Monday, 5 December 2016
Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Ragged Glory! (1990)
Country Home/White Line/F*!#in' Up!/Over and Over/Love To Burn/Love To Burn//Farmer John/Mansion On The Hill/Days That Used To Be/Love and Only Love/Mother Earth (National Anthem)
'Life' had the songs, 'Freedom' the pizzazz and 'Landing On Water' had, erm, what did that album have exactly? Anyway it was 1990's 'Ragged Glory' that made Neil into a star again in such a way that everyone assumed he'd always been and his status in the history books (up for grabs right up until the late 1980s) has never been brought into question since, even when some of his albums were - how shall we put this? - crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In one fell swoop Neil and a surprise return for Crazy Horse helped establish grunge as a true musical form, sold more copies in the United States than any album since 'Trans' eight years before and healed the rift between the singer and backing band that looked in 1987 every bit as fractious as CSNY on a bad day. That's not bad going for one little record, though in many ways this isn't a little record - it's a big one full of major concepts, large angular riffs and mammoth running times thanks to jamming and extra feedback that makes even the shortest songs on this album sound like a 'journey'. In AAA film terms 'Ragged Glory' is the 'Lord Of The Rings' trilogy - it goes on for hours, nobody quite knows what it's about and not a lot actually happens across any of it, but the scenery is nice to look at and it's an ensemble effort with no one stealing the show (unlike 'Life' and, indeed, life). What's more, this album hit the lucky streak with the timing: had this record come out even a few months earlier it would have been pilloried for being long, self-indulgent and over-extended but in September 1990, with Pearl Jam kings and Nirvana young princes, this album sounded just enough like the old Crazy Horse to get old fans salivating and make younger fans think that at least one old rocker knew what they were all about. In a career that had seen Neil weave his own path as far away from current musical fashion as it was often possible to get (country music in 1984? Weird shit in the mid 1970s? A song about a singing fish at the height of punk?!?), someway somehow he managed to mirror the public consciousness again on this record and will - in an even more likely turn of events - hold onto it until at least 'Broken Arrow' in 1997 (some loyal fans would put that date even later). Though not quite recorded in his garage (the then-current fashion amongst young pop stars) this record made in Neil's converted barn came as close as any of his peers at understanding what the era was all about.
However, given that this isn't 1990 and you're not all skateboarding youngsters with holes in your jeans and baseball caps on the wrong way round (though hello to you if you are - and how the hell did you stumble across this site?!), does 'Ragged Glory' still stand up? Well that's the bad news really.
While some albums are just outside the laws of usual human physics (including many Neil Young ones - 'Tonight's The Night' doesn't care about space or time), some others only really work in their respective periods. There are a few albums around like that: 'Sgt Peppers' made most sense in 1967 and not a month beyond, while 'Tommy' might have died a death in any other year but the mystical-cynical one of 1969 and 'Graceland' was so 1987 it's actually quite painful to hear past that decade or even that year. 'Ragged Glory' is one of those albums: to contemporary ears it sounded like the future while to modern ears it sounds like the past, far more so than the genuinely early Young albums like 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' and 'After The Goldrush'. Though there is plenty of good and poignant material here (most of them dealing with break-ups including highlights 'Love To Burn' and 'Love and Only Love' plus Neil's biggest self-hating song 'F*!#in' Up') somehow even the best of it sounds a little overcooked, jammed past breaking point or left to stew with the guitars left next to the speakers for three more minutes than is strictly necessary. Two of the songs here were abandoned in the mid-1970s for not being good enough to release on such what-the? albums as 'American Stars 'n' Bars', which while not unusual for a Young song's evolution does perhaps demonstrate that songs weren't pouring out of Neil the way they had been in 1987-1989. Though usually the messiness is what makes Neil Young albums so enjoyable, 'Ragged Glory' is the album at which the line between 'primal, hungry and instinctive' first thought risks becoming 'self-indulgent and a bit lazy' worst thought, something that happens a lot on later Young albums. Though often glorious and unashamedly ragged most of the way through (and a big relief after some of the 1980s productions on Neil Young albums), this is also in retrospect the moment when the rot set in. In other words, if you're modern fan working your way back through Neil's catalogue and you read the usually adoring reviews of this album, this is the point where you might come unstuck and decide to do something less time consuming or painful on the ears - like nailing yourself shut in a tumble-dryer for an hour. Which is pretty much what listening to 'Farmer John' sounds like anyway to be honest.
