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
Death is, sadly, a sad fact of life, whatever comes next in line. Ignore it, acknowledge it, wish it, delay it, deny it, most musicians of the 60s and 70s (and the years since) simply refuse to accept it as a truth. After all, it’s not a ‘hip’ subject that a largely teenage market would ever want to consider and it’s not a subject that can ever be ‘hip’ or ‘trendy’ unless you’re a star who’s positively convinced that he wants to turn super nova in the immediate future. Of the AAA stars only Paul Simon has made it a major part of his work and even then only seriously in his twilight years. However, one artist’s debate with mortality has always fascinated me over the years and that’s Neil Young; famously mercurial and infinitely stubborn, it’s nonetheless Neil’s songs about death that hit the hardest and with the most believable straightforward impact. Whether it be buried friend (all the songs from the harrowing ‘Tonight’s The Night’ written for Danny Whitten), strangers read about in the paper (‘Revolution Blues’ about the Manson murders, ‘Ohio’ about anti-Nixon protestors shot by Government troops and ‘Tired Eyes’ about a drug-bust near his house) or the death of musicians respected from afar (Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who inspired most of the ‘Sleeps With Angels’ album and quoted from a Neil Young song in his suicide note) Neil’s approach to mortality has always been to hit it head on and leave himself bare for his audience to hear (so bare that, famously, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ was delayed for two years in part because he couldn’t bear to listen to it and confront the loss).
‘Prairie Wind’ is, admittedly, not an album that immediately strikes you as harrowing. It’s not an ‘Ohio’ for the 21st century and it features none of the guttural anger, bile and guilt that runs through this album’s follow up, the Bush-bashing ‘Living With War’ of 2006. And yet when you get to know it, it might just be the most emotionally charged Neil Young album of them all (neck with the misunderstood ‘Trans’ from 1982, an album that makes oh so much more sense when you realise Neil wrote it for his cerebral palsy suffering son). Certainly it’s the first time for a long time (possibly since ‘Harvest Moon’ in 1992) where Neil is openly singing about himself, offering up semi-autobiography and memory rather than playing the part of a ‘character’. You see, for only the second time in his career Neil has written a whole album about approaching death. Only this time it’s his own. In early 2005 Neil was a guest at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, having been chosen to induct his good friend (and former Pretender) Chrissie Hynde. The next day at the hotel he felt sick, his vision blurred and he checked into a doctor’s surgery, to be told that he had a brain aneurysm that would need to be operated on straight away. Unfortunately for Neil it didn’t go away and he had to have a second operation that very nearly did kill him (and only revealed for the first time in his autobiography ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ released late last year).
The whole of ‘Prairie Wind’ was written in the week between getting the diagnosis and having that first operation and, after spending more or less the past decade ambling along, Neil suddenly had an awful lot on his mind. Add in the fact that Neil lost his father Scott (a writer whose fame maybe even eclipsed his son’s in his native Canada, where he is most famous for his sports journalism work and autobiographies; Neil sweetly dedicates this record ‘for daddy’ in the sleeve-notes) shortly after this record to an illness Neil knew was terminal and likely to take him soon and you can see why ‘Prairie Wind’ is such an emotional work, even by Neil’s standards. As if this all wasn’t enough Neil even acknowledges the dementia he saw in his dad towards the end and wonders openly if the same will ever happen to him, suffusing this album with an urgency and focus that comes as quite a shock if you listen to Neil’s albums in order (where this album follows the ‘musical’ ‘Greendale’, an album so rambling it only has the one tune shared across the whole record).
All that said, if you only know this record from my description and that of other reviewers down the years then it might surprise you that, musically, this is a timid and barely sketched CD. Instead of the howling Crazy Horse rockers that filled up much of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and most of the other songs above this is Neil’s first fully acoustic record since ‘Silver and Gold’ in 1999. Neil isn’t raging against the light like you’d expect him to; he’s philosophical, taking things slow and had he not told us several times in his autobiography that he never for a minute doubted he’d pull through then I’d suggest that he was all but ready to hand himself over to the grim reaper. Compared to the premature deaths of Danny Whitten and Kurt Cobain, Neil sounds almost accepting of his fate. There’s lots of sadness and a little bit of guilt about this record, but there’s no fury and no real bitterness, with the only worry on Neil’s mind the fact that he might not have got round to telling us everything he really wanted to before the end.
