Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Neil's Experimental Earth

I pre-ordered Neil Young’s latest CD, Earth, from amazon and it arrived in the mail the last Monday following its June 24 release.  I have now listened to it 5-6 times.  Neil often requires repeated listenings before the music begins to fully speak to you.  Sometimes the music is instantaneously accessible like with 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. Sometimes, the music really never grips you like 2009’s Fork in the Road.

The cover of Earth comes with a label on it warning of "modified content" on the CD.  This is partly a joke, playing off the GMO-theme of last year's The Monsanto Years.  But it also accurately signals that Earth is not a purely "live" album. This is an experimental artistic effort for Neil, so I had to come to grips with that initially.  It is filled with sounds of nature (bees, thunder, geese, water flowing, etc.) mixed between the two CD set’s 13 tracks.  That is nothing remarkable in and of itself. It has been done before. But, Neil also sneaks the critter sounds into the actual tracks of music as well.  So, out of the blue, you will hear a crow calling as Neil is hammering out a nice riff.  That takes some getting used to.

I thought Earth was going to be a “live” album in a traditional sense with some nature sound accompaniment. I had followed Neil’s tour through Europe last summer with Promise of the Real on youtube, watching them perform practically everything in his storied repertoire as they featured the best material from The Monsanto Years. Playing with the younger band consisting of Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah seemed to re-energize Neil and they often sounded amazing.  So, I was ready to listen to some great live versions of that material on Earth.  But the CD turns out to be more of an attempt at a concept album than depicting a live concert feel.  Mixed in with all the critter sounds and the live takes is a small overdubbed choir, I suppose to smooth out the sometimes rough hewn harmonies of Neil’s live vocals.

That is OK but it dampened my enthusiasm for  a live music set.  This is more about Neil trying to reflect upon his life-long pursuit of environmentalism and stewardship of the planet, not just in terms of his music but in terms of a feel, a vibe as an extended tribute to nature.  All but one of the tracks is a cover of previously recorded Neil, spanning his career since 1970.

"Mother Earth" features Neil on an old pump organ that he has used forever in concert.  I saw him perform on it live in 2010.  His harmonica accompaniment harkens back to the early days of his career, though his voice (never the strongest asset in his creative arsenal) is deeper and of a more limited range today than it was in 1990's excellent Ragged Glory, where this anthem to nature first appeared. It is mellow and perhaps a bit sentimental.

"Seed Justice" is a rocking tune and the only previously unreleased song on the 2 CD set.  Eh.  It strikes me as filler, an unnecessary song performed with passion but without much else to which to commend itself.  By contrast, "My Country Home", also from Ragged Glory, is a superb rendition, the first truly worthy song on the CD.  Neil and the band keep it very close to the original but with an energetic feel that can only come from a live performance.  This is how I wanted the whole album to be.

"The Monsanto Years" does not possess the same raw energy, however.  It is a competent performance, with vocals smoothed out by the overdubbed studio choir chiming in to harmonize. Too  smooth in my opinion. "Western Hero" is an OK performance but to be honest this song does not feel like it should even be on Earth. It just doesn't fit in with the other material.

"Vampire Blues" definitely fits.  This is a gritty rendition, not as good as the On the Beach version, but with some fantastic guitar work by Lukas and Neil.  Worth a listen.  "Hippie Dream" is from 1986's mediocre Landing on Water.  The band does this one justice with a powerful performance of a song that is basically a reaction to the sentiment expressed in 1969's "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  My guess is Neil included this tune to indicate that action rather than theory is what is needed in the environmental mess the planet finds itself in today.

The first CD ends with "After the Gold Rush" and "Human Highway."  The former is a decent effort though nowhere near the caliber of the original title song from Neil's brilliant 1970 album.  The later is a fine performance from 1978's splendid Comes a Time, the first album of Neil's that I ever purchased.  I miss the banjo from the album track, however.  

The second CD opens with a version of "Big Box" that frankly disappoints me.  This tune is the strongest offering on last year's album.  I think it is the best song Neil has performed in almost a decade.  Here he and the band experiment with the tune a bit and manage to miss all of what made the original song so great.  It still rocks just not in a manner I find as invigorating as the studio version.

"People Want to Hear About Love" is better though still not as good as last year's release.  This is a very clever song with a typically deceptive chorus.  The lyrics all speak of the various natural and political issues facing the planet but the chorus is all about how music listeners would rather hear tunes of love than think about any of that.  Very appropriate for this album and the performance is accessible if not overly inspired. "Wolf Moon" is practically the same as last year's studio release and this is on track where the overdubbed chorus actually adds to this song.  I actually prefer this live version, it is one of the highlights of the CD.

But there is little doubt about what the highlight is on Earth. The album closes with a blistering 29-minute (more like 25-minutes after you take out the crowd noise at the beginning and the end) version of "Love and Only Love," again originally from Ragged Glory.  This song has the length and space for several masterful, driving guitar solos by Neil and Lukas.  The entire band is massive on this sprawling, monstrous rendition.  Definitely the one song that makes this CD worthwhile to any true Neil fan, and those less familiar with his artistry will find it an accessible classic rocker.  This shows the potential that lies at the heart of Neil's collaboration with the band.  Just a great performance.

You can compare "Love and Only Love", "My Country Home", and "Mother Earth" not only with their original studio recording but also with how they were featured on 1991's live Weld album with Crazy Horse.  The Weld versions feature the raw intensity I was expecting from Earth but, of course, Neil is a lot older now and, despite being obviously energized by the Promise of the Real's strong backing work, this is not the intense, grungy Neil that was so prominent on that previous live album. Still, these are the among the strongest tracks on Earth, delivered in solid, if not as raw and intense, performances.

For me, the problem with this release is that it is so inconsistent.  Out of the 13 songs presented 4 or so are truly worthy of the treatment Neil gives them on Earth.  The rest range from just OK to surprisingly uninspired.  So, overall, Earth is dissatisfying to me.  The overdubs and the nature sound are both overdone, but that might be Neil's point as he experiments with the concept of communicating not only his music about nature but the actual muse he feels for nature. To that extent, even though this effort might not have worked the way Weld did in a completely different context and time but, as lifelong Rustie, I admire the fact he is still trying new things while staying very relevant to our times into his 70's.
Whatever else Neil may or may not be, irrelevant is not part of the equation.  Earth is not his strongest effort but it is unusual, creative, and it manages to deliver some meaningful performances that really count despite the overall effort being somewhat uneven.

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