Friday, 24 June 2011
Neil Young "Mirrorball" (1995) (News, Views and Music 103
'Home of the brave...'
Whoever named this album ‘Mirror Ball’ deserves a medal. It’s not that this album is all flash and colour (presumably that’s why we get a black and white photocopy of a coloured mirror ball on the sleeve), but it is a rather scattershot experience, with surges of brilliance left to bounce randomly across the speakers either as full songs or moments in songs that don’t quite coalesce into anything and that are as likely to give you a headache as reach for the dance-floor. However, glitter this album does – the way it’s been performed and recorded makes it sound like hearing lots of notes going round and round, each one decorating the speakers in random pattern. Thematically too it's an album that, even by Neil's standards, never sits still. One minute it’s condemning Catholic priests and lamenting treatment of the outspoken by a supposedly liberal America and the next it’s heading off to some utopian ballroom in the sky filled with artists from yesteryear or taking a hallucinogenic ramble through the lands where the cancer cowboy rides. With one foot in the sky and the other buried deep into the Earth, ‘Mirrorball’ is a set that feels as if it didn’t spend much time between first thought and studio and lacks the unity that made the last few Young albums so special. Even so, it is an often overlooked set this one, with a delightful groove and even at its weakest this is a candidate for Neil’s most excoiting CD, at least since ‘Trans’. It is many ways unique to the catalogue too there’s not much variety here, hardly any choruses and middle eights, more a long stream of consciousness tied together by the wall of sound that sticks to one chord throughout, with one song bleeding into another as if this is one long colourful pattern.
Though this album was written with Crazy Horse in mind again, a chance meeting with Pearl Jam at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the start of 1995 (when Eddie Vedder became the latest picked-at-random celebrity to induct Neil) led to Neil casting out his trusted backing band for a younger model. Though it seems as if they’ve been around forever Pearl Jam were only five years old and three albums into their career by the time they walked into the studio to make this album (with off-cuts released as ‘Merkinball’ under their own name at around the same time). They were the sort of steadier younger brother to Nirvana and after ‘Sleeps With Angels’ Neil felt a debt to the movement who kept namechecking him, picking another younger band to tuck under his wing while trying to stay in touch with his rust-free principles by remaining relevant to the outside world. It’s an innaresting team-up: Pearl Jam are kind of like the grunge world’s CSNY to Nirvana’s Crazy Horse, an ambitious band that are bolder than their critics ever give them credit for, without living quite as on the edge. Pearl Jam were an obvious band to collaborate with in many respects - they too were famous for their musical noise and played with a primitive backbeat that sounded to 1994 what Crazy Horse had sounded like in 1969: raw, powerful, committed, brazen. They were true committed Young fans, who knew his material inside out by the time this combination got it together enough to go out on tour. There’s definitely a chemistry here, not so much a meeting of minds that lock together like a jigsaw as per Crazy Horse but the sort of camaraderie of a paintballing team who love taking pot-shots at each other. Neil sounds not better or worse so much as different here, screaming in the middle of a noise that’s oddly different to his usual sounds: Crazy Horse were always a little behind the beat and the Rosas-Cromwell combo behind it, but on ‘Mirrorball’ the two sides chase each other’s tail. Here the beat is everywhere, the album covered in a similar hazy sound of smog where everything is always moving all the time. It is, in many ways, the partnership that got away: these recordings are astonishingly tight for a band who only played a fortnight’s worth of sessions (four days in two goes) without much rehearsal and a grand total of eleven gigs before both sides moved on with undue speed to something else. You can’t help but wonder though if ‘Mirrorball’ was made too fast at times: the songs haven’t quite formed yet and sound as sketchy and as unfinished as the ones from ‘Sleeps With Angels’, but without the atmosphere to make them sound as if they were meant to end up like that.
A lot of the success of this album is down to Pearl Jam though - even if they're being used as back-up band rather than creative equals - and the timing of the album is perfect, with Seattle’s biggest band since Nirvana riding the crest of a wave and saw just as many of their fans checking this record out as Young ones. Now, when the band first started in the early 90s and everybody, fans and critics alike, jumped up and down about them I sighed under my breath ‘they’re just like Crazy Horse – the most laughed at band in history – except they’re not as good’. I wasn’t that impressed when the two bands met up at the 1995 rock and roll hall of fame either – in fact I felt sorry for Crazy Horse who one minute were basking in the glow of Neil’s praise and audience applause and the next were being told to clear off the stage so Neil could jam with the Jam, as it were (the same goes for long-time producer David Briggs who enjoyed perhaps the first real recognition Neil gave him that night – only to learn weeks later he’d been booted off the Pearl Jam project in favour of ‘their’ producer Brendan O’Brien. Sadly the pair never got to work together again, with Neil's biggest musical partner dying at the end of the year from lung cancer - with its throwback to 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere's primitivism this would have been a more fitting farewell than even 'Sleeps With Angels'). I still wonder if Crazy Horse wouldn't have done this material better and picked it up at speed more frequently (Pearl Jam tend to stay put instead of 'dancing' the way the Horse do). However the Jam do sound at their best here (far better than they do on their 'day job' albums), playing with a blind faith and raw spirit that still makes them one of Neil's better non-Horsey backing bands. What's more, they were Young fans to begin with and realised that Neil wasn't just trying to cash in on their success and fan-base but often reached out to younger movements in his work (few other bands of this period would have been that 'bright' to be honest). The younger group loved the newly minted original ‘Act Of Love’ which Young played with Crazy Horse that night and I did too – it sounded much more fluid and alive in Crazy Horse’s hands than it ever did in Pearl Jam’s (and it's clearly the one song here that wasn't written with a generational 'theme' - assholes getting girls pregnant exist in every generation, sadly). They even played it together at a ‘pro-choice’ rally (strange, really, seeing as it’s a sarcastic song about the clinicalness of love once real life starts infiltrating the romance – the same rally may have inspired ‘Song X’, Neil’s only song on the subject so far) where both acts happened to be sharing a bill soon after the Hall of Fame.
Fans saw this as a strange move at the time – Neil’s bands either side of this album involved a bunch of fifty something rockers and a collection of old friends for an Unplugged concert - and probably even more so nowadays when only the committed few know who Pearl Jam were and lump them in with the other 'where did they go?' middle-aging bands from the 1990s. Neil’s never come even close to repeating the experience either, despite playing with Pearl Jam again at wife Pegi’s ‘Bridge School Benefit Concerts’ for handicapped children - with every rock band since them ignored in his songs and music (with a special case made for young hotshot producer Daniel Lanois in 2010, though he didn't bring any musicians along). Which suggests that for Neil's part at least he regards it as a bad idea - after all getting a sequel to 'Mirrorball' makes more sense than many of the sequels we've got over the years and especially if Neil tried the same with a younger band. However, perhaps he shouldn’t and leave this album as a delightful one-off. It does after all seem a shame that the one thing that lets ‘Mirrorball’ down so badly (the speed with which it was made) is something that could have been rectified so easily with a sequel once the band and singer knew each other better.
