On December 1, Neil Young released his 39th studio recording, The Visitor, along with opening up the complete, long-awaited Neil Young Archives project. As of today you can stream the new album and explore the vast archives for free. I ordered the new CD anyway because I want to support Neil's efforts. This post takes a look (listen) to both the CD and the Archives project.
I have spent over a week listening to The Visitor off and on. Neil continues to work with Promise of the Real, which is a plus. The band energizes the 72 year-old rocker and Neil leverages their youthful talent to create some incredible instrumentation on the new CD. The overall album is a mixed bag, however, not as strong as The Monsanto Years but still well worth a listen.
Like The Monsanto Years, Neil is channeling some inner angst about the political issues and injustices of contemporary life. Unlike the previous album, however, Neil is a bit less focused and he tends to express his rants in shotgun fashion, generalized, all over the place. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that (lord knows there is plenty to be enraged about these days) but it does tend to give the album a wobbly feel.
"Already Great" starts us off. The song is an obvious retort to the Donald Trump meme "Make America Great Again." While it points out various ways this nation was great before Trump became president, as well as how it remains great today in spite of Trump, the song itself never really gets going for me. The message is there, the lyrics are OK, the vibe is essentially passionate, but the band sounds like it is on the verge of getting it all together. It seems to want to rock but doesn't. Instead it comes off more like a ragged jukebox; a rough and uneven song that is, in some respects, representative of the album as a whole.
The second track, "Fly By Night Deal", is pure filler. Not a very interesting song at all, more reminiscent of Neil's rather difficult Fork in the Road album than anything else. The third track, "Almost Always" shifts from the electric guitar sound of the first two songs to a smooth acoustic number. While this is a better tune, it still comes off as bit whiny and, though more accessible than the opening track, it lacks the passion needed to pull it off.
With "Stand Tall" we are back to electric Neil, only this time in the form of an anthem. This is an example of a Neil song that didn't strike me as particularly good to begin with but which nevertheless has grown on me. I find myself humming this slow rock track in my head. This song works for me and, while certainly not great, is worthy of the effort. Some nice and crunchy guitar jamming on this one.
"Change of Heart" is the first really excellent song on the record. This is another acoustic number and it fires on all cylinders. The band shows superb musicianship in this folksy tune. Great lyrics. This easy-going song shuffles along so well featuring a mandolin, Neil's whistling, a nice melody and vocals with a surprisingly rich tapestry of instrumentation. This one has plenty of fervor and acoustical intensity. Maybe the strongest effort on The Visitor.
Another very strong song is "Carnival." The solid, easy drive of this tune is somewhat deceptive because the song feels macabre and surrealistic while at times sounding like something Carlos Santana might perform. It is an intricate track, with plenty of beat changes and lighthearted, slightly deranged vocals - a wonderful parody on contemporary life as a carnival of escapism and misguided amusement. Again, the instrumentation choices are interesting. This one features a child's toy piano and bongos along with the electric guitars. Neil seems to be at his most honest here. He is an aging rocker, with his most intense riffs and grinding guitar days likely behind him. So, he turns to the strange and twisted, likely reflective of his personal experience these days. An oddly eccentric yet satisfying number, "Carnival" shows Neil ceaselessly tinkering with new forms of musical expression.
"Diggin' a Hole" is another piece of filler, this time in a traditional bluesy, almost gospel type sound tinged with humor. Interesting to listen to only because, at roughly two and a half minutes, it is over with in a hurry. The music video for "Children of Destiny" was released back in the summer. Here Neil is in the middle of the road with an accessible, lyrical tune dealing with climate change and other environmental issues. This one features a lot of brass and a string orchestra. "When Bad Got Good" is the third filler song on this record. Another somewhat humorous, bizarre, herky-jerky number that is mercifully short.
But with "Forever" we find Neil at his best during this portion of his career. This 10-minute long acoustical ballad seems simple enough, but attentive listening reveals a sophisticated mix of sounds. Promise of the Real is terrific on this song, which has, in spite a couple of moments of strained vocals by Neil (never known as a great vocalist), a smooth, rich, nostalgic quality about it. The natural environment is again at the forefront of the message here. Nice metaphors. Though no less of a critique of our society, there is no genuine despair or rage here. This song is more of a celebration of living in spite of our challenges, of being appreciative of what we have left, and ends the album on a hopeful note. It resonates with me more than any other tune on The Visitor through my repeated hearings so far.
So, as I said, the new CD is a mixed bag, but it is only part of the story for Neil these days. Back in 2009, I purchased the first blu-ray boxed set of The Neil Young Archives. At that time I posted about what a wonderful collection it was, and how its style and interactive design set a standard for not only presenting his musical career, but it was a innovative way to explore any historical topic.
In tandem with the release of The Visitor, Neil placed his entire Archives online for free (for a limited time). Everything I purchased years ago is in there but that only covered his musical story through 1972. The Archives are now complete so you can access any song from his career from 1963 - 2017. Besides the music, there is an astonishing amount of information here. You can view photos, lyrics, newspaper clippings, and various other forms of memorabilia while the music continues to play. Numerous videos are sprinkled throughout as well. It is just an incredible experience for any rock music fan.
There are essentially two ways to rummage through this vast amount of material. The most obvious one is the "file cabinet" approach. When you log-in to the Archives site (through your Facebook or Google account) you will see a filing drawer. Clicking on the handle opens the long and seemingly endless drawer. There are file folders for every song, grouped by album, starting with The Visitor and going song by song, file by file back to the early 1960's. There are controls for picking specific dates or years to assist with keeping your oriented. Watch Neil's tutorial on navigating his Archives here.
Click on the intentionally weathered looking tab of any given folder and it will open to a song "card" that contains the music and all the various additional material for each song. Most songs have something extra, if it is only the lyrics. Many songs contain the lyrics as they were originally penned in Neil's handwriting on a stray sheet of paper or, literally, a napkin, along with the aforementioned photos, high-quality scans of things like old 45 records, and other material related to that particular song or time in Neil's life. I have spent hours browsing through the collection. It would take far more time than I currently have available to explore everything.
The second way to experience the Archives is in "timeline" mode. Instead of the filing cabinet, here you have an extended linear view of Neil's musical life, literally day by day in chronological order moving from the left to the right. You can stop at any point on the timeline and magnify that section. Doing so allows you to click on various pushpins that tell you which songs were recorded on which days. An additional click takes you to the same song "card" as the filing system mode gives you. The timeline is cool because it gives you a wider view of all the albums and you can see where most of the videos are rather than hunting for them haphazardly through the file drawer.
I don't regret buying my rather expensive blu-ray set years ago. It came with a lot of bonuses you can't get from the online service, like a nice leather-bound book of lyrics and artistic doodles in Neil's hand. And the Archives are only free for the next few months or so. I have no idea what he will charge as a subscription to access them later on. Time will tell.
I cannot stress enough what a unique and amazing experience the Archives are. This is the first time in history that a musical artist has made all of their recordings (including a bunch of previously unreleased stuff) accessible on the internet to anyone. As far as I am concerned this sets the standard for revisiting the careers of any great rock artist or band. And the bar is set very high.
While The Visitor features a few worthy songs and is largely a mediocre album, the Archives are extraordinary in their design, scope, detail, and thoroughness. Even if you are not a Neil Young fan I recommend you spend a few moments exploring this unique site. If nothing else, sign in and go find Neil's only number one hit, "Heart of Gold" from 1972 and give it a listen. I think you'll be more than impressed with what you find and can easily see how this is literally a breakthrough in how to present a large amount of information for easy research and enjoyment.
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