Monday, 15 December 2014

Neil Young "Storytone" (2014)

Neil Young "Storytone" (2014)

Plastic Flowers/Whose Gonna Stand Up?/I Want To Drive My Car/Glimmer/Say Hello To Chicago/Tumbleweed/Like You Used to Do/I'm Glad I Found You/When I Watch You Sleeping/All Those Dreams

"I'm bearing my soul to you"

Back in July this year, CSNY were at the most popular they'd been for a quarter century or so. As someone who lived this band with every fibre of my being, perhaps even more than all the other great AAA bands we cover on this list, it was a joy to see as reviewers and non-fans fell over themselves to declare how wonderful their box set 'CSNY '74' was (even though CSNY's perfectionism meant they'd sat on it for years and better recordings still lurk in the archives). Anyway, all four had input into the box set - the first time since the 'Freedom Of Speech' tour of 2006 - and all seemed to be getting along famously. The band themselves may have denied it, but a reunion was surely on the cards, one day, perhaps after whatever the next trio of albums Neil Young had bursting through him. But true CSNY watchers, who've followed this band for some 45 years now, also knew that this new-found brotherhood could only mean one thing: a bust-up was on the cards. As every fan of soap operas know (and CSNY is the world's greatest soap opera, if only for having the world's greatest soap opera soundtrack), when things seem to be going perfectly and fans have got used to the idea there's nothing like a nice juicy scandal in the ranks to keep fans on their toes.

With CSNY, scandals and band arguments are usually down to drugs, money, time-keeping, show-boating on stage and/or to Bob Dylan in the dressing room after the gig and  women. This time it's the latter. Neil recently split with Pegi, his wife of 37 years, and while the couple aren't 'official' yet it's been generally accepted that the guitarist has been dating actress Darryl Hannah (most famously a mermaid in 'Splash', although some fans have been picking up on her role as Morticia Addams in the third Addams Family film as evidence of her ghoulish intentions) for a while now. Had the pair been unattached it would have been a good fit; indeed is a good fit: Hannah does a similar amount of campaigning, is both musically and environmentally aware and has spent most of her adulthood battling with autism and not being afraid to make it public (like Neil with his polio). You sense from interviews in the past that she's as shy as Neil is underneath it all and unlike most of Neil's girlfriends down the years she knows how to handle fame (and as an extra bonus doesn't seem like to much except the extra clout it gives her voice during campaigns). You hope that Darryl likes model trains as well because then the pair could have been made for each other.

However, Neil isn't free and single. He's a married man, with responsibilities to three grown up children, dozens of business foundations that would suffer if he was to move/pay a ridiculous amount of alimony and the pair's co-foundation The Bridge Street School (with concerts featuring many musicians raising money for children with learning disabilities) makes this story a much bigger tragedy than a merely personal one (what will happen to the school? Will the pair be able to work together to run it or will one back out? And if so which one - both are so integral to the framework of one of America's greatest modern charities). David Crosby for one is furious with Neil and spoke out in a typically no-holds-barred way in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, claiming that while he has done 'many stupid things' in his own life (you're not kidding!) he never walked out on a wife after decades of marriage. Neil, seemingly in a rather dark place right now, uncharacteristically lashed out and claimed he would never ever work with his CSN colleagues ever again. Crosby, a friend of Pegi's as much as Neil's, is obviously baffled and thinks he's trying to help by snapping Neil out fo some mad move: as CSNY fans know, it won't work (Neil takes a long time to make his mind up and if he has then that's it for good). Cue what normally happens when CSN have a row: Nash has stepped in trying to smooth the whole thing down while taking sides with neither, while Stills has stayed stubbornly silent, no doubt raising his eyebrows over what his colleagues have done now. The CSNY story now looks very gloomy - which as all long-term fans know means there'll probably be another album out next year! (It's happened before, folks!)