I wonder too if Neil was working with undue haste because of the feeling that time was short (he did, after all, celebrate his 50th birthday months after this record’s surprise release, while the Hall of Fame reminded him he had a past). Kurt Cobain’s Neil-quoting suicide had come in the last week of the previous album’s sessions, after a long period of Neil wondering if he should get in touch or not. Here it sounds as if Neil isn’t going to let anything as boring as ‘hellos’ or even contractual obligations get in the way of this collaboration (nobody seems to have asked Pearl Jam’s record label ‘Epic’ if the collaboration was OK – rather than fight Reprise, they simply asked for Pearl Jam’s name to be taken off the sleeve so their rivals didn’t get an extra boost from sales). Though Crazy Horse were hurt at not being able to sing songs they had already knocked out the park on tour (and were as hurt as they ever were when Neil had abandoned them in the past), this is clearly not their album: it’s a young person’s record in a way that the recent glut of records hadn’t been. Even though pretty much all the songs bar ‘Peace and Love’ and possibly ‘Downtown’ had been written before the collaboration was even discussed, Neil doesn’t seem to have approached these songs like his usual ones – it’s hard to imagine the Horse going anywhere near songs like this for instance. Neil seems to be writing these songs not to the fans who've been with him since day one ('Harvest Moon' was for them) or for his middle-aged peers a marriage and a divorce on(as per ‘Ragged Glory’) but for the young idealists in his audience. My theory is that to some extent Neil is offering a hand outstretched to fans who believed totally that Nirvana represented a utopian if miserable future where everyone would be held to account and nobody got old. Much of ‘Mirrorball’ seems to pick up[ on the thread of ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ about how age is just a number and you can keep yourself young if you’re brave enough. The settings of these songs are playgrounds and idealist rants, Neil calling for the world to ‘throw your weapons down’ on a song set in a playground, attacking massive institutions like the Catholic Church he hasn’t been baiting since his twenties and tackling subjects like abortion and tobacco addiction as if he’s only just discovered sex and smoking for the first time. Even the CD booklet, covered in Neil’s typically spidery writing, is impossible to read by anyone with eyesight over their teens, being printed way too small. ‘People my age’ Neil sings at one point on this album, ‘They don’t do the things I do’. You got that right! Though ‘Mirrorball’ has lost some of its bite now it’s a quarter century old itself and all music from that era has become middle-aged (as all youngster music will eventually be in every era) it is an album quite unlike anything anybody else even remotely Neil’s age was making, the band who perhaps out of all his collaborations are the closest to the way he walked with The Squires: you roughly work out a song, get up there on stage and sing. After ‘Sleeps With Angels’ mourned the dead, here ‘Mirrorball’ celebrates the living and tries to give grunge a future (which, alas, it never really had).
I confess I groaned when I first heard about this album. It’s not that grunge is bad (not in the way that glam rock or much country is bad), more that it’s monotonous. Young’s best albums tend to be his most colourful and with the best will in the world (as they aren’t the worst detractors of the 1990s by any means) most pearl Jam albums tend to sound the same. On first listen it is – the way this album was made means that it feels like an hour-long game of catch-ball, as Neil, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard pass riffs over to each other, without knowing each other well to enough to interact the way Neil and Danny Whitten did or to cover each other the way Neil and Frank Sampedro do. The sound of two rutting stags, driven by the Jam’s true pearl drummer Jack Irons (also the only reason worth listening to early Red Hot Chilli peppers; neither band were ever the same when he left, as Jack will the Jam in 1998 with this his second of four albums with the group), across a series of familiar sounding songs (with only room for two brief cameos by usual lead singer Eddie Vedder, sadly), it’s the sort of album you listen to only when you are in the mood for noise and have too much of a headache to listen to ‘Weld’ or ‘Arc’. The sepia-tinged front cover doesn’t offer much hope either. However the more future listenings open up what a colourful world ‘Mirrorball’ truly is. I liken it to Paul Simon’s ‘Rhythm of the Saints’, an album that sacrifices usual song construction for something weirder and more obtuse, as the sheer noise that’s always moving restlessly around this album combined with the words conjures up a more hallucinatory swirly feel. This is an album without beginning or end that’s probably still playing in some alternate dimension out there, the way ‘Psychedelic Pill’ often does. This aspect is great and makes ‘Mirrorball’ one of my favourite of Young’s 1990s works: Neil challenges the way we generally listen to music in a more cohesive and listenable way than past aural experiments and the album goes out for a groove that’s better than the sum of its actually quite half-hearted parts. Even the tracks that do coalesce into song sound like tracks we've had before: 'Big Green Country' 'What Happened Yesterday' and 'Fallen Angel' even have the same tune (which is one more than Neil got away with on ‘Sleeps With Angels’) and that's one Neil originally recorded better as  'Interstate' in 1990. Elsewhere the 'songs' just end up as one growling feedback drone into another, as every song is played at the same tempo, by the same players, more often than not in the same key. The choruses bleed into the verses and there are few middle eights, with similar guitar solos performed on most songs. Unless you were paying attention you could easily imagine these fifty-odd minutes were all made up of one track. It doesn't help that the parts that most lodge in your brain are the mistakes - the false start on 'Downtown', the occasional fumbled solo or the odd missed cue inevitable from an album as rushed and intense as this one - simply because these are the moments that most break out of the 'duel guitar riff and heavy drumming' formula. However if you can 'get' this album and the way that it's eleven pieces of the jigsaw all belong to the puzzle anyway, then 'unlocking' this album is one of the greatest gits in the Young canon, especially if you can hear the tracks individually rather than as part of an album.
There’s actually far more thematic unity here than is common with Neil too, with song after song about abortion, guilt and crumbling relationships that all seem to come from the same place, a warning that the world is fallible. Perhaps moved by the idea of working with younger musicians Young looks backwards and wonders, to quote a song title, 'what happened yesterday?' Returning to his favourite theme of how 'rust never sleeps', Neil laments growing old and losing his creative fire. He regrets not living in a world where musicians rule the roost and play to giant crowds of hippies every night on 'Downtown' and with Eddie Vedder puts together the before-and-after father-and-son take on music 'Peace and Love' that ends hippiedom with the date of Lennon's assassination, Neil realising that the younger generation can't afford to be the wide-eyed innocents his peers once were. Elsewhere Neil damns everything that his younger self thought would have been achieved by this age of his life: 'Scenery' remains his greatest political statement outside 'Ohio', even with the full albums that have come since, as Neil sings about how it's our heroes who hide in danger, not our villains. 'Song X' challenged double standards, a priest whose been up to no good judging an abortion case without feeling on a song that recalls  ‘Soldier’ and  ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’. 'Big Green Country' features a cameo by the 'cancer cowboy' from the cigarette adverts, chasing down the weak and vulnerable and warning about how what you have fun doing in your youth can have consequences in middle-age. Meanwhile 'Throw Your Hatred Down' is an apology from a 1960s kid to everyone who came later that the generation who had the biggest chance of putting things right failed, but still pleading with youngsters to keep trying with peace and love rather than violence. Still feeling guilty over Kurt Cobain's use of the 'better to burn than to fade away' lyric in his suicide note in 1994, Neil tries to make it clear to a 'younger generation' that there's still a chance to make things better, but that growing up isn't easy. Neil even parodies himself and everything people are suddenly saying he is, adding in 'Scenery' that it's up to 'them' not ‘him’ to craft the world they want, that 'I''ll go with you...I'll stay behind...if you want to take a hero home', cackling the word 'hero' as if he's the biggest villain that ever lived for messing up so many times.
