he used to have a genuine skill in expressing simple and direct statements (especially on ‘Harvest’ and ‘After The Goldrush’), with parts of ‘Silver and Gold’ and pretty much all of ‘Prairie Wind’, this veered into a sort of homespun sentimentality. ‘Are You Passionate?’, which featured members of the Stax house band, should have been a triumph, but it contained the hollow, pro-war ‘anthem’ ‘Let’s Roll’, and even its better moments seemed stilted and lumbering. More recently, the eco-opera ‘Greendale’ represented some sort of crazed grand folly, and ‘Living With War’, despite being highly praised elsewhere, was a clunky attempt at reversing the sentiment of ‘Let’s Roll’ in favour of clumsy Bush-baiting with little cogent analysis.

Neil Young has imbued ‘Chrome Dreams II’ with a mythical and somewhat silly title. The original ‘Chrome Dreams’ was scrapped in 1977, but would arguably contained Young’s finest, most consistent selection of songs – Pocahontas, Stringman and Like A Hurricane among them. This record is therefore not so much a sequel, as a rather blatant attempt to reference former glories. It’s not surprising that people are looking to it to provide fresh justification of Young’s revered status in the rock canon.

Unfortunately, it’s not the album that many people so clearly want it to be. Yes, there’s the 17 minute epic ‘Ordinary People’ (although even the most ardent Young admirer would have to take at least six of those minutes to ponder why it had to be quite *that* long). There’s also one other lengthy workout, ‘No Hidden Path’, which at least crackles with a mild vitality. It’s Young’s noble attempt at raging against the dying of the light. ‘Ordinary People’ is an anthem celebrating the impoverished and downtrodden and it rambles on for twenty verses, some more inspired than others. It’s a passionate and energised performance, enervated by some characteristically unsubtle guitar solos pitted against a quite marvellous horn section. It’s telling though, that it was actually recorded some twenty years ago and never included on ‘This Note’s For You’.

Elsewhere, things get pretty uncomfortable. ‘Beautiful Bluebird’ opens the album on a rather twee note, whilst ‘Shining Light’ and ‘The Believer’ sound rather like pastiches of gospel and Motown. Both could have sat comfortably on ‘Are You Passionate?’. Worst of all, ‘Dirty Old Man’ most closely resembles ‘Piece Of Crap’, the banal and facile low point of the otherwise outstanding ‘Sleeps With Angels’ album.

Not only has Young lost his capacity for those simple but affecting combinations of thoughts and melodies that made his name, he has also lost the ability to deliver with any kind of nuance. This has long been evident in his insistent, repetitive and indulgent live performances with Crazy Horse, but is increasingly also prevalent in his more reflective solo work. ‘Chrome Dreams II’ is a ragbag collection that occasionally grasps for inspiration, but never quite reaches it.

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