Saturday 20 March 2010

Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Life" (1987) (Revised Review 2016)

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

Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Life” (1987)
Mideast Vacation/Long Walk Home/Around The World/Inca Queen//Too Lonely/Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll/Cryin’ Eyes/When Your Lonely Heart Breaks/We Never Danced

'You say your life's like riding on a fast train, it's easy to see far away, but right up close it's just a blurry haze, flyin' by from day to day'

The Geffen court case finally laid to rest, Neil decided to finally give in to the inevitable and make the Crazy Horse rock and roll album the record company had been waiting for impatiently for five years and…nothing. It’s one of the strangest quirks of the Neil Young catalogue that the album that seems to have been intended from the first as a big commercial return to form (Neil’s most famous style! Neil’s most famous band! Neil’s most commercial songs in a decade!) ended up selling less copies and charting lower than any album he’d released yet (even ‘Journey Through The Past’ charted thirty places higher). Forgotten, neglected, overlooked, overshadowed by others that are bigger, bolder, brighter and better. That’s “life” for you, in all meanings of the word. Even fans don’t really know about this album that much: recorded as the last of five in a really uncomfortable link up with record label Geffen it’s not as weird or wacky as ‘Trans’, as misguided as ‘Old Ways’ or as big a fuck you to record label and fans alike as ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and ‘Landing On Water’. Yet neither is ‘Life’ heralded in the same back-to-career-best breath as ‘Freedom’, ‘Ragged Glory’ or ‘Harvest Moon’, even though it's probably better than the last two on that list at least. I’ve always been fond of this record – it didn’t change my life the way ‘Tonight’s The Night’ did or anything but what’s here is sharper and certainly one hell of a lot more consistent than anything Neil had done for a very long time. This is a record that burns with the passion missing from so many Young albums of the 1980s, along with melodies that soar, lyrics that sting and performances that...well, ok, actually the performances are clearly what lets this album down. 'Life' is one of those albums that sounded great on the road, not so hot in the studio and the quicker we get an 'archives' release of this period of stage shows the better. Even so, if you have the imagination to see what this album was reaching for (even though it reached so far it falls over a few times) then you'll find plenty to enjoy in an album that’s at least trying to knock our socks off, rather than bludgeon us with heavy metal, sing duets with Willie Nelson or tell us how [160] ‘Betty Lou Got A New Pair Of Shoes’. ‘Life’ is, amazingly, only the second album released on Geffen where the end result wasn’t at least secondarily designed to piss off the record company. So why isn’t it better known?

Well, ‘Life’ often feels as if Neil has been away from the commercial world for so long that he’s forgotten how to do it. To put his career back on track Neil effectively had two choices: record a glossy contemporary pop album or re-hire the Horse. Never one to do things by halves, Neil somehow ended up doing both. Crazy Horse, who had been in mothballs ever since 1981’s empty ‘Re*Ac*Tor’, were recalled and expected to perform at their peak though they'd barely seen each other or Neil in all that time. And this is not a natural environment for Crazy Horse, like taking a My Little Pony into a warzone or asking Mr Edd The Talking Horse to ski - it's mis-casting of the highest order. The front cover, with a raging Neil on stage with guitar in hand and wind blowing through his long hair, makes it look as if ‘Life’ is one of those rocky back-to-basic sets that Neil wheels out every so often. But the rock and roll on this album happens in tiny boxes, contained three minute nuggets in simple keys that have little ambition beyond the riffing. The rock and roll feels incidental to this album too somehow. Most of the time Neil is asking the Horse to make heavily stylised 1980s pop albums that should be anathema to them and even when he isn’t Neil is in poetical Dylan mould, pouring his heart out on lyrical epics that feel as if they should be being performed with his singer-songwriter\acoustic hat on. Crazy Horse, a band who are built around feelings and vibes rather than brains or precision, frequently collapsed under the strain as Neil picked their performances apart again and again. Nobody has any happy memories of making this album: Neil and Noko Bolas both tore their hair out as the Horse failed to play the four bars they'd just rehearsed, while the Horse reared at going over so much old ground when they just wanted to play. The Horse have recalled many times that they thought this album would be their last collaboration with Neil, with sessions hitting their lowest point when drummer Ralph Molina was told to stop using his traditional hi-hat playing (the backbone of the band's sound) and had the cymbals taken off his kit. While hiring the Horse was an obvious career move that must have pleased Geffen no end, this material (or at least two-thirds of it) patently wasn’t written with their rock stomp in mind. 

Neil surely meant to do this album on his own originally, perhaps in tandem with producer Jack Nitzsche who, after sixteen years missing from these pages, is back on the scene again, contributing the pretty ballad finale to the album. This is a major black mark against this album right there: asking the Horse to play technically and difficult drove them and Neil to distraction and is a little like asking Donald Trump to solve your maths homework or The Spice Girls to sing on key. This isn't the third best garage band in the world anymore - not because Crazy Horse have forgotten how to play but because their guitarist-singer insists on turning pro and hasn't told the rest of the band yet. Unlike every other Crazy Horse album, from ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ right on to 2003’s ‘Greendale’, this is an album that you can imagine being performed by one of Neil’s many other bands – the Stray Gators would have made a neat country rock version of most of the songs or perhaps the true basics of the Landing On Water session musos would have reduced it even further down to its basics. But no, Neil chose Crazy Horse to help him with this work, albeit moaning about their primitivism for possibly the only time in their forty year career together on an album that sounds primitive but thinks in a much wider scope than is generally acknowledged. That, generally, is where all criticisms begin and end: it sounds weak and so ‘Life’ must be all bad. The performances do, as so many critics have pointed out, speed up and slow down and sag in the middle. But that happens on a lot of Young albums ('Ragged Glory' springs to mind, 'Greendale' too) and at least this one has songs, a heart and a brain behind the monotonous drum tracks and riffing. Had Neil made this album with, say, a new band he'd nicknamed 'The Lifestyle Provocateur Harvesters' and included a mixture of people who actually understood the digital world (Niko Bolas, Rock Rosas and Chad Crowmwell perhaps?) 'Life' would surely be in people's top five. Maybe because I can hear what this album could have been it's still in my Neil top five - just. 

