Monday, 24 October 2016
Neil Young "Old Ways" (1985)
The Wayward Wind/Get Back To The Country/Are There Any More Real Cowboys?/Once An Angel/Misfits//California Sunset/Old Ways/My Boy/Bound For Glory/Where Is The Highway Tonight?
"I'm mad as hell at something I don't quite understand, thank God I'm on the road tonight with this ol' Hillbilly band" or "Work was just a habit I found and I kept showing up anyway!"
'Old ways can be a ball and chain' sighs Neil, in full country-music regalia, while sounding as if he's travelled so far down the 'traditional' music road he might never come back again (or at least that was always the threat). It's not quite 'rust never sleeps' or 'is it better to burn out than it is to rust?' but it's the mantra of this record - cut yourself off from everything, even if it means swapping the music you know and which made you famous for a style, erm, even older and more stuck in its ways than rock and roll. If you're reading this, dear reader, then you and I know that statement just isn't true or at least I hope you do - old ways are often a beacon of light when the world's gone mad and the present just doesn't seem like it fits you somehow; it's new ways that are a ball and chain for those of us who grew up thinking all music would sound the way it once did in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, though, it's the 1980s and none of the old rules apply - especially for Neil whose eschewed his natural hippie politics to stick up for Reagan and been so horrified by the response of his rock and roll fans that he's moved over to country music who (by and large) better represent his new views of nuking them Russians and proving American might. Just to add to the feeling of despondency he's also caring full-time for his sick son Ben (not that we knew it at the time as the Youngs kept this quiet from everyone) and he's currently being sued by record company Geffen for 'not making music that people have come to associate with Neil Young' (admittedly they have a point after an electronic and rockabilly album, but suing an artist whose never sounded the same two records running doesn't seem like a sensible policy somehow. The famous quote is: 'The longer you sue for making country music, the longer I'm going to play country music. Either back off or I'm going to play country music forever'). No wonder Neil is feeling distracted and no wonder he wants to get back to country music where actually he never truly belonged rather than spend another minute playing rock and roll (the most country song before this in Neil's canon is the distinctly rock and roll 'Are You Ready For The Country?' off 'Harvest'). Part genuine two fingers at Geffen, part escapism, part genuine love of the genre and the musicians amongst it, 'Old Ways' feels an inevitable part of the 1980s Young canon somehow in a way none of the other Geffen experiments quite do. Even though the cornyness of country music seems to many of us fans like the last thing the keeping-it-real-deal-Neil ought to be playing around with.
So inevitable Neil actually cut it twice - and threatened many a sequel straight away (which we were spared thanks to Neil waking up one day in 1986 with a rock and roll chant going on in his head; be careful what you wish for though - that daydream led to 'Landing On Water') with this album having a particularly complex and chequered history. The original 'Old Ways' (whose songs can be heard on many a bootleg and - via the road - on the archive set 'A Treasure') which was due out in 1983 instead of 'Everybody's Rockin' is a mini-masterpiece, a country-rock album where Neil's fierce electric guitar fits simply because he says it does and rips away all the gee-I-got-sad-the-day-my-horse-died-in-the-little-ol'-Prairie histrionics that so often go hand in hand with country music. Neil poked fun at his rock and roll lifestyle on genuinely funny songs like 'Leaving The Top 40 Behind', found a way of working his own unique metaphor-filled-melancholy into the country environment in 'Hillbilly Band' (which also includes the gag 'we ain't all that good looking but we still get outta hand!'), laughed at the whole rock and roll scene on 'Time Off For Good Behaviour' ('he got seven years for smoking what I've been taking all my life!') and wrote an open letter to Geffen on 'Your Love Again' ('You and I want different things but we need each other!') Throw in potential songs that weren't recorded fully in the studio but were played live at the time ('Silver and Gold' re-recorded in 2000, 'Amber Jean' the sweet tribute to Neil's daughter, the 'Lucky Thirteen' compilation refugee 'Depression Blues' (the best of all of Neil's Old Ways songs?) and the most conservative Young song ever 'Nothing Is Perfect (In God's Perfect Plan)' - because there's always one song per album that messes with our heads - and the results are actually rather good. This older 'Old Ways' manages to sound both very country and very Young-like, with Neil immersing himself in the genre but also attacking things with a rock and roll rebellion; it's a prime candidate for re-release as part of Neil's 'archive' series one day (especially as we've only had one new release so far this year and traditionally we've usually had about seven by now: is everything alright Neil?) However Geffen disagreed, telling Neil that country music was old hat (which it was back in the decade even Johnny Cash got thrown off Columbia, the label he'd been on nearly all his life since leaving Sun a few records into his career, but since when did something being out of fashion ever stop Neil?) and would he mind recording some rock and roll? (The irony is that Neil started out as a folk-singer - every time Geffen asked him to do what he used to do he should have provided them with Dylan covers!) The rock and rolling 'Everybody's Rockin' was then delivered with glee, even though rockabilly Elvis covers and copycat originals really wasn't what the record company meant. 'Don't like it?' said Neil, 'Then I'm going back to country again and you can either release it or else!'
One other reason Neil was so keen to release a country record was his sense of community. The rock world was in complete disarray in the mid-1980s: we'd lost so many artists to drugs by then and even Neil's colleague David Crosby was in court on drugs charges after being considered a danger to himself and others. Few bands or artists from the 1960s were still recording intact, having lost out to younger artists, 'musical differences' or the looks of the bands on MTV. Young was also growing 'old' in rock and roll terms - he turned forty just three months after this album's (eventual) release date - and he couldn't see his future with the gutbucket teenage blues of Crazy Horse forever. 'Old Ways' is on some level almost certainly a big insult to the record label who insisted country music wouldn't sell - but on another it also feels like a genuine attempt to reach out to all the things rock and roll music didn't have at the time. You could grow old making country music and nobody laughed at you; indeed if you could win people over (and Neil knew how hard that was after his days making 'Harvest' in Nashville) you had a fanbase who were with you for life, more or less, and weren't as fickle as rock and rollers (Neil's sales have been in a slow dive ever since 'Rust Never Sleeps' in 1979). Also, Neil felt a 'misfit' amongst his rock and roll buddies: they were off drinking and partying and voting for liberals and democrats; Neil was bringing up a poorly son and genuinely worried about a Russian communist takeover (if that seems dumb now then remember that in 1985 hippies didn't necessarily appear to be right about everything - hence particularly Crosby's drug problems and Neil had viewed the counter-culture more suspiciously than most of his peers ever since the needless OD deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry) - Neil felt politically, socially and spiritually much closer to the 'Conservative' world of country music at this time. Note that the 'sunset' is over California, home of the hippie, while Neil 'gets back to the country', presumably in Nashville, Tennessee, where this second album was recorded. While we almost always associate country music with the past, for a while there it represented the future too. 'Old Ways' isn't just about looking back, then, but looking forward - which might be why Neil returned to this album after a gap of two years....
Typically the intervening time away resulted in a re-think and the whole of the original record was scrapped. Maybe it was the sparse arrangements of the first 'Old Ways' that Geffen didn't like? Or maybe it was the anti-rock lyrics he'd delivered? How about if Neil tapped into not just the spirit but the talents of the new friends he'd made in country circles so it would sell to country fans too? (Young was a big supporter of the 'country music Live Aid' known as 'Farm Aid', which supported local farmers struggling to make their work pay across America was organised with the help of Waylon Jennings and John Mellencamp a mere month after 'Old Ways' hit the shops; typically Neil only sang one song from this record, 'Are There Any More Real Cowboys?', during his performance). Or - much more likely - Neil figured that if Geffen were going to block him from making any more music then he may as well have fun making it and the newer 'Old Ways' has easily the biggest budget of the Geffen period (why use one orchestra when you can use three?) Strangely enough Geffen seemed to quite like this record and shrugged their shoulders, allowing Neil his way in the hope of getting him back to rock and roll ('where it all began') the next time around (although Neil's threat to sue them and insisted on recording twelve different versions of 'White Christmas' for his next record - adding that he could prove in court that as the best-seller around the world he could prove it was 'commercial' even if he and Geffen knew his fans wouldn't buy it - probably had more than a little something to do this). Instead Geffen held their breath and crossed their fingers that giving Neil his own way would 'allow' him to record rock and roll the next time round. Which, erm, kinda worked out if your definition of rock and roll is simply 'noise' (see 'Landing On Water' aka 'Crashing into Concrete' when my head stops throbbing enough to review it).
However it's the big budget that gets in the way: country music already sounds a little bit like a fake Hollywood movie when it's done badly - you know, the ones where nobody means a word they're saying, everybody cries from their eyes rather than their faces and all the coincidences happen on cue. Add in a bigger budget with guest artists, syrupy strings and dozens of anonymous session musicians and suddenly that personal feel that made the old 'Old Ways' fairly promising is out of the window. At times Neil doesn't sound as if he belongs in this world, giving us treacly songs about how much he loves his son (without any of the edge or realism of the similarly themed songs on 'Trans') or unconvincing love songs to wife Pegi ('Once An Angel', which is reeled off with about as much passion as 'Kinda Fonda Wanda' was on 'Rockin'). At others he sounds so comfortable it's a bit worrying, out-countrifying his co-stars Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson on a series of awkward duets such as the title track and 'Where Is The Highway Tonight?' (Waylon) and 'Are There Any More Real Cowboys?' (Willie). Both are shown up by Anthony Crawford, a regular member of Neil's many backing bands who fills in their parts when neither big boy can make it by the way - but then Crawford had an advantage in that he was used to Neil's working methods; poor Willie and Waylon were, according to most accounts, upset at being treated like spare parts and made to wait in a queue when making this record, which seems a strange way to treat your guests - especially if you've come to 'visit' them not the other way around. 'Old Ways', as it's released, is a waste of good money just to wind up a record company more than anything else and perhaps as unpalatable as 'Everybody's Rockin' in the way that fans suffer through spending good money on something that should have remained a private matter between artist and record company.
There are, as always, reasons to still own this album though. 'Misfits' is one of Neil's most complex, convoluted songs but even if it's ultimately gibberish it's compelling enough for multiple listens, set in a future space station where mankind still looks backwards for inspiration, to JFK's 'dream' and 'watching re-reruns of Muhammad Ali'. 'Get Back To The Country' sounds like a song from the first 'Old Ways' (smart, sassy, fun and self-mocking) delivered with the might and money of the second and is great fun if not that serious. 'California Sunset' sounds just enough like 'Comes A Time' to remind you that Neil should be able to deliver this sort of thing in his sleep under normal circumstances. And 'Old Ways' might sound pretty ordinary, but the lyric reads like one of the most autobiographical mottos Neil ever made, informing both fans and record company that he has to keep moving on, because 'it's hard to teach a dinosaur a new trick'. Had this half of the album been combined with the punchier, funnier side of the first 'Old Ways' (and let's face it, this wouldn't have been the first Neil Young album to be cobbled together that way) then we might yet have been on target for the best of the Geffen albums (bar 'Trans' anyway, which is pretty impossible to beat). Instead 'Old Ways' is particularly frustrating because on every other track it misses the point so badly - and even though 'Everybody's Rockin' and 'Landing On Water', the albums either side of it, are worse they were always going to sound pretty awful, lightweight and over-noisy respectively. At least 'Old Ways' sounds as if it had a chance of being good and contains flashes of brilliance.
There is a theme, of sorts, but it's a dull one Neil had already done better on past albums: even though 'old ways can be a ball and chain' this album really asks 'what happened to the good old days?' Simple pleasures and old-school romance count for a lot on this album: Neil thinks his wife is an 'angel', his son is 'growing up too fast' and he laments the loss of the traditional 'cowboy' riding the range who only cares about his 'flock' and nature (note the line that digs at rock and roll: 'Not the one snortin' cocaine with the honky-tonk all closed, but the one that prays for more rain'). Cowboys were kind of the original rebels before the rock-stars came along, running land their own way and making a living away from the taxman - they make for a natural metaphor for Neil to use. 'Get Back To The Country' is an autobiographical tale of Neil joining and finding fame with a rock and roll band even though he always felt more like a country star (as Stephen Stills succinctly put it later 'While the others in the Buffalo Springfield got into a band after watching The Beatles In 'A Hard Day's Night', Neil wanted to join a band after watching a documentary about Bob Dylan). Throughout this album the old ways are the best: 'Bound For Glory' is as traditional a love story as Neil has ever written (two truck drivers of different sexes passing each other in the night and falling in love), 'Where Is The Highway Tonight?' finds a troubled troubadour leaving his old way of life behind him and finding solace with the heart and family and 'California State' complains that even here in this sunny place Neil has been beset by blizzards and snow. It's clearly time to move - and the country is a natural place for a musician who owns his own ranch to fit in.
So, is 'Old Ways' any good? Well it feels more substantial than any of Neil's post-Rust albums with the exception of 'Trans' and the singer has clearly spent more time and effort on this one, his family duties slowly easing to the point where he could think about other things again (even if 'My Boy' suggests Ben isn't that far from his thoughts). 'Get Back To The Country' is a pretty good stab at country-rock, actually superior to any of the similar stabs at the genre on 'Harvest' and 'Comes A Time', while 'Misfits' is a fascinating song that isn't really like anything Neil has ever given us before (it's a surreal painting more than it is a song). However if the main point of 'Old Ways' was to convince Neil's many rock and roll fans over from the 'dark side' and over to good ol' honest country music then he hasn't done that good a job to be honest. Neil sounds less than convincing in his new beliefs that he's going to be a country star forever, he's not enough of a fan to realise that he ought to be doing more with the talents making the album with him (especially Waylon and Willie) and at times 'Old Ways' is the glossiest and ickiest of all the many Neil Young albums out there, sickly sweet and saccharine in a way his rock and roll never is. With so many good tracks left on the cutting room floor, you wonder how so many hastily written filler songs ever made it to the album and why Neil spent so much time and money trying to make purses out of sow's ears when he must have known how insubstantial most of this record still was. As an advert for the country it's abysmal; compared to the very best of Neil's catalogue it's flimsy and gutless - only when seen in context, as an album (re)recorded in trying circumstances by an artist who'd fallen out of love with the rock and roll spirit that was killing his friends and fallen in love with the country-family spirit that suddenly appealed to him more and made after an even flimsier album does 'Old Ways' make any sense. And even then the new 'Old Ways' makes less sense than the old 'Old Ways'. It's all far from being a vital, integral part of your Neil Young collection - but at the same time 'Old Ways' feels like a very important piece of the puzzle, if not always a particularly musical or inventive one.
As a final bit of trivia: Old ways aren't always a ball and chain and there's proof Neil looked back: the sleeve notes actually state 'Belated thanks to George Grantham and Jim Messina for bass and drums on the Reprise album Neil Young', the guitarist finally paying a debt he's waited seventeen years to pay! You sense the line is here more to remind Geffen that Neil used to be on a 'proper' label once and to get them to print the name of his old employees...
In his book 'Definitive Guide To The Music Of Neil Young', the nearly-always reliable Johnny Rogan calls 'The Wayward Wind', 'probably Neil's most successful cover song'. To these ears it's not even the best Neil cover of a song with the word 'wind' in the title, falling short of 'Four Strong Winds' on 'Comes A Time' (and that wasn't great). Gorgi Grant, Tex Ritter and even future DJ Jimmy Young (no relation) all scored big hits with the ballad in 1956 and you can see why: it's a dramatic, sweeping and Hollywardised version of a sudden unexpected love affair that sums up its era about as well as Kurt Cobain sums up 1994 or 'Heart Of Gold' sums up 1972. You can see why the song appealed to the then-eleven-year-old Neil who'd have heard it too, seeing as it's about two wandering loners who walk to the beat of their own drum meeting up and synchronising their heart-watches, as it were. However in 1984 this is old-fashioned, tacky and so OTT it's absurd, with swirling harmonica and an orchestra pretending to be a 'wind' in the same way that primary school teachers instruct children. Country singer Denise Draper's full blown hicksville vocal are actually what this song demands - but they really don't go well with Neil's still-predominantly Canadian growl and like Neil she isn't budging or meeting him in the middle the way his more compatible co-singers like Nicolette Larson or Emmylou Harris do. The result is a recording of many firsts for Neil - from the opening mouthorgan lick it's more artificial than any Young recording has ever been up till now and while the first verse isn't that bad, Neil struggles thereafter. It's also a track that's clearly had far too much time and money spent on it and while we argue elsewhere in this project that Neil's 'first thought, best thought, only thought' policy isn't always the best, it's still better than this 'hundredth thought, worst thought' policy. In short, yuck! This isn't Neil Young - even when you factor in the fact it was made to annoy the heck out of Geffen, it doesn't even sound like Neil Young (while some of his more conservative fans probably lapped up the orchestra anyway). This is a recording where everyone loses - artists, fans, record company and no doubt the publishers who scowl whenever they think of Neil recording their precious schmaltzy song. Thankfully things will get a lot better from hereon in, with 'The Wayward Wind' one of the two lowest lights on this album.
By contrast 'Get Back To The Country' feels like the sort of message Neil would make in the country mould. It's a smart, sassy song that fits in with those how-did-I-get-here? autobiographical songs like 'Don't Be Denied' and 'Buffalo Springfield Again' although it's unusual in that it re-writes decades of history. Deep down Neil clearly had rock and roll running through his veins the way a stick of rock has 'rock' down the middle and even from his earliest days as a folkie he was slotting in random Beatles covers with first band The Squires. On this song though he tells us he merely 'got lucky' with a 'rock and roll band' that 'struck Gold in Hollywood' (specifically the Springfield at the Whisky-A-Go-Go), while in his heart 'I knew I would get back to the country - to where it all began'. Actually country arrived in Neil's setlists in his late twenties and after he'd already covered rock, soul, psychedelia, folk, the early beginnings of grunge and the orchestrated lushness of his first solo album. Country turned up late to the party - this is revisionism as bad as anything in Stalinist Russia, if not worse because there everyone secretly knew the truth but so many fans do think about Neil as a country star even today. The 'real' clue comes in the lyric that those years on the road playing rock and roll date from 'when I was a younger man' - Neil's fed up of playing the younger man's game and wants to grow old gracefully (or at least he did for, ooh, the six months it took to make this album). Helping Neil with his plea that he was always a country star at heart, honest, are the lyric's references to Young staples usually heard in his rock and roll (barns, roads and his fixation with busses and trucks) which make us wonder for a minute if Neil isn't actually telling the truth here and just happened to fall into the wrong medium by accident and the fact that he clearly understands the genre so well. The clichés are all here - banjo, jew's harp, a fiddle and a honky tonk piano that sounds as if it's seen better days - but they actually mean something in context, urging this restless bouncy song along rather than just being used because they're 'there'. The song is also just pure fun, with Neil's lead vocal full of just the right amount of mischief and Waylon Jennings' second vocal adding just enough gravitas (he's clearly taking the song at face value, despite the comedy jew's harp). The closest thing to Poco (formed by fellow Springfielder Richie Furay) in the Young canon, this song works equally well as a song expounding the benefits of being a country musician and as a delightful bit of tongue-in-cheek humour.
'Are There Any More Real Cowboys?' sounds great for the opening ten seconds or so, with Neil's 'Old Man' style acoustic and his sad slow harmonica puffing taking us right back to the better parts of 'Goldrush' and 'Harvest'. Alas then in comes a crashing drum beat, the tempo slows down, an ugly guitar 'n' piano part really drags and Willie Nelson turns up like some drunk at the karaoke bar, making Neil sound like the 'stablest' thing in the song (you know you've got problems when that happens!) The end result sounds like another clichéd parody, but with the nagging feeling that everyone involved in the song meant it to come out this way - slurred vocals, timid backbeat and funeral pace and all. Even as a song this is a lost cause: what this song is actually about is farmers, with Neil and Willie clearly trying to write a 'theme' song for their 'Farmer's Aid' concerts. Only farmers don't lead interesting enough lives so they become the more romantic 'cowboys' and Neil sticks in a few random digs juxtaposing this honest, earthy way of life with his old rockstar days - 'They're not the ones snortin' cocaine!' The trouble is, even if Neil was never as big a user of drugs as his reputation suggests (they messed with his epilepsy for starters) and is actually closer to the image of the farmer here than most (thanks to his 'Broken Arrow' ranch back home), that's the image of him people have got and Neil certainly lived up to the rock and roll lifestyle in other ways. On this song he comes over as patronising to both his old audience he's trying to leave behind and his new one, with some truly wretched lines 'country families working hand in hand' and with nothing bigger on their mind than 'praying for rain' to help their crops. Only the melody of this song has anything to recommend it, slowly and wearily getting on with things despite some clearly creaking bones in much the same way as the characters in the song. Even so the question isn't so much 'are there any more real cowboys?' as much as 'were there ever any cowboys who ever acted like this at all ever?'