Still, in context, you can hear even with modern ears why this album made quite the impact that it did. Suddenly, after years of 'playing' with other genres, this sounds like the 'real deal Neil'. Like 'Freedom' but more so, Neil was writing songs that fans didn't have to imagine being sung in some new genre in their head for a change or wondering how Crazy Horse might sound if they were allowed to gallop rather than canter on a tightly controlled lead. Neil sounds as if he means every single word he sings for the first time since 'Trans' (and then not quite the whole LP, just the inventive bits). 'Old black', his faithful guitar, blows off the cobwebs in a way we haven't heard since at least 'Zuma' in 1975. There are no studio gimmicks, no synthesisers, no country music guest stars, no backing vocalists and not one superfluous overdub. Best of all Crazy Horse are encouraged to be themselves, not to spend their time being told to play riffs and complicated patterns that Neil would have performed better if he'd just brought some session musicians in. 'Ragged Glory' may not have the material or ideas of 'Life' or that album's desperate need to sound even more contemporary than this one, but it does sound like the Crazy Horse album fans had been waiting for since 'Rust Never Sleeps' in 1979. The collective sense of relief at hearing Neil speaking to us directly for once, instead of hiding his private life behind nonsensical songs, genres or technology after so long was a relief to say the least.
Which is interesting given that half of 'Ragged Glory' is, in retrospect, one of Neil's most revealing albums of all. If 'Ragged Glory' has a sound that unifies this sometimes disparate album then it's of a man and his band staring out of a tiny window and hoping that things are going to be ok,. inside and out. We now know, in the 21st century, that Neil had been juggling marriage and quite genuine love for wife Pegi with love for actress Darryl Hannah back to sometime in the late 1970s. Though Neil doesn't split up his marriage until as late as 2014, it's on this album where he seems to first start thinking seriously about whether he has the guts/disloyalty to do it or not, with 2002's 'Are You Passionate?' the 'sequel' when he oh so nearly goes through with it anyway and 2014's 'Storytone' the apology moment when he finally does. In 'Love To Burn', an odd song to write for your 12th anniversary, Neil admits to being visited by a 'spirit' who urges him to 'take the first step to grow to be tall' while later verses have a guilty Neil being visited by his ex screaming at him ('Why'd you ruin my life? Where you taking our kids?!') On 'Love and Only Love' romance is a 'battle' as Neil tries to escape and find quiet to listen to the 'real' voice in his heart. 'F*!#in' Up' is so clearly an autobiographical song about something, given the passionate way Neil sings it, even if we never quite find out what (though in the context of the other songs it's fairly easy to guess). The fact that these three songs are the backbone of the album and easily the best thing here points to just how much stronger these more 'real' songs are, especially musically (the passion on the solo is always a clue as to just how deeply Neil 'feels' a particular song). 'Over and Over', meanwhile, has Neil half-sheepishly, half-joyously running back to his wife, his sudden moment of madness over with - for now. 'Country Home', too, is a rare song of family life - even if, technically speaking, it's about Neil's previous family life with Carrie Snodgrass from the first half of the 1970s (nobody's sure quite when this song was written but 1974 seems a good guess). The leery 'Farmer John' cover may also be significant given that Neil last played this lusty song as an unattached teenager and Crazy Horse sound to all the world as if they're sixteen and have only just that week picked up their instruments.
The other, less interesting half of 'Ragged Glory' looks out towards the outer world for the first time in a decade ('Hawks and Doves' being the last real album to do this). 'White Line' is another old song written as long ago as 1977, about Neil's wanderlust spirit as he enjoys walking out on his problems down the middle of a road and out into the sunshine, not knowing where it might take him (many fans assume this is a drug song, but if it is then it's in title only!) 'Mansion On The Hill' is a Dylan re-write that imagines a golden utopia where the 1960s spirit lived on inside it's four walls, untainted by the bitter uncertain world outside. 'The Days That Used To Be' is a second Dylan re-write that does much the same, a toast to musicians loved and lost and wishing good times could come around again. Finally 'Mother Earth' is a reminder of the future on this largely backward looking second half, only the second of Neil's occasional ecological anthems (the first being 'Here We Are In The Years' way back on his first solo work in 1968). In that sense 'Ragged Glory' is kind of like 'Freedom', an album of emotional rollercoaster rides from all parts of Neil's life bookended by perhaps his most well known anthem of injustice and protest ('Rockin' In The Free World'). However it's notable that Neil will try and keep his two mindsets separate across his next two LPs, developing 'Harvest Moon' as a near-whole collection of emotional love songs (and probably all of that album is most definitely written for Pegi) and 'Sleeps For Angels' as a record almost entirely about the outside world (minus the two songs that bookend that album!)
Even though this album is big enough in scope to take in the future of the planet and mankind, however, it is at heart still something of a small and humble album. 'Ragged Glory' is much more grounded than usual for Neil - there are no side-trips into Aztec-land, no mysterious songs about astronauts watching boxing matches up in space and not even a hint of a singing fish. These tales of love, lust and romance going right and going wrong are unusually direct for Neil - very direct given some of the cryptic messages we'd been getting in the 1980s - and if there's a word for this album then it's 'earthy' (in the final track's case 'mother Earthy'!) The feedback howls are all so very real and natural, the performances - while often inspired, especially on the two ten minute songs - are still recognisably simple and charmingly clumsy in true Crazy Horse style and this sounds like an album made in a garage-come-barn in a few days rather than a posh studio way out of town. No wonder the suddenly-earthy music world of 1990 (after so many years of digitised synth pop) really took to this album: it's not 'grunge' exactly but it's part of the same musical movement back to exaggerating the real and letting the natural arc of the songs dictate play, even to the extent of killing off radio airplay (Only four of this album's ten songs clock in at under five minutes). Reportedly Crazy Horse were on such hot form that they just recorded one song after another without much of a break and that's how this album sounds, more like the ragbag approach of 'Zuma' than the more polished one of 'Rust' or 'Life'. Legend has it that they accidentally recorded two cooking versions of 'Love To Burn' because they couldn't remember recording the first one at the very beginning of the sessions (it's the second one included on the album!)
The horseplay on this album is clearly up a notch from 'Life'. Quite often on this album it's hard to tell where Neil's solos end and Frank Sampedro's begin with the Horse closer in style to 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' than before. Ralph Molina sounds much more certain, never adding more beats than he needs to play and giving the songs impressive breathing space while being right on the money for a big hit when he needs to be. Billy Talbot is allowed to 'choose' which chords and notes to play, occasionally holding back and occasionally speeding up like the days of old - it's his style, more than even his partners, that gives this band their distinctive sound and allows them to sound like more than just another simple rock band. The sound certainly suits the group more than the stick-it-there-dear of 'Life'. However it's still a shame that there isn't a tad more interplay across this album - hear the five songs from this album that also appear on the tie-in live release 'Weld' - they just have so much more life about somehow, perhaps because the band know them better. Crazy Horse may be simple, but they're not 'thick' - left to their own devices they really do know how to play. While the 'groove' is there on many songs, you can't help but wonder what a Danny Whitten-era horse might have brought to these songs. Understandably, after so many rows in the studio the last time around, the Horse sound a little, umm, 'spooked' and afraid to step into new territory rather than the same few chords (Neil might have picked up on it too, with a rare B-side only recording made near the end of these sessions titled 'Don't Spook The Horse' - it's a shame it's not on the album actually as it's dry humour would have worked well set against the meatier songs). In other words, it's good to hear Crazy Horse allowed to play like nature intended Crazy Horse to play again - but it's a shame that Neil was so determined to record the songs after the band have barely had time to learn them, never mind embellish them. One thing that can be said for this album though is how genuinely decent the harmonies are pretty much all the way through: after years of being laughed at by CSN (and laughing at them in return) Crazy Horse have really learnt how to hit the sweet spot, even at speed and on songs they don't really know that well. The Horse have a much 'fuller' sound here than usual and are much more like their original incarnation as a doo-wop band ('Danny and The Memories') than they ever sounded before or since.
Overall, then, 'Ragged Glory' is a bit of a mixed blessing and an album full of contradictions. In context it's a much-needed return to where most fans believe Neil's roots should always have been that maybe doesn't shine with quite the same sparkle today now we've had so many simple 'n' quick albums in the same league ('Greendale' 'Are You Passionate?' 'Psychedelic Pill', heck almost everything Neil's put out in the 21st century...) or the same patience for lengthy band jamming sessions and hours of feedback. The material is both beautifully earnest and 'real', with at least three major additions to the Young canon that stand as tall as anything else in this period - even if the other seven are a bit more disappointing. Neil is on a real writing roll - but still has to rely on one cover song and two unreleased twenty-year-old songs to pad out the CD. 'Ragged Glory' was heralded as a return to form and is in so many ways after such a difficult 1980s - but at the same time, it doesn't quite live up to the promise and certainly not the variety offered on 'Freedom'. A crude album full of swear words that ends with a mature song about how we have to overcome our prejudices to make peace. A good album - not a bad album, not a great album, but a good album and sometimes that's enough to send your career into the stratosphere, especially for fans still recovering from 'Landing On Water'. Occasionally monotonous, slow and repetitive, frequently exhilarating and fascinating, this is only a true 'classic' album to those of us who bought it at the time and realised just how well it 'fit' into both the mood and the music of the times. Even a further quarter-century on from then, however, 'Ragged Glory' is aptly named, a good mixture of the ragged and glorious, and another major step in the big comeback Neil experienced during the 1990s.
'Country Home' is a rather odd place to start this album's analysis of love and breaking loose. A song about how wonderful it is to be at home with 'peace of mind', it seems at odds with this album's other songs about wanting to cut loose and run away - either from a marriage or from a planet. The track makes more sense when you learn that it's a song that dates back to the early 'Zuma' sessions when it was titled, rather more irreverently, 'spud's blues'. Neil clearly thought the earthy down-at-home vibe would suit the Horse and the album but I'm not sure it does. Yes Neil and Sampedro sound good on their ringing guitars and this is the closest 'Ragged Glory' comes to a happy track suitable as an opening number. Already, though, the guitar solos seem close to interminable and the song isn't all that really, being just one much-repeated chorus and the odd comical verse. Neil's country bumpkin narrator isn't one of his best either, singing odd lines about parking on a flat because his car doesn't have good enough brakes to cope with a hill (he may have had his first visit to America in beloved hearse Mort in mind here) and that he doesn't mind if someone else pinches his harvest because at the end of the day they're only potatoes (I'd like to think this is some deep rumination about other singer-songwriters capitalising on the 'Harvest' style country-rock vine Neil left behind when Danny Whitten died and he 'went all weird', but I have a nasty feeling Neil wasn't thinking any more beyond actual potatoes here). There are better unreleased songs in the Young canon than this one but it's inclusion on the album is interesting. Presumably it was one of the first songs Neil wrote about the 'Broken Arrow' ranch he bought when fleeing his marriage to Carrie and when he first got together with Pegi and it's at one with other songs about country delights such as 'Homegrown' and much of the 'Comes A Time' LP (where this song might have fitted in nicely with a country-rock setting). So is it Neil reminding himself about everything he might have been forced into losing if he took and left for a new girl (and presumably a new home?) A song with roots - literally in the case of the potatoes - revived at a time when Neil felt like he didn't have many.