Then again, perhaps the poor-sales weren't all down to the clunky performances and Geffen's decision not to promote an artist they were suing but something a little more profound. Unlike Neil's other ‘single identity’ albums of the decade where you can pretty much guess the contents and today’s latest genre from the cover, “Life” is such a hard beast to pin down. One moment it’s the most autobiographical Neil’s been for five years and as many albums, analysing his latest broken heart or bemoaning the prison sentence Geffen have saddled him with. The next he’s angry for the American everyman, swooping down on the harsh way America treats its victims and its heroes alike, spitting venom not heard in a decade and never really heard again until 2005’s George Bush wake-up call ‘Living With War’. We also get a long awaited return to the land of the Aztecs and Incas and the setting of many of Neil’s best loved songs on perhaps the most epic re-telling of these lost civilisations. And then, filling in spaces in between, ‘Life’ is just gritty nonsense pop, inventing grunge a good four years too early (and with more panache than 'Ragged Glory'), but telling us nothing really innovative about the artist or his audience and the band simply there to have fun. A mis-mash of an album like that would be par for the course for most groups, but that’s not really Neil’s scene. This is, after all, the school-kid who by his own admission would change his complete looks, fashion, style and attitude every term so that his peers would never see enough of the real ‘him’ to label him or see more than a single side of him at a time. This record isn’t another ‘Freedom’, a record that actively tried to put the best of multiple different Neils together to entice collectors into biting – ‘Life’ feels as if it just tumbled out of Neil’s head this way, a confused and lost album from a lost and confused period when Neil didn’t have one muse he was chasing at a time but several.

Even Neil’s acoustic side one/electric side two hybrids have some sort of unifying theme going on, or even whole concepts such as the ‘vocoder’ Trans, the ‘country’ Old Ways or the retro ‘Everybody’s Rockin’. Only this album and the better known ‘Freedom’ are similarly schizophrenic in their range of styles. Perhaps that’s why this album is called ‘Life’, not because its more autobiographical than normal (as many critics have assumed, the small handful of which have actually paid any attention to this forgotten album at all – there is a little of Neil in all his LPs but rarely a lot), but because it's a bit of everything, Neil Young style 1987. This record can make you sob with pain, curse with anger, think deep intellectual thoughts and jump for joy - truly, what other Young album  did all four at the same time? (I'll tell you my theory, it's 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere'). Certainly no other album went from the stupidity of 'Too Lonely' (with its cry of 'big tits!' - or at least that's what the backing Horse hear the lyrics as) to the sheer aching poetry of 'We Never Danced', a candidate for Neil's most moving song as lovers that could never be in life wait patiently to embrace in death. Or rocked harder than 'Mideast Vacation's sly political 'hawks' outrage before cooling down for the 'dove' of 'Long Walk Home' where liberty is still possible. 'When Your Lonely Heart Breaks' is the saddest Crazy Horse have ever been. 'Prisoners Of Rock 'n' Roll' the maddest. 'Around The World' even does all that in one song veering from angry rants about pressures of modern-day living to some dumb middle eight about fashion and Neil picking up a girl to a moving guitar solo that rocks harder than anything he’s played for years (even while being chased by dancing synths) before ending in squealing feedback, all artifice and pop-art gone. 'Life' may just be Neil's most schizophrenic album Neil ever made as he finds his old eclecticism is pulling him in so many ways at once (maybe that's why he wanted Crazy Horse so badly so he could feature his simplest band pulling off his trickiest songs?) It’s certainly the most ‘mainstream’ album Geffen ever got out of him, but don’t let that put you off either – a good half of this album is Neil branching out on a limb, trying new styles with a fairly high rate of success (the synths sound even more odd on the most 'real' album the most 'real' of artists had made in a long time).

Even in amongst the sometimes dodgy performances and a production sound clearly meant to scream ‘hip for 1987’ there is so much to enjoy in this record that always gets missed. Neil's voice has always been something of a mystery - nobody knows why such a non-voice works as well as it does - and for my money it's never been better than here in the whole of his catalogue across an entire record. Neil's single greatest performance might be on 'When Your Lonely Heart Breaks', a song that aches with such wistfulness and loss, whatever the Horse are failing to play behind him. 'We Never Danced' too is full of mystery and magic, perhaps because the Horse have been shoved out the room. Neil screams 'Around The World' as if his life depended on it, somehow making what should be one of his dodgiest sets of lyrics sounds as if it means something. He's gloriously demented on 'Prisoners Of Rock 'n' Roll', impressively tough and sarcastic on 'Mideast Vacation' and utterly sweet on 'Long Walk Home' (even if his glorious vocal keeps being interrupted by 1980s synth 'bombs'). And then there's 'Inca Queen' in which Neil sings without any emotion in his voice at all on a history travelogue that's amongst his trickiest and most refined, an swed tourist taking a walk through his imagination and unwilling to break the spell. There are some glorious guitar solos here too, from the charging take-no-prisoners of 'Mideast Vacation' to the slow vulnerable part on 'Lonely Heart' to the classic acoustic flamenco dance at the start of 'Inca Queen'. In Neil's corner this is a terrific album, the Bridge School meaning that caring for Ben is no longer the only thing he has time for and allowing him to fully engage with music again instead of simply doing it on the side. These songs clearly mean one hell of a lot to him (just compare the commitment  to the way his non-songs on 'Everybody's Rockin' 'Landing On Water' and 'Greendale' are thrown away) and he sounds impressively un-rusty considering that the last time Neil sang to us like he meant it he was playing the part of a robot; it's just a shame that Crazy Horse, who are all trying so very very very hard to keep up, aren't disciplined or rehearsed enough to match his performance. But hey that's not their fault - asking the Horse to fly in this setting is like asking a real horse to fly; they don't belong in this world.