Many fans have commented on how this album seems to be the next part of a ‘trilogy’ made up of ‘Harvest’ (songs about youth looking forward) and ‘Harvest Moon’ (middle age looking back). That’s certainly true, although Neil has never actually said that and probably hadn’t even realised the fact himself until reading the reviews later. ‘Prairie Wind’ is an album firmly written in old age, one that looks both backwards and forwards, taking us back to Neil’s memories of his dad, his childhood, his musical heroes (there’s a song about Elvis), his first guitar and even his birth in the solemn hymn of rhetorical questions ‘When God Made Me’ that closes the album on a suitably poignant note. In between, however, Neil suffers three possible futures: the uncomfortable surreal hell-like vision on ‘No Wonder’ (the album’s most tension-filled track), the splendour and beauty of heaven on ‘When God Made Me’ (not as smug as the title makes it sound) or simply fading slowly in his sleep on the whispered ballad ‘Falling Off The Face Of The Earth’. Even the album’s artwork makes good use of ‘old’ pictures of an early guitar, an early car (this being Neil I’m surprised there wasn’t an early model train set here too) and the back cover picture of a young Neil and friend not referenced or captioned anywhere but quite possibly one of the ‘girl cousins’ he speaks of so fondly on the title track (she sure does look like him; for the record she’s too young to be Neil’s half sister who sings backing vocals on the album as I once wondered).
Another sign that time is of the essence is the speed with which this album was recorded, the songs (written in one week – and released here in the order it was written, apparently, according to an interview of the time) recorded ‘within’ a month. Compared to Neil’s previous records of the decade, though (the basic ‘Silver and Gold’, the sketchy ‘Chrome Dreams II’ and the barely begun ‘Greendale’) the speed of the album isn’t the problem. There are professional session musicians from Nashville on hand but like Neil’s other ‘confessional’ albums (e.g. ‘Trans’) there’s a lovely mixture of old friends from the 60s, 70s and 80s who really ‘get’ Neil’s muse and how to learn the parts quickly while sounding like they’ve been playing this music for years (including Spooner Oldham from ‘Harvest’, Rock Rosas and Chad Cromwell from ‘Freedom’ onwards, Emmylou Harris’ last heard on ‘Comes A Time’ and Ben Keith whose on lots of Neil’s recordings but most audibly from ‘On The Beach’). The one thing that doesn’t quite work are the vocals, which is a particular shame given how much space there is inside these songs for some harmony parts: it’s a real shame that Neil didn’t choose this record as his CSNY reunion because it could have been fabulous but then speed was of the essence and getting the quartet back together would have taken a lot of time that neil probably felt he didn’t have.
Talking of CSNY, until that band start cooking on tour with the ‘Living With War/Freedom Of Speech Tour’ in 2006 this is the best sounding music Neil’s made in a long time, the best mixture of the spontaneity he loves and the slickness that helps wallpaper over the cracks he always leaves in. You only have to look at the accompanying (and slightly dull) concert film ‘Heart Of Gold’ to see how readily the band pull off these new songs live despite very limited rehearsal.
So, with musicians, production, themes and depth on its side, why isn’t this album a recognised masterpiece and heavy seller? Well, good as many songs on this album are, there’s no one song with a knockout melody and word perfect lyrics that begs for your attention, just a bunch of similar sounding songs on similar sounding themes. Whilst I for one adore the fact that an album can have one subtle theme running through it (most of the ‘core 101’ reviews on our site are concept or semi-concept albums), here the idea doesn’t work. Many of the songs cover the same ground over and over and there’s no great realisation that comes at the end of the work as in the very best albums made. I find, too, that the parts of this album are much better than their whole: hearing the best of this album (‘No Wonder’ ‘Falling From The Face Of This Earth’ ‘When God Made Me’) on ‘shuffle’ on my mp3 player(s) they really stand out, magnetic and intoxicating songs that are every bit as good as Neil’s work in his heyday. Heard on the record, however, they almost disappear into the album’s default background ‘sound’. It doesn’t help that almost all the songs from this album are mid-paced ballads, songs that don’t ever break out of a canter or slow down to a real exquisite showstopper. Whilst the lyrics are top notch, a typical Young array of memorable images, metaphors and life lessons superior to much of his recent writing, the melodies suffer by comparison, as if Neil is picking notes ‘out of the air’ to join them, the way the ‘painter’ on the opening track plucks the colours she needs randomly to finish her art. When the album ends the only song you might be singing are ‘This Old Guitar’ and ‘When God Made Me’ – and that’s a pity because ‘Guitar’ is clearly just the title track of ‘Harvest Moon’ slowed down and given new words while ‘God Made Me’ sounds awfully like ‘Abide With Me’ right down to the ‘me’.
