Monday 27 April 2009

Neil Young "Comes A Time" (1978) (News, Views and Music 29, Revised 2014)

You can buy 'Here We Are In The Years - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Neil Young' in e-book form by clicking here

(First published April 27th 2009; revised edition published August 12th 2014)

Neil Young “Comes A Time” (1978)

Goin' Back/Comes A Time/Look Out For My Love/Lotta Love/Peace Of Mind//Human Highway/Already One/Field Of Opportunity/Motorcycle Mama/Four Strong Winds

"These rocks I'm climbing down have already left the ground, careering through space..." "I used to walk these buildings, I used to walk next to you, their shadows tore us apart and now we do what we do" "Comes a time when you're driftin', comes a time when you settle down, comes a light feelin's lifted, lift that baby right up off the ground!" "Oh this whole world keeps spinning round, it's a wonder tall trees aren't layin' down, comes a time" "There's a weight on you, but you can't feel it, living like I do, it's hard for you to see it, was I hurt too bad? Can I show you dalylight?" "Hydraulic wiper pumpin' shinin' in the grey day, while the ice is forming on a  lonely runway" "When first you gave and shared your soul, showed her all the things that take their toll, she knows your weak spot but still she gets you hot" "we're already one, now only time can come between us" "I don't have any answers my friend, just this pile of old questions" "Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high, all those things that don't change come what may"

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven. A time to born, a time to die, a time to pluck up that which has been planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to break down and a time to build up. A time for love, a time for hate. A time for peace - I swear it's not too late"

At last, after nine increasingly tortured albums, 'Comes A Time' finds Neil Young at peace with the world. Most reviewers will tell you that 'Zuma' marks the end of the 'Doom Trilogy' or that 'Like A Hurricane' marks the moment when Neil Young recovers his musical spirit, but for me it's 'Comes A Time' that truly turns the corner and finds Neil in a good place for the first time in, well, maybe ever. At long last, after experiencing more disintegrating lineups of bands than most artists experience in a lifetime and relationships best described as 'love-hate', Neil Young sounds like a contented family man. Yes that's right, just four long hard years after 'On The Beach' and five after the recording of 'Tonight's The Night' the karmic wheel has now turned Neil's way and the guitarist is now is re-affirming the beauty of life, not wallowing in the darker corners of death. After a lifetime of singing sad reflective songs, Neil finally sounds happy just to be alive - and there is no sound in the universe quite as wonderful as someone you've only really heard at his emotional limits finally discovering how brilliant life can be. Not to spoil the record for anyone, but the sad truth is Neil won't ever sound quite this 'jolly' again - which makes 'Comes A Time', however inconsistent and occasionally downright awful as it might be, a truly special record for anyone whose shared part of the way through Neil's hazardous musical journey. For (almost) one whole record Neil sounds content, blessed out on family life and the feeling that the demons have disappeared and the guitarist is allowed to have ‘fun’ again. The key line of the whole album for me is on the (comparatively) edgy 'Look Out For My Love' where a pained Neil asks 'was I hurt too bad or can I show you daylight?' The answer is a resounding yes.
I mean - just look at that cover! After years of having his back to us ('On The Beach'), using distorted graphics ('Everybody Know This Is Nowhere') and appearing in the sizzled celluloid that makes him look like an alien ('After The Goldrush') Neil is now looking into the camera. And unlike the gigantic full-on painting for the 'Neil Young' record, he's smiling. Until now we've only really seen Neil laugh in pictures when Stephen Stills has just said or done something really stupid - this is a much more self-satisfied smile though, real cheshire cat grin. Of course Neil's cradling a guitar in his hand rather than a baby (family pictures really aren't his scene) but in that hat (a big white sunhat for those who can't see it) he even looks like a family man, a father, maybe a hippie rancher - but decidedly not a rock star. Finally, at the age of 33, the time has come for Neil to have some roots - and some happiness.