Any performance is pointless if the songs aren't up to scratch and luckily this is an impressive selection with nine very different takes on roughly the same idea. The key theme of this album is, fittingly, confusion - that awful moment when you realise that every rule you've been living your life by is 'wrong' and life is a lot scarier, stranger and darker than you ever realised. Pretty much the whole of this album features the characters about to pick themselves up and carry on to who knows what, perhaps because Neil is regaining control of his career again and feels he could do anything. Neil doesn’t know where his best interests lie anymore, with his family or with his art and his adopted country, too, was in similarly puzzled state in 1987 nearing the end of the cold war. 'Life' is about society and family both scattering in different directions, either zooming in on individuals ('Mideast Vacation') or zooming out to reflect wider societies ('Inca Queen'), but with everything in a seemingly permanent state of decline. This album is the sound of Neil and characters trying to work out why and where to go from here and how to keep their head up as they risk drowning in treacherous waters over and over again. Firstly we have the political songs: 'Mideast' is a war veteran (The Gulf war?) told to 'go home now' after risking life and limb in service of his country but still desperate to believe that intervention was right and he did good and that one day he will get a pat on the back from the world as he's 'feeling like a fight' with America's enemies, not quite realising that their biggest enemies are the ones who sent them to war (Neil's famously see-sawing political stance might be evidence here again as he pulls back from the gung-ho approach of the Reagan 'Hawks and Doves' years violently, mid-song). 'Long Walk Home' counters this attack by suggesting that we've always been confused who the enemy is - that if 'liberty' as American founding fathers imagined it was a 'little girl' she'd feel sick to her stomach about what America had become by 1987. A very Republican song is followed by a very democrat one then and yet nobody knows the answers anymore. Such is ‘Life’. 'Inca Queen' too is kind of a political song, but it's not our era but an ancient one as Neil provides us with a prequel to [130] 'Powderfinger' [94] 'Cortez The Killer' and [159] ‘Like An Inca’ by suggesting the land was in a state of disrepair long before the European settlers landed there. The people believe in what their Inca Queen tells them but history will prove her wrong, just as the leaders who promised 'liberty' and a 'just war' were also wrong. Why is war and politics so flipping hard?

'Around The World' then pulls back to show that this isn't just America's problem but everybody's as leaders rise and fall and commit the same mistakes everywhere in every era, even while they distract us with changing fashions and other nonsense to stop us thinking. However it's also a song about love, the other theme of this LP, in which boys and girls fall in and out of love everywhere too because they can't get it together and find too many differences splitting them apart. Even Neil's corny chat-up line in the middle of the song can't make things right. This makes me worry whether ‘Life’ is an early sign of splits within Neil’s third marriage, if the chance meeting with Darryl Hannah that has been eating up Neil’s soul had already become something strong enough to spill over into his work. Notably this is the first album where the female characters aren’t obviously based on Pegi: the girl in ‘Too Lonely’ comes from a ‘good home’ but is ‘looking for a good thang’, ‘Lonely Heart Breaks’ is a song of loss that seems odd for someone celebrating his ninth wedding anniversary 9and unlike some other writers it would be unusual for Neil to be writing a song that was wholly imaginary), whilst ‘We Never Danced’ sounds in context like the perfect response from someone who knows that a love can never be equated in terms of the dances he went to in his youth. This isn’t an album of soulmates meeting but a connection splintered by obstacles. On 'Too Lonely'  she's too hurt, too emotional and too lonely to fall in love. 'Cryin' Eyes' tries the same trick with a similar noisy riff and joyous rock as Neil tries to cage a 'free bird' by promising to help - only she's not listening either. Then there's 'When Your Lonely Heart Breaks' in which Neil tries to keep 'moving, moving on' and celebrate the things he still has and all but orders himself to stay positive. But it's all a lie: we can hear in his voice just how utterly miserable he really is, a dream once again over. Similarly in 'We Never Danced' the couple can only get it together in death, not life, as in a prequel to [234] 'Wrecking Ball' they finally meet up for a promised dance in heaven. Why, this album questions, can these lovers not get it together on Earth when they're clearly meant for each other? Why is love so flipping hard?!?

And then there's the kiss-off to Geffen. After five years, five albums and a court case Neil finally delivers the eclectic thoughtful rock album the company always wanted. It’s his last album too, Geffen deciding against making Neil stick to his contract (in a first, Neil successfully bought out his contract by lowering the advance his boss gave him for each record on the condition he could do what he liked – the only time in rock and roll history a leading musician actually successfully negotiated his salary down across the course of a contract). Only Neil's left a sting in the tail as his leaving present (well, he is a Scorpio). 'Prisoners Of Rock 'n' Roll' imagines the ;last five years as some giant farce, with Crazy Horse a garage band who 'play too loud' but know what their music is 'about' and refuse to sell out and 'get watered down by record company clowns'. For all the cheerful banter and good humour, it's a song deliciously pointed, with Young admitting 'we don't want to be good' not out of childish glee but because if he was 'good' he'd break every ethical gene in his body. More humour can be found on the front cover, where Neil's picture (but only his 'image' in its true cliched hair-splintering rock-posed image, not his 'real' eclectic self) hangs on the wall of a prison with a five-bar gate (one for each album) crossed underneath. Neil's done his time on this album. But why does making art have to be so flipping hard?!?