'White Line' is a 'Homegrown' outtake (ie the album abandoned in favour of 'Zuma' in 1974) and this song has even less right being on the record, even if it is arguably a superior song. Clearly a song about the bad vibes towards the end of Neil's marriage with Carrie and his desperate need to run away and go anywhere, it might also be revived here as a subtle reminder of how lonely Neil was once before he found ranch and wife. It's very much at one with the late vibes of the 'Doom Trilogy' though and it's spiky guitars and feeling of overwhelming helplessness is very out of step with this album's self-controlled guilt and nostalgia. The 'white line' is a clever idea though: far from being a song about drugs - as everyone who bought this album or saw the song pencilled in on setlists assumed for years - it's about freeing yourself from addiction and routine, of being brave enough to take the first step into the beyond even though you don't know where it might take you. Though the song starts with Neil as much in pain as he's ever been ('I was adrift on a river of pride...you were my raft and I let you slide!') by the end the song feels more hopeful, with Neil 'rolling down the road' he's travelled so many times before for the last time with the sun about to rise out of this blackest of night and offer illumination to more than just is eyes. That said, though, the song still ends on a question mark and an unfinished chord, hovering in the air as if the narrator is paused mid-step wondering whether to turn round and go back home again anyway. Though apt for the 1974-ish arrangement, you'd expect a more settled and confident Neil of 1990 to take that bit out - or is this song, too, a reminder of bad times in the past and why Neil should stay put? Crazy Horse effectively play this song as a sea shanty, with lots of to-and-fro-ing as the guitars weave in and out of each other but the plodding oom-pah pace and the slightly lazy way Neil throws his guitar frills around make for one of the lesser performances on the album, a rehearsal away from being good enough for the album and a miracle away from being great.
Thankfully 'F*!#in' Up' rescues the album before it sinks too well. Choppy, angry chords really make this song feel like Neil is scowling at someone while some of the most bitter and self-pointed lyrics Neil ever wrote make it clear he's pointing the finger at himself. The heavy riff which is one of the best he ever wrote keeps pulling Neil's head down to face the floor every time he thinks he's found a solution to his problems and sounds like the pit of despair bringing him down again. The lyrics too are dark, even for Neil and full of evocative passing images that seem to tell the tale of a love affair gone wrong. There are the 'keys left hanging in a swinging door' that hang in the balance, Neil's inner wild beast that's chewed through his restraining leash and got the better of him and the lover he leaves walking away to her old life, as distressed as he is, 'comatose but walking still'. The first verse is particularly interesting - sung in the third person before the switch to first in the second verse, Neil is clearly the 'mindless drifter on the load', laughing at his self-pity when knowing inwardly that as a millionaire rockstar he carries 'such an easy load'. All of these disconnected images, interrupted by punctuating cries of guilt and shame, are amongst the most real moments on any Neil Young album. However it's the conclusion that thrills as Neil finally breaks away from that head-banging riff to force his guitar upright, 'Old Black' screaming in pain as he cuts against the tide of what the Horse are playing and bounces his way round the song's chords, twisting this way and that to find a way out until it falls awkwardly back onto that same riff again anyway, all that energy spent and wasted. It may be his most expressive solo ever - or at least a tie with 'Dangerbird' (even more so the version on 'Weld' performed with added dog barks, howls of pain and one of the definitive Neil solos as he channels his pain and guilt to perfection in an ear-damaging conclusion of feedback, noise and hurt - the album version just has one humming note for 90 seconds more than the song needs). This glorious song almost single-handedly rescues the reputation of this album and shows that even approaching his 40th birthday Neil was as loud, dangerous and real as any of the younger, hungrier wannabe rock-stars snapping at his heels. Ironically the album's low amount of rehearsals and simplicity really helps this song compared to the others on the album - with less 'f*!#in' Up' than usual!
'Over and Over' is a more playful song about Neil's conundrum of staying put or wandering on to pastures new. Of all the songs on this album it's the one that sounds most like a traditional Crazy Horse song, with Neil's hopeful uplifting lead pinned back against Sampedro's rather more despondent rhythm and held in place by an unrelenting rhythm section. Repetition is the watchword of the lyrics too as Neil promises to always return to the one he loves (Pegi, presumably). Neil says he 'loves the way you open up and let me in' - a possible reference not just to her opening the door after he's been away but the way she talks about her feelings and lets him back into her life even after he's strayed. Neil remembers making love with his wife or at least some significant other and figuring 'it really wasn't that long ago' (chances are it was fourteen or thereabouts if it is Pegi), before lamenting that before long 'our dreams went up in smoke'. However, Neil promises that the old feeling they used to share is back again and he won't wander anymore - at least until the next song as it turns out. A great guitar solo is full of all the gusto and loving and excitement of the lyrics and you can see why Neil wanted to use this take of the song for that reason alone, but it has to be said that even for Young the vocal is a little, erm, lopsided and very much sounds like a rehearsal take. This is all the stranger given how tight and impressively full Crazy Horse's backing vocals are, with a depth and gracefulness we haven't heard since the Danny Whitten years. Not a great song then and not a great recording, but there's still enough life in both band and material to coax a more than passable effort out of this track - though several repeats and eight minutes of it still seems a couple too many somehow. Apparently even this simple song gave the band some difficulties, mainly because it starts on the last beat in the bar - Neil, keeping his temper unlike similar problem on 'Life', bought Frank an answering machine and phoned him up with the riff so he could practice!
'Love To Burn' is another album highlight, a churning worried song with a suitable riff that sounds as if Crazy Horse are pacing up and down the bran, worrying. A Dylanesque song full of cryptic comment and semi-religious imagery, it might just be Neil's spin on fate and how it's intervened in his love life again. Neil's been out on a walk, out through 'the valley of hearts' which may just be the poetic name for where a girlfriend lives. She's not happy: he's been delaying leaving someone to be with her for too long and says that even if they take it slower, to move in a different direction you have to start. The announcement destroys Neil's narrator, via another barnstorming guitar solo full of pain and guilt and confusion, as he plays out the scenario in his mind - the repercussions, the rows in a 'house ful of broken windows', the hurt exes, the thought of being denied access to his children. Neil 'knows' that his new lover is right - he's got love to burn that's just too much for his missus and that he knows how love works after years of practice: he has to give into it, let down his guard and go qwith what his heart is telling him. And yet all that pain is too much for him and even while Neil imagines his wife (or next best guess) yelling at him 'why'd you ruin my life?!' he still imagines the pair crying into each other's arms and looking for protection, asking each other 'how did it come to this?' By the end of the song Neil is so split in two his solos are positively schizophrenic, falling with relief onto a slow humming safe note that offers a brief respite before feelings suddenly charge up within him again and leave him to howl with guttural anxiety and distress. Crazy Horse, meanwhile, do what they do best and simply nail the beat, trapping the narrator in a prison of his own making he can't escape from no matter how hard he tries. The very end of the song finds us right back at the beginning with a straight repeat of the first verse and a final conclusion, mid-note almost, as Neil still struggles with his conscience. A memorable ten minutes full of some fine solo-ing, although the version on 'Weld' with Neil even more on the edge is the one to hear - this studio version is merely very very good. Something tells me as well that the extended feedback-drenched finale on the studio version is here simply so the Horse can make the ten minute running time to the second (back in 1990, when CDs were still fairly new and rumours were rife and songs were short, there were still people who said your CD player would explode if it went past 9:59; thankfully, as an owner of 'Live/Dead' where almost all the album runs past ten minutes, I knew mine would be safe...)
Over on side two 'Farmer John' offers light-yet-noisy relief. Something of a grunge classic, this simple song based on two chords was one of the first Neil ever wrote and was in the setlist of his school-band The Squires for years. It's a cute song full of teenage lust and love, a big hit for double-act Don and Dewey in 1959 and usually sung at a fast, breathless tempo of excitement (that's what happens on fellow AAA album 'Meet The Searchers' back when the song was brand new). I love the original and most covers of this song (it helps that I did once go out with a farmer's daughter who very much had champagne eyes if anyone did, though I never found out what her dad was called). But this version is a mess: slowed down to the point of stupidity so that a riff that once resembled excitement and freedom now sounds like a man being bludgeoned to death with a cricket bat repeatedly (so, a little like listening to 'Landing On Water' then). The Horse are having fun and Sampedro especially is having a whale of a time repeating every last 'wo-o-o-o-ah' until it starts becoming a hypnotic cry. But what should be a light and fluffy song now sounds creepy as hell and after four slow repetitive minutes even this clever riff can't stand up to the assault. The original is a teenager experiencing love for the first time and being brave yet cocky enough to ask her father for her hand in marriage already, clearly way before he knows her or her family well enough; this version sounds like the only way Farmer John is ever going to see his daughter again is in a bodybag. There are a few other Young songs that mine this seedier aspect of his work too - and all of them are bad, with this cover right up there with 'Bite The Bullet' ('I love to hear her scream!'), 'Motorycle Mama' and 'Dirty Old Men' as probably a bad idea best left to more misogynistic groups like The Rolling Stones who we are at least used to sounding like this.
'Mansion On The Hill' is, by contrast, the most 'together' recording on the album and an obvious candidate for first album single (though it flopped, as did an edit of 'Over and Over'). This song is a very 1960s piece, with its allusions to a utopia full of peace and love living on in a building even though it had died out in most every other corner of the world. The melody even sounds 1960s-ish, as if lots of Bob Dylan songs have been stuck together (this song has the metre of 'Lay Lady Lay' with the lyrics of 'Blowing In The Wind' and the riff from 'My Back Pages' in there among others). However, true to form, this isn't just some nostalgic fest from a hippie going back to Woodstock for a while - it's been hinted at in interviews and assumed by some reviewers that Neil was writing about the Charles Manson murders here and that this song is a sequel, of sorts, to 'Revolution Blues'. That's not always evident in the lyrics though (the plot runs as follows: Neil meets an 'old man' who looks like him, recalling his own song from 1972 and remembers his 'wild eyes', while the road to peace and love takes a wrong turning 'around the next bend'). Given what Neil said in 'Revolution Blues' where he clearly connected with something dark in Manson's hippie hating pysche though, it could be about Charlie again, who was of course known to Neil through his friendship with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Or it could just be about CSNY again, with the trio still trapped in a house listening to songs about love and peace even though they've lost a connection with how the outside world has moved on while Neil walks down the rocky path leading away from the house. Either way 'Mansion On The Hill' is certainly one of the more memorable songs on 'Ragged Glory' and the performance is as tight as Crazy Horse could ever sound without losing their characteristic touches (as they do on parts of 'Life'), but 'Downtown' is a later, better song based on what it means to be the only person still attending a hippie party after everyone else has left and with just two verses and a slightly irritating chorus this is the one song on 'Ragged Glory' that runs under, not over, it's natural running time.
'The Days That Used To Be' is said by Neil himself to be ripped off wholesale from Dylan's 'My Back Pages', but actually it sounds less like that song than 'Mansion' once the guitar riff moves on and Neil's vocal line goes in a different direction. It's not one of his more original songs though even though once more Crazy Horse make the most out of the song by playing tight yet loose and Neil's angry vocal is a treat. For an album that so many youngsters greeted as being 'one of their own', it's interesting to note just what this lyric's say - that Neil can only identify with his peer group and feels alienated from the young who seem to be speaking a different language. Neil's generation followed their own dreams, stood up to authority when they knew it was wrong and laughed at their elders taking money, but time has worn hippie principles down and suddenly even the people Neil believed in and rubbed shoulders with are selling out for money and fame. Latching onto the fact that all his friends are buying posh cars (Neil kept all his past breaking point and beyond - see 'Fork In The Road'!), Neil asks in a clever metaphor if the posh automobile they've bought is really taking them to where they want to go. However there's not much else going on in this song - no resolution, no solution, not even any particularly real burning sense of injustice, just a weary shrug of the shoulders as Neil moans ultimately ineffectively. However if all Neil's average material was played with as much raw polish as Crazy Horse offer up here that would be fine by me and if ever a recording rescued a song then it's this one, with Neil's lost little boy lead and Crazy Horse's pretty spiffing harmonies which offer some small comfort of unity in a world that's not the way it used to be anymore.
'Love and Only Love' is the longest song on the album, pushing past ten minutes by a full eighteen seconds. Like other long sister song 'Love To Burn' but in reverse, it's a hymn to love and it's healing powers and how it can last long past the point when other things in life break. It's almost a biblical epic this one, starting with 'the book of ages' and featuring more lengthy solos than any other Young song till 'Change Your Mind' in a couple of album's time. This time the mood is buoyant, as in one of Neil's more charming metaphors he compares two lovers meeting each other, hungry for each other's warmth, as a 'little girl who couldn't wait', an impatient toddler wanting attention now. Then there's the line 'tomorrow is a long time - if you're a memory'. Don't know what it means, but it's clearly part of a lyric that's been put together with more care than a lot of this album. Some of Neil's solos too are incredible even for this album, alternating between hope, despair and, well, ragged glory to coin a phrase (though again the performance on 'Weld' is still more lively yet) and Sampedro's nagging rhythm is the perfect counterpoint to Neil's howling lead. What this song lacks, though, is a narrative as involving as the one on 'Love To Burn' or that song's same emotional commitment. After two such promising verses you wait in vain after a lengthy (but enjoyable) guitar solo for Neil to cut back in with a killer verse that's going to absolutely nail the song and make sense of this age-old tale of love and its ability to heal, but no - we just get the first verse repeated again (and despite the ten minute running time this song only has two!) Still, this is one of the few songs on the album I wouldn't cut down at all, with some excellent telepathic interplay between the players and enough variety to make this perhaps the most enjoyable ten minute burst on the record.
The album ends with a 'sermon', though, as 'Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)' reminds us all of our responsibility to our planet as passengers upon her. The song is 'faked' up to sound live (you can hear this song's first genuine live version on this year's live record 'Earth' if you wanted to but I wouldn't bother - The Promise Of The Real have a hard time playing the simple Crazy Horse tunes despite their, well, promise on their own recordings) thanks to some sound effects and cheers. It's a shame that Crazy Horse's harmonies have given up the ghost here, just when there's so much emphasis on them, while Neil's feedback-drenched guitar riffs sound a little too much like Jimi Hendrix celebrating/sneering at the American national anthem for comfort. It's all a little underwhelming given the gravitas of the song and a little too out of tune for most ears though Neil's poetic words are heartfelt. The most CSN-style lyrics Neil had written in a very long time (what a shame this song wasn't on 'American Dream' instead of the ones Neil did write!), it finds Neil in full 'pagan' mood (his religion of choice according to his autobiography), praising the sun as 'the goddess of light' and apologising for how humanity is treating the world, whose fate rests 'in their changing hands'. The conclusion is as stark and serious as any Young song: 'respect mother Earth and her healing ways - or trade away our children's days'. Unfortunately, while the message is to be respected, the messenger sounds more like a sour school teacher than anything else and the sing-songy melody (so clearly written to be a right-on anthem) isn't one of Neil's best. It's all a bit of a downer - for all sorts of reasons.
'Ragged Glory' is a bit of a mixed blessing then - probably as mixed as any of the ill-received albums Neil put out with Geffen in the 1980s. The difference is, though, that this record sounds so much better than some of the others: the Horse are ploughing their own furrow - as it were - and Neil sounds more inspired than tired compared to late, even if some of the songs could be better and (if you take the feedback and endless solos out) longer. Reviewing albums is a funny old business: if this record had died a death and no one had bought it I'd be scratching my head trying to work out why and telling you all to go out and buy a copy because, while it isn't even close to being Neil's best work, there's more good than bad here and some nice performances of occasionally average material while only the ill-fitting cover song is truly wretched. Instead I'm left equally scratching my head over why this, of all of Neil's average albums, should be loved quite so much as it is and why it helped re-ignite Neil's critical standing in a way that a superior but poorer selling album like 'Freedom' didn't. This album is no masterpiece, but there are parts of it that are - which puts this album on a par with 'Psychedelic Pill' and 'Life' as the rather-good-but-not-great second tier of Young albums made with Crazy Horsepower, somewhere beneath 'Everybody Knows' Zuma' 'Rust Never Sleeps' and 'Sleeps With Angels' (but not anything like as low as 'Greendale'). If you love the band then you'll quite like this record; if you hate the band then this album won't do much to change your mind. Talking of which, the Horse will be back in only a couple of albums' time - just long enough for Neil to 'change his mind' about his style yet again...