Ah well, at least the muse is back with Neil again. The images throughout this album are always strong and memorable, a puzzling world full of obstacles in the present the narrators don’t quite understand and memories from the past they love to revisit . In the former camp is ‘No Wonder’, a surreal dream-like song that sounds like an updated version of ‘The Old Homestead’ from 1980’s ‘Hawks and Doves’, complete with the same this-could-be-meaningful-or-it-could-be-a-red-herring lyric. The title track of the album is only slightly easier on the ear, an epic of several parts stapled together with an urgent, turbulent riff and a lyric that finds Neil desperately trying to retrieve a precious memory that will unlock some secret he can’t fathom out (sadly he still doesn’t know any more by the end of the song). Even the seeming peace and quiet of ‘When God Made Me’ asks difficult questions of the life to come after death and the impact of not knowing what lies on the ‘other side’ has on our lives in this world. Lyrically this is one of Neil’s cleverest songs (if one of his shortest and simplest), asking how much control our ‘maker’ has over his creations and whether ‘his’ voice was made in full knowledge that he’d say the wrong things and that his ‘eyes’ were made in the knowledge they’d interpret all the wrong things. Thank goodness Neil not only survived his care but thrived after it, kick-starting a pretty active five year period, but had the worst happened and Neil had bowed out with this song then it would have been a fine way to go.
In the latter camp of memories come most of the other songs. ‘The Painter’ starts in the third person, the narrator admiring an artist as she works, but switches to reflect on a ‘long road’ where Neil and his musician companions have ‘left our tracks in the sounds’ and wonders openly why so many companions had to leave so soon. ‘Face Of The Earth’ is a ‘thankyou’ letter written to old supporters known and unknown, perhaps the very letter Neil always promised one day he’d sit down and write on ‘One Of These Days’ from ‘Harvest Moon’ but never had time to do. ‘Far From Home’ is full of childhood memories, ‘the real good ole family times that left a big mark on me’ with Neil asking to ‘be buried on the prairie’ where he can relive these memories forever and its much happier and more upbeat than the pained title suggests. ‘It’s A Dream’ is all one long memory, Neil imagining his dying thoughts where his life slips away and leaves the story of his life fading back from him one snapshot at a time, while continues undisturbed outside his window. ‘Here For You’ is even more moving still, Neil imagining a time when he might not be there for his loved ones in body but promises to always be there in spirit, a memory for them to turn to whatever the ‘season’ (Spring, Summer and Winter are all mentioned), whether their lives are in a good or bad patch. ‘This Old Guitar’ and ‘He Was The King’ are two specific memories and tributes, the first a tribute to Neil’s first guitar and all the stories and events they’ve enjoyed together – the latter a tribute to Elvis, conjuring up images from various points in Presley’s life and yet sounding strangely detached from it all, a biographer rather than a raving fan.
There’s one set of words, too, that keep cropping up over and over. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ aside, Neil’s never been a composer who likes to quote his album titles in his work that often. It’s as if each song is part of a life-long ongoing project that gets put onto an album simply because some of this stuff has to be released at some point to keep the listener’s interest. ‘Prairie Wind’, however, crops up on nearly all the songs somewhere, usually as some sort of unseen hand ushering in some unforeseen circumstance. Whether the hand of God, accident or fate even Neil doesn’t know, but it drifts throughout these songs unseen, from the muse that pulls the artist’s brush on the opening song to the debate as to who put Neil on the earth and why on the last track. It’s not for nothing, too, that Neil describes his music at its best as ‘like a wind where everyone knows naturally how hard it’s going to blow and where it’s going next (a quote first used on the ‘Live Rust’ tour with Crazy Horse in 1979) – clearly in Neil’s head the force of nature that gave him his gift of music can easily take it away again just like that. He’s seen it firsthand, too, in the moving title track where he tries to remember something his dad taught him way back on the Canadian Prairie, only for the prairie wind to blow and make him lose the flow. Neil regrets not paying more attention at the time because life is short and he can no longer ask his father in the present (because, in one of the best lines of the album, ‘too much time took away his head’) and like the song ‘Old Man’ Neil really is turning into his father. This song is almost an apology for a career that’s taken him ‘far from home’ (not co-incidentally the name of one of the album’s other songs) and allowed him to see so much, as nostalgic as we’ve ever heard Neil in song even with such classics as ‘Helpless’ and ‘Journey Through The Past’.
References to old songs abound too. ‘The Painter’ sounds like a second instalment of ‘Long May You Run’ admitting that Neil is now a lot further down the road than he was on that song in 1976. ‘Now Wonder’ features ‘Bluebirds’ (possibly as a metaphor for Stephen Stills, who used the image a lot in his work with and without Neil), while the reference to ‘Willie singing on the radio’ could refer either to Graham Nash (‘Willie’ being a band nickname) or Willie Nelson, the country singer who shared so much of Neil’s confused record ‘Old Ways’ in 1983. Meanwhile ‘Far From Home’ is where ‘The Buffalo Used To Roam’ (a bizarre Bill Murray film Neil recorded the soundtrack for – if you can call half a dozen different versions of ‘Home On The Range’ a soundtrack!) ‘It’s A Dream’ features birds singing on a Canadian landscape (first features in the CSNY song ‘Helpless’; ‘Birds’ is itself a Neil Young song of goodbye from ‘After The Goldrush’) and an ‘Old Man’ walks down the ‘sidewalk’ before revealing to us that it’s now Neil himself. ‘This Old Guitar’ has ‘never searched for gold’ (ie ‘Heart Of Gold’) and ‘cries’ when it’s ‘left alone’, suggesting Neil’s been listening to a lot of Beatles (‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’). Even ‘He Was The King’ has Elvis ‘driving a pink Cadillac’ which is something Elvis never actually did (he couldn’t drive to his dying day and as far as I know never bought any car in pink) – perhaps Neil’s thinking of his band ‘The Shocking Pinks’ from 1983 where his Elvis-like character used to drive one of those instead. One of these references might have been coincidence, but this many surely points to how heavily the past and mortality was on Neil’s mind.
Overall, then, ‘Prairie Wind’ is a likable album that deserves more respect than it received at the time. There are dodgy moments on it, certainly, but like the prairie wind that blows past Neil’s ear, calling him back to a past time he can’t quite recall, there’s something hypnotic and alluring about much of the album. I love the fact that Neil is, temporarily at least, woken out of his comfort zone as ‘untouchable rock God’ and isn’t resting on his laurels for the first time in ten years or more, charting alien territory with a grace and sophistication missing from so many of his other recent works. The problems with this album, really, are that like so much of Neil’s work since the 1980s the music all falls into one repetitive style and that it was recorded in such a hurry. Two or three more great songs and a couple of real rockers would have improved this album a hundredfold, but then that wasn’t what ‘fell out’ of Neil the week he seemed to be in limbo between life and death and we can’t blame him for that. No, the real problem with this album is that, once 2005 was out the way, it was dead and buried, never mentioned again. Neil dropped all the songs from his live set (not that unusual i admit, but surprising given how ‘real’ this album is for him) and went completely the other way, recording his next album about other people’s experiences, namely the political drudgery, corruption and stupidity of the Bush-Blair years with the venom and uncontrolled fire you wish you’d heard just a little bit more of on this album. Still, we put ‘Prairie Wind’ at number nine on our list of ‘the top ten best albums of the 21st century’ for a reason when we ran a feature back in News, Views and Music Issue 50; poignant, honest and moving, it’s about the best musical response to a personal tragedy since ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’.
‘The Painter’ is uncharacteristic of the album as a whole, a jolly upbeat song about Neil watching an artist at work and only in its moving last half does it appear to fit with the rest of the album’s feel and grace. According to Neil he wrote all these songs in the order they appear on the album (which makes sense, given that this album is one long hymn to Neil’s muse). However this sort of sappy, relaxed song doesn’t have the urgency you’d expect from a writer fearing that he’s about to embark on his last album and in places this song goes too far in its attempts to describe a scene without really telling a story (‘Green to green, red to red, yellow to yellow in the light, black to black when the evening comes, blue to blue in the night’). However there’s a moving chorus that points at the anguish underneath: worried that he might possibly have missed an opportunity to follow his muse down another path Neil consoles himself with the thought ‘if you follow every dream, you might get lost’. He adds too that he has ‘friends’ and that together ‘we left our tracks in the sound’ so his life isn’t for nothing and the tagline of the song (‘it’s a long road behind me, it’s a long road ahead’) changes every time we hear it, from victory to sadness to anguish to acceptance. The link between the narrator (who sings in the first person and is clearly Neil) and the artist at work is unclear – it could be Neil watching his ‘muse’ pass on to the next generation (he admits in his book ‘Waging Peace’ that he’s been struggling with the creative spark the last few years) but if so he’s been watching a long time, long enough for her to fall and get right back up again. There’s a sweet tune that accompanies this intriguing lyrics too, but like the words it doesn’t deliver as much as it promises and isn’t quite as memorable as it should be, rambling rather than focussed. The highlight of the song might well be Ben Keith’s mournful pedal steel – the pair don’t know it yet but this will end up being one of their last records together before Ben’s own death in 2010 only five years after this record.
‘No Wonder’ is elliptical too, but the sheer weirdness of the lyrics makes it stand out from the rest of the album and the performance of the song is the most intense on the generally laidback ‘Prairie Wind’. As we said earlier, it’s a close cousin of ‘The Old Homestead’ with lots of ‘clues’ for fans to follow (although sadly there’s no CSN as a three headed vulture this time around!) In a sort of nightmare hallucination Neil’s narrator sees a ‘bluebird’ (usually more of a Stephen Stills metaphor) ‘calling to take me home’ – this is clearly Neil’s ‘muse’, the pull and intensity that turned into a musician and led him on his wild chase from his Canadian home and the song could be interpreted as Neil waving a sad goodbye to his creative spark (similar to the way Brian Wilson does on the ‘Mount Vernon and Fairway’ EP included in copies of the Beach Boys’ Holland LP) or being led to his death. Throughout the song time is of the essence: clocks ring and tock, each punctuated by a sudden staccato stab of tension in the song, before Neil finds himself for the first (but not the last) time on the album alone on the prairie fields, trying to remember something important. This is one of Neil’s best songs of the period, eerie and ghostly, with a melody that sounds like it belongs in a horror film and an unusual backing choir that sounds like the return of the underwater munchkins from the similarly confused and enigmatic ‘Lost In Space’ that has another important message for mankind lost in transit somewhere. The second half of the song can’t sustain the first, however: Neil makes a strange reference to 9/11 that doesn’t fit with the rest of the song (and the mention of ‘Chris Rock’ will no doubt puzzle future music historians the way his references to George McGovern on ‘War Song’ did in 1973) and the dig at a senator who ‘took his money just like all the rest’ in the last verse seems out of place here in this dreamscape (though it does suggest a re-awakening of politics that will burst through wholesale on next album ‘Living With War’). One verse I love, though, is trapped in the middle, Neil imagining himself as a bird (well, he’s been a fish before now on ‘Will To Love’ so it’s honestly not that strange) being pulled to emigrate South by a strange mysterious force that saw him leave home. He’s also puzzled as to why so few Canadians do the same in the present (because in his day migrating birds ‘blocked out the sun’) and the mock horror line ‘we only shot a few’ could be an innocent line about poaching, a treaty on environmentalism or a joke about America’s gun laws (big news in 2005 when this album came out after yet another brace of school shootings). The whole of this song is perhaps a little too much: like ‘Homestead’ you’re as confused by the end of the song as the beginning as to what this all means and how much of this song we’re meant to take seriously. Yet thanks to a thrilling arrangement that really builds up the suspense and tension you really get the feeling that this song means a lot to its creator and ‘No Wonder’ is if nothing else a memorable creation, as eerie and surreal as any song in the AAA canon.
‘Falling Off The Face Of The Earth’ is much easier to understand, a simple song of devotion and worry that was inspired by a friend who left a message on Neil’s answerphone after hearing of his illness, pledging many of the platitudes on this song (‘I’d just like to thank you for all of the things you’ve done’ ‘ I send my best to you’ ‘you are the world to me’ etc). Read on paper these sound clichéd, condescending even, but they’re pretty much the only things people can say at the time of a tragedy and together with the most haunting melody on the album makes for quite an effective, emotional track. Spooner Oldham’s simple organ part is a lovely touch on the first of two songs on the album that sound very hymn-like and the style of the song is very similar to ‘Music Arcade’ from 1997’s ‘Broken Arrow’, a less upbeat song that found Neil at a low ebb. Neil sounds like he means it when he sings the line ‘I must apologise for all the troubled times’ (‘Shakey’, an excellent biography Neil disowned because it revealed a little too much of the hurt Neil’s friends and partners had felt at his sudden changes in tack had just been published in 2003 and might well have inspired this line – many of those interviewed had never spoken to Neil directly about how they felt). The central line, though, is the title: whispered in a gentle, fragile voice that’s one of his best on the album, Neil does sound close to death here, feeling as if – to coin a phrase – he really is ‘fading away’ not burning out as he wished to do on ‘Hey Hey My My’ back in 1979. The result is a lovely song, one that’s undeniably on the simple side but with a haunting presence and another clever arrangement that features a lovely choir mixed well in the background as if calling Neil to their side. Again, this song would have been terribly moving had Neil’s biggest fears of the period turned out to be true.
‘Far From Home’ is a gutsier, more confident song than the last three, Neil really getting into the stride of the ‘Nashville’ sound of his backing band. A long list of memories from his childhood, this is a song that shouldn’t mean anything to anyone else except Neil and yet having followed him through so many twists and turns down the years its deeply moving to hear Neil talk of ‘bury me out on the prairie’, not far from his childhood home, despite all those adventures that took him across the world. He adds too that we fans ‘won’t have to shed a tear for me’ because Neil will be back where he truly always longed to be, a part of mother nature in a part of the world that he loves more than anywhere else. That said, he still feels the urge to travel, dreaming of ‘making some money and buying myself a big ole car’ in the ‘promised land’ of America, although he thinks he’ll never really make it there (heh heh heh little does the boy know what’s min store for him...) Neil adds, too, that he oh so nearly became a pure country singer, having always planned to journey to Nashville Tennessee to make a record, but ‘another car passed me by’; as longterm fans will know, this was Stephen Stills’ car who recognised Neil’s hearse in the traffic and persuaded him to form Buffalo Springfield in 1965. Had it not been for that incident, you sense a lot of Neil Young songs might have ended up like this. That’s a good thing if this one rollicking country-rocker is anything to go by, but I’m rather glad I never had to sit through a whole album or even career of songs like this. Still, ‘Far From Home’ is a moving song and more than stands up to similar nostalgic revelries in the idiom by Glenn Campbell and Gram Parsons and co. A lovely song on an album full of them, there’s much to admire about ‘Far From Home’ although the performance isn’t up to others from this record and the parping horns don’t really fit the mood of the piece.
So far ‘Prairie Wind’ has done an admirable job of keeping away from schmaltz. However ‘Only A Dream’ is probably the most sickly of all Neil’s songs, with a sweeping string section that seem to have wondered in from the ‘Old Ways’ record and a tempo so slow it makes you yearn for the fire and power of the horse. The performance too is the ugliest on the record: Neil’s nasal voice is in uncomfortably high and clearly in the wrong key and its so typical of Young’s records that this is the one arrangement on the record that’s so bare the vocal is more or less all you have to look at. Yet, like ‘Far From Home’, the more you study the lyrics the more poignant they become, Neil imagining the way he might finally go, lying in bed while the rest of the world carries on as normal outside his window. Those pesky birds are back again, calling him to their kingdom in Heaven, while Neil lies there ‘hoping it doesn’t come true’ and watching life slip away from him as his own adventures and memories become more and more ‘like a dream’. It would be a tough fan who doesn’t shed a tear by the end of the song if they study the lyrics, as Neil does exactly what he promised us in the 70s he’d never do and ‘fades away’, ‘just a memory without anywhere to stay’ because his body has breathed it’s last. Few of Neil’s lyrics have ever been as moving as this one but it’s oh so frustrating that such a lovely set of words accompany the most awful schmaltzy, slowed-to-a-crawl arrangement this side of Englebert Hunperdinck. My advice is to read these lyrics as a poem and forget about the recording used here.
‘Prairie Wind’ itself’ is another haunting track, one that mixes ominous sounding horns with some decent acoustic guitar playing (one of the few songs on the album that obviously features Neil playing) and a curious lopsided riff that perfectly suits this song about dislocation and fragmentation. Neil is a boy again, accompanying his daddy back home where Young senior announces ‘here, I’ll show you what I’m talking about’. Only Neil can’t remember what comes next because time has fallen heavy on both father and son and instead of a memory the ‘prairie wind’ is a metaphorical gale that blows through Neil’s mind like a hurricane, a natural force so strong it sweeps everything before him clean. Like many of Neil’s best ear-catching songs, Neil doesn’t quite know where to go after this arresting opening so we get a couple of verses of filler, with the prairie ‘a place where goodness and evil play’ and where ‘you can see into the future – but it might be a mirage’. Far from being a place of natural wonder and awe, Neil actually sounds scared at times across this record, as he faces up to the full might of nature and struggles to remember what advice he was given all those years ago. There’s an arresting horn part that makes all the difference to this unusual, distinctive song and some effective harmonica puffing from Neil for the first time in several records that really catch the ear, although it’s another haunted vocal that’s central to this song.
On any other record ‘Here For You’ would be a song about two partners going their separate ways. In the context of the album, however, it sounds more like the narrator’s died and is speaking to his loved ones from the other side of life, so to speak, offering comfort and the promise that he’ll ‘always be there, whenever you close your eyes’. There’s the message, too, that the seasons might change, his loved ones will grow up and maybe find new partners, in time forgetting about the narrator, but he himself will always be there through bad and good (Neil effectively uses the different seasons to sum up different stages of their lives). The best part of the song by far is the delightful middle eight (‘In the Spring protective arms surround you’), which is a real swelling up of emotion that breaks through the rather detached main verses by modulating up a key and increasing the tension a hundredfold. Alas the rest of the song can’t quite match this high point, with another laidback melody that seems at odds with the urgency of the lyrics and a tempo that’s a little too slow for its own good. I’m tempted also to think that Neil’s been listening to a lot of his old friend Nils Lofgren’s records – his excellent 1995 record ‘Damaged Goods’; features a song with exactly the same title with a very similar story. Another good song, though perhaps not up to the best on the album, highlighted by Ben Keith’s ever sensitive pedal steel playing.
‘This Old Guitar’ is another case of great lyrics, ghastly melody. A hymn to Neil’s first instrument, a battered acoustic guitar, Neil recounts some of their shared experiences before noting that life goes on whether he’s there or not and that in the end ‘it ain’t mine to keep’ and that if he has to he’ll pass it on to someone else. There are some lovely references to some old favourites here too, from the fact that this guitar ‘ain’t never searched for gold gold’ (the hit single that Neil quickly learned to hate) to the guitar being a companion through all those hundreds of songs each inspired by different circumstances, ‘a messenger in times of trouble, in times of hope and fear’. Again taken as a poem this is a very effective song that really should have become a fan favourite, but the melody is again slow and almost non-existent, while I’m not the first fan to point out that the melody is stolen wholesale from Neil’s earlier ‘Harvest Moon’ but slower and less memorable. Much as I love Emmylou Harris too (she started her career working with Byrd Gram Parsons and made a whole album with the Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler) her gorgeous voice is the wrong choice for this soliloquy based around one man’s memories that would have been better sung by Neil alone. Is it just me or are these arrangements getting really stale now too, with another pedal steel part only millimetres apart from the part it played in the last song and another husky vocal from Neil.
There’s nearly always a joker in the pack somewhere in Neil’s records and for ‘Prairie Wind’ its ‘He Was The King’, the one song that has absolutely nothing to do with Neil; Young and everything to do with Elvis. This song even sounds different to the others, being played uptempo with a full band and with a spring in Neil’s vocal step, even if the song does share the same album themes of memory and nostalgia. Despite his brief time as a slick-haired greasy rocker on the Shocking Pinks tour of 1983 (when it was Neil with the ‘pink cadillac’ – Elvis never actually had one) Neil never was that big a fan of Elvis (well, not to the same extent that Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, for example, worshipped him in their childhoods) and he clearly hasn’t done that much homework if the lyrics are anything to go by (apart from a mention of ‘Las Vegas’ and the ‘king’ moniker they could be about any popular singer). What we have here is the teenage dream Neil’s just remembered having after writing ‘This Old Guitar’ – dreaming of Elvis the myth, with all the people screaming and the world at his feet. The puzzle here is that Neil is singing about the ‘last time’ he saw Elvis, not the ‘first time’ – given this album’s overall feel of mortality and incoming death is Neil singing here about how different the image and the reality of Elvis’ last few years were and how, despite the alarming truth of an overweight drug addled hermit that’s come out in the years since, for his fans Elvis is still the ‘king’. Neil might be thinking about his legacy here too, and figuring that his fans will take the ‘good’ from his work and not accentuate the bad because they want to see him as a hero too, inspiring by far the happiest-go-lucky song on the album. The song is so new here the band don’t even know what key it’s in (the opening dialogue is hilarious, Neil turning to Ben Keith and asking ‘we just ride on this on F...or is it D?!’) and yet it sounds about the most polished song on the whole album, complete with overdubbed choir and a very Belle and Sebastian-sounding horn part. Chad Cromwell is the star of this recording, his chunky, primal drumming a better fit for this simple retro rocker than the other moodier songs on the album and Neil is having fun on the vocal too. Overall ‘He was The King’ is arguably the lightest and most dispensible song on the album, but it’s a lot of fun and arguably the light touch the second half of this album needs, complete with the closing gag from Neil ‘Elvis has now left the arena!’
‘When God Made Me’ closes the album in fine style, a quiet solemn hymn that takes us right back to the beginning. Contemplating death, here Neil wonders what happened before he was born, whether he’s the random product of two gene pools coming together or was ‘made’ to be the way he was, shaped by some unseen hand. Neil never really comes to any firm conclusion in his series of rhetorical questions, wondering whether his created cared about his colour, his religion, his faith or what side he’d be on in any wars. The best verse is saved till last, Neil asking Bob Dylan style ‘Did he gift me the gift of voice so some could silence me? Did he give me the gift of vision not knowing what I would see?’ and debating just how much of our lives are pre-ordained. It’s unusual to hear the writer of such anti-Christianity songs as ‘Soldier’ and ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ even contemplating the idea of an all-seeing deity, but then the ‘God’ word here is a smokescreen I feel; this is a song from Neil’s spiritual side closer in spirit to ‘Mother Earth’ from ‘Ragged Glory’ than any traditional hymn (when asked about his religion Neil says that paganism is the closest he has to a belief). Neil shows a real knowledge of hymns and their structure here, though, writing a beautiful melody that like many church songs goes on a journey that’s so strictly regulated you know where the destination is long before it ends there (the idea being that all our actions are shaped by the heavens) and the arrangement is subtle too, featuring a sensitive choir part dubbed low in the mix. Had this ended up becoming the last Neil Young song of them all then it would have been a fine way to bow out, Neil condensing many of the topics and questions he’s been looking to answer across his whole career into one sweet song. One of the undoubted highlights of the album, even if it’s as far away from the traditional heavy rock ‘Crazy Horse’ type sounds as it is possible to be.
Thankfully this wasn’t the last Neil Young album. Despite a relapse that put Neil in even more danger than when he was first diagnosed, the guitarist was given the all-clear and has made a full recovery, much to the delight of his fanbase. The trouble with that good news is that it leaves this album rather out on a limb – it doesn’t sit well in between the rambling ambling ‘Chrome Dreams II’ and the political fire that runs through ‘Living With War’ and having been freed of writing his last will and testament Neil seems to have unlearned all the lessons he made while making this album, going back on autopilot for the past handful of albums. I have the feeling though that when the great guitarist does end up in the great sky – hopefully not for several decades yet – then this is the album fans will play to remember him by along with the better known ‘Harvest’ and ‘After The Goldrush’. A fan favourite that gives us more insight into Neil’s psyche and soul than any album since at least the 1980s, ‘Prairie Wind’ is a fascinating, elusive album full of memorable images and fascinating lyrics. Had the melodies and arrangements for this record been as strong as the words then I’d have no hesitation naming this album as one of Neil’s career bests; as it is this is still very very good and deeply moving given the connections we fans have made to this great writer over so many years. Certainly, if nothing else, ‘Prairie Wind’ is the most rounded and deep Young albums since at least ‘Sleeps With Angels’ in 1994 and – ironically given the difficult circumstances – proves that there’s still life in the old dog yet.