'Life' is hard. It's hard work for the band that made it, the songwriter who had to live it and the audience who have to sit through it, knowing how great it could have been had the performances come anywhere near to the songs. However I like 'Life' a lot - some Young albums are so simple they're handed to you on a plate and thus spoil all the fun of really getting to know them (even 'Harvest Moon' with all its acoustic loveliness), others are simple because there's nothing in them at all ('Greendale') but 'Life' might well be Neil's most intelligent, adult, consistent, responsible album. Typically, though, it's played by what sounds like a bunch of four-year-olds learning to play ('Crazy Horse, what did you do to my 'life' is what Neil should have said on playback - I reiterate, though, they were never going to thrive in these surroundings – it’s like calling on the Nashville guys of ‘Old Ways’ and asking them to jam for ten minutes at a time like the Horse) and all that intelligence gets lost in there somewhere. Don't listen to the other fans who take one quick listen to this album and hate it too - 'Life' has something for everybody, even if all of its confused, most of it is miserable and a lot of it is a struggle to sit through. But 'Life' is full of such magical, wonderful, humanitarian moments if only you know where to look for them, beyond the despair, the noise of modern day living and the confusion. And that alone makes 'Life' the best half-concept album of Neil's career (perhaps alongside the spooky mourning of 'Sleeps With Angels'), full of some of Young's loveliest vocal and guitar performances on some of his greatest songs that just happen to also come in the most rigid 1980s setting of his career. Well, that's life I guess - it's always flawed in some way. The result is still a return to form that only an even greater return to form at the end of the decade will eclipse.

The way this album starts is particularly interesting as it deals with perhaps the biggest one-two political punch of Neil’s career (after which, politics are never even referenced again on the rest of the album). Watching Neil as special guest celebrity at last month’s Canadian Winter Olympics came as a shock to many of us; not just because we’ve never heard Neil as much as mention sport in all the decades of interviews he’s done down the years (despite his dad being a leading sports journalist) or the fact that he usually snubs big events like this that treat him as some kind of Godlike figure, but because we’ve all, at least partly, forgotten that Neil was Canadian. After all, it doesn’t crop up in his work very often: in fact apart from the longing nostalgia of ‘Helpless’ and the awkward autobiography of [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’ (Neil hadn’t yet written [383] ‘I Was Born In Ontario’ when the first draft of this review was written!) , I don’t think Canada has ever been mentioned in any of Neil’s songs. Neil has, of course, been an American citizen both illegal and legal since Buffalo Springfield first got together circa 1965 and although the outside world doesn’t have the same impact on Neil’s songs as it does on a few other AAA members (Paul Simon, Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull, Roger Waters, etc) when it does figure in Neil’s works its nearly always about Neil’s adopted homeland of America. Neil’s anti-Bush rants of a few years ago are legendary, but they were only the latest in a series of political songs and themes down the years that have taken in everything from being pro Ronald Reagan’s military spending budget to damning Nixon’s nonchalance at gunning down anti-Vietnam protestors in an Ohio university. 

[200] ‘Mideast Vacation’ is surely Neil’s best ‘America’ song since ‘Ohio’ and a song that looks in close detail at American foreign policy. At first Neil is as swept up as anyone else in all the jingoistic nonsense of the early mutterings behind the Gulf War: he sees these foreign upstarts on the news ‘chanting death to America and I was feeling like a fight!’ By the end of the song, though, he’s the victim as much as the locals, an invader who is a long way from the ‘law and order’ he was raised on, ordered to go home but treating war like a ‘vacation’. This is a character who never stops to think of the consequences of his actions and as such Neil gets to have his cake and eats it, re-asking the question of ‘Hawks and Doves’ by showing an America that can stick up for itself but is also too often the aggressor. Neil is always at his best when the characters in his songs learn something and here especially a character we think we know well gets turned around in the spotlight until the angry young punk desperate to fight for his country comes back, weakened, from the war only to find that his country have turned on him and even go so far as to replace him with youngsters, denying him the chance to go back into battle again (‘It’s time for you to go home now, stop sniffing that smoking gun!’). Equally those he meets in the East are confused as to whether he is saviour or criminal, part of their solution or part of their problem, as ‘someone kicked me in my belly while someone else kicked my feet’. The song’s startling opening lines (‘I used to watch ‘Highway Patrol’ whittling with my knife, but the thought never struck me I’d be black and white for life’) are particularly fascinating in this regard. This is an American who was brought up never doubting for an instant that the values he was taught, even on TV (‘Highway Patrol’ was a show that ran from 1955 to 1959 and is the American equivalent of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, a programme designed to engender faith in authority figures) and had a clear sense of right and wrong. But human beings are too complicated for right and wrong: there are many reasons the East hates Americans and a soldier looking to shoot somebody up because of his own miserable life is not going to ease diplomacy any. You can read those lines on so many levels: the young bored kid signs up to fight because he doesn’t know what else to do and despite his inexperience finds himself fighting alongside the ‘hero’ soldiers he sees on the television and in the news; the kid who dreams of better things and yet never quite gets finds himself or understands that life is all one big grey mess and he’ll never find the black and white answers he desires. And the tragedy of all this is that the young fighter is still just as confused when he gets home from his army – even after all those years serving, he still feels lost and dazed when he comes home and he doesn’t even know if he’s achieved anything worthwhile. Neil positively becomes a soothsayer here, reporting on the growing tensions in the far East a full three years before the Gulf War finally explodes in everyone’s faces (and like the American soldier people are still confused over what for and why – though disabling corrupt regimes with nuclear arsenals is surely part and parcel of it, it is worth remembering that all the arms were sold to the East by America and her allies cheaply and the fact that a new stream of oil was discovered in the Gulf is only a coincidence to those of you who insist on learning your ‘truth’ from Fox News).

Neil, who had already got a lot of attention for his pro-Reagan comments, stirred up a hornet’s nest again with this song. This isn’t a pro-war song as so many think, but its not an anti-war song either: like most of “Life” everything is confusing in this world and Neil’s narrator doesn’t have a clue what to make of it. An angry, snarling song, this under-rated composition really benefits from an arrangement that strips the song right down to its basics, slowing down the tempo to both mimic the sheer hard work of the song’s narrator and the growing resentment he feels as his anger grows throughout the song. Goodness knows why Neil was getting so mad at Crazy Horse during these sessions – this track is perhaps the best of all the horse’s post-Danny Whitten recordings. Billy Talbot’s bass, usually erratic and out of controlled, simply swells with anger as it repeats itself again and again, trying to stay calm against the machine gun noises and stinging Young guitar that keeps trying to trip it up. Molina’s drumming sounds on the edge of falling over throughout, the perfect halfway house between calm and angry. Sampedro’s synth tries to offer a cooling healing hand that only whips the narrator up into a greater frenzy. The production of this song comes together better than anything else on this album – the cruise missile that suddenly takes off in the middle of the solo around the two minute mark, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, is one of the cleverest production tricks in this book. And Neil’s performance is awe-inspiring. He truly lives his latest character who is the best messed up, confused kid caught in things out of his depth since Jimmy the Mod in Quadrophenia and his guitar solo, simple as it is, is so great at channelling all that frustration and confusion into music, sometimes playing along in tandem with the song’s chunky riff before exploding in a mess of worried feedback and pain. ‘MidEast Vacation’ was deservedly included as part of the Geffen ‘Lucky Thirteen’ compilation, and probably made a lot of people think ‘Life’ is better than it actually is. It certainly stands as one of Neil’s better, more rounded songs of the period and one that sadly has more resonance with every passing year of America’s foreign policy. It remains one of the greatest Neil Young rock songs that only true fans know.

[201] ‘Long Walk Home’ is a slightly less personal, more abstract view of the same confusion and dilemmas but every bit as good. Liberty, a young American girl, peers at the wondrous flags at some war veteran homecoming, unsure what’s going on and whether to be happy at the scene in front of her as a dead soldier is laid to rest or not. Liberty is of course a metaphor – this is the American Dream right here, the thought of freedom and justice for all, and Neil is again completely unsure as to what his stance is. American intervention saves a lot of lives and a lot of problems, but then again invading countries to remould them in your shape isn’t what is written in the American constitution. It’s a dilemma America, more than any other country in history, has always struggled with – where is the thin line between liberating others and invading them to use them for your own ends? The question inspires a rather unusual slow piano ballad from Neil, one that sounds far more traditional and universal than his usual ‘piano’ songs (nobody else could have written [34] ‘After The Goldrush’ or [59] ‘Journey Through The Past’ but you could imagine another singer-songwriter having a crack at writing this one). To some, the song is just too darn slow – the tension is lost by the time the second verse comes along and we know in advance what we’re going to get in the next minute or so and the booming very 1980s sound effects that explode in a barrage of gunfire predictably don’t always help. Neither does Neil’s worst harmonica playing, his big return to the instrument after nearly a decade’s absence suggesting he hasn’t practised it once in all that time (and that he’s stuffing a cat for taxidermy while he’s playing it). However, for all the faults of the recording, I love this song. The melody is gorgeous, a free-flowing white-flag-waving gesture that’s hauntingly beautiful and amongst Neil’s best, especially when the Horse’s beautiful; shimmery harmonies creep in like subdued angels. Also, having a tempo so slow that it puts emphasis on the words is no bad thing when they’re as fine as the ones in this song. Just take a look at the last verse, referencing Vietnam and Beirut and everything in between with American citizens searching in vain for ‘the truth’ that is never found before the country moves on to the next crisis which is Neil’s political writing at its best. This is before Neil ends the song with that confusion and dilemma over invasion and support again: ‘why do we feel that double edged blade cutting through out hands?’ The title, by the way, refers to the long walk home both in real terms for the Americans coming back from the lands overseas and the long abstract walk back to the path of right as written in the American Declaration of Independence. After a career of turning his life into a journey (one usually travelled by car) it is strangely moving to hear Neil doing the same thing to his adopted homeland, on a song that bravely recognizes the long term problems instead of shrieking about the short term ones. Another classic song and one well overdue for a re-appearance in Neil’s set lists (CSNY would have done those harmonies proud on their ‘Freedom Of Speech’ tour!), this is even more than the other songs on ‘Life’ an example of the masterpiece that got away thanks to an indifferent performance and an insipid production when as a song it deserves oh so much more.     

[202] ‘Around The World’ finally moves away from America and onto Neil, but it’s a true patchwork quilt of a song this one that takes in pretty much everything. In many ways this is the epitome of the album: one minute we’re getting personal, the next we’re looking at universal truths, the next its talking gibberish and tying the whole thing up with the same crashing immobile guitar riff. Many fans hate this song and compare it, badly, to AC/DC but that’s kinda the point (it’s also the reason why Neil, probably laughing his head off, chose it to represent the album on the ‘Lucky 13’ comp). Everything’s become the same, Neil seems to be saying, and we’ve lost our dynamic range to the extent that major and minor things all seem to have the same kind of emotional tug on us. This may be, in fact, Neil’s wake up call from the years he took out to look after his son where all too often he made up songs that masked his real feelings and made big dilemmas out of the smallest of subjects so that Neil didn’t have to focus on the bigger, scarier picture (cue the seven minute angry snarling epic [145] ‘got mash potato, ain’t got no t-bone’ on Re*Ac*Tor). ‘Around The World’ starts off as a ‘universal’ ditty about boy means girl until the two fall out and, dismissing this huge subject in a single couplet, moves on to discuss world leaders falling out the same way (‘not much room for compromise!’) Verse three is an alliterary nonsense list of words beginning with ‘s’. The middle eight then tips the whole thing on its head, wailing ‘fashion change, style change’ over and over again. And then we go round the houses again until the vocals get drowned by a scary half synth/half guitar solo that sounds like its tuned in from another universe, until Neil finally gives away to his emotions and truly hammers his guitar into a mess of scrawling feedback, fighting with Ralph Molina over who can make the most noise. There are I think three points to this song – one is that, around the world, we keep looking for quick fixes and become fixated on small things like fashion that only matter because we say enough times as a species that they do (who actually cares if what you’re wearing is in fashion? Only the people who want to be in the same ‘in’ crowd as you). The second is that Neil knows that, no matter how many times he changes the style of his music, the results are still going to be the same confusion and puzzlement he’s suffering now, half torn between his earlier ‘hidden’ Geffen tracks and half wanted to talk about his ‘real’ self in music again. A third, linking it to the next track and the last two, is that every civilisation is fated to rise and fall – people become too complacent when things are going well, obsessed with fashion over politics until it is too late and their way of life crumbles to dust. This song isn’t perfect: the production is far too 1980s for modern ears all twinkly synths and echo, some of the garbled lyrics are a mess (‘why don’t we illuminate?’ might well be the worst line Neil wrote the whole decade) and the repetitive tune is truly a drag until you see through the song and realise what it’s doing there, an immoveable object faced by every country in every era (‘Around The World’ surely travels in time as well as space). I really really really could have done without Neil’s excruciating chat-up lines in the middle eight (‘Hey, what’s that you’ve got on? You’re sure looking good tonight! Where’d you pick that up anyway? Wow, you’re looking beautiful! Hey!’) But this song is not the clunker many fans would tell you it is – it’s a well though out at stab at trying to get the confusion Neil feels about his music into a single song and I challenge any Neil Young fan not to get goose-pimples when they feel that guitar/synth solo finally talking off slowly from the bass riff that’s been nailing it to the floor for most of the song. The riff, too, is a great one, a humungous behemoth that’s tougher than the better known ones on ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and which cuts through the dated production like a knife through a tepee, exploding into gutsy violent feedback at the end just like the olden days, the Horse finally kicking against the pop trappings.  

[203] ‘Inca Queen’ is the one oasis on this torrential storm of an island, returning Neil to the scene of earlier triumphs. This time the song is a slow ballad, highlighted by some neat Spanish flamenco guitar playing from Neil for the first of only two times in his career to date (see [230] ‘Eldorado’), that’s more of a pictorial imaginative account than the character writing going on in Neil’s other Aztec songs. This time we get a prequel to ‘[94] ‘Cortez’, as Neil imagines a civilisation he once read about in school and how beautiful it must have been. Slow and stately, grand but beautiful, the haunting melody is one of Neil’s most complex, snaking into lots of interesting cul-de-sacs across the song’s epic eight minute running time and yet this change of styles and lack of repetition is mesmerising rather than confusing. Not a lot happens in this song, perhaps, and it’s probably the only song here that overstays its welcome (it’s the longest piece Neil had released so far – in fact its basically a third of the entire ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ LP!) But we need a calm, scenic, thoughtful song at this point in the album and the view we get to admire is truly lovely. Out of context this is a poetic history tale, a land where an Inca Queen walks across her mighty kingdom watching it serenely work like clockwork. In context with the album’s opening three tracks, however, it feels like a warning: this is a civilisation that too felt all-powerful and that it would last forever (it even starts with the Inca Queen checking her sun-dial like a wristwatch). The people here think they have thought of everything – they have ‘safety boats’ dangling from the air, time to dream which is surely significant (few civilisations ever get past the hunting-cooking-sleeping stage) and tamed animal life ‘from the biggest elephant to the smallest bird’ (though weirdly we only get parrots and monkeys on the soundtrack, which sounds like a dry run for the forthcoming ‘Earth’ live LP). It all sounds quite beautiful and as if the inhabitants haven’t a care in the world, immune to danger or suffering – which is probably an exaggeration on Neil’s part but only a little one (it wasn’t all human sacrifice and war – our current civilisation is still behind the Inca one in so many ways, in fact arguably every way except technologically and then not by as much as you’d think). This is especially true of the second half of the song when the Horse (who are completely the wrong band for a graceful slow burn like this song) stop coasting and add in some tension, with another of Neil’s ecological lyrics setting the scene (animals suffering as ‘Inca Queena Calls!’) But it’s only a small portion of the song adding this tension – what surprises most is how content Neil is to stay still in this land, rolling around the same chords for much longer than we usually get to hear, a tourist caught up in all the land’s splendour, a tourist content to gape. The only negative part of this song is Ralph Molina’s peculiar over-fussy drumming which, to be fair to him, sounds more like something Neil ordered him to play than something that came naturally. Otherwise, though, this is music surely fit for a Queen and surely the most overlooked of all the career-high South American works in Neil’s back catalogue. Maybe one day we will get a whole album of these songs? 

Side one of ‘Life’ has been one of the most complex and thought-provoking of them all. [204] ‘Too Lonely’ kicks off the second side with the first in a string of primitive rock and roll songs. It’s a one, maybe two riff song if you’re feeling generous about how the narrator – sounding rather like the depressed loner of much of ‘Landing On Water’ – is, err, too lonely to fall in love (I’m not really sure how that works, but then I have been too tired to sleep quite often which is much the same thing). Most of the rest of this song is nonsense: Neil has a ‘key chain, a good luck charm, got a fast car, got a strong arm’ and describes the girl he wants to date in the dumbest way possible, ‘big lips and tight dress’. Cue much play on the grungy guitar riff, Ralph’s primitive drumming and some chaotic backing vocals that don’t necessarily echo what Neil is singing (Neil gets by, when listing what he’s looking for in a lover, on dropping the close rhyme ‘looking for a big tip’ only for guitarist Frank Sampedro to undermine with the chorus line ‘big tits!’ in what must surely be the most Crazy Horse moment ever). The classiest bit of this simple song is Neil’s half guitar solo, when he launches himself off the riff platform into some excellent free-wheeling only to come back down to earth all too soon (it's a little like his solo in the sublime [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’, but that’s as far as the comparison between songs go) and the brief moment when the band drop out to just leave Neil’s vocal and Ralph’s drumming playing steadily. Clearly it’s a far dumber song than anything else on the album and would even give the ones on ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ a run for their money. However there’s a place in rock and roll for primitive, dumb songs and this cheeky pop number has some great moments, from the windmilling riff to the funky drumming to the cheery vocals that are just the right side of messy. Only a slightly anodyne production that  makes everyone sound as if they are playing in different rooms makes it fall a little flat.  

