Monday, 10 April 2017
Neil Young and Booker T and the MGs "Are You Passionate?" (2002)
You're My Girl/Mr Disappointment/Differently/Quit (Don't Say You Love Me)/Let's Roll/Are You Passionate?/Goin' Home/When I Hold You In My Arms/Be With You/Two Old Friends/She's A Healer
'Wish you'd told me, by and by, that life would come to this'
How wonderful this album sounded when it was announced, dear readers, especially after half a decade of relative mediocrity. Neil is one of the most soulful performers out there and yet he never actually made a soul album during his 1980s 'experimental' period despite the fact it 'felt' like the genre that would suit him best - better than roackabilly, country and heavy metal anyway (the bluesy 'This Note's For You' was about the closest). Neil also chose to use as his collaborators one of the greatest backing bands of all time (barring Crazy Horse of course): Booker T and The MGs, who had spent the past thirty-four years searching for a frontman with the charisma, following and talent of the too-long-missed Otis Redding. The group really bonded too during several late 1990s tours (as with so many things Neil the bootlegs of the two together sound great!) After years of sloppy rockers and twee pop it seemed as if the Neil muse was back! Just look at that oh so Neil title - passion is surely the word and those years of 'Daddy Went Walking hey now hey now' and 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?' taped at the back of a nightclub on anachronistic equipment seemed like a test to get fans to this stage. Throw in a writer who actually had things to get off his chest for a change and surely, surely, this was going to be the big Neil Young comeback of all time?
Well no. Well, not quite. You see that title isn't a statement, but more of a question. Neil should be passionate - some of his songs are his most autobiographical in a decade since 'Harvest Moon' - and some of the tracks here show promise but, blimey, by Neil's high standards this album has about as much passion as The Spice Girls at a political rally. Almost all of these eleven songs are deadly slow, almost all of them are decidedly sad and almost all of them sound like they were taped during rehearsals, not even first takes anymore. While not as unlistenable as successor 'Greendale', this set is in many ways more disappointing because a soap opera about ecologists and policemen never sounded like it was going to be that good (even with Crazy Horse back full-time) - 'Are You Passionate?' sounds like the album that got away. It's hard, too, to know quite why this album goes wrong. The songs aren't bad as a whole, just similar and poorly defined. That's sometimes a plus in Neil's songbook (where would the likes of 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' be if they'd been recorded in anything more than a week?) but this is the wrong album to try that sort of thing out on - and The MGs (which stands for 'Memphis Group' by the way, not 'Mountain Gorillas' as some sites out there will tell you) aren't the kind of band who work quick. They're not 'Crazy Horse' who turn up drunk to the exams and blag their way through them, they're - umm - 'Intelligent Ponies' who do their homework drill themselves well enough to know a song backwards, forwards and sideways so they can afford to groove their way around it. What's more they excel when giving a superb extrovert frontman the space to come alive - but here both Neil and the MGs keep pointing at the other half of the team as if sitting in the shadows and waiting for them to strut and do their stuff which never comes. A non-backing band for a perform who doesn't feel like performing - no wonder this album has problems. At no point in this album do this brilliant band ever sound like they quite know what they're doing - and if you're shouting at me that the exception is clearly 'Goin' Home' (the one recording here that's truly alive and glowing) then the bad news is that actually this song is a Crazy Horse leftover from another batch of sessions entirely and the fact this ground suits the Horse so much better rather says it all. Not that this album is the fault of Booker T, Steve Potts and a sadly ailing Donald 'Duck' Dunn (these are his last recordings) either: Neil sounds less like the class swot bringing his crew to glory as a chancer crossing his fingers and hoping for the best. Even 'Mirrorball' never sounded quite this slapdash or out of control and what with the lack of other key Young players (David Briggs has sadly died, Ben Keith isn't here oddly) this album more than any other in the Neil canon sounds as if it needs one.
That said, 'Passionate' is an album that's aged better and makes more sense now that we realise what exactly was going on in Neil's life when he wrote it (and how out of control he felt, suggesting that the style of this CD was at least partly deliberate). Most fans know about Neil's relationship with activist-actress Darryl Hannah now that the pair are officially an item, but few realise quite how far back their relationship goes - arguably a lot further than this although the timeline is a little murky. 'Passionate', though, is where Neil can't ignore his double life in music anymore and has to come to terms with whether he's going to stay loyal to Pegi (his third wife, married in 1978) or embrace the new. Things are further complicated by the fact that his youngest, daughter Amber Jean, is now old enough to leave home to go to university, something that seems to have caught her dad by surprise and he completely isn't ready for and a theme that will dominate this album and the next (the youngest Young is clearly the model for 'Sun Green' on the next record). The upshot of all this emotional turmoil is that we get an album of 'breakup' songs from the heart, where Neil screws up the courage to admit all to his wife (who clearly knows everything if her own rather good albums from this period are anything to be going by), admit he's sorry, beg for forgiveness and say goodbye. Only the twist is that Neil never went through with it all. He'll stay put through another decade and more of marriage and suddenly backtrack on the more personal, confessional style he uses here (hence the next run of albums which are more character and politics and even car-driven, with the exception of the 'gee I nearly died' album 'Prairie Wind'). So what does Neil do to cover his tracks? He tries to make this album go away, first by treating it as if it's just another of his vague experiments and hiring the backing band that 'should' by rights be playing on a generic Geffen-style soul album and then by recording it in a slapdash feel and then by pretty much ignoring it upon release. What was being talked about, between us fans, as a potential masterpiece from early hints and reports thus ended up having the rug pulled from underneath it with impressive haste.
If ever there was a Neil Young album that was ripe for re-recording though...well it would be 'Trans' to be honest, just to hear how even more emotional Neil's 'last' true family album might sound with warmer and less 1980s technology. This album is a close second though: given another few weeks of rehearsals, a bit more use of the editing scissors and less tacky packaging all round (Seriously? A rose and a photograph of pre-war lovers? It's as if Neil wants us to think this is a Mills and Boon style romance and nothing to do with him at all!) and there's a good album in here somewhere. The bad news is you really really really have to dig for it. Usually when we say something like that in the Young canon we add the caveat 'but at least there's...' but the problem with 'Passionate' is that every track gets a bit messed up along the way and nothing really stands out. There are however little bits that do and the best of this album always comes back to that title? Are you passionate Mr Young? Because when you are the album grows in stature - and wen you aren't it just sounds wretched. 'Mr Disappointment' is the closest and that's despite (perhaps because?) it tries so hard to, well, disappoint us. Neil murmurs in a gruff husky spoken word vocal most of the way through, his guitar sticks to a primitive whine and the throbbing backing takes 'primitive' to new levels. But suddenly Neil sounds like he means it, passionate at last. 'Quit' sounds like someone being strangled rather than a popular singer-songwriter, but at least Neil sounds like he's singing from the heart again rather than playing at a role. Neil suddenly remembers he's meant to be writing a full soul experience and throws in the Motownish 'Be With You', a song that tried hard to hide the fact that it might well be the most open and vulnerable song here despite the catchy surroundings. That's about it though: there's a point, generally, a couple of minutes into the nine-long closer 'She's A Healer' where many Young fans gave up the ghost forever, realising that what could have been a stunning slow-burning closer is just going to stick to the same groove until the end of time (or an uncomfortable and unlikely fade as it happens). Few fans can stomach the saccharine of the songs about Amber Jean ('You're My Girl'), Darryl ('When I Hold You In My Arms') and an unusually reverent Bible story ('Two Old Friends') without feeling a little bit sick. This isn't passion, this is merely saccharine, of the artificial sweetener variety that sounds particularly wrong coming from one of the most 'real' white singer-songwriters backed by one of the most 'real' mixed-race backing bands out there.
If there's a theme to wake Neil up from his enforced slumber then 9/11 should be it. Neil's tribute song 'Let's Roll' was big news at the time - the first 'real' response any major songwriter had made to that world-changing morning of devastation and chaos. Neil understood the major sea change of world politics better than most, choosing the tribute ceremony not to plug a new song or even an old one but to perform a shaky cover of John Lennon's 'Imagine' with all the passion of someone whose been told their family have seconds to live. The lyrics to 'Let's Roll' certainly sound like the tribute and comfort people needed desperately back then - 'You got to turn on evil when it's coming after you!' sounds like the pained cry of the man whose stood up to Nixon (on 'Ohio') and will stand up to Bush Jnr (on 'Living With War') and if you read it then this tale of passengers knowingly sacrificing their own lives on United 93 to keep other loved ones safe is as moving and passionate as they come, the cue to start their counter-attack treated like a mantra for a nation under attack and a world under threat. But if you hear it then this is just another mumbled slowish ballad where nothing happens - there's no sense of a changing world here or impending doom or a disaster that can only be diverted by courage and wisdom and knowing when to act; instead it's a song in search of an escape clause and one where the tagline 'Time is running out!' comes over much more loudly and clearly than any of the stuff about standing up to evil and doing everything you can to make peace win. Neil is perhaps the greatest AAA example of a writer who so often lets his best stuff get away from him thanks to low-key arrangements and lackadaisical recordings - 'Passionate' is perhaps the biggest example of this in his catalogue and 'Let's Roll' the biggest example of this on the album.
The one song that does briefly keep the homefires burnin' comes from a different project altogether. To date 'Goin' Home' is the only officially released song from an entire double-CD Crazy Horse recorded during 2001 and nicknamed 'Toast'. To date none of the rest of this set has ever surfaced - even on bootleg, weirdly - and none of the other songs were ever performed live. On the evidence of this one song that's a tragedy: Neil's first ever song actually about American Indians and their troubled heritage (despite being 'linked' to them spiritually as long ago as The Buffalo Springfield days - though to be fair Neil was probably just trying to be the opposite of Stephen Stills' 'cowboy'!) is the strongest song here, given the added boost of perfect casting for once as Crazy Horse ape their namesake and charge like never before. Even this song sounds like less than it might have been though, pulling up short after the band get a little lost during a lengthy finale as if they were going to back later and nail another take that never quite happened. However the rest of this intriguing sounding album is actually rather different: a 'new age' album no less, similar to the 2016 sort-of live album 'Earth' with lots of sound effects, ecological themes and not much happening for long periods. On past evidence of similar out-there Young albums it could have been the best thing in his career - or an even lower point than 'Passionate'. We'll let you know for sure if it ever comes out as part of Neil's 'Archives' collection, though by our reckoning it won't be on anything until at least volume six - and by that time that's out I'll be 103.
That's not the only 'mystery' surrounding this album. Check out the back cover where Neil has scrawled the song names with his big capital letters handwriting and has set them out as the running order; only he hasn't. This fictional version of the album starts not with the familiar (recycled?) chug of 'You're My Girl' but the shlock of 'When I Hold You In My Arms' (hardly the most obvious of opening tracks) and ends with the anger of 'Quit' (weird as it is, that's still a more suitable album closer than 'She's A Healer', although moved to second on this alternate album it would have had fans running for the hills a lot quicker). And then there's a completely unknown track listed eighth: 'Gateway Of Love'. A rather good turbulent rocker that fits the album themes of Neil plucking up the courage to end his marriage ('I tried to find the perfect time to say some things to you filled with meaning and with truth') it would have been in the top quarter of this album easily had it been released. So why wasn't it? *Sigh* This isn't the first Neil Young offcut that sounds better than most of the album but even by Neil standards the difference between the impressiveness of the outtake and the turgid average of the album is pretty darn big. And why tease us with this song by keeping it on the packaging? (Even I could have photo-shopped the post-it note out for free had Neil decided not to use it - to be fair 'free' is roughly how much the rest of the packaging cost too by the looks of things).
Overall, then, 'Are You Passionate?' is meant to be, titlewise, an update on Jimi Hendrix's 'Are You Experienced?' Only it isn't: instead of a knowing chuckle from the 'hip' we're left wondering again whether Neil's playing games with us and the bits of passion we see on this album are fleeting or whether we're meant to simply view this as a late-period addition to the stylistic adventures of the Geffen years. In truth it's a little of both: Neil is passionate, but he's hiding almost all evidence of it (bar an 'old' Crazy Horse track, a few bits and pieces here and there and the album title), not ready yet to deal with the repercussions such a massive split in his life would bring for another twelve years yet. Anyone who considered 2014's 'Storytone' to be too emotional are better off looking here as these are effectively the same albums- apologetic in tone and weary with lies and suffering - but with very different outcomes. Neil isn't quite brave enough to make the break here and downplays every sign of autobiography in this album - he may tell Mr Disappointment that this time is 'the last', but actually the delay in Neil's personal life means that this is like a rehearsal for something he wasn't quite brave enough to try. It's a breakup record with a difference (Pegi even sings on it!), the difference being that the breakup didn't actually happen so this album got re-cast as a so-so soul record instead. One wonders if Booker T and co even knew just how 'real' this record was (or if their early rehearsals were being taped for release, as - soul perfectionists that they are - they seem unlikely to have approved of quite this many rough edges). As all good fans know, Neil's rehearsals are often better than the real things - but not here, not this time, as the emotion in these songs is hidden under so many layers of Young indifference and the backing band barely have a clue what's going on. This isn't soul, this is a sell-out and once again a promising Neil Young album from the 21st century turns out to be barely average. I'd like to shake your hand Mr Disappointment, looks like you win again - and I was so looking forward to hearing one of the most passionate performers of his corner of the globe backed by one of the most passionate bands of theirs on an album all about passion!
Opening cut 'You're My Girl' is one of those occasional Neil Young songs you long for someone to cover as there's a good song in there somewhere but it's not here: there's more use of the MGs than anywhere else on the album but the backing they provide is basic and they even struggle at that, while Neil's vocal is squeaky even for him and the musical equivalent of fingers on a blackboard (or at least the closest we get to this in the AAA canon - all Spice Girls songs sound like this, obviously). Even this song's basic riff is recycled, though and the most blatant steal since 'Borrowed Tune' from 'The Rolling Stones'. This time its a dead steal from 'Time Is Tight', an MGs song from 1969 which has way more life to it than this one I can tell you. Clearly many of the people buying this record are going to be MGs fans so they're going to spot it straight away - but as so often happens with Neil perhaps that's the point? The original is an urgent rocker about needing to say 'I love you' to someone because time is passing by too quickly. This remake is a less urgent rocker about needing to say 'I love you' to your little girl because she's growing up too fast - Neil probably assumed we'd all see the link anyway. Taken on their own terms these lyrics are rather sweet: Neil takes his daughter out to a nervy forest for some last minute dad-daughter bonding before she'd off to face the big bad world alone and pleads with her 'don't tell me you're leaving me just yet!' as if it's all come as a big shock and he still thinks of his daughter as an overgrown toddler. There are some nice lyric touches here, the pair 'finding faith in the forest floor' and looking for signs that everything is going to be Ok which seem to be everywhere on this gloriously sunny day which means neither can be sad for very long. Neil is a proud daughter and knows that actually, secretly, she's far more ready to face the world without him than he is to face it without her and there's an intriguing combination of that restless urgent riff pulling at Neil's slowed-down melody that sounds nicely like a child tugging at their parent's apron strings that could have really worked. Only it doesn't: no one in the room, Neil included, quite knows what they're doing and poor Frank Sampedro sounds even more lost, scratching away at the most basic of chords even though Booker T's gliding organ is doing that job pretty darn well already. Like much of this review to come it's a case of nice song, hideous recording.
The sizzle of 'Mr Disappointment' is the closest the Booker T tracks come to a highlight, being the one song here that manages to be both heartfelt and 'soulful' (Neil seems to have a strange amount of trouble trying to do both together across this album). His opening peal of notes from 'Old Black' are some of his best, hurt and howling but self-contained - the kind of anger that comes from quiet brooding and a mega guilt-trip rather than tearing up furniture. Unable to quite face his angry yet Neil practices delivering his 'farewell' speech not to her but to 'Mr Disappointment', a figure who stalks him throughout his life and who 'wins again' despite Neil's best attempts to do better. Now that we know what was 'really' going on in this period this may well be the most revealing Young lyric of the 21st century so far: Neil's sorry, guilty, hurt, confused. He's angry that the feelings he once had with his wife are gone, guilty that he's played a part in their disappearance and desperate to get her back at any cost. Neil's going through all five stages of grieving simultaneously and he's desperately confused (so at least this time the backing band can be forgiven for sounding a little lost) but ultimately ends up at acceptance, that 'this time may be the last' (it isn't, as it happens, but that's how it sounds here). Most of the song stays here, crawling out of its spoken-sung hoarse whisper only for an off-key falsetto whine in the chorus, but there's a sudden moment of hope in the finale. 'I'm savin' the best for last' mumbles Neil and he's right as this famously reclusive and obtuse figure opens up his heart like rarely before, praising 'the beauty of loving you' and remembering 'what we've both been through'. Neil realises that he's been waiting for an intervention for too long and that only 'Mr Disappointment' is there to stalk him and he's no good so if he has to save this marriage he has to do it himself by putting his feelings on the line. It's a scary moment, for him and us, as he struggles to keep his feelings in check and stay in tune and doesn't quite manage either. Still, at least this moment feels 'real' in a way that the rest of the album comes across as a little bit contrived and the result is perhaps the single best use of the soul idiom on the album -even though, typically, it's muted and low-key and pretty much the opposite of every soul song known to man. 'Mr Disappointment' still sounds like a weird addition to the 'Mr Men' series however!
'Differently' is the closest to what fans (well, me anyway) were expecting from this album: noisy anthemic guitar-work and block chorus choirs over the top of a simple, slinky organ groove. It's not so much 'differently', then, as much as 'the same' - especially as it still comes out of the MGs oven still sounding 100% a Neil Young song. Lyrically, though, this is another of this album's break aways from Neil's character and imagery based songs to be a bit more honest and vulnerable. Perhaps following on from the last track, this is Neil once again trying to put his marriage right. Asking his missus what he would have to do to save their marriage he gets a long list that sounds like it would when they were first courting: he has to ask her out 'every night', make his loved one 'feel so good' and 'appreciate the things you bring to me, baby!' In a nutshell everything both sides should have been doing since day one but become so easily overlooked due to familiarity and time. The clue that this is more than just a generic love song comes in the middle eight when Neil recalls his wife telling him their 'little girl would soon be gone' and his realisation that her intuition works better than his because he was clueless. The end verdict: the couple's love is as real as it was before they had children, but somehow its turned out 'differently' with age while Neil worries that his decision to do things the old way might be 'too late' to save the marriage the way he wants. Neil is gamely trying though, a bit of fortune-telling in the first verse worrying about what might happen if he goes through with divorce and running off with a new girlfriend: 'my friends would turn to foes and my love would turn to blows'. Which is, more or less, what happens in 2014 with David Crosby particularly outspoken over his old pal's defection. Sadly for all this lyric's heartfelt emotion, none of that really comes over in the recording which is scrappy and indifferent even by this album's standards. How great this track might have been had the performed it, well, 'differently'?
'Quit (Don't Say You Love Me)' is a lesser take on the same theme but delivered with much more, well, passion compared to the rest of 'Are You Passionate?' After a long sleepy guitar opening, with a real hum on 'Old Black', Sampedro much happier on choppy second guitar and Pegi appearing effectively as herself in the backing vocals, all the ingredients for another great confessional are here and nearly come together. Neil recalls what happened when he tried to save his marriage and his wife's cold and callous response of 'don't say you love me!' which stops him in his tracks. So Neil opens his heart even more, pleading for her to take him back, admitting all the guilt this time and pleading with her 'don't count me out, I've still got a lot to give - stick around and find out!' Neil's gushy vocal is somewhere between heartfelt and ha-ha-ing throughout, which in retrospect was exactly what it needed to be back in the days when 'Are You Passionate?' was just another genre experiment rather than a bleeding open heart. However he's upstaged completely by Pegi's 'wait till I get you home' disdain, which slowly turns little bit by little bit to heartfelt emotion ('Don't say you love me' turning into 'Just say you want me' by Chinese whispers line by line) the more Neil's cries become more and more generic. The result is one of the simplest and most basic songs on the album - and yet given all the emotional drama involved one of the cleverest in summing Neil's situation up and not necessarily painting him as the 'good guy' in this marriage. It's also the best example of Neil emoting soulfully and passionately in the Otis Redding-like way we were all hoping for, even if typically this arrangement doesn't quite come out like that (Otis' breakup songs from towards the end were some of his best, though most fans tend to remember the in-love ones from the early days of his marriage to Zelda).
Suddenly Neil's lovelife doesn't seem to important anyway because suddenly 'Let's Roll' is moving on with energy and certainty, something this album is desperately lacking, with its tale of bravery and courage in the face of the odds. Although 9/11 was all of seven months old when this album was released, Neil already treats the actions of the passengers on Flight 93 (the third plane that crashed into the ground and may have been aimed at The White House) as a modern-day story of heroes and life-changing importance to go alongside 'Cortez The Killer' and 'Ohio'. The title is taken from the words given by passenger Todd Beamer as his signal to the passengers to force their way into the terrorist-controlled flight-room as heard by a mobile-phone call relayed to airport security on the ground and it's a surprise that it wasn't used in more books/films/paintings/songs given that it's effectively the modern day world's equivalent of the Alamo's 'Geronimo!' or the wild west's variation on the 'Computer Cowboy' style cry 'Come-a-ki-ki-yippie-yi-aye!', summing up the times like little else. Though the passengers probably had survival rather than the weight of history on their shoulders, Neil seizes on how the wider world has to take up this rallying cry for their own. 'You've got turn on evil when it's coming after you...you gotta go in after it and never be denied!' howls Neil, adapting his own past autobiographical lyric for use in a wider world combating hatred. Sadly that's where this song falls apart. Until now the song has been busking away nicely, grooving under the best riff on the album and one the MGs are as suited to as Neil and the moment the contained, controlled song peaks in falsetto emotion the first time is thrilling. But the song has no other way out: it's stuck in this groove for the rest of the song and its with a sense of foreboding you slowly realise that Neil's done it to us again and we're going to have to sit through six whole minutes of this stuff. 'Time is running out!' screams the lyric, but the melody and recording sound as if they're inexplicably linked to their doom, on a path that can't be changed. You also have to say that for such a momentous song (recording as quickly as Neil does, this was easily the first 'big' statement about 9/11 by an established musician) this also sounds pretty feeble. The world needed comforting and answers and peace - instead we got lines like 'no one has the answer', 'we gotta make a move' and 'we gotta get inside there before they kill some more', which is more like a graphic novel than an artistic statement. It would also be hard to forgive the line 'We're going after Satan on the wings of a dove' in 1967 never mind thirty-five trouble-filled years later. This isn't the sort of subject matter that can be told with facts, because the scenario is bigger than that and it's also not the kind of place to shrug your shoulders and say 'yeah, evil happens' because back in 2002 it seemed apocalyptic. Our songwriters don't owe much to us but they do owe us comfort and understanding at times like these and instead 'Let's Roll' is a curiously unlikeable song, by turns spot-on and poignant (I love the closing 'let's not let our children grow up fearful in their youth' - exactly what happened I fear), at other times ugly and clunky, like the first draft by a first-time songwriter ('I hope someone can fly this thing - and bring us back to land!') with each roll of the dice. Half great, half ghastly, 'Let's Roll' might not share anything else with the rest of this album of more personal breakup songs, but it does share the album's slightly stodgy, unevenly cooked feeling that leaves you a little bit queasy.
Title track 'Are You Passionate?' returns us to more familiar romantic ground but much like 'Let's Roll' it's actually a far weirder song than its often considered to be. Neil asks us (or a lover or maybe himself?) a series of rhetorical questions that seem to relate back to the question of 'rust' from 1979. he's angry that we (she? he?) are becoming complacent in old age, taking things for granted instead of feeling the passion. 'