OUT OF THE BLUE AND INTO THE BLACK
OUT OF THE BLUE AND INTO THE BLACK
Neil Young is probably the last person who should be responsible for maintaining the Neil Young legacy. A hatred of the CD format and a strange obsession with sonic fidelity has left the Neil Young faithful frustrated by endless delays and stubborness and has left the casual listener merely bored. I call his obsession with sonic fidelity 'strange' because, well, because this is Neil Young here, not Phil Spector, and how exacting do you need to be in reproducing each farting amp and each out-of-tune vocal?
Down the years, we've gotten Decade, a standard-setting 'boxed set in miniature', perfectly balancing the casual listener's hits with the fanatic's outtakes, Lucky Thirteen, an overview of the Geffen years so random that probly even the enigmatic mind of Neil Young couldn't make any sense of it, and finally in 2004, Greatest Hits, a soulless missed opportunity that reduced a great artist's seminal career to a randomised selection of Napster downloads. And, excepting a ridiculously overstuffed and glacially slow-to-appear 'Archives' boxed-set series, that's it. Outside of those three collections, there's no good way at all to get into the career of Neil Young, no way to straddle that by-now-massive gulf between casual listener and $300-boxed-set-purchasing obsessives.
The best way to compile Neil Young is so staring-you-in-the-face obvious that suits at Reprise Records must have thought of it but rejected it for some reason no more obvious than any other disappointment in Neil Young's career. Neil Young is considered an extremely eclectic artist, and certainly down the years he's dabbled in a huge range of genres, from doo-wop pastiche to horn-led Blues Brothers 'soul' music, from vocodored 'synth rock' to 30-minute feedback symphonies. yet the vast majority of Neil Young's work falls squarely in one of two categories: acoustic and pastoral or electric and crunchy. Quick, name a Neil Young song, any one. The chances that the song you've chosen falls quite squarely into one of those two categories are exceedingly high. The deviations from this M.O., though they are many, are not necessarily the 'core of the legacy' kind of material you'd want to hear on a 150-minute 2CD career distillation.
So here it is: a 2CD 'greatest hits' packaged sequenced not chronologically but according to instrumentation: one disc collecting the best of Neil Young's acoustic work down the years and one collecting the best of his electric work. I suppose they could be two seperately released CDs, but it seems to me that they work best as a two-CD set.
DISC ONE (ACOUSTIC)
DISC TWO (ELECTRIC)
The collection starts off with My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), which is the acoustic version. Mostly it's a song about the staying power of music (recorded when Neil Young was already feeling like a dinosaur - some thirty years ago), so it's a good place to lead this disc off. Then we're into 'greatest hits', particularly the main tracks from his two acoustic behemoths with 'Harvest' in the title: Heart of Gold from 1972, and Harvest Moon from 1992. They're not the most challenging of songs, but they're evergreen crowd-pleasers. And then with The Painter, a relatively unheralded song from 2005's Prairie Wind, you start to sense the truth behind the controversial song that opens this collection. "It's better to burn out than to fade away", he infamously sings, but this CD presents a third option: carrying on regardless down the decades, oblivious to the passage of time. The songs on this disc were recorded over a period of over forty years but sound as if they could all have been recorded in a single session. For someone seen as having a schizophrenic commitment to diversity, that's a claim few people - if anyone else - can make.
Back then, to 1970 and to two piano-led ballads. One, Helpless, features close-harmony trio Crosby, Stills and Nash and is one of those Neil Young chestnuts I personally find a bit overrated. The other, After the Gold Rush, features a french horn and is so delicate it would break into pieces if you dropped it.
The next step after that is a bit of country, and in a segue that shouldn't work, we go to Neil Young's Reagan-era duet with Willie Nelson, Are There Any More Real Cowboys? I took to this project hoping to integrate Neil Young's Geffen era and his two Reprise eras, but the problem is that (a) his Geffen years are too woefully eclectic and (b) they're not very good. So this is the only Geffen song here, and it comes before the hoedownesque Comes a Time, the first uptempo song of this collection.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart and I Believe in You are both from the same album, After the Gold Rush, which is pretty popular at this stage of the disc. A strange idea to program two album-mates side by side, but it seemed to fit the mood. It's then back to the Comes a Time albym, for the tough-to-program Look Out For My Love, an acoustic-electric hybrid recorded with Crazy Horse. Those guitars get pretty chunky toward the end for a pastoral CD, but the overall mood is more acoustic than electric. And it sounds good at this part of the disc too, the exact midpoint and the close of the first record (this is Neil Young here - of course this would be released as a four-record set).
Unknown Legend is one of the songs from Harvest Moon that were clearly designed to be played down the decades by amateur guitar players everywhere. It's a sturdy song, brought down by some horridly trite lyrics. A contrast with the amazing Pocahontas with wonderfully poetic, enigmatic lyrics. A bit of a 'mytical woman' set, then, continuing with the haiku-like Little Wing, from the overlooked 1980 album Hawks and Doves.
With The Needle and the Damage Done, we're back to for-the-ages classics if more subtle this time, Lotta Love with Crazy Horse again, featuring Neil Young's only real songwriter-for-hire effort better known in Nicolette Larson's version but still excellent here. Old Man, the third selection from 1972's Harvest, keeps with the familiar, a radio mainstay down the decades.
Star of Bethlehem, a lesser-known track from 1977, brings the story in a more spiritual direction, kept up by the first of two songs in a row to be of a more recent vintage, the piano-based When God Made Me, again from 2005's Prairie Wind. Neil Young's most recent album Le Noise gives us Love and War. In compiling this collection, it's mostly Young's most recent albums that I've found house tough decisions. One wants to include songs of all vintages, but ultimately Neil Young's recent material tends to be more 'good' than 'great'. I certainly didn't figure I'd be featuring anything from the current album on the acoustic disc, but this current track is not only amazing but it's a pretty decent summary of Neil Young's career, in all its complexities, to date. So it's a great way to wind down CD one.
As both discs start with the same song, so do they end with it. Freedom, from 1989, is widely seen as a great 'comeback album', but ultimately little apart from the current barn-stormer Rockin' in the Free World (here in the acoustic version that begins that album) has really shown much lasting power. As Young shed his 80s flirtation with conservatism, this song served almost as repentance. And it also segues between the two CDs by having acoustic instruments at an electric tempo. And its sunny optimism is a crack of sunlight coming over the mountains, early at dawn.
Disc two was more difficult that disc one for two main reasons: (a) 'Electric' is pretty much the standard for the idiom of music Neil Young works in. The vast majority of his music is electric, whether or not it's of the style that most people think when they thing 'Neil Young electric'. Any Neil Young song not explicitly acoustic is, as if by default, electric. And (b) those Neil Young songs that one expects to find on an 'electric Neil Young' CD, the ones primarily done with Crazy Horse, tend to be six-minute-plus epics. When you only have 75 minutes to play with, you want to minimise the number of six-minutes-plus epics you include. Now, 'radio edits' are completely out of the question: for most of these epics, their very epicness is largely the point. So I did the best I could; I think it plays well as a CD, more or less what Neil might perform live if he reunited with Crazy Horse for some 'greatest hits' concerts. And I think it contains enough of the classic-epics to stake a claim at being 'definitive'. As close as I could get, anyway.
So it's Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) again, the crunchier electric version this time, which no-one ever mentions is also the less bleak version. From there we waste no time at all getting with the Crazy Horse warhorses: Like a Hurricane, here in all its eight and a half minutes of glory. It's timeless, and there can be no Neil Young greatest hits CD without it. But after the sturm und drang, a step back with Mr. Soul, from Buffalo Springfield's second album in 1967, and Cinnamon Girl from Neil Young's second solo album in 1969 - two crunchy pop tunes a mere three minutes each.
Powderfinger, the fourth and final Rust Never Sleeps track, is a midpoint at five and a half minutes, but certainly feels epic. Fuckin' Up from 1990 was a kind of 'comeback', and a reunion with Crazy Horse, as Neil Young suddenly found himself 'cool' again, with flannel-wearing devotees of all ages. Its name potentially runs the risk of Google classifying my website as 'adult only', and its six-minute running time includes a full minute plus of feedback - longer than the feedback that finishes up 2010's Walk With Me, where Young makes just as much noise all by himself as he could with his Crazy Horse bandmates.
The song is a bit of a reflective 'downer', and it leads to the following two songs, similar in intent and feel despite the twenty years that separates them: Tonight's the Night, the 'part one' version from the album of the same name, recorded for a roadie who'd died from an overdose, and Sleeps With Angels, from the album of the same name and recorded for an acolyte who'd killed himself (quoting 'My My, Hey Hey' in his suicide note).
Those keeping count will find that the halfway pint of the disc slips by unnoticed between the two preceding tracks. But in effect it's Down By the River, all nine and a half minutes of it, that stars off the second disc. Its epic mid-tempo shuffle contrasts with Walk On, seeming positively chipper despite coming from classic 'bummer' album On the Beach.
'Chipper', though, belongs to 125-second This Note's for You, a horn-led anomaly from the rather dated 'Bluenotes' album of the same name. More than any other song on this disc, this is the one that seem s most out of place - an example not of Neil Young the electric guitar maestro but of Neil Young the willful dilettante, but the song is most obviously electric, and it was a hit in its era, and belongs here. Plus its anti-commercial message introduces the 'political' segment of the disc, which begins in earnest with CSNY's non-album Ohio, about the Kent State killings and a surprising example of the close-harmony quartet rocking.
In an earlier version of this disc, I had included post-9/11 rabble-rouser 'Let's Roll'. Just a few years later it felt too dated to include, a sentiment that could be levelled against 2006's Let's Impeach the President, a noisy stream of invective directed at George W. Bush. Perhaps I like it better because I like its politics better. The fourth and final song from After the Gold Rush, Southern Man, sounds little like the other three, being an angry condemnation of sothern racism rebutted by name in Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Home Alabama'. It's another semi-epic at five and a half minutes leading in to the collection's final track, the electric version of Rockin' in the Free World that concludes Freedom. The sentiment is a bit cheesy, simultaneously ironic and sincere, but the song is brilliant. 'Keep on rocking' indeed - Neil Young has been for half a century now, and there's no reason at all to believe he'll ever stop. Rock and roll can never die... well, not if you're Neil Young, anyway.