Anyway, the news has explained a lot about Neil's releases across the past fifteen years or so. We commented in our review of 2012's  'Psychedelic Pill' that Neil was 'finally back' after a Geffen-era like period where Neil seemed to be releasing covers album (like the most peculiar 'A Letter Home' from earlier this year), sub-standard albums largely improvised on the spot or dedicated to outside themes like cars and the fictional town of Greendale (sadly without Postman Pat, but with a bandit, a grandpa and an annoying teenage hippie protestor!) 'He's hiding something' we claimed, recalling those years in the 1980s when Neil recorded in every genre under the sun because music was secondary to his responsibilities looking after son Ben (born with cerebral palsy and involving both parents in an intensive recovery programme he didn't want to share with the world till it was over). Suddenly 'Fork In The Road' in particular takes on a new meaning: we didn't know what the 'forks' were then (except something vague about mankind choosing electric cars over petrol fumes), but this is a kind of 'Chosen Fork In The Road' album, with Neil now very much heading in one particular direction. Is it the right one? Well, Neil himself doesn't know yet and his umming and aahing clearly shaped a lot of this album. The speculation over Neil's marriage seems to assume it was over fairly recently, but the 2002 album 'Are You Passionate?' was very much hinting that a break-up was on the cards (and I'm kicking myself for not getting round to reviewing it yet so that I could have looked like a mystical fortune teller!) The bad news is that Neil seems to be entering another dark period because of it, forced to confront one of the most difficult decisions of his life and everything a break-up usually entails. The good news is that Neil's darkest times tend to be the best times for his art.

'Storytone' isn't the greatest of Neil Young albums but - along with 'Psychedelic Pill' - it is easily his best in a decade (since the similarly dark 'Prairie Wind', written on the back of a brush with death and the loss of Neil's dad). For a start it sounds like Neil has spent some time on this record - the words are carefully composed, the music is subtle and inventive (except the bits that sounds like something else...) and the performances sound more heartfelt than 'Greendale' 'A Letter From Home' 'Americana' et al. This is the 'real' Neil at last, or at least as close as we're ever allowed to get. Interestingly Neil chose to release this album twice - once as a fully-arranged big band work with orchestra (the first time he's done this since parts of 1972's 'Harvest') and once more with solo performances of the entire album (interestingly these sound very like the 're-arrangements' of Neil Young songs made by Nils Lofgren for his covers CD 'The Loner'). One wonders why Neil bothers with the expensive orchestra: we fans and the critics seem to be united for once in thinking that they're just not needed; that Neil has already loaded the songs with such passion and emotion that adding a schmaltzy orchestral effect sounds 'wrong'. That's not true of the entire CD - 'Who's Gonna Stand Up?', the one 'outward' rather than 'inward' song here sounds nothing on the 'demo' but quite convincing with an orchestra. It may be that Neil was actively trying to recall the feeling of 'Harvest', perhaps with a similar mix of 'raw' and 'polished' recordings before changing his mind. After all, that period must be on his mind: this was the year he was fiercely debating whether to leave first wife Susan Avocado after three years of marriage in favour of yet another actress, Carrie Snodgrass ('A Man Needs A Maid', in particular, reflects his confused state of mind and an actress 'playing a part that I could understand').