I wonder, though – there’s something about this album that’s very alien to the natural nature of Pearl Jam (or Crazy Horse for that matter, the band Neil was expecting to record this album). The Jam are a naturally ‘up’ band – most of their songs are, if not exactly happy, then surprisingly upbeat for grunge, the idea that if you keep going long enough that something will arrive to save you or make the journey worthwhile. They are, if you like the ‘Zuma’ of Neil Young records, one that knows it has a future just opening up for everyone. Musically ‘Mirrorball’ sounds just like a Pearl Jam album, if a bit livelier than usual. Scratch under the surface though and this is a depressing album for Neil, one that’s not exactly ‘doom trilogy’ but certainly shares the same level of frustration and angst as ‘Sleeps With Angels’, where heroes fail and hope doesn’t always get rewarded (‘Truth be Known’, for instance, might well be Neil’s most despairing song since  ‘Ambulance Blues’). I wonder: did Neil plan these songs not for either band but for Nirvana? Or before he met the Jam was he intending to make it as a sort of sequel to Nirvana, to ease despondent Cobain fans into coping with a world where they would have to start getting their self-worth from hearing other artists? We start with a song where the Catholic Church goes unpunished but couples having children out of wedlock do, to a killer song about what it means to be born out of a passing one-night stand (the deeply sarcastic ‘Act Of Love’) to Neil’s claim of being an ‘accident’ who wasn’t built to fit into society, to the surreal ‘Journey Thru The Past’ style dreams of ‘Big Green Country’ that would give psychiatrists a field day to ‘Truth Be Known’ where dreams are crushed under the weight of working a meaningless job to pay bills to survive, to the second death of the  ‘Hippie Dream’ on ‘Peace and Love’ to the frustration-filled ‘Throw Your Hatred Down’ to Neil cackling that America hates anyone who doesn’t tow the party line, cackling ‘home of the brave’ like a man committed (only not in a CSNY idealistic sense but in a psychiatric ward sense). Only ‘Downtown’ is upbeat and even that’s a song about how all your favourite artists have to die. Had Neil recorded it on his own as a solo acoustic LP ‘Mirrorball’ would be depressing as hell. But with Pearl Jam playing with all their youth, fire and spirit it somehow doesn’t sound like it. 'Mirrorball' is really about a baton being past, as a younger generation that 'shared' the same dreams and hopes 'but not the take' get an instruction booklet into how not to live your life. This isn't an album that sighs about what the next generation are becoming - Neil's too smart and empathetic a writer for that, having joined in every new movement since punk - but a chance to unite and ensure that even in a war of us versus them there won't be a war of the generations alongside it. This war might be lost for Neil, but it still isn’t for the youngsters yet and he envies them rather than pities them the way his peers do. That line after ‘People my age don’t do the things they do’ Is interesting: in the past Neil would have made it a  ‘Loner’ style personal crusade, but no: here he sings ‘I’d rather run away and be with you’. I’m sure this is deliberate or at least fated: ‘Mirrorball’ is an album to Kurt Cobain’s audience that refutes the message their hero gave them, via Neil, in his suicide note. Don’t use that anger to burn out – use it to fuel the fire and make the changes you want to see in your life by the time you reach Neil’s great age of fifty. Now that many of the fans who first bought this album are reaching that age themselves, I wonder if it helped?
‘Youth’ seems to be a key theme of this album, so it’s fitting that Neil should have chosen for the booklet cover an old picture of himself circa 1971 taken by CSNY friend and photographer Gary Burden and faxed to Neil on request – the black and white image, of someone trying to remember how they used to be when they were young whilst using technology from the present to make their presence blurred which is then cut up into pieces – is the perfect metaphor for the album’s themes, even if it makes for a quite horrible picture in terms of packaging. As usual with Neil, the worse the album cover the better the music, with 'Mirrorball' every bit as beautiful to listen to as it is ugly to look at.
It helps that ‘Mirrorball’ isn’t just a sea of noise but an actually quite powerful little album the more you get to know it. Neil’s lyrics are his best since at least ‘Trans’ and Young is right at the edge of his second wind (barely a month after this record’s four lengthy sessions, he’s back in the studio recording the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’ film). The lyrics are more poetic and often surreal than usual, a writing style Neil hasn’t really used since ‘After The Goldrush’ and they’re flightiness and abstract feel oddly suit this very earthy, raw album. It’s as if we’re getting Neil’s subconscious thoughts pure: the sound of a bear waking up, to quote ‘Landing On Water’, but one having existential angst about having gone to sleep as a totally different animal. In fact, arguably, this is Neil’s last great LP to date (though you could argue a case for ‘Prairie Wind’), the last moment where Neil’s on such stunning form that his ‘first thought, last thought approach’ sounds like a work of genius rather than madness. Some fans will tell you they hate this album, that there are more wrong notes than normal and that Pearl Jam are no match for Crazy Horse. I agree with all those points – and I suspect this album would have been a trailblazing fan favourite like predecessor ‘Sleeps With Angels’ had Neil spent just a little more time perfecting it – but despite its faults and what it might have been, I like ‘Mirror Ball’ a lot. The freshness of these songs is the whole point - this album is urgent, it can't wait for an overdub, with a theme of time passing and the chance to defeat the horrors of the world passing with it. It’s a shame that the contractual shenanigans, effectively splitting this album in two, happened at the last minute – and against the theme of the album of overcoming odds if people of different eras work together. At the last minute, alongside the credit change, two of Eddie Vedder’s songs were taken off the running order (you can hear them on 1996 CD EP 'Merkinball' if you want, with Young tribute song ‘Long Road’ the one worth hearing, though they’re definitely not up to Neil’s or indeed his usual standard). Sadly this watered down the original concept of generations working together, with Eddie's middle eight on 'Peace and Love' thankfully left intact.
I don’t know what it is about this album but somehow the two parts separately aren’t as good as they are here as a whole, with Neil coasting for much of the 1990s and Pearl Jam largely doing the same by the end of the decade a few albums into their career (when they rust quicker than Neil's 1958 Lincoln convertible from 'Fork In The Road'). Perhaps it’s the three-guitar attack (last heard way back in the 1960s with Buffalo Springfield), perhaps it’s the youthful energy (by contrast the spooky ‘Sleeps with Angels’ makes Crazy Horse sound like grizzled old-timers) or the youthful subject matter (nowhere else does Neil tackle abortion and its the first time he sings about young lovers since he was one himself) or perhaps it’s just that Neil hit such a rich vein of writing he could do no wrong but ‘Mirrorball’ is the grand curtain-closer on Neil’s last purple patch to date with a commitment he’s only sporadically matched since then. If you can close your eyes and open your ears, though (hint: sit down first or you'll fall over) there’s a lot to enjoy about this record, usually small moments of magic wrapped up in larger stories. There's Neil finally giving way to the obvious and making a grunge sea-shanty about abortion (!) There's drummer Jack getting so ‘into’ Neil’s guitar solo on ‘Throw Your Hatred Down’ that the pair suddenly take off on a long snakey solo that clearly isn't meant to be part of the original plan at all and they improvise out of their skins leaving the rest of the band for dust until the song fizzles out into a fog of feedback and squeals. There's Neil sounding as surreal as his lyrics on 'I'm The Ocean', a song that proves he can still do 'weird' and break new ground even near his 50th birthday. There's Eddie Vedder offering the grunge generation’s sarcastic take on Neil’s flower power generation on ‘Peace and Love’, a song that's tried so desperately hard to stay upbeat but can't help slipping up and falling into a minor key rabbit-hole just when you're not looking, with all that good going so bad so fast. There's the delightfully oddball rock-concert-in-the-afterlife innocence of ‘Downtown’, a warm place in the head where hippies get to stay hippies forever while lost and retired and forgotten heroes hit the stage (this is a much better re-write of the better known 'Mansion On The Hill'). Then there's Neil’s vocal theatrics reaching their scathing peak on one of his greatest songs nobody knows ‘Scenery’, a scary song that damns all the supposed 'progress' since the 1960s to nothing because people still live in fear, the peace and love dream a mere backdrop to people's lives rather than changing them for the better. Plus there's not one but two sweet fragments of song from the pump organ (the best moments of Neil's recent 'Unplugged' set) offering a contrast between the heavier songs here.
Sure there are some bum notes – and even some bum songs at times – and those who hate Neil Young’s nosier work and say it's tuneless and repetitive are guaranteed to hate this, one of his few records where everything really is tuneless and repetitive and proud of it too. But if you’re the kind of fan who spent their adolescence raging against the Vietnam war with Buffalo Springfield, their middle age raging against the gulf war with ‘Weld’ and their retirement singing ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ with CSNY, then 'Mirrorball' is more than just Neil trying to get wid it with the kids of the day. And if 'Mirrorball' was your route to Neil Young via your love of Pearl Jam then this is as fine an introduction as any and proof that you don't need to be young to rock, it just helps (and sorry about the immediate come down with next record 'Broken Arrow' where Neil never sounded more middle-aged. Neil's catalogue is a bit like that). None of these songs are that well known – few lasted in concert past this album’s release and ‘Act Of Love’ is the only one you’ve got even a vague chance of hearing in his set-lists today – and yet there’s a good three or four important additions to the Neil Young canon (which is as many as he’s given us in the twenty-odd years since this album, if you disregard the ‘old’ songs on the Archives box-set). Something is on Neil’s mind during the making of this album – we don’t quite get to the bottom of what it is, but unlike some of the records to come it’s undeniably there and that mystery is what keeps us hooked, past every wrong note, missed vocal and clashed guitar chord. If you have to grow old, and we all do, then ‘Mirrorball’ is the way to do it, an album that can light your way and give you sudden flashes of insight even though it is designed as something to dance to.
‘Mirror Ball’ starts with  ‘Song X’, a track which sounds like it should belong in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie (well, Johnny Depp seemed to cope with Neil’s eccentric soundtrack for his ‘Dead Man' film quite well!) It has that same heave-ho effect and the sound of a sailor or at least a band getting increasingly drunk, while the lyrics are full of the same institution-ribbing lyrics of pirates in days of old. The lyrics, though, are very much land-bound and it’s the abortionist doctors who are the ‘pirates’, praying on the innocent while the backing vocals try to make of it all with ‘hey ho, away we go’ vocals (ie this is the romantic image of piracy, not the blood and guts and gore honest truth). No wonder, then, that we get lines about the young lovers as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the archetypal romantics juxtaposed with the reality, of the doctor and his medical instruments messing up their future happiness because of an unintended teenage pregnancy. Neil saves his bitterest lines though for the ‘priest with sandy hair’ who is too young to be casting judgement but does so anyway, making sure extra ‘punishment’ is applied on top of the shame and making two people who can’t look after themselves bring up a baby. The great irony, as it so often is in cases of abortion, is that it is the innocent child who is going to be harmed most by this, the not-yet-life that the pro-lifers were trying to protect. It’s all rather ambiguous compared to the crusades of old though: Neil rather unhelpfully explained that ‘personally I’m pro choice, but the song isn’t’ – make of that what you will! Neil was clearly inspired to write this song by the pro-life rally he and Crazy Horse attended alongside Pearl Jam, but the point of this song seems to be that it’s a constant problem of humanity that dates back to at least the middle ages: what do you about the consequences of sex between those too emotionally immature to handle the outcome? The naming of the two characters is clever: this could easily be the middle ages and the most famous love story of them all which, in the original story, happens between a boy of fourteen and a girl of twelve. Are we to deny love then? Is the idea of creating life out of love too much of a risk? Are we not meant to feel the urge to make love in order to procreate our species so why is it wrong? The ambiguous setting might be deliberate too: this is a scene that could have taken place at any time in the past thousand years and only the ‘cameras’ with the ‘news breaking’ in the last verse makes it clear that this song is current. Why are things so hard and bad even now? Why is there so much stigma attached? Neil has no answers so he can only howl on his guitar as he seems to alternate his sympathies in the song from the baby who deserves life to the parents who don’t deserve to pay such a high price for love, until the song has become an epic sea-shanty, pulled this way and that. Neil then branches out with one of his all-time best guitar solos, howling in the wilderness as Pearl Jam all but ignore him, busy with their own work, like the ghost of the foetus wailing it’s way to the afterlife. Only Neil’s vocal fails to excel: it’s buried in the mix for one thing and is so vague and lost on the other that Neil has to double-track it, poorly at times. ‘Song X’, named for the treasure the narrators don’t know they’re throwing away, is a startling beginning to an often startling album.
 ‘Act Of Love’ keeps up with the harsh mood, with a battle between romance and the realities of love culminating in one of Neil’s best lines: ‘I know I said I’d help you baby – here’s my wallet, call me sometime’. The song that kick-started the union of Young and Pearl Jam, it’s an unusual track for either: more brutal than usual for Neil and too downbeat for the Jam. Unusually for Neil the song actually starts with the risqué sound of love making, with an onomatopoeic ‘slowly pounding, slowly pounding, slowly pounding’ while backed with a strummed and pummelled single chord taking all the mystique he can out of sex. It’s as if everything Neil’s ever told us in his love songs (not that he’s made that many) is wrong and that all he sees in the future is abandoned babies, poverty-stricken mothers and a world full of lovers who don’t love each other. The hint is that the girl doomed to give birth won’t even remember who she had sex with nine months earlier, the ‘fruit of love…around the corner and over the hill’ from the actual urge of having sex. It’s a terrifying prospect and a quite terrifying song at times, with Pearl Jam sticking to a rough and ready riff that chugs along in the verses until it explodes in the choruses, while for most of the song Neil and Eddie Vedder chant ‘act of love’ over and over – this is merely the ‘act’ taking place here, not the real feeling of love this couple should be enjoying. And it clearly isn’t love, it’s just two people who barely know each other creating another life that will struggle to grow up in a single-parent family. Again the act of abortion is key to this song, though the message isn’t as clear as on ‘Song X’ – is the jilted mother right to have the baby, because she can give it love herself, or wrong because her disappearing lover makes life so much harder for her and the baby? It’s a difficult question this on an album full of difficult questions and of all the songs on the album ‘Act Of Love’ is probably the most admired and celebrated by a small nose. But for me it doesn’t have the weight or conviction of ‘Song X’ and Pearl Jam and even Neil himself sound less involved with this one, with a poor recording that again buries the vocal and the words (by far the best thing about this song) in the mix. Hats off to the guitar interplay between Young, Gosard and McCready, though, which approaches CSNY/Springfield telepathic levels at its best here, criss-crossing with each other in an effect that makes the song almost ‘3D’.
 ‘I’m The Ocean’ is the most revealing song on an album not known for its autobiography. Whilst it leaves me wishing the band had gone for another take to perfect it, like so many others on this album, it is nevertheless a fine song that uses a bunch of metaphors as Neil’s explanation for who he is and what he does. Whilst this song’s close cousin  ‘Will To Love’ had Neil as a fish swimming upstream (for the whole seven minutes!), this song switches similes from line to line, with Neil describing his career as his younger band might see it: ‘an accident’ from ‘driving too fast’, a man determined to make himself ‘toss in my sleep’ by scaring himself rather than getting complacent and watching ‘riders in the doorway’ ready to take him away (an image well known to anyone whose ever sat through the ‘Journey Through The Past’ film). Neil switches from being proud about what he does and the ‘real’ness that allows him to connect to ‘real people’ and follow his ‘muse’ wherever it takes him (‘people my age – they don’t do the things I do!’) and guilt at what that really means, with abandoned friends and musicians just ‘voicemail numbers on an old computer screen’, sacrificed for chasing a dream that isn’t concrete and can’t truly be described to anyone else. ‘It’s not guilt though!’ he proclaims, in such a way that makes us doubt him. Sure, Neil’s got a wife that he loves and children he adores – things that are more than enough for any other man – but he has a greater mistress too, one that calls him to ‘do the things I do’ (‘I can’t hear you, but I hear the things you say’). That’s just part of the song though: he also imagines American Indians ‘going under the knife’, perhaps pressurised into looking like more like their European interlopers, a ‘cutlass supreme in the wrong lane’ who ended up singing songs about peace despite being too caustic for his utopian generation and a ‘giant undertow’ that shakes everything in his path. Neil Young in 1995 is re-assessing his priorities and, for us long-term fans, that’s fascinating: one minute cursing himself for getting involved with the kind of muse he needs to write his work (‘need random violence – need entertainment’), the next he’s cursing himself for letting ‘real life’ get in the way of his muse (‘I was too tired to see the news when I got home – pulled the curtain and fell into bed alone’, a great couplet which has the curtain around Neil’s bed as a metaphor for something much bigger). Lyric-wise this is Neil at his best, with his spot-on portrayal of himself as a ‘drug that makes you dream’ so that you don’t have to take narcotics yourself (and harking back to all those past songs, from ‘Cinnamon Girl’ to ‘Like A Hurricane’ where Neil casts himself as a ‘dreamer’) to trying to turn against the flow’ and going into new musical territories that fans, record labels and critics don’t want him to enter – and yet he can’t stop itself thanks to that whispering voice inside his head. It’s just a shame that this astonishing song, which should be the best Neil’s made in years, is let down by a boring tune that seems recycled (though from what I’m not quite sure) and doesn’t go anywhere new, in contrast to the lyrics which are always surprising us. Pearl Jam don’t help either – the criss-crossing interplay just gets bogged down in sound here, whilst drummer Jack irons is having a rare bad day and simply struggles to keep up. Neil’s vocal is also strangely distant and weird, as if he’s distancing himself from how revealing this song really is, and without paying attention to the lyric booklet you could easily think this was one of Neil’s more tuneless, pointless songs (and I defy anyone to work out what Neil’s singing without looking at the words!) Such a crying shame and such a missed opportunity, not to mention the title – the idea of Neil as ‘an ocean’, changing his mood in ‘waves’ has already been done (not least by Neil himself during ‘On The Beach’) and is the least interesting line here. Ah well, as a work of poetry, this is magnificent even if it’s one of the poorer actual songs on the record.
 ‘Big Green Country’ is probably the weakest in terms of songs though. Like much of ‘Mirrorball’ but more so it doesn’t feel quite finished, as if Neil had lots of ideas but couldn’t work out which one to work on so he just threw everything into a sack and pulled out images at random. Again, the musicians don’t sound as if they know the song that well yet and Young’s vocal wanders all over the place, lost in the mix as if trying to get home, but they do at least gee up what is the most generic and sketchy song here. Lyrically, this should be something special – the hint is that this is another of Neil’s occasional American Indian songs (his first since  ‘Powderfinger’ I think), as a ‘chief with folded arms’ watches his ‘braves going down the hill’. I wonder if this line is Neil as the ‘Godfather’ of this latest generation, figuring that he’s acting like a battle-scarred major inspiring youngsters to follow him to their deaths – it’s a powerful imager, one that recalls the ‘doom trilogy’ and the guilt over what happened to Danny Whitten. However Neil seems to have backed away from this idea, instead treating this song like a Nirvana-esque vision of life where everything leads to death. The song has yet more ‘lone grey riders’ (see ) overseeing the turmoil and where death could arrive over every mountain unseen by the people on the ground. More than one wag has pointed out that even the song’s most memorable image of a ‘cancer cowboy’ riding over the land, even more unstoppable than the British, French, Dutch and Spanish settlers, is taken wholesale from a bonkers period cigarette advert, but it somehow fits all the same as a world where everything is potentially fatal. Neil seems to change his mind then and d secretly side with Kurt Cobain: better to die serving the cause of rock and roll if you’re going to die anyway. The guitarist, meanwhile, has lost his identity here: he doesn’t recognise the ‘Neil Young’ these youngsters think they are living up to. The narrator tells us that he’s tired of his life being mis-treated in the history books, with all of his years reduced to a ‘piece of paper’ while ‘sometimes I feel like my own name’ (the only identifiable mark of people in history before time, interpretation and prejudice take their toll in history books or perhaps an image he can never live up to). If only Neil had extended this verse into a full song he could have been onto something here but instead ‘Big Green Country’ sums up this album’s faults not its strengths, its rawness not its energy, its use of scattered metaphors and not its story-telling. Fittingly for a song where things are out to get you, even more than you first realised this song is manic even for this album, a panic attack in song as guitar-lines criss-cross this way and that. However it lacks the punch of the rest of the album somehow, with Neil’s weedy vocal no longer steady and sturdy but the school bully victim pummelled as he stands. The sound is that, like the people he inspires, he has no chance in this world and to rub the point home Neil even fluffs his solo, desperately trying to vamp and cover until he picks up the main phrase again halfway through.
 ‘Truth Be Known’ is another track that’s hard to love, what with its two short verses and single-line chorus, not to mention it’s down-beat depressed feel. Even more than  ‘Sleeps With Angels’ this is Neil at his most Kurt Cobain-ish, miserable, sarcastic and nasty. Everyone hates him. He hates everybody. There’s no reason for living. The difference is that Neil is singing only about ‘the way I feel tonight’. Together with another messy backing track, it should be horrid. But for once on this album the tune is pretty (if pretty depressing) and has more impact than the words, with a world weary Neil sounding his age for the first time in years. Unlike the rest of ‘Mirrorball’ where Neil does a good job of sounding like a teenager this is a man trying to remember how he used to feel when he was young and not quite getting it right, looking at his past with condescending modern eyes without the context he based his decisions on. Like Paul Simon’s ‘One Trick Pony’, this is a rock star who found fame and fortune, wondering what might have happened with their lives if they’d turn just a slightly different way down life’s paths, imagining themselves down and outs, abandoned by everyone because of their fierce desire for following music. Neil finds himself making all the same mistakes and losing all the same friends but on a much lower scale: all the mates he ever made turned their backs on him inside and he worked his fingers to the bone for no reward, when in one of the album’s best lines ‘my dreams all seem to fade as soon as I put my money down’. In real life Neil spent a grant total of a month working at an ‘ordinary job’, stacking books in a goods warehouse for a bookshop – he seems to have seen just enough of that world to understand how depressingly ordinary it would have been, though. My guess is that this song is him again contradicting himself and cheering these youngsters on: better they get in a few years of doing what they love and doing something important than ending up a nobody, living longer but in an unhappier state (an interesting twist on the ‘is it better to burn out than it is to rust?’ debate). Most fans hate this song though for being so slow and out of step with Neil’s catalogue, which it is – the trouble with ‘truth be Known’ really, though, is that Neil played it with the ‘wrong’ band. Pearl Jam were as unready to sing such a moaning song as they would be, say, ‘Arc’ or ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and they are just too ‘up’ for this song to quite swing the way it needs to. A nice try, though.
 ‘Downtown’ is next on this carefully programmed album, lightening the mood just as we need it, with a silly story about a ballroom in heaven where Led Zeppelin have taken the stage. Neil came up with the riff when trying to teach Pearl jam how to play ‘Peace and Love’ and accidentally messing it up, coming up with something else entirely. He messes up again at the start of this take, asking if he can have a second to think what the groove is again, before the rest of the band pile in as if he always meant to do that (even by Neil standards there are lots of mistakes being left here, which seems deliberate to me and fitting to an album that is often about tearing down ideals and showing heroes to be fallible humans).However if ever there was a hero-worshipping Neil Young song this is it, as in an exaggerated take on the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Neil imagines a perfect afterlife where all your favourite bands play all night and never lose the groove or get tired or have to go home. Neil doesn’t seem the sort to enjoy such a ‘big’ event (he chickened out of attending the ones for CSNY and Buffalo Springfield three years later when he could have been a three-times member) but he seemed to love it in January 1995. After meeting all the elderly legends in the room, so it’s not much of a jump to imagine them in the afterlife still playing and still honouring their own muses. Quite what Pearl Jam thought of singing a song about ‘hippies’ is unknown (see the forthcoming ‘Peace and Love’ for Eddie Vedder’s rather less salutary take on the ‘hippie dream’), though the band are at their best in this song, the guitarists taking it in turns to stretch out from the song’s basic grungy riff to break out for a solo as if this is the greatest democracy ever (why in this utopia maybe even CSNY get along?) Indeed, this song is probably what most Pearl Jam fans were hoping for from the album, with a close cousin of  ‘Cinnamon Girl’s excellent riff the backbone for a light-hearted song. Neil’s singing is a delight too, freed from the restrictions of double-tracking and with less noise than usual to sing against. The problem comes with the lyrics – they don’t really fit the metre of the backing track and are pretty darn awful by Neil’s higher standards to be honest, with a whole verse gushing about how great Led Zeppelin are (personally I think they’re the most over-rated and most ordinary of million-selling rock bands after ‘Queen’ and, erm, ‘Nirvana’; when I die I want to see the set-lists for Woodstock or Monterey again in the afterlife, not suffer ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – even if it would be quite apt!) The odd thing is Led Zeppelin would never have written a song like this: the riff is a good time one built for a ‘party’, not their usual heavy satanic rock and they certainly wouldn’t have shared the hippie ethos of the lyrics. Maybe Neil confused them with Santana, because that’s the band this song most sounds like to me with perhaps a dash of the late 1970s Kinks. Neil plays great though, launching off a solo of real ecstasy that sounds far more like a ‘water-washed diamond’ than anything Jimmy Page played. This is by far the happiest song on the record, even if its about death, although I do wonder if Neil was still being haunted by someone he really wanted to see when he wrote this track, given how close the song, title words and riff, is to Danny Whitten’s  ‘C’mon Baby Let’s Go Downtown’ (it is, after all, a very American phrase I’ve never heard the Canadian Neil ever use except when singing it).A cool sojourn in the middle of the album whatever the cause. ‘That’s funky’ grins Neil at the end, sounding pleased with a song that arrived so quickly he barely had time to write it. You bet it’s funky!