'Once An Angel' is one of the ugliest songs about heaven ever written. Even for an album big on slow treacly ballads this one drags and the opening piano triplets sum up everything false and artificial about country music at its worst. However this song about wife Pegi gets better the further it continues, with some nice pedal steel guitar work, some lovely understated harmonies (from no less than eight female backing singers, none of whom ever worked with Neil on anything else) and a vocal from Neil that manages to cut through the cloyingness of the backing track and offer something 'real'. As with so many of the second batch of 'Old Ways' songs a remix or a re-recording one day would most likely make this song appear a lot better than fans have ever assumed it to be. It is, after all, about as close to a simple and straightforward love song as Neil ever wrote and yet it still manages to sound as if it was written about a real feeling for a real person. Neil is autobiographically accurate when he sings 'it's been six years now since that ring slipped on your finger' (he and Pegi got married in 1978 - 'Comes A Time' is kinda their engagement party) and by most accounts equally accurate when he pays tribute to his wife for 'making a better man out of me'. The third verse feels out of place though, as Neil pretends that he doesn't see how hurt and upset his partner is as she stares out of the window wishing her old life back. This could have made for a much more interesting song (she's right for him but he isn't for her) but we don't get it, the song ending up a typical defensive country song full of excuses ('I've done things that you can never understand!') Nowadays this song immediately makes fans wonder if Neil is singing about current girlfriend Darryl Hannah - the pair reportedly met on holiday in the 'early 1980s' (no one is too specific on the timings), while funnily enough the whole tone of love-tinged-with-regret-and-guilt-and-piano recalls Neil's 2014's 'Storytone'.
By far the most intriguing and longest-lasting song on the album is 'Misfits', a typically dense and experimental work that Neil often reverts to when he's too tired to think straight ('Hawks and Doves', the 1980 album recorded when son Zeke was first diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy features many similar songs). A jumble of the future and the past, humans onboard a space station watch boxing matches from the 1960s and keep an eye on 'elephant characteristics' in the population below (what are 'elephantines' exactly? Besides growing a big nose, big ears and a tail?) The crew are 'living Kennedy's dream' but is the line meant genuinely (mankind in space! One small step for man! etc) or sarcastically (instead of doing some good for the Earth they're watching Muhammad Ali box, which they could have done back home)? Houston call to say 'the sky is falling' (beautifully mimicked by the best string arrangement on the record) but we never get any more from that story and if this is the end of the world none of the workers appear to be that fussed about it. The song then switches gears for part two, following the adventures of a 'see-through hooker' (her clothes or her character or both?) who lives the life of luxury with two televisions even though she can only watch one at a time. A sneezing fit makes her collapse outside a lift and the doctors announce 'the worst is over' but that they cannot save her. The hint is that she doesn't have to live out her life as a sex toy for randy old men so in that sense she's been 'saved', but like many similar songs Neil could mean anything - or nothing - by these lyrics. Next we get two verses about a 'rider' from 'South Dakota' who is a returning Veteran from some unspecified war who still drinks to cover up the scars of what he's seen. After that we loop back to that space station, living Kennedy's dream - what to make of all this? The title 'Misfits', a word rather thrown-away near the end of the song as the rider heads off to a place 'where only misfits can go', suggests that America is becoming fragmented, with everybody acting strangely in different ways and for different reasons so that we're 'all' misfits. Nobody in this song re-acts to life the way they should: the space station workers don't shriek in fear of what has happened to the Earth or cry for their loved ones, the 'hooker' could have given up her 'job' years ago but is now doing it for the luxury not the necessity and the rider has survived against the odds and earned peace and tranquillity, not drunken-ness and self-destruction. However there may be no message at all here - this might just be Neil's fevered imagination working overtime again the way it did on 'Last Trip To Tulsa' and 'Down By The River' and even Neil hasn't got a clue what this is all about - he just happened to the subconscious that came up with all this and wrote it down. Like so many of these similar stream-of-consciousness songs, though, 'Misfits' teases because it sounds so substantial (especially in the middle of one of Neil's more insubstantial albums). The arrangement is clever, the performance is poignant (with Doana Cooper's haunting wordless backing vocals particularly strong) and everybody in the room seems to be pulling together to make this recording work in a way that none of the others on 'Old Ways' do (indeed, it's ironic that the country backing band who play on everything play this, the least country song here by a country mile, the best of all). Hypnotic and other-worldly, 'Misfits' lives long in the mind - even if it is, ultimately, all gibberish.
'California Sunset' was taped - for no apparent reason - out on the road, at Austin City Limits to be exact even though it sounds much like a studio take would have done and the audience applause has been mixed way down low. This is an ok-ish sort of song, caught halfway between the brilliance of the best of this album and the clichés of the worst whilst also serving as a tribute and a put-down of California and Neil's old way of living. Chances are Neil is more waving goodbye to an old part of his life here than being rude to his former home anyway - his migration to Nashville sounds more like a bird migrating when they feel the pull of something new and bad weather arriving in tandem. However Neil is still proud enough to call California 'the golden state' at the song's end and still sees California as having 'many colours' and calls it a 'land of beauty' when looking back from afar. A bouncy tune sounds much like the title track of 'Comes A Time' and Neil's vocal is, naturally, much better and more focussed than the 'expensive' re-takes on the rest of the album he cut over and over. However the backing band is a tad shrill: fiddle player Rufus Thibodeaux gets well off the beaten track by the end of his lengthy instrumental and harmony vocalist Anthony Crawford is not at his best here.
Title track 'Old Ways' finds us back in Nashville and the band have a certain purr in their performance as Neil delivers his latest metaphors for having to move on and do different things. Only this time the irony is that Neil finds that as hard as he tries even he is 'set in my ways' and has gone even further into his past by diving into country music headfirst. This song is more about character than genre, though, with Neil clearly having had enough of his boozing and partying rock and roll lifestyle, telling us that when he woke up after yet another party 'I was a different man' and that, now middle age is approaching, 'I'm really going to make my life last'. He even admits that work - ie his music - was getting to be a 'habit' and that even though he got 'laid off' - by 'himself' as he sings here though he might mean talking himself out of his old contract with Reprise, which was more Neil pulling away to something new than the record company pushing him out - 'I kept turning up to work anyway', with Young perhaps admitting that he's been sleepwalking through his Geffen contract so far. Though Neil continues to sleepwalk through most of 'Old Ways', you can tell this title track means more to him than most as he turns in a far more suitable performance big on the rough edges and sly humour. Waylon Jennings is under-used again but at least he sounds as if he belongs on this song despite the very rock and roll swagger and amplification between the country instruments this time around and there's a fun duet between Neil's plunky guitar and Terry McMillan's bluesy harmonica. All in all, not bad.
Unfortunately 'My Boy' is terrible. We've already heard just how nauseating Neil can be about his children on the previous 'Already One' (one of 'Comes A Times' lowest ebbs written about Zeke, Neil's song with Carrie Snodgrass) and here's another similar song for son Ben, who'd have been about ten by this time (third child 'Amber Jean' definitely got the best part of the deal with the song named after her, performed on the International Harvesters tour that promoted this album but never in the studio). Given the many descriptions of Ben around, Neil's middle child would probably have hated and been deeply embarrassed by this song - its mawkish, dull and generic (everything Ben apparently isn't, despite his illness). The trouble is Neil's thinking with his country hat on again rather than working out how his natural sound might combine with the country genre and after the cliché that my little ol' dog died (a cliché that Neil will return to on 'Old King' released on 'Harvest Moon' in 1992) 'I love you sonny Jim' is probably second. Neil complains that his son is growing up too fast and urges him to slow down even though they both know he has no control over that. I mean, if he carries on like this soon he'll be grown and 'living out your dreams' which sounds like a terrible tragedy in Neil's hands, while the summer vacations come and go and slowly add up. And that's about it, for three painful minutes, while a pedal steel guitar, a fiddle, a banjo and an unusually ugly Neil guitar solo all compete to see who can tug at our heartstrings the most (the result: it's a draw, none of them do at all!) The only real benefit of 'My Boy' is that it seems to last an eternity to get to the end so maybe it is a means of slowing down time and making childhood last longer after all. Along with 'Wayward Wind' it's easily the worst thing here.
Neil reportedly wrote the lyric to 'Bound For Glory' in one sudden spurt of creativity bashing out ideas on an old typewriter he had on his tour bus. That kind of shows - you can tell this song's basic melody has been fitted around the lyrics rather than vice versa and the boom-chikka arrangement sounds like all those wretched 'Highwayman' tracks Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristoffersen and Johnny Cash made together in country music's abhorrent version of a CSNY super-group in the late 1980s. Waylon takes a whole verse in fact and sounds awful - awkward, off-key and OTT, not that Neil sounds an awful lot better and the pair's vocals really don't fit well at all when they duet on the chorus. It's lyrically this song nearly works, using a storytelling mode that Neil doesn't use very often - that of the omniscient narrator who can see the 'fate' pulling two of his characters together despite their will. The story follows a trucker and a girl 'hitch-hiking with her dog' who end up chatting when he gives her a lift. Both of them are used to 'living on the edge' and Neil comes up with a whole jumble of metaphors about how their lives impact on one another when they finally agree they're a natural couple: 'like two comets heading for a bed' is one; 'bound for each other like two blankets layin' on a bed' is another. My guess is this song is one of Neil's earliest for Darryl - the trucker is confused and torn between the new adventure that lies ahead and the 'two children' back at home, but he can't stop thinking about 'her new way of looking at life'; for her part she wasn't looking to fall in love either, it's just something that happened. The trouble with this song is we never find out what happens next, perhaps because if this is about Neil's 'real' new relationship he doesn't have the answers himself yet, torn between the security of the present and the tug of a potential future. The performance isn't quite as strong as the song, though - especially given that the restless melody really isn't up to the words to begin with - and is quite off-putting with those ugly harmonies and more wretched fiddle playing edging this song towards sickly saccharine than truthful storytelling. And also, why are the couple 'bound for glory?' If anything, they sound like they're bound for tears and drama and misery, even if they helpless about doing anything about it.
'Old Ways' then ends with 'Where Is The Highway Tonight?' is more Neil 'n' Waylon as old-timers, leaning on the fence and talking about how great the old days were and wishing they'd come back again. Neil's done this before many times across his career (his 'first' song - at least until the 'Archives' box set gave us an even earlier twenty or so - 'Sugar Mountain' is about exactly that), but usually with more panache and skill than this rotten song which doesn't go anywhere but just limps it's way round the yard a bit before going back in its box. Interestingly, given that it's the last 'country' song before the rock and roll returns (whatever Neil said in interviews about making this sort of music forever in his interviews) the character in the song is having a re-think about his life, having realised that he took the wrong path at the crossroads and his old, safer way of life was better anyway. In context this is probably Neil convincing himself not to run after Darryl (perhaps the 'haunting melody' he hears in his head) and to stay with his wife and family - but it also sounds at times like he's missing his rock and roll crew ('Where are those old and crazy nights?') However, typically, if Neil is singing about how much he misses plugging in his electric guitar then he's doing so on perhaps the most 'country' song on his most 'country' record. The fiddles (two of the flipping things!), the walking bass, the pedal steel, the Hicksville piano and especially Waylon's vocals all make for the purist country backing here, while Neil sounds genuinely sad and alone here which fits better with what's going on behind him than elsewhere on the album. Unfortunately, though, this song about old times isn't original or inventive enough to stand out and the track - and album - ends most unexpectedly on a question mark which rather says it all. This isn't a song - or LP - about answers so much as it is about questions, but equally they're questions we're not really being let in on.
The end result is an album that, like all of the ones from the Geffen era, does grow on you no matter how off-putting they sound on first hearing. There is something going on here - in part of the album at least - but to work out what we're being told you have to dig through some of the ugliest and most off-putting music of Neil's career (until 'Greendale' anyway). Neil doesn't suit purist country - he didn't on 'Harvest' (where the country-rockers are generally accepted as the weaker tracks) and only did on parts of 'Comes A Time' and 'Harvest Moon' (thanks mainly to a sparkling backing band and a rock edge that went alongside the country twinges). However sounding like a fish out of water rather suits these rambling narrators who don't quite know where they're going or which way to turn in life and the country grounding and solidarity is naturally appealing for someone whose trying hard not to fall into the same rock and roll pitfalls that have beset so many of those close to Neil. There's a very interesting conversation going on across parts of 'Old Ways' - it's just not always the one between Neil and his guest artists, or between his guitar and the International Harvesters backing and too much of this album feels as if it was made as 'country' as it could be to annoy the heck out of Geffen rather than because that was the best way to serve the songs, which is not a good reason to make an album (although at least there's slightly more of a reason to make this album than 'Everybody's Rockin', which was only done to make the record company as mad as could be). You can hear that conversation much better on the road and on the live 'A Treasure' album where the Harvesters sound alive and enthusiastic rather than tired and half-dead thanks to all the many re-takes on this album, while the additional 'new' material (most of it taken from the old 'Old Ways') shows just how good this album could have been and how well Neil suits the country genre - when he wants to, on his own terms and not his record label's. Old ways can indeed be a ball and chain, but you can teach a dinosaur a new trick sometimes; just not when you're at war with your record company, when your heart is being tugged in different directions and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson are on the phone asking when their next solo on the record is.