Unlike his recent output, there’s no overarching preoccupation here, there is only a bunch of good tunes.
You know how it is with gentlemen of a certain age and standing. When was the last time you didn’t read a review of the latest opus from, say, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, that wasn’t heralded as A Great Return To Form?
Frequently, to be fair, these claims are not without validity. But more often than not, such feverish notices are borne of wishful thinking, cumulative fandom and an unbridled relief that our most revered artistes haven’t quite flushed their illustrious career down the lavatory just yet.
Sadly, time is rarely kind to these Brand New Instant Classics. We’re seduced, of course. We might even declare our undying love. But it’s rarely the Real Thing. Once that shiny new package is back on the shelf, its shot at the big time, at high rotation play, is going, going, gone.
Neil Young is, of course, the exception that proves the rule. By the late eighties, you’ll recall, the stars were realigning in his favour. Years spent wandering through an experimental wilderness gave way to the thumping melodies of Freedom (1989) just as the grunge kids who fashioned themselves in his craggy image were coming of age. But there was more going on than celebrity endorsements from plaid-shirted Seattle denizens. Harvest Moon, Mr. Young’s belated 1992 sequel to his 1972 country-rock classic, is still reckoned as one of his finest outings.
Since then, the Canadian rocker has been remarkably consistent in his cranky inconsistent way, hop-scotching between the personal, the political, the conceptual and the downright distorted. But for now, he’s keeping it together in a way that early eighties efforts – think Re-ac-tor or Trans – suggested he might not. Whether he’s rambling (‘Greendale’), romanticising (‘Prairie Wind’) or ranting from his soapbox as a war supporter (‘Are You Passionate?’) then an anti-war peacenik (‘Living With War’), he, and by extension we, never lose touch with the heart and soul of Neil Percival Young.
The appearance of Chrome Dreams II is, therefore, remarkably apposite in its contrary way. Only an eccentric of weapons grade standard would think to pen a follow-up to a 1977 album that never actually saw the light of day, but that’s Neil Young for you. Mostly, the album collects the gleaming treasures found in his oft-bootlegged trash heap. ‘Beautiful Bluebird’, the slight, sweet opening track punctuated by twitterpated guitar, was salvaged from the original unreleased version of Old Ways, his 1985 waltz into olde worlde Nashville. ‘Boxcar’ rattles into town courtesy of Times Square, a 1989 offering shelved to make way for the air-punching Freedom.
Both tracks are endearing, though they could hardly be said to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with ‘Ordinary People’, a vast 18-minute ode to the good (railroad and assembly line toilers), the bad (Vegas high rollers) and the vigilante that leaves you hungry for more despite the epic running time. Other highlights include the chugging lumbering soul of ‘Spirit Road’, the geriatric gobbing of ‘Dirty Old Man’, and ‘The Way’, a tinkling sucker punch spiritual gilded by honeyed children’s choir. That tremulous alto has rarely sounded more winningly fragile.
Does it all come together? Well, yes and no. Even Mr Young had admitted that Chrome Dreams II “crosses all formats”. Unlike his recent output, there’s no overarching preoccupation here, there is only a bunch of good tunes. It works because the medium is the message, because it befits the oddball that fashioned it. As the 61-year-old crosses his long highways and old freight trains, one is reminded that he stands as the dictionary definition of Americana even though he’s never signed on for US citizenship. It’s Neil Young, kids, it’s not supposed to add up.
And so we declare, with hand on heart, it’s a Brand New Instant Classic. Honest.
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