 ‘What Happened Yesterday’ is a short and sweet (45 second) fragment, where the central riff and outright noise of ‘Big Green Country’ has been replaced by a reflective Neil alone at the pump organ. Neil had scored a surprise success on ‘Unplugged’ concert with his revisitation of electric guitar magnum opus ‘Like A Hurricane’ on the instrument, so fans were looking forward to hearing a new song done in this manner – alas this piece and closer ‘Fallen Angel’ are as close as we get. But in its own sweet way this song is rather poignant, offering up a chance for regret and guilt whilst reflecting on the past without the powerhouse of the guitars. I’m especially impressed with the line mimicking the album’s key themes, with guilt from the past coming through the narrator ‘like an echo, like a photograph’, something remembered that has an impact on the present day (again, tying into the faxed-in album cover).This song also makes a rather neat segue into...
 ‘Peace and Love’, one of the album’s real highlights, which is a song all about the legacy of the 1960s and how it’s viewed by the modern generation. The idea of Neil and Pearl Jam working together makes most sense here, with sensitive guitar parts that play off each other well and the chance for Eddie Vedder to get involved with his own contrasting ‘Generation X’ middle eight offering a different view to Neil’s happier ‘Baby Boomer’ reminiscences. It’s like hearing the ‘Landing On Water’ track about David Crosby’s fall from grace,  ‘Hippie Dream’ writ large, with something good turning bad so fast – and yet the narrator is still thankful it was ever there at all to inspire him however impossible the idea. The tune to this song is marvellous, half grunge pop song, half psychedelic freak out, with Neil’s chosen guitar riff sounding mourning the loss of a way of life and the ethics of the 1960s in a similar manner to Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. Neil starts the song ‘flying so high’, with a light and feathery vocal and guitar part that sound at one with all the albums we’ve covered on this site from 1966 and 1967, gradually getting lower and more desperate as each pass of the upbeat chorus comes around and ends up stuck in the same dark place of a few sad lonely chords. By the time the second verse comes around, things have turned sour, with Neil harking back to the theme of ‘Song X’ and ‘Act Of Love’ with the side effects of all that free love: split families (‘say for the children!) and the realities of life for many 1960s survivors contrasting against the peace they imagined for themselves and for the world, adjusting to a reality they had ignored. Things get harsher with Vedder’s classy middle eight, speaking up on behalf of the then-modern generation, looking at the 1960s as a time of self-indulgence, sharing in the dream but ‘not the take’ because it wasn’t his generation that sold out to AOR, wars and band splits and had to live with the knowledge that they couldn’t share in a dream that had already collapsed. Neil then chimes in for a final verse, claiming that the 1960s dream only really died for him with ‘Lennon’s goodbye’ in 1980 and the start of the ‘me’ culture before Vedder once again chimes in, telling the listener that ‘his’ generation agree with the sentiments of times past but disagreed with the corruption and the hiding from realities, so instead they ‘gave it back’ and looked for their own dream (Vedder’s lyrics are typed in the booklet and inserted in the middle of Neil’s handwritten lyrics, just to emphasise how different the times are for both bands – Neil couldn’t have done that when he first started out). Musically this song is genius too, with Neil’s high-flying soaring optimistic psychedelic guitar playing some of his best for years, for of the hope and joy and love we haven’t heard since ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ – however the rest of Pearl jam are in a grumpy mood, slashing at their chords as if taking pot-shots at neil and trying to bring him down to Earth. Dismissed by critics who didn’t ‘get’ it at the time, ‘Peace and Love’ is truly a fascinating song about the passing years, a kind of update of ‘My Generation’ now that the mods and hippies are having grandchildren who can pick and choose from their legacy rather than fully rebelling against it the way their children did. Full marks to everyone involved with this song, as the recording is a masterpiece, with the variety and changes that the rest of this album is missing. Best of all is Neil’s howling guitar solo at the end, the perfect mix of vulnerability, pride, suffering, failure, happiness and rebirth. There’s even a lengthy fadeout full of sleepy feedback that sounds straight out of a Jefferson Airplane record in 1967. I also don’t know of any of Neil’s other bands who could have played this song, never mind written a middle eight for it. If the rest of the album had lived up to this song, I’d never have wanted to hear Neil play with another band again, even Crazy Horse.
After all that depth, next song  ‘Throw Your Hatred Down’ sounds like a bit of an anti-climax. You can see why it was sequenced next, though, as it’s meant to be a song of peace, with Neil calling on both his family and his country (and maybe secretly his bands) to forget their feuds with each other and live in harmony because life is too short. A worthy aim, but after the last song peace sounds unfeasible and maybe that’s the point as Neil gets more and more frustrated that no one is listening to him 9and moving further and further away from the peace with which he wants to live his life). Hearing it now, this song sounds suspiciously close to Neil’s ‘Living With War’ album, a messy, punky channel of energy with only Neil’s guitar work adding any real emotion to proceedings, but without the ambitious scathing lyrics (it’s melody is very close to  ‘Shock’ and Awe’ in particular). Basically, it’s a song about man’s fallibility and Neil’s continued shock as to how such a seemingly civilised and un-pressured species can so quickly succumb to greed and hatred. There’s a classy second verse that juxtaposes kids fighting for their own space in the playgrounds, growing into poverty-ridden peasants fighting out of despair and frustration backed by world leaders doing exactly the same thing with each other because nobody has fixed the same problems of inequality that CSNY tried so hard to fix, although alas the first and third verses are business as usual and a little basic by Neil’s standards. What this song does have is yet another angry sneering guitar solo, with a particular fine duet between Neil and drummer Jack Irons which stretches out in true Crazy Horse style, the band finding ever more spaces to weave their magic before the song finally fizzles out on a sudden full stop. It’s a particularly good combination of a performance that’s very earthy and brutal, as the listener feels every note physically, while the lyrics are more poetic and abstract than usual (this song’s opening couplet is, perhaps, Neil’s most unlikely of all his songs and reads like a religious text: ‘’here in the conscious world we place our theories down, why man must bring us to our knees before he sees the weakness in his sinful plan…’) The ride is a good one qwithout you really noticing the lyrics though, with Pearl Jam creating the perfect bed for Neil to lie on as an angry defiant mob to his peaceful idealist, but this is another ‘Mirrorball’ song that could have done with longer in the oven and only comes out half-baked.