To be honest, 'Storytone' wasn't quite the album I was expecting, with or without orchestra. usually when Neil has made a decision to move on with his life he tends to be happy - especially with a new woman by his side. I was expecting 'Storytone' to be a whole album of happy sappy love songs in the vein of 'Comes A Time'. Instead it's a dark, guilt-ridden message to Pegi, her face popping up everywhere as Neil tries to forget what a mess he's making of his life. Throughout this album Neil addresses his ex-wife while she sleeps, afraid of the bad news he has for her; he sees a 'glimmer' of their early life together every time he finds himself laughing and falling in love with his new partner, he even sees her in the car seat next to him, where she's sat for over half his life (Neil keeps his cars a long, long time - that's a Neil Young watercolour of one of them on the front). Finally he addresses both of the loves in his life in the song 'I'm Glad I Found You', thanking his past soul mate for keeping him good and honest and sane for all those years and to his new partner for making him feel happy again. The result is a record with several quotable, poignant lyrics: Neil apologising to 'Mother Earth' for accidentally picking 'plastic flowers' from her bounty of love (though which person Neil is addressing is never made clear...). Neil reflecting that 'your inner spirit is a peace sign to me'. Neil reflecting on all the dreams he once had of growing old and happy in the same relationship that 'will never be now'. Neil is often described by critics as sounding like a lost and vulnerable little boy - even the rocking epics (which sound like a vulnerable little boy plugged into the mains and resurrected with rock and roll). That description has never been more true than here, especially the 'solo' half of the record where the naked backing makes it sound like Neil is singing to you, right there, face to face, no hiding this time, the first for a long while (even his last 'solo' LP 'Le Noise' surrounded Neil's voice and guitar in floating feedback).

Oddly, most people don't seem to have grasped what a turning point this record is. In truth I've rather struggled to flesh out my reviews of 'Fork In The Road' 'Le Noise' and 'Psychedelic Pill'; to our usual length: it's not that they're bad, so much as empty ('Greendale', however, is both). However I state this here and now in the full knowledge that most of my predictions do turn out to be wrong: from here until about 2020 will be a great ride for Neil Young fans. You can almost hear Neil's relief as the muse comes back to him, as he unclogs all those feelings he didn't want to face and a decision he didn't want to make, in between the sheer horror of what he's done. This could be another golden age, not up to 1969-72 perhaps or 1973-75 but maybe up to the level of 1978-79 or 1989-94. While songs have always poured out of Neil - that's just the way he works - this year has been particularly busy with two albums just seven months apart (we tick record companies in the 1960s off for expecting this much when bands are young, never mind soon-to-be-septuagenarians). What's more, most of this album seems to be good, unlike the patchier albums we've had of late (although even then 'Le Noise' and 'Fork In The Road' were better than what we were getting for a while there).

For the first time in ages I'm pleased to report that a good half of this album is terrific and part of the rest merely very good. What's more the best half of this album feels like a 'unit' - something we haven't had for a while, unless you count songs about motor oil - and unusually the songs seemed to be linked three ways: the Earth Mother, the plagiarists' son and the Holy Ghost. The word for most of these songs is 'haunted': Neil is seeing ghosts everywhere he looks and, like 'Tonight's The Night' he feels personally responsible for not doing something about it all sooner. Alongside this - and two albums on from telling us proudly that he's a 'pagan' ('Driftin' Back) -  Neil also adds a few earthier references that keep turning up on this album (like Paul McCartney on 'Electric Arguments', Neil seems to be looking to nature for a sing this relationship is 'ok' and he's doing the right thing). Thirdly, Neil does what he always does when stressed: rips off earlier songs, some by him and some by other people ('I took this tune from the Rolling Stones, too wasted to write my own' he sings on 'Borrowed Tune'). As ever that doesn't actually matter: this record is still one that couldn't have been made by anyone but Neil.
Opener 'Plastic Flowers' is one of those powerful songs that stays in the mind long afterwards, even if its melody steals from Neil's earlier 'Philadelphia', Neil 'having no business' in a relationship he  always thought wouldn't work, but as he puts it, despite all this, 'we lasted quite a while'.  We've heard many a time from Neil that 'love is a rose' - this sequel to what must have been virtually the last song he wrote before meeting Pegi admits that Neil went into it with the wrong intentions, holding 'plastic flowers' that could never have bloomed. 'Glimmer' is a similarly gorgeous song, even if this time the melody is stolen from 'Journey Through The Past'. Neil tries to escape into 'new love' but keeps finding 'my feelings coming back to you'. This time love is a 'tree without leaves', a relationship that only has a 'glimmer' of what it once had (although it's also a 'glimmer' that's powerful to take on its own form, Neil thinking he sees it in the windshield of his car). 'Tumbleweed' is another natural manifestation in an otherwise ghostly song (which this time around steals from The Everly Brothers' 'Walk Right Back'!) A second chance that never came to pass, Neil considers 'picking up sticks' and reflecting on the 'strange delights' even a fading relationship has. 'I'm Glad I Found You' rips off Elton John, worryingly, but is sweet all the same, Neil bidding goodbye and saying hello in the space of the same song and being thankful to both loves of his life. This time the earthy reference is to a 'seed'. Finally, 'When I Watch You Sleep' hovers between waking and dreaming, reflecting that when asleep his partner has 'nothing left to hide'. In one of Neil's career best lines he contrasts her sleepy state with her daily state: 'Without thinking I'm going there too - these are the promises you make when your eyes are blinded by love and the history of fate'. This time the song doesn't steal from anything specifically, although there's definitely an air of 'Bad Fog Of Loneliness' and 'Deep Forbidden Lake' about this song, misery stretching out for eternities.

However, as always it seems, there's a few flies in the ointment. 'Say Hello To Chicago' is an awful song, the 'Motorcyle Mama' of this LP that just doesn't fit, especially when dressed up to the nines with a godawful big band orchestra but in the solo recording too. How very Neil, to waste his biggest production for years (1983's 'Old Ways'?!) on a song so flimsy. 'I want To Drive My Car' works better as a solo but even then sounds like an outtake not good enough to feature on 'Fork In The Road' (and did you hear what some of those songs were like?!?), Neil banging on about his bleeding car again (he's even got a book of watercolour drawings of them all out now, like the one on the cover: the result is *read out in a Jeremy Clarkson voice* 'like an episode of top gear drawn by a four-year-old with Parkinson's Disease along with the animators of Roobarb and Custard'. Incidentally, it's still way better than anything I can draw). 'Whose Gonna Stand Up?' - the one track where the orchestra embellishes rather than distracts from the song - similarly sounds like an outtake from 'Living With War' that got laughed out the room when CSN and/over the choir got in on the act ('just singing a song won't change the world' he sings in a direct steal from 'Psychedelic Pill', but again Neil offers no solutions or hope; of course music can change the world - hasn't everyone noticed how much better it's been since The Beatles came to power? -  it's just that progress is slow).

One thing that 'bothers' me about this album (well, not as much as the whole of  'Greendale'; bothered me...) is that title; 'Storytone'. What does it mean? Is it a red herring to detract us from the fact that the last few albums have indeed been 'stories' full of fictional characters while this is the 'real deal Neil'? Is the saccharine rchestral backing intended to give a 'storybook' tone to the album? (It sounds like a Disney film where Bambi's mother dies every bleeding five minutes!) Is it a reference to how any reality looks like a 'story' when turned into 'art' (just look at the big rusty car on the cover - clearly a 'real' car and clearly well loved and worn but drawn with such dainty squiggles it might not be?) Ignore the title though: this really 'is' Neil (or as close as any artist's work can be to describing their ongoing life story accurately) and it should be filed away alongside similar autobiographical albums like 'Tonight's The Night' 'On The Beach' 'Comes A Time' parts of 'Rust Never Sleeps' 'Harvest Moon' and 'Sleeps With Angel'. This album may lack the drama of all of these - and in many ways is the 'farewell' yin to family life that was 'Comes A Time's 'yang', with a 'middle aged crisis' to run alongside the 'middle aged contentment' of 'Moon' - but it remains as integral to Neil's career as any of these earlier classics, a cornerstone when art mirrored life and Neil has far too much to say for one LP. Hold on your seats - Neil was never going to head into old age gracefully and after a bit of a bump in the journey it looks like an interesting ride is coming our way once again.

