This week I write about a recent release by an artist I much admired in the past but has grown way too comfortable lately releasing the mediocre.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse - "Americana"
You know, I love Neil Young and his music. The guy is an icon to me, and if he quit recording tomorrow I'd have nothing but the fondest memories of his wide-ranging, classic catalog. I learned how to play guitar by jamming with Neil - on my record player, of course - on "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" and what I consider his greatest album with Crazy Horse, "Rust Never Sleeps."
Then I got back into his back catalog and classics and learned to play entire records by ear, including "After the Gold Rush," "Harvest" and his epic live album with Crazy Horse, "Rust Never Sleeps."
Any time Neil got together with Crosby, Stills and Nash he lit a fire under those boys and took their sometimes-sophomoric music to new heights with his passion and his work ethic.
I love and cherish them all - "Zuma," "Weld," "Comes a Time," "Harvest Moon," "Tonight's the Night," "Ragged Glory," "American Stars n Bars" and especially "Freedom," with its bittersweet and sweeping vision of America's place in the world featuring the blistering anthem "Rockin' in the Free World."
One of the top three live shows I've ever seen featured Neil and the Harvest band - sublime, breath-taking, larger-than-life and even spiritual. I love and admired how he's take chances in his career, confounding those with expectations of what he will be next. Will the real Neil stand up - the wide-eyed folk-hippie or the patriotic punk rocker? The answer is that he's really both.
There's no reason Neil Young has to make records any more, and he's proven his mettle in the rock world. He's the king, the best of the best, an American folk poet/hero. From his grungy, near-atonal work with Crazy Horse to his earnest and heart-felt love songs, Neil Young is all there is to be.
But there's trouble in the castle, my friends.
I've noticed a downward trend in the quality of Neil's music, particularly in the past 10 years. Sure, Neil's put out crappy albums before - witness "Hawks and Doves" and "Life," both abject losers recorded in his "lost years" - but Neil always came back with a vengeance.
The first thing I've noticed about his recent work was Neil didn't seem to care about writing compelling lyrics anymore. Maybe he can't - Dylan has said as much about his newer stuff, and that he can't write how he used to because he's a different person now. Fair enough. Artists need to grow and change to stay fresh.
I became really alarmed at his last release, "Le Noise." While the album sonically was great, the lyrics were some of the worst Neil's ever penned. It's still a good listen, even if it doesn't contain any of the folk-poetry he's renowned for. Or maybe he just doesn't care anymore.
This time out Neil got back together with Crazy Horse for the first time in nine years and developed a concept of classic American songs updated with grungy enthusiasm with the band. Hey, it sounds great on paper, and I had a feeling this could be something really special.
I was right. It's special all right. Damned near unlistenable.
It's not a lack of passion that's the problem - it's more a lack of focus. These songs sound as if they are absolutely unrehearsed first takes, and while I treasure spontaneity, I hate laziness. And this album is probably the laziest of Neil's career.
Does the world really need an eight-minute version of "Tom Dooley," changed to a minor-key so Neil could noodle over it? Why change the songs so much they are practically unrecognizable? Why the same two-chord jams throughout the album? Why does Crazy Horse sound as if they haven't picked up their instruments in the past nine years? Questions, questions, questions, and no easy answers. Maybe Neil feels he has to hurry up and get all his ideas released before he grows too old to execute them. I don't know. All I know is this is the worst Neil Young album I've ever encountered.
I know I'm not alone in that opinion, judging from some of the fan reviews I've read. Other rock critics seem to be giving the album good reviews, but I think they're giving Neil a pass just because it's him with Crazy Horse.
What's really sad is that I think with some foresight and planning this album could have been something really unique. I can hear Neil's lonesome wail and sweet harmonica on "This Land is Your Land," "Gallows Pole" and "Oh, Susanna!" instead of the ramshackle, sloppy versions here. And what's with the horrible version of "Get a Job?" Utter crap.
It's tough to pan one of your musical heroes, but I can't say I like it just because Neil Young is an icon. C'mon, Neil - stop, and think. It's OK to be as ambitious as you once were. Quality still counts more than quantity, Mr. Young, and you should realize that better than anyone.
And I mean that in the nicest way.
(Mark Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)