Now, my randometer seems to have gone a bit haywire this week (well, this week five years ago-ish but you get the picture), giving me yet another Neil Young record so soon after the last review (‘Hawks and Doves’) but for once I’ve decided not to over-ride the decision, partly because there are so many flipping Neil Young albums it would take me the rest of the year to get through them all anyway, and partly because I’ve just fallen in love with this record’s beauty all over again. Yes, beauty. Not a word often associated with Neil Young but an adjective that occasionally surfaces on his albums nonetheless. Comes A Time is one of those rare occasions where Neil actually sticks most of his prettiest material together, mixing the acoustic shambolic-ness of ‘After The Goldrush’ with the lumpy orchestra of ‘Harvest’ and – amazingly – getting the mix of both just right. 'Comes A Time' is an album that's built for returning to time and time again - not necessarily because it's the best thing Neil ever did or the deepest album he ever made, but because it's sort of timeless in a way that even 'Goldrush' and 'Harvest' are only in bits. No other Neil Young record is quite so graceful, full of sweeping string arrangements and the vocal harmonies with Nicolette Larson (the best of Neil's occasional female singing partners) are exquisite. Yes it occasionally lapses into sickliness and sentimentality in the same way that 'Harvest' and 'Harvest Moon' did, but most of 'Comes A Time' has enough toughness and brittleness to make even the OTT ballad 'Four String Winds' work (well, sort of). From the vocals (among the most confident that Neil had put to record at this point) to the acoustic guitar-work (critics think Neil can only play two or three notes and that those only sound good on a distorted, heavily amplified electric, but they’re wrong) and the strong, hummable melodies and clever, quotable lyrics 'Comes A Time' are amongst the most polished of Neil's career. The fact that Neil also came up with his most accessible album since 'Harvest', one that restored him to the top ten for the first time in six years, seems in retrospect like just a happy accident - one treated with a sly grin and a silly song about doing just that ('Field Of Opportunity').

The key theme of this album is stability. Some songs are looking for it, some have found it, some want to lose it again - but it's a theme that runs throughout all these songs somewhere. 'Goin' Back' is a fascinating, cryptic song that flies between imagined surreal images and memories of times song by before pleading for times back when things used to be loose and fun - 'goin' back where there's nowhere to stay'. The title track is a complete contrast: Neil ain't going no place, dizzy with joy, dizzy with marriage, dizzy with being a parent: the world is Neil's plaything and the record fair brims with excitement. 'Look Out For My Love' is paranoia over what might be lost, questioning whether love equates to ownership and seems to end with someone interrupting to read the gas-meter (seriously: 'Man with flash-lights wavin' up upon the tower, time reads daylight saving' - you can't get any more 'home-bound' than that!) 'Lotta Love' tries to be a sad song talking about the hard times to come because there always are in any relationship and pretends to do a bit of musical finger-wagging, but can't help falling into a delightfully happy 'la la la la' chorus. 'Peace Of Mind' can afford to be one of Neil's slowest, least-moving songs because its about being happy right where he is: the restless urgency of 'Zuma' and 'Stars and Bars' are long gone because the narrator is staying put. 'Human Highway'  is a hangover from an earlier nasty period in Neil's life where he found himself at a cross-roads (which sounds so right in CSNY's hands) turned into a happy upbeat, almost bouncy song. Not sure I approve but its very much about the search for stability. 'Already One' reflects that families are for life - however many miles away you might be or however many regrets there might be. A song of solidarity where a son of two divorced parents 'won't let them forget' each other, it's kind of a backwards love song that says that no matter the disagreements there will always be a bond between them. 'Field Of Opportunity' adds that Neil's 'goin' back to my house - but not right now' - and that first the success cow needs milking while he's in the mood. It's the kind of tongue-in-cheek song that can only be written by someone whose comfortable where he is. 'Motorcycle Mama' finally finds escape in the arms of someone deeply unsuitable who Neil's mother Rassy probably warned him about every week for years and yet who represents a very alluring alternative to settling down. And finally, Ian Tyson's 'Four String Winds' is all about moving on but wishing you didn't have to, with the narrator and his loved one kept apart by so much more than just the weather. In short, Neil's clearly been thinking hard about becoming a family man and has been weighing up the options of tying the knot a third time after two short relationships ended that way before, seeing it from all angles before he takes the plunge (Neil might work quickly when making music, but he's always been very cautious in moves in his personal life).