At one stage Neil sings 'tonight I paint my masterpiece'. 'Storytone' is hardly that: not with such familiar-sounding tunes, variable lyrics and an orchestra that's the worst bit of mis-casting since posh unfeeling millionaire Ian Duncan Smith got put in charge of welfare reform. But it is very much a step in the right direction, Neil going back to being honest with himself and exploring his troubled psyche, instead of rattling on about cars and politics and activists with funny names (welcome as they are in brief). Ignoring the orchestral version for the moment (which is in danger of turning this rather deep and thoughtful record into just another 'what the?' Neil Young  experiment album of the 21st century), this is the best solo acoustic Neil Young album for ever such a long time: 'Harvest Moon' (1992) perhaps. It's the record 'Silver and Gold' nearly was before it started singing nursery rhymes and what 'Le Noise' could have been without the songs getting lost in the feedback. After finding his way back to full rock and roll health on 'Psychedelic Pill', this is the other half of what Neil does so well: simple-yet-complex songs full of moving imagery and sung as if we're the only person in the room during a musical confessional. Neil isn't quite back to full musical health yet, but the signs are good. It's just a shame that once again it took a sad, unfortunate, painful turn of events to get Neil back in touch with his muse. Let's hope all three members of this love triangle (six if you count hang on, knowing what Crosby used to be like let's not go there!') find happiness in the end: they all 'deserve' it (although as this album is clear to point out there are no angels or devils and there is usually right and wrong on every side). So, Storytone, what's the story? To be judged by judge and jury. Here's our verdict...

'Plastic Flowers' starts off with the same hammered blows of a tack piano-style piano riff last heard on the creepy 'Sleeps With Angels' album. The resulting song is much more personal and blunt, though, less surreal and ethereal. It might well be Niel's most personal song in years reflecting not on Neil's meeting with Darryl as a few people assume but - so we reckon - that meeting with Pegi in a cafe back in 1976. The pair 'came together' because of a 'a threat' (they shared several political activist aims) and Neil reflects sadly 'I thought she liked my style - I had no business thinking that, but it lasted for quite a while'. Or 37 years to be exact. We then follow the couple's first walk together, along a harbour, doodling their fingers in the water ('left there from ancient times') and reflecting on how their love was so pure it would last forever. Only even then Neil had doubts and now humbly admits to his audience that while his loved one deserved everything Mother Earth could send he went in clutching 'plastic flowers', not the romantic he seemed. Neil is, as ever, being too hard on himself here: no one could possibly write the lyrics to the 'Comes A Time' album if they weren't really in love, but it's notable that Pegi seems to have inspired more songs on this album alone than the past 20 years or so of marriage. The result is a pretty song, at least in the 'solo' version, where Neil's keening voice is just the right side of shrill, innocent despite the lyrics and bewildered by the strength of her love for him. Like 'Philadelphia', the song this one most resembles, this is a sweet song about a subject the narrator has always had trouble addressing till now and can only then talk about in terms of images and metaphors. Alas the 'orchestral' version tries to turn this into a sickly sentimental piece, an impact doubly unfortunate given that Neil has to shift his vocal down a tone to better fit with the orchestra and as a result sounds less sure of himself.

'Who's Gonna Stand Up?' is a to the more socially aware Neil of the past few albums, harking on yet again about a need for solutions to petrol-driven cars and fracking. Sounding like a 'Greendale' leftover, Neil tries to urge the public to stand up with him, taunting 'this all starts with you and me'. The trouble is that, by Neil's standards of ecological songs, this one isn't all that great. 'Whose gonna stand up and save the Earth, say that she's had enough?' sounds more like something a weak Jefferson Starship effort would sing than the man who wrote, say, 'War Of Man' and there's nothing here that hasn't been said before. Neil's 'solo' version doesn't give the tune much room either, being banged out throughout with a bit of simple banjo strumming, but for once on this album the orchestral version is rather lovely. The riff is one much more suited to strings than a banjo and the grandiose gesture (there's even a harp in there for goodness sakes...) fits the epic scope of this song more than the smaller, humbler songs of the rest of this album. Or at least it does till the yukky choir start up, instantly turning this track into bad charity song fodder, although thankfully they don't turn up till near the end. It would have been nice to have heard something earthy here - that banjo would have done fine - but even so this is the track on the album where the orchestra makes the most sense, moving this similar song as far away from the grungy 'Fork In The Road' feel as it's possible to get.
Talking of which, 'I Want To Drive My Car' is so 'Fork In The Road' you wonder why Neil felt the need to write an 11th song on the same theme (no one was exactly clamouring for a sequel, although I'm one of the few fans whose actually quite fond of that album). Like that record, the 'car' is merely a metaphor for Neil feeling rather 'lost' - he's looking for 'my way' and searching 'further and further on down the road'. This nicely bluesy song would never win any awards for lyrics (there aren't many, with the same words repeated over and over) but there's a nicely authentic feeling to the solo version (mainly 'bounced' between two notes on 'Old Black'), which is slow and earthy. I'm less keen on the dixie land jazz version from the 'finished' version, with all its answering 'dur-dee-dee-dooh's after every line, but then Neil puts in a fine fiery guitar solo which isn't on the 'solo' version so that's alright by me. To be honest, though, this whole motor metaphor thing was running on fumes by the end of the 'Fork In The Road' record, never mind now...

Thankfully 'Glimmer' is perhaps the greatest album highlight, a lovely ballad where Neil turns hopeless bar-room confessional. Neil's now travelling alone in his car, after so many years of having a 'passenger' in the seat beside him, and for a second there thinks he sees Pegi's reflection in the windshield, 're-awakening' lots of old feelings and memories just when he thought he was over her. A poignant ballad with shades of 'Journey Through The Past' about it, this is a clever song where the 'glimmer' Neil sees of his old love matches the 'glimmer' he feels with his new love of what their love was once like ('New love brings everything back to you'). Neil throws in a few poignant reminders about how you can never truly break free from any important person in your life ('like the light that still leaks through whenever you close the door') and interesting chooses the line 'like the day I couldn't find you' to vocally break down, suggesting this was a real occurrence (was Pegi having affairs too? Or was Neil simply afraid that she was?) Funnily enough - and whether on purpose or co-incidentally - this song uses near enough the same chords as 'Comes A Time', the 'hello' song to this track's 'goodbye', with two moods that couldn't be more different. This time around the orchestral version isn't so bad: this is after all a very emotional song anyway and the increased running time of five minutes gives Neil's sentiments more space to mingle in the brain. However the solo version is still the one to have, with some more of Neil's ever-lovely piano playing and a much more powerful vocal.

'Say Hello To Chicago' is the album's big mis-fire. Neil sounds as if he's just remembered to book the jazz band and thinks he'd better give them something to do so he offers up this cod 'This Note's For You' blues song which is overblown even in the solo version. This is another 'memory' song, about walking through rainy American streets waiting for a jazz band to come on, although if I've got my 'clues' right this is a more recent song than it sounds. Did Neil meet Darryl at a jazz night? The narrator's promises to meet up 'near an old theatre where soon I will be playing' and lines about how 'friendship is everything if love is to last' suggests they did. The lines about 'being here once before' when I was 'younger and stronger' also suggest this recent visit was, well, recent. Neil might also be couching his guilt in terms of blues songs and jazz, genres which were hardly strangers to songs about divorce and mistresses, taking comfort from the idea that in Chicago's long history plenty of people have been through similar and lived to tell the tale. Alas what could have been a decent song is ruined by the rather bland melody and the rather lacklustre way with which it's performed in either version. The full jazz band version is just silly: the horns don't go well with Neil's fiery guitar and even compared to 'This Note's For You' Neil is well out of his comfort zone as a blues singer. The solo version on piano is better, but even that rambles way too much, all too obviously a demo this time instead of a performance of equal merit.

'Tumbleweed' is another special song though, though the 'premise' of it is that Neil is so lonely the only person he has to pour his inner thoughts out to is a 'tumbleweed'. Delighting in his new partner's 'inner peace' (signs of Neil's book 'Waging Heavy Peace' there), this is Neil's tribute to the ever changing world of nature, where nothing is forever but where we can always 'pick up sticks' and try again. A pretty, carefree song quite unlike the rest of this rather tormented album, this song acknowledges the fact that such a move is 'going to hurt' but is having such fun that Neil tells fate to bring it on, to 'bite me now'. The best melody on the album is nicely handled on the solo version, with the first ever appearance of a ukulele on a Neil Young album. He's rather a good player for someone so new to the instrument and the sound really suits the sing-songy nursery rhyme flow and the feeling in the lyrics that such a meeting was destined in the stars and goes back through the ages. Of course, the orchestral version has to go too far and the melody doesn't sound anything like as good slowed down and played by violins and harp. If Disney ever need a writer of incidental music for their next film, though, they know where to look...

'Like You Used To Do' is another blues song, played as low key two-fingered 12-bar-blues on the solo recording and as full band extravaganza blues on the 'orchestral' version. Neither version quite comes off, with this rather ungenerous kiss-off to an old lover again sounding like a weak-kneed 'This Notes For You' 'outtake'. Neil is at his most honest here, admitting that 'I couldn't satisfy you - couldn't show you my love' and that even though he kept on trying to do what wasn't easy for him 'as time went by you just didn't want it no more'. Neil isn't ready to throw in the towel yet though, zealously stating that despite the very definite end to the relationship 'Some day you'll want me...some day you'll see me like you used to do'. A few more lyrics would have gone down well (this song is just three short verses), but the solo version is pleasant enough if you like blues pared down to the bare bones (Neil's vocal and harmonica puffing get the down-yet-defiant mood just right too). Alas the orchestral version is just overblown rubbish: Neil tries to be a blues singer but is badly mis-cast, while the blaring horns don't quite know what to do.

'I'm Glad I Found You' is a much better bet all round, another beautiful song of goodbyes that points towards the inner turmoil in Neil's mind. Perhaps pre-empting the field day the press and more especially his band-mates have been having with his divorce, Neil informs us 'So many people don't understand what it's like to be me' before adding that just like everyone else he wants to be loved. At last, after a long gap, he feels what it's like to be loved again 'in a sad world where so many things have gone wrong'. Neil adds that it's taken him years but finally he's found 'a lifeline', someone worth waiting for. While the rest of the song descends quickly into sickly romantic love song area, some of the lyrics are quite clever: referring to Darryl's shared loved of protesting and activism, Neil promises to 'shield you from the things we both see', while referring to press and David Crosby-like outrage with the line 'I'll protect you from the things that come'. The solo version is nicely done, Neil's vocal fragile but in no way sentimental. If only we could say the same about the orchestral version, which sounds like Mantovani doing lift music and gets the mood hopelessly wrong. Just like his 'Harvest' days, Neil Young and orchestras do not go well together.

'When I Watch You Sleeping' is one of the most remarkable Neil Young songs in years, with an honesty we haven't heard for a long long time ('Tonight's The Night'?!) Which is apt for a song that's all about the fact that two lovers can only be 'honest' with each other when they're 'asleep'. The pair have been fighting all day and will no doubt fight again all day tomorrow, but for now there's a clam before the storm as Neil remembers the good and the bad of their time together. Neil's wordplay as his ex wakes up is exquisite, punning on the 'breaking of the day' when she wakes up and they begin their rows all over again and later that the crows have joined the blackbirds in a dawn chorus, a symbol of death to most poets (Ted Hughes never wrote about anything else!) Strangely, though, Neil's most honest song in years ends with him hiding away yet again, quickly hiding the smile he wears on his face at how silent and gentle his partner suddenly is in what's quite a cruel and uncharacteristic final verse ('You will never see that! They are inside with my fears, in a place that's fading away and taking on the years'). The result is a stately last long glimpse goodbye from Neil to his partner of nearly four decades and a last lingering lookback before the final shift (it's even hinted this is the couple's final morning together) that's eerily realised, especially in the stark solo version. The treacly orchestral version just makes the whole idea seem yukky and tacky, being about as 'honest' as a David Cameron election manifesto. The result is still a staggering song, though, with an excellent vocal from Neil on what must have been a difficult song to sing.

The album ends on another strong song, 'All Those Dreams', as Neil waves goodbye not just to the life that was but the possible futures that might have been. Picking up from the last song, he creeps off into the night while his ex lies asleep in bed, haunted by memories of what they had planned to do together. Neil gets rather fixated with stopped clocks and spends a whole verse painfully exploring the metaphor of a melted snowman which seems to have wondered in from a children's book ('His smile is a twig, his nose a cucumber' - trust Neil not to go the traditional route and use a carrot!) but the verses about how he'll miss seeing the usual geese travelling back home that Winter is poignant stuff. In many ways this and the last song sounds like an extension of 'Till The Morning Comes' from 'After The Goldrush', with Neil even using the phrase 'when the morning comes' in this song, although the mood is far less happy: the next morning arrives with dread, not with anticipation and excitement. By now the solo performances are beginning to get a bit on the nerves and actually the orchestral version of this song doesn't sound too bad by comparison, perhaps because the orchestra is there for colour rather than as the whole track.

So far the poor re-action to this album by most fans and critics seems telling: the distracting orchestra certainly doesn't help but most people seem to hate this record simply because it's yet another similar-throughout Neil Young genre experiment that takes the easy path and we've had way too many years of that. The bad news is that 'Storytone' is often  as heavy going and low on flashes of inspiration as any of these other recent albums: 'Le Noise' 'Fork In The Road', especially 'Greendale'. The good news is that this may be the last Neil Young album we have to say that about for some time, as Neil talks about moving on and embracing a new part of his life (which, traditionally speaking, means a new exciting segment of his career should follow). You see, 'Storytone' is despite its repetitiveness and casual plagiarisms an interesting album, one that like the Geffen years of the 1980s and the past decade or so of albums seems to be stalling from making a 'proper' statement and hiding behind an orchestral sound that every Neil Young fan knows is going to be thrown away after this album, consigned to Neil's ever growing pile of discarded genres (I bet he even gets a special bin from the rock and roll hall of fame council he's gone through that many). However it might be significant that the last time Neil released a 'bluesy' album (which admittedly this is only in part) he followed it up with a cracking run of some of his best loved LPs ('Freedom' 'Ragged Glory' 'Harvest Moon' 'Sleeps With Angels'). There's certainly enough promise in 'Storytone' to suggest that the glory days may be here again soon and the ragged majesty of the 'solo' recordings of the better songs here really do suggest that Neil is back to pouring his heart out and telling things straight, after hiding behind characters and snatched cameos of autobiography as per most albums recently. 'Storytone' isn't strong all the way through and the orchestra was - generally speaking - a bad move, but at least Neil's given us the chance this time round of hearing said album with and without the indulgence of his latest whim. In short, I rather like it - I don't love it the way I love 'Tonight's The Night' 'Trans' and even 'Prairie Wind', but the creative breezes are blowing in the right direction and Neil's honesty and poignancy wins my respect far more than the last decade or so taking it easy. 'Storytone' sounds like a hard album to have made, confronting a lot of difficult home truths, and on that level alone it's a 'landmark' album, even if creative inspiration isn't quite here with the plentiful abundance there used to be. Admittedly we said this first after the release of 'Le Noise' and have said it again every review since, but I await the next Neil Young record with great enthusiasm as the signs here bode well: will a fourth career peak be in sight the next time Alan's Album Archives reviews the latest release by our most prolific star? 

Other Neil Young and related reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

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