I have no such qualms about  ‘Scenery’, however, which despite being dismissed by every book on Neil I’ve ever read is actually probably his most important song since  ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and an anthem for the 1990s the way that song was for the 1980s. A savage political commentary about how the kind get skewered and the bad get promotion, it sums up well the troubled period between the end of the Bush Senior phase and the start of the Clinton one, a murky period for both Republicans and Democrats as it became clear the people behind the thrones had the most power. For them the American public aren’t the people they represent but the ‘scenery’, the people who really get hurt. This song finds Neil at both his musical and lyrical near-peak, with his slow and stately sounding riff forever being undermined by the activity going on behind it, peeking out from behind Pearl Jam every so often like some grand elder statesman parroting lines he no longer believes. Neil turns in a classic vocal performance on this song too, delivering a lyric about the treatment of war veterans in a way that’s both respectful and sarcastic, where the ‘home of the brave’ is just like ‘Free World’. Neil starts the song where he left off, at the scene of the Gulf War, only this time he’s staring into a mass grave, trying to make sense of it all. The song starts with Neil looking at a war memorial grave, wondering how it is that the fallen heroes are celebrated so when all the pomp and circumstance doesn’t matter to dead bodies – and yet those who returned from the war missing limbs and emotionally disturbed, they are thrown onto the scrap-heap of life by an uncaring Government. The realisation that the same people who sent soldiers off to kill are the ones who have the power to make their lives better when they themselves return from war inspires one of Neil’s bitterest lyrics. Neil may also have had some grand disaster in mind here – perhaps the hurricane that nearly destroyed the Virgin Islands at the start of the year. Neil seems to be claiming that as long as you’re useful to the powers that be they make people ‘worship you’ in their control of the press, but as soon as you’re not they abandon you, as they ‘tear your houses down’. It sounds not unlike the tale of war veterans who ended up suffering in New Orleans or through Hurricane Katrina in later years.
The true people with power aren’t using it the right way, though, corrupted by its responsibility. In Neil’s world these men and women are more dangerous than any rebel, where for the ordinary American ‘when you earn their trust then you truly are in danger’ and how despite being named the ‘land of the free’ it’s a place where ‘greed and lust have never been a stranger’. The heroes of the war, too, aren’t necessarily those who are deserving of the fame and love of a nation, with high and mighty generals too ‘important’ to lead by example praised by the media who don’t understand the true story. The soldiers have already given their ‘heart’ to their country – but that’s not enough, they have to ‘pretend’ about the war and keep quiet about its horrors on their return and pretend that war is all camaraderie and friendship, not murder. The Government next resorts to paying people off with bribery. ‘You sell your heart but that’s not the price of freedom’ wails Neil, as the ‘legend outlives them’ and these soldiers become wiped from history or exaggerated to inspire the next lot of heroes.
In that respect this song is very like one of Graham Nash’s from 1974, ‘Oh Camil! (the Winter Soldier)’, a veteran who was treated abominably when he tried to speak out about Vietnam with the media doubting his jingoistic credentials even though he won awards for bravery (I find it fascinating that so many homegrown American musicians accept this as their fate where the ones from overseas like Graham and Neil fight it). Neil, of course, knows what’s really going on and does his true American duty by standing up and revealing what a charade it all is, pledging to the abandoned veterans ‘I’ll stay beside you’ before sarcastically cackling to the listener ‘I’ll be waiting if you want to take a ‘hero’ home’. Neil closes the song on a repeat of the line ‘home of the brave’, singing it by contrasts sadly, angrily, sarcastically and patriotically, hopeful that the tide might still turn against unsuitable world leaders. In retrospect I’m amazed CSNY didn’t dig this song out for their ‘Freedom Of Speech’ tour because it’s basically the Iraq war seen six years early and the perfect template for the future songs on Neil’s ‘Living With War’ record. As the song says, it could and should be so much different for everyone involved – and Neil has never sounded more believable, fragile or helpless than when he sang this track. Pearl Jam too are perfect for this, even if it’s a long way from their usual music, allowing Neil to sound big and large as he uses his guitar to growl at us cynically and blow our ear-drums off in a way that even ‘Weld’ can’t match. Full marks to McCready who seems to know exactly when to chime in and keep quiet on his own fiery solos and producer Brendan O’Carroll who steps away from the control booth long enough to provide some lovely piano tinkling. By the end Neil Jam have reached such a state of Nirvana that it feels like you’ve just survived a brutal and bloody war yourself. What an extraordinary piece of music, brave before it’s time (1995 was one of the few periods of peace in the 20th century when America wasn’t at war with somebody!) and delivered with such passion and emotion by all involved. Why this track wasn’t hailed as a career to form (one review I read even dismissed it as being ‘boring’!) I’ll never know. Neil Young at his very very best.
The album then ends on the reflective note of  ‘Fallen Angel’, which finds Neil back at the pump organ and closing out the album on his own with a song that nicks the melody from ‘I’m The Ocean’ again and lyrics that could be about any of the characters we’ve heard about on this album: the ‘fallen angel’ of the soldier who should be hailed as a hero but is instead left to rot in some hospital; the ‘fallen angel’ of the young girl who had an abortion without realising quite what effect the decision would have on her life; the ‘fallen angel’ of the 1960s who went into adulthood with all the right ideas about peace and love but got waylaid by money, power, arguments, pride and the fact of having to make a living when he ‘grew up’; the ‘fallen angel’ of the rock and roll rebel resurrected in an afterlife utopia downtown. It makes for a fine close to the album – and a tonic after all that noise – without ever feeling like a substantial song in its own right, here seemingly to let us down back to the real world without grunge sea shanties ringing in our ears as much as anything else.
Overall, then, ‘Mirror Ball’ is an under-rated little album that captures the end of Neil’s second glow in full strength for the last time, quite superb considering it took all of four sessions to record (and write for the most part!), but could have been better still had Neil written just one or two more classic numbers (or even included Vedder’s numbers from companion EP ‘Merkin Ball’, which aren’t bad at all if nowhere near the peaks on this album) and gone for one or two more takes. But even with such problems and the odd track that misses, ‘Mirror Ball’ is an impressively consistent album which marks the third in a row where no tracks are truly bad. From here on in Neil is going to struggle to make even his best songs reach that level and it’s a sober reminder that this album, so clearly a cut above what comes next, was hailed as a relative disappointment compares to the last few on release.
Certainly Neil seems to have moved on from it with undue haste even for him, abandoning all the songs before they truly had a chance to get going in his set list (this is an album born to play over time when it’s grooves get cleaner and it’s mistakes get less with knowledge) and never so much as playing a charity gig with Pearl Jam again. Perhaps the band just grew too old too quickly in Neil’s eyes, ironically learning from working with Neil an elder wisdom and more establishment sound even though he took from them the need to sound hungry and idealistic rather than rusty and cynical. Like a Mirrorball twirling, it’s sometimes a bit flash and style over substance but this album surely soared above the expectation fans of both sides had for it and the result is an album that desperately deserves a re-birth. The name a for ‘Mirror Ball’ suggests it’s going to be a twee, dance-filled album full of colour – but instead what we get is like that black and white cover, with the characters involved thinking that life is going to be great and full of love and peace and happiness without realising the true cost of living. Neil has made better albums over the years – ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is more moving, ‘Freedom’ is more consistent and even the much-maligned ‘Trans’ outdoes this album in terms of bravery and occasional sheer brilliance, while even predecessor ‘Sleeps With Angels’ would probably edge it after a close fight through its sheer spookiness. But when ‘Mirror Ball’ succeeds it does so with a conviction of purpose that few other albums possess, even Neil Young ones, full of all the white-washed diamond guitar solos we have ever dreamed of in an afterlife in the here and now.