He clearly made the right choice though because in case you hadn't already guessed it, 1978 was the year Neil got married to third wife Pegi and the two are still very much together 36 years later. The pair had met in 1974 when Pegi came into the Belle Vue Restaurant where she worked during a rare day off and found how much they had in common: love of music, human rights, environmentalism - basically everything that's ever appeared on a Neil Young record (even the later memorable line 'got mashed potato, ain't got no T-bone' comes from her days as a waitress). The pair married two months before 'Comes A Time' came out and in the same way that 'Neil Young' is for first wife Susan and 'Harvest' is for second wife Carrie, 'Comes A Time' is very much for Pegi (apart from 'Already One', a last song for his second wife). 'Lotta Love' and 'Peace Of Mind' are the closest that Neil has ever come to writing full on drippy dippy love songs - even the fact that 'love' appears in so many of the lyrics (and twice in the song titles) is unusual for a songwriter like Neil. Neil has of course been in love before, but even at the peak of his other relationships ('Heart Of Gold' being a famous example) these earlier songs tend to be about what he wants or what he thinks about a relationship. The main development across this album is that love is now very much a conversation not a dialogue - with 'Already One' explicitly making it clear that love is a partnership. The fact that  Nicolette sings so prettily across most of this album basically turns it into a 'duets' album anyway - the Neil Young equivalent of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris re-enacting a love life they can only dream of out on stage (the pair sang at the same time into one microphone - Neil had never worked this way before and it shows; Nicolette revealed later that she spent most of the sessions staring into Neil's eyes and trying to guess his expression). Pegi is clearly too new on the scene (and, probably too shy) to take too much of a role in Neil's world just yet - but now that she's become a singer and songwriter in her own right it would have been fascinating to have heard a 'true' duets album in 1978, from both points of view (it would have meant losing this album's weakest link 'Motorcycle Mama' too!)

Yet, strangely for a record that brims with such joy and abandonment, the production of ‘Comes A Time’ was a troubled one. We’re used to now, in this day and age, hearing that Neil wrote his latest album in a week and recorded it in less, but that’s not the case here. ‘Comes A Time’ was a drag to record. For a start this wasn't supposed to be the next Neil Young record anyway: Neil had been having fun playing with an ad hoc bunch of superstars he'd met in Santa Cruz as 'The Ducks' (including Moby Grape's Bob Mosely and Jeff Blackburn, the co-writer of future Young classic 'Hey Hey My My'). The project was abandoned when burglars broke into Neil's rented house and stole half the equipment (always one to follow a 'vibe', Neil took the hint and left). The record they might have made would have been an interesting one given the setlists we know exist (as well as a bootleg recording of a very drunk and dark sounding 'Little Wing' played on electric rather than acoustic, later the opening track from 'Hawks and Doves' in 1980; sadly no one taped an early prototype of 'Cryin' Eyes' - see 'Life' in 1987 although the title track from  'Comes A Time' first cropped up here too). Happy, but boozy and with a few dark twinges around the edges (making it more like 'Zuma' and the first half of 'American Stars 'n' Bars' than the album 'Comes A Time' because). It's an interesting part of Neil's character that he always seem to swing from one extreme to the other:  the few people who recognised Neil (whose name was never given out on the posters) would never have guessed that the slightly drunk, slightly demented rocker on stage would end up making a 'family' record next. Neil's next plan to make a record was delayed when Reprise asked for a best-of (they got much more than that when Neil got involved and offered up 'Decade', a two CD/three vinyl disc set containing more outtakes than hits).
Even after finally getting the green light to make this record, 'Comes A Time' was ill-fated. Neil beavered away and sent in recordings of him playing and singing entirely acoustically (much like the album 'Harvest Moon' ended up being), choosing to work at a new untested called 'Triad' that had just opened in Florida which also came with its fair share of learning problems. Interestingly notes from the sessions (unusually this is one abandoned Neil Young project that never has come out on bootleg!) reveal that the original 'Comes A Time' was another of Neil's 'dual' projects, divided between an 'Oceanside' and an 'Earthside' (did 'Lost In Space' from 'Hawks and Doves' start life here? Despite the title it has very much an 'ocean' setting, although no other 'ocean' era songs from 1978 or later spring to mind). However even after a 'lotta love' not to mention time and energy had been spent on it Reprise weren't too sure: they weren't as cold as Geffen will later be in handling Neil's feelings but they gently urged him that a record with a more established sound with orchestras might be better. Unusually Neil listened (label boss Mo Ostin had never given him advice before - perhaps after a slightly slower-selling batch of records Neil thought he needed it?) and decided to make 'Comes A Time' his first big 'overdub fest' since 'Harvest'. And boy is it an overdub fest: some songs feature a whole 35 people playing over Neil's original recordings (mainly by 'mistake' : no one quite knew who was meant to be arranging what so in the end everyone brought their friends along: Neil, pedal steel player Ben Keith, session leader and drummer Karl Himmel; most people would have told them all to go home, but Neil never was made for confrontations and so got everyone to play - a logistical nightmare that caused a load more outtakes!)