[205] ‘Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is, depending on who you ask, either one of Neil’s funniest or one of his most self-indulgent songs. I have a sneaking feeling that its both – all at once. This track was born from the Geffen record company shenanigans and celebrates the end of the binding recording contract that left Neil recording songs he hated just to annoy his bosses. This is, you see, the sort of song Geffen have been clamouring to have: it sounds like a pure Crazy Horse track, dumb and fiery, with a great guitar sound and a hummable melody. However the lyrics are a killer blow to Geffen and everyone who wants to pigeon-hole the band like this: you can’t hire bad boys of rock and roll and then tell them to do something – to be true to themselves they have to rebel, that’s what they were hired for. It’s like getting the class clown to be school prefect: you don’t hire him to be the brainiest most responsible person on campus, you hire him to turn a blind eye to the rules. This is Neil as the media always picture him and much as he is on the album cover: long hair flying, guitar wailing, in his dirtiest jeans. This is the Neil Geffen thought they were getting – and why neil felt imprisoned by their preconceptions. Ironic then (or perhaps not?) that ‘Prisoners’ is the song on this album most likely to represent that cover image: basic but developed, snarling but tuneful, this is FM rock radio friendly Neil and friends doing what they do best. But oh those lyrics aren’t playful at all but openly scathing: “We never listen to the record company man, he’ll try to change us and ruin our band...We don’t want to get watered down, taking orders from record company clowns!’ Ouch. This is war and Neil means it – the rest of Crazy Horse seem to be treating the song as a joke but he’s deadly serious, you can hear it in his defiant vocal and his snarling, bitter guitar parts. Most of the song, it’s true, tries to take the theme of a new young hungry garage band starting out, interrupted by their unhip and square family just when they get their groove going and trying to pull girls. In other circumstances it’s the perfect new song to be introduced in Crazy Horse’s period ‘rusted out garage’ tour complete with over-sixed props and interruptions from ‘mom’, the neighbours and the police. But Neil’s mask lets slip too many times here for this to be the hilarious spoof song fans usually take it to be – this is Neil getting his own back at Geffen the betrayer and killing himself with laughter over the fact that the closest the label ever got in its six painful years with the guitarist to getting what they wanted is a song that tells the whole world how bad they are at their job. I would hate to play chess with Neil. I bet he wins every time.  

[206] ‘Cryin’ Eyes’ is a third simple one-riff song in a row, very much like ‘Too Lonely’ but slightly more restrained and far less clumsy. I like it actually, in a way that I don’t often like Neil’s simpler songs, mainly thanks to the fascinating verse lyrics which sit in complete contrast to one of the most boring choruses of all time (‘whose gonna dry your cryin’ eyes?’) in a neat summation of this autobiographical/obscure hybrid of an album. I love those two verses so much because they sum up Neil’s situation so well: in the first he’s a free bird (perhaps a sequel to [88] ‘Dangerbird’) whose always flown above the heads of everyone whose tried to pin him down; in the second he’s ‘like riding on a fast train’ – he can see the bigger picture of what he wants and what’s best for his art (has there ever been a singer whose been more ready to sacrifice things to get what’s best for his art?) but the short term idea of how to get it is more difficult to pinpoint, more blurred and fuzzy. These two short simple lines really transform this song from the generic 1950s doo wop of crying eyeses and big surprises, this becomes a song about Neil, whose drying his eyes now that his record company hate him and his son is poorly and, ooh, thousands of things are flying all round his head. Mostly, though, it’s the riff, which in a running gag that dates back to [79] ‘Borrowed Tune’ is clearly nicked from The Rolling Stones but this time a generic Stonesy song rather than anything specific (it’s kind of a faster ‘The Last Time’ played with the energy of ‘Brown Sugar’ over a guitar riff that’s like ‘When The Whip Comes Down’). Crazy Horse sound great at last captured on a song they finally know how to play, with Billy’s bass throb central to the mix at last and Ralph and Frank’s cheery ragged harmonies the perfect counterpart to Neil’s gutsy lead. You’d never pick this song for a career best-of but ‘Cryin’ Eyes’ is one of those songs that gets overlooked far too often and is perhaps the best of Life’s simplistic trilogy.

[207] ‘When Your Lonely Heart Breaks’ is, perhaps, the best known track from this album and has become something of a concert standard over the last thirty years (not that Neil has ever played any of his songs that consistently, but this is perhaps his most heard song of the 1980s). It’s odd that it wasn’t on ‘Lucky 13’ because this moving song is far more mainstream than most of his Geffen works (or maybe that’s why?...) but still very much heartfelt. The title hints at [34] ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and the chords even feel similar, as if Neil was writing a slower version of that song. However this is much more heartfelt and closer in feel to pure heartbreak and grieving. Billy’s bass acts like a heartbeat, slowly counting out the beats of the song, while the rest of Crazy Horse slow to a crawl to match the heartbreak in Neil’s head and Neil turns in one of his slowest yet most passionate guitar lines. The rest of the song doesn’t quite match up to the title phrase and its magical riff (which turns from the major to the minor key on the word ‘breaks’, as close in sound as we can get to that feeling), but its still pretty special, with Neil asking himself out loud ‘what’s your problem? She’s gone, you’ve got your memories, she got strong, there’s a lot of things that aren’t gone.’ But however good his arguments, its all a brave face – you can hear heartbreak in every note of this finely wrought song, from Neil’s fragile solo to Sampedro’s sensitive keyboard part. My guess is that this song was written for Darryl, perhaps after both parties agreed that they couldn’t hurt their spouses. Neil has given his rational argument and he knows it to be right – but still a part of him is waiting ‘for love to come back’, hanging on and dawdling even while he chastises himself for ‘wasting time’. Many of Neil’s best songs have him doing the opposite of what he tells us he’s doing: this one more than most works because we know the narrator is in denial, ignoring all the actually rather good advice he gives about distracting yourself from love. The only downside is the band haven’t quite got the hang of this song yet and for once Neil’s ‘first take, best take’ strategy doesn’t quite come off (a slow ballad is not the same as recording a fast, ferocious rocker that’s meant to be raw). The Horse have to play this slow and sensitive song with extra care and that means they lose the essence of what makes them so special – the danger that it could all go wrong at any minute. Only Neil sounds at home here, ‘borrowing’ his old Buffalo Springfield trick of playing his guitar loud but mixing it in the distance to sound angry.  If only the band had worked a little harder at getting it together this song might be one of the best in Neil’s catalogue; as it is, this is still one of the songs with the best potential.

[208] ‘We Never Danced’ ends the album on a suitably wistful, confused note. Though its themes reflect much of Neil’s outlook on ‘Life’ this haunted other-worldly song (with more effects than any Young song not on ‘Trans’) feels as if it sits outside the album completely – surprisingly for Neil, it’s a second straight ballad about heartbreak and loss. This is a super-polished recording of a more lyrical, detailed song that relies less on mood than before and Neil sings it in a detached way, surrounded by the dancing strings of co-writer Jack Nitzsche clearly going for another ‘Expecting To Fly’ in this song’s ethereal tone and fragility. As a result, it doesn’t tear at the heart strings quite as well but ‘We Never Danced’ is not without its strengths. Dancing is a theme in many a Neil Young song, inspired perhaps by his earliest romantic days when the only way to get close to a girl without marrying them was to dance with them. [39] ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ makes it clear that dancing is really a euphemism for sex (or at any rate that ‘lust never sleeps’) – here Neil regrets that he never got the chance to have that time of intimacy with someone he knows is special due to circumstances beyond their control (but who is almost certainly Darryl Hannah). After telling himself that ‘we were hardly friends’ Neil longs for them to ‘meet again’ and acknowledges that it won’t be until they die. He imagines a limbo world ‘between heaven and hell’ that’s like a ballroom, where finally their wishes can be granted and they can ‘dance the night away’. What sounds like a cute idea clearly means a lot to Neil, making it a rare setting he’ll return to for a sequel on [234] ‘Wrecking Ball’ that makes this illicit dance sound like an obsession. This time, the dance is passed up but it won’t be long before its accepted –you can tell that once again this narrator is lying to himself when he tells us that he’s going to steer clear and he would never dare have this dance for real. Fittingly the song takes place like an old-fashioned garrotte, but one that thanks to Nitzsche’s sterling production work sounds completely as if it is taking part in some new dimension. The only emotion we have all song is Neil’s quivering voice and once again even that is doing its best to sound impassioned. This is, in fact, the happiest song on the album by far – but it doesn’t sound like it, so eerie is the atmosphere of this track. It’s as if Neil’s forgotten what it’s like being happy and is trying to remind himself, hence the really detached feeling of this song. A remarkable end to a remarkable album, this song is quite unlike anything Neil has ever attempted before or since, the much more straightforward ‘Wrecking Ball’ aside, which is a great shame.

So, far from being the ‘worst Crazy Horse album’, ‘Life’ is surely one of the greatest dark horses in the Neil Young catalogue. It’s certainly one of Neil’s most consistent albums, with nine excellent songs, even if the four genres they come in (political yelling, dumb rock, Inca epic and haunting detached ballad) feel as if they belong on four different albums rather than the same one. This does however make for a more rounded LP that comes as a huge relief after the genre-hopping of the past few years and as both a songwriter and singer Neil is pushed to somewhere towards his best here. Certainly I would take this album over the next much better received but rather one-note Horse album ‘Ragged Glory’ any day, even if that is a much more ‘natural’ stable to put the band in this time. ‘Life’ was unlucky – it got left behind by the record label who failed to promote it, fell between too many stools for the public of 1987 and with Neil keeping quiet over many of the events that inspired it for years or sometimes decades its been a little too much of a mystery for fans to truly understand or take to. ‘Life’ is perhaps a little too confusing and erratic for most people after a simple listen (just take the ‘complete guide to the music’ review of this album, which says ‘the fact that it was hailed as a return to form at the time shows just how low Neil’s stock had fallen). But that’s where Neil was at the time: confused in both his personal and his professional life and this album is a pretty good summation at what Neil was thinking and feeling, speaking to us with far more emotion and power than anything on ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ ‘Old Ways’ and ‘Landing On Water’. As Neil himself tells us with the album’s penultimate line: ‘if you don’t know where to go it hardly matters which road to take”. This is a whole album’s worth of musing on that dilemma before finally working out the answer at the last minute – and it’s a philosophy that will be worth its weight in gold once Neil gets back to the cosy arms of Reprise. ‘Life’ is an eclectic, confusing, bizarre but ultimately satisfying record that will reward the patient fan tenfold, difficult to track down but unlike most of the other Geffen records so very much worth it when you finally do.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment