erasing clouds

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Greendale (Reprise)

reviewed by dave heaton

When I first heard about this past summer's Neil Young & Crazy Horse tour, that they were doing a "song cycle" complete with actors and props, I had to work to suppress a groan. But Greendale the album has none of the negative characteristics I expected: overly literal songs, pretentiousness or too much dramatic flair. Instead, this is a Neil Young album where the songs happen to all be about the same town, and that town happens to be made up. It's easy to listen to Greendale without following the story at all, and get as much out of you as you'd want from an album.

Greendale doesn't sound like an experiment, it sounds like a Neil Young album. Yet more than that even, much of Greendale sounds like the best Neil Young albums put together into one. Musically it has both some of the Horse's rawest and most moving playing in years; on nearly every song it sounds like they could take off into an epic jam at any second, and now and then they do. Yet there's also the gentle country-folk side of Neil here and there, the delicate melodies that filled albums like Harvest Moon and Silver and Gold.

Topically Greendale also seems to contain much of what's obsessed Neil Young songs over the years, as if he's jammed his psyche into the various characters that the songs are about. Environmental concern, distrust of authority, nostalgia for the past, yearning for the simple life, emotional struggles, hippie-style idealization of the free-spirited woman, and so on…it's all here, filtered through these imaginary people and their songs. In the liner notes (and in the between-song banter on the bonus DVD, which has Neil performing the entire album live and acoustically in Dublin), Young writes about these people like they're his friends, while also admitting that he's not all that sure why he's become so obsessed with them. About the town he writes, "I made it up and I don't know what the hell is goin on, so don't feel bad if you feel a little out of it with this." That's always been Neil Young's apparent m.o.: to impulsively jump into whatever style or project feels right at the time, then move onto the next without worry. And if that's what works for him, what keeps him vital, it also often threatens to lead him astray.

With Greendale the threat level seemed high but the end result is a real treasure. It feels like he's stumbled into his own version of the Great American novel, an epic story that embodies so much more than it should. And when Greendale concludes with not a whimper but two blow-out blues jams with Neil alternately shouting anti-corporate screeds through a megaphone and playing the all-knowing, gentle narrator, his music sounds as full of life and knowledge as it ever has.

Issue 15, September 2003

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