Unlike 'Harvest', however, the overdubs kind of work on this album: instead of making everything feel prettier (and more schmaltzy) they simply make everything bigger; it's the melodies of the song that are pretty, not what the strings are playing and there's more often than not some toughness behind everything. The players - generally speaking those who played on 'Harvest', plus their friends - are as slick and professional as ever and occasionally add a little dirt to the clean and polished sound (such as 'Goin' Back') which is better still. Neil himself states that the overdubbing on  this opening track is the one time where overdubbing 'worked' for him (perhaps he ought to record more albums like this in he modern day, hint hint? It can't be worse than 'Greendale'...) However, even then: calamity! Just as with 'Neil Young' (another overdub-busy album that took forever), Neil hated the final mix on the album. So much so that he bought up the entire first batch of the album himself, forcing Reprise to do a second mix that is much improved. If you're a collector wondering where you can get your hands on a copy - I'm afraid Neil thought of that too and made sure that no one would ever hear it; he shredded up the cardboard from the sleeves and used them as shingle for his barn roof! (No one is quite sure what happened to the vinyl though - perhaps there's a scratched copy out there with Neil Young farm mud on it?!?)

The two exceptions to this overdub-fest are two brief reunions with Crazy Horse, recorded so quickly the band barely had time for a 'hello'. Interestingly Neil kept back his two most extreme songs for them to record: the turbulent, onomatopoeic 'Look Out For My Love' (which features electric instruments placed over an acoustic backing that may or may not have been recorded by Neil, solo, for the first 'Comes A Time; but sounds to me as if it was) and 'Lotta Love', a poppy song that's the natural heir to 'Heart of Gold' (and so a natural for string overdubs to everyone's ears but Neil's). Sadly CSNY weren't talking to each other across 1978 or they'd have made a fine addition to this record too ('My Love' is much more of a CSNY song than a Crazy Horse one, although their shimmering harmonies are note-perfect). Moreover the fact that Neil waits four years to check that, yep, CSNY really are done before recording 'Human Highway' (planned from the first as a track for the quartet) proves that in his mind that band are over (things will stay that way until Live Aid in 1985!)

However despite all the heartache the end result is probably worth it and holds together remarkably well for an album that wasn't planned this way from the first and is made up of recordings using two very different bands. Record buyers who love the peaceful, graceful side of Neil either stopped collecting his records round about ‘harvest’ or didn’t begin collecting until ‘Harvest Moon’ – in its own sweet way, this album is better than both of those records. Neil can’t quite sustain his creativity throughout the whole record and like many others you still get the nagging sense that this album isn’t quite complete or finished (there has yet to be a Neil young record that is great all the way through, though ‘Freedom’ came closest) but there is much to admire in this record. Not every track is a gem, the second half is way weaker than the first and both 'Human Highway' and 'Motorcycle Mama' are major duds - the first because it should have been so much more (it was planned as the title track of the 1974 CSNY reunion and sounds way better with their polished harmonies) and the second because it singlehandedly destroys the mood of the whole LP (a spiky electric rocker with amateurish lyrics, it regularly turns up somewhere near the bottom of 'favourite Neil Young song' polls). A few of the others are acquired tastes for when you're in the right mood too: 'Already One' is just about the right side of middle of the road, while 'Four Strong Winds' makes Neil Young sound like Neil Diamond. 'Field Of Opportunity', meanwhile, is perhaps a self-knowing chuckle too far (we have to buy this stuff you know, Neil, to keep you in barn-roof shingles!) However the rest of the album is Neil at his most gorgeous: 'Goin' Back' shimmers with the memories of forgotten dreams, 'Comes A Time' sparkles with the joy of a new-born baby, 'Look Out For My Love' has fun with Crazy Horse and some crazy dynamics, 'Lotta Love' is a whole lotta fun and 'Peace Of Mind' is understated and sweet. Who said great art had to be created through adversity? Neil creates great art here out of nothing more than love.

The Songs:

All of the records’ strengths are shown by opening track ‘Goin’ Back’ – a gentle bit of acoustic strumming set top a catchy riff might sound like a strange place to start the record but everything is beautifully placed in the mix. The riff is unusual for Neil, sounding like a slowed-down version of ‘You Really Got Me’ (another song about obsession and being stuck against your will) and its obviously aiming for languid dreaminess rather than the intenseness and passion he usually starts his songs off with (even the ballads). ‘Goin’ Back’ is much more typical when it gets moving, with its obtuse verses and its overlapping guitars, but the sudden kick into gentle rock mode isn’t (it sounds like The Eagles or some other country-rock band like that; Neil is a master of several genres but he doesn’t usually like joining two of them together like this). As strong and hummable as the melody is though(especially the way the subtle string arrangement draws them out), it’s the lyrics that make this song stand out in Neil’s canon. Like many of Young’s best songs, the drama of the words doesn’t have anything to do with the mood of the music and this song is one of the best examples of that – the melody is as straightforward as neil gets and for the most part its happy, sunny and ever so laidback. The lyrics are peculiar and poetic, sounding like a rambling nightmare that’s just woken the narrator up, something troubling him in his sub-conscious that he can’t quite get to break through to the surface. If you take the song more literally, Neil is either a Western outlaw or a mountaineer, dreaming of a time when he had a home to call his own and didn’t have to go out adventuring into the wide-eyed yonder. I might be making a mountain out of a molehill here, but my take on this song is that its Neil looking back over his troubled career and wondering how on earth it got as complicated as it did when all he wanted was to impress people with his music. Just take a look at this couplet: ‘I used to build these buildings, I used to walk next to you. Their shadows tore us apart and now we do what we do’. Surely that’s a line about CSNY (Neil’s written several in his career), afraid to go back to the dark past but aware that he’s lost something magical along the way. Then again, perhaps he's reflecting on how a bit of flirting with a pretty girl ended up with him married (and surrounded by his in-laws if Nei's talking about his first wife rather than his second) and a dad without him really noticing, dreaming of 'going' back' to a time when love meant fun not responsibility. Whatever your take on it, this is a lovely song, troubled and deep but calming and hopeful at the same time.

‘Comes A Time’ itself is the album’s best known track, appearing on ‘Neil’s Greatest Hits’ compilation despite never being released as a single and hardly ever appearing in concert (and when it does, it almost never sounds as lush and as moving as it does here). It’s a beautiful evocation of that magic time in life when everything seems to be working in your life and you just want to celebrate it and never let it end. In fact, more than that, Neil sounds as if he can’t see a time when he will ever stop feeling like this – he even compares his new found love for life to images of nature (the first of several times Neil uses this trick over the years), telling us that in his head It's no wonder tall trees are laying down’ – even their longevity can’t compete with his when he’s feeling like this. Songs like this tends to get syrupy, especially when given a fiddle arrangement that sounds like a Gypsy fiddle dance, but this song gets the mix just right with enough power from the vocalists and enough of a tune for the orchestra to play along with without letting the whole thing get unbearably twee. There’s also some interesting harmonies from Nicolette Larson (but a spot-on harmony line to take, staying constantly on the same note in deference to Neil’s shifting chords, giving the effect of the singers always moving closer together). Perhaps the best section of the song is the ‘ohhh’ Neil and Nicolette sigh every time they hurt the chorus, as if reminding us that this triumph over life’s obstacles has been hard fought for and will be short-lived, whatever the lyrics say. Neil at his songwriting craftsmanship best, a song to lift that baby off the ground to and salute the wonders of life. Neil won't sound this happy again until at least 1992 (and only then in flash-back!)

I don’t believe it! Three songs out of three on this album are fantastic and are all valuable additions to the Neil Young canon. ‘Look Out For My Love’ will be the most recognisable to most non-fans, partly as it re-unites Neil briefly with Crazy Horse (albeit on acoustic instruments for the most part) and partly as it re-introduces the drama and tension of Neil’s most famous songs. Crazy Horse are at their very best on this song, their scary but beautiful close harmony arrangement adding a touch of class even CSN would be hard pressed to copy and there are magical touches throughout the instrumental backing (such as the way the band chug rhythmically to the line ‘windscreen wipers waving’, mirroring the image with their playing). Lyrically, this is another of Neil’s songs about a lost and helpless girl who may or may not be doing the narrator wrong intentionally but like most of the other songs here it’s terribly hard to read. The first verse is gibberish (though very poetic and alluring gibberish to be fair), but the second sounds like the narrator talking to himself and trying to work out why he can’t commit himself to the girl he loves. In a burst of emotion he asks himself ‘was I hurt too bad?’, using Crazy Horse to continue the harmony and let the pain of that thought sink in before realising that someone else loves his girl and that he’s better leave her free to fall in love with him. The narrator then asks the third person to ‘look out for my love’ before taking an incredibly scary journey out of the city, one where raindrops fall to the accompaniment of spiky guitar parts and where the narrator keeps asking himself ‘why should I be sad?’ when its all too plain that he is. This is an extraordinary song, a multi-layered drama that’s one of the best of Neil’s career, complete with a recording to match. One question though – why did Crazy Horse not revive the song the following year despite singing a couple of this record? This song is tailor made for them and a welcome chance for all four of them to show off their talents.

‘Lotta Love’ sounds at first like a step-down, being neither terribly deep or terribly well performed. But the hook that runs throughout the song is excellent and the wordplay is clever in a top 40 radio hit kind of a way. Neil often tries to cut off the commercial aspect of his muse, but its as much a part of him as his rock god grunge-fest guitar solos and his papa hobo country roots. Nicolette Larson, who is curiously absent from this version (Crazy Horse perform it instead) actually had a top 10 hit with it although, characteristically, Neil never did put his version out as a single. Lyrically there’s not a lot happening here, despite the clever rhymes and short snappy sentence construction, but its interesting to note that this is the first song of Neil’s to really nail down the its-going-to-take-lots-of-work-but-it-will-be-worth-it theme that’s going to be so important to him throughout the 1980s. Throughout there's a kind of duality between what the lyrics are saying from the head (it's going to be a lot of effort) and what the music's saying from the heart ('I can't wait!')

As you may have noticed from the comments above, this is an album of two halves with most of the gems at the top of the pile and most of the rocks hidden at the bottom. Talking of ‘rocks’, has Neil ever written a slower song than ‘Peace Of Mind’? All sense of urgency seems to have dissipated, with Neil almost crooning his way through what must be one of the slowest tempos he’s ever written to. Unfortunately, as all good AAA scholars know, doing slow songs without much going on in then all but forces the listener to concentrate on the problems in the recording. Neil just about gets away with his wobbly pitch throughout this record (I must admit I’ve always liked his voice, with its vulnerability and awkwardness, although my family friends and mostly my neighbours often disagree!) but here the song is just too slow to let him get away with it. The string arrangement, so spot on throughout the rest of this record, have nothing to do other than playing the same two notes over and over again and the drum pattern – although inventive – gets horrendously repetitive by the second repeat (and by my reckoning there’s a good 25 of them on there). Things look up for the middle eight – the chord change finally adds a sense of the unexpected and provides a troubled air for the rest of the song – but all too soon we’re back in the verse-chorus structure. However the more I play this song the more I revel in its calm warm centre. There are hardly any Neil Young songs where you know exactly what's going to unfold and that's strangely comforting and apt for a song on which Neil reveals how hard it is for him to bear his soul to another person and yet how he can only ever have 'peace of mind' once he's done it (and found out that she still feels the same way). The song does take a long, long time though.

Grr, humph, ‘Human Highway’. I had high hopes for this song when I first bought this record, having read how it was the title track of the aborted 1974 CSNY reunion and how the quartet were meant to have recorded a ‘cooking’ version of it (which has never come out, sadly, but does indeed swing a lot more than this version does and without knowing it makes rather a good comment on how that album inevitably fell apart). All I can say is that if the foursome had released it in 1974 like this then Neil would have been a laughing stock and it would have been Neil who would have had to ride out the rest of the century in comparative obscurity, not CSN. Some OK-ish imagery about the human race being run down a highway is matched by a very weak melody that can do nothing more than repeat itself for hours before finally running out of steam and end on a sighing ‘how could people get so unkind?’ They get unkind because you give us garbage like this, Neil. And then the song has the audacity to pretend that everything's happy and jolly, like that nasty false people use when they're taking their pets to the vet. Even the musicians on this one sound bored. What's more, there are some intriguing single lines that could have made for a more memorable song tossed away here: why is the narrator looking for the DJ's daughter? Why did people get so unkind? With most songwriters you'd have assumed the narrator made her pregnant, but that's hardly Neil's style (his response would be to make everyone around him uncomfortable, or leave - not hang around listening to rumours about him and the same goes for Neil's characters). How did this wonderful album get so bad so fast – courtesy of these two tracks the energy levels have dropped from a quadzillion to almost nothing. Nice acoustic solo in the middle though which might have really sparked in a different setting with Neil moved off his auto-pilot mode.

One last gem on the record for you and one that often gets overlooked – ‘Already One’. Critics have pointed out the sappiness of the idea and the schmaltzy arrangement but actually, compared to many recordings on ‘Harvest’ and ‘harvest Moon’ its not too bad. Ignore the nasal recording and the syrupy strings if you can (I know its hard but try!) and underneath you find one of Neil’s most complete and rounded melodies. On top of that these lyrics, reflecting that the narrator can never completely separate himself from a previous partner because they have so much in common, are clever and poignant, reflecting that ‘now only time can come between us’ like a grand sci-fi novel. Neil’s surprised us many times over the years by suddenly reviving one of the most obscure tracks from his catalogue for live concert, often in the most contrasting setting possible (I still haven’t got over the 1990s treatment of ‘Mr Soul’ yet or the way he turned the electric guitar work out ‘Dangerbird’ into one of the most angst-ridden and emotional recordings I own). He hasn’t revived ‘Already One’ yet though, which is a shame – it’s a terrific song that would stand up well in his bare-bones acoustic sets but it's given one of the worst readings it could possibly get here.

 ‘Field of Opportunity’ isn’t as bad and even has Neil getting into the country hoedown spirit by sounding like a country bumpkin. However, there’s something ever so slightly cynical about this song, telling us ‘in the field of opportunity it’s ploughin’ time again’ in what must surely be a metaphor for this album which put all of Neil’s most commercial traits on display for the first time in ages. That wouldn’t be so bad if the song were truly inventive (like the first 3 or 4 tracks on this album were) but this is a lazy song, one that uses every country trademark under the sun and doesn’t seem to move off three chords. Neil sounds as if he's chewing gum throughout and even sings ‘Let Me Bore You With This Story’ at one point, just to emphasise how comparatively poor this effort is. Gee thanks, Neil.   At least there's a cute image of him 'rockin' on the porch', though, which as well as covering the same ground as 'Greendale's interminable songs about 'Grandpa' in a single  verse conjures up a neat image of Neil growing old disgracefully. The year 1978 seems a bit early for Neil to be thinking about his retirement though - perhaps the punks worried him more than he let on?!

Most fans probably can’t believe I’ve got this far down this review before telling you what an idiotic and stupid song ‘Motorcycle Mama’ is. Well, I won’t disappoint you. Here we are, track nine into a 10 track album that’s been full of highs and lows but has at least been so careful at building up the right mood and atmosphere. Now, though, we get some off-key electric cater-waulling that barely moves away from the confusing lyric ‘motorcyle mama won’t you lay your big spike down’ and starts sticking feedback-drenched pins through our lovely peaceful revelry. Yes, it’s a disgrace, especially when they let Nicolette Larson out-squawk Neil in the name of funk, an idea that couldn’t be further removed from her pretty harmony voice. But unlike most fans and most of the critics I’ve read (if you think I’m being rude about this song, that’s nothing on most of the things I’ve seen written about it!) there is promise in this track, if only it had been recorded another way. The Nashville cast of players are just plain wrong for this song, but if Crazy Horse had built up a groove this could have been a great jam – the melody and the down-stepping riff are nice to listen to in their own right and could have made for a fine instrumental (or even a fine song, given a different set of words) in the style of 'Zuma' (i.e. braindead love songs, but love songs nonetheless). Note, though, how this song lyrically flies in the face of everything this album has stood for: 'I'm running running running' goes verse two, flying in the face of being a part of the beauty in the world on the title track - it's almost as if Neil is ruining his own escapist fantasy as best he can so that family life seems all the sweeter by contrast!

The album ends with a surprise cover of Ian Tyson’s ‘Four Strong Winds’. This is, admittedly, a lovely song, as anyone whose read my review of the Searchers version (from their greatest album 'Take Me For What I'm Worth', a record 13 years 'Comes A Times' senior) will already know. But Neil never usually does cover versions of anybody’s work (well, apart from Don Gibson’s country hoedown ‘Oh! Lonesome Me’ and his murdering of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby What Do You Want Me To Do?’ in the late 1990s anyway). So what made him do this one? Is it the fact that it's something of a Canadian standard (has Neil grown homesick?) Is the idea of restless anticipation and having to leave the family behind appealing to Neil who even by 1978 was infamous for leaving a lot of bands and families behind to chase a new 'muse'? If so, are the 'winds' the creative force at his back? 'Four Strong Winds' is a melodic song with a strong focus on the vocal and features a wide-octave span that tests Young to his limits. Much as I love Neil’s vocals, as discussed, I don’t love them enough for him to cover a song so far out of his comfort range. Listening to it again, though, maybe I’m being a bit harsh – this is a nice, almost jaunty arrangement which shows that Neil does have a touch for re-visiting old standards and doing them in a truly oddball way that no one’s ever thought of doing before (unlike 99% of fans I adore his slowed down version of ‘Oh! Lonesome Me’, to me its one of the true highlights of ‘After The Goldrush’).I just it wasn’t him singing it, that’s all. Nicolette Larson also strays a bit too far from her natural pitch here, as Neil’s high voice is pitched terribly high for the most part and she’s rather forced to go higher still. Let’s just call it a failed experiment that ever so nearly worked and leave it at that, although somebody must have liked it: the song was released as a single and reached a peak of '#61 in the US charts (which believe it or not is pretty good for Neil - only 'Heart Of Gold' and 'Old Man' have ever scored better).

So, ‘Comes A Time’ is a veritable mix of an album. In true Neil Young style it shows how dynamic, inventive and original the guitarist can be – and how, all too often, Neil will ignore his strengths for the sake of throwing something together uncomfortably quickly. Even soaked in strings and strong production values this album has raw edges everywhere – and yet the five or six decent songs alone make this album an important and resonant item in his back catalogue. ‘Comes A Time’ paints in what Neil had already done early on in his career but only sketched in pencil – some of these portraits get smudged around the edges and some become so muddy the picture is lost altogether, but at the beginning of the LP at least this hap-hazard approach really works and Neil shines through your speakers like never before. An album that’s highly recommended to those who love Neil’s acoustic and dreamy side, although you’ll still wish this patchy album had been reduced to a very fine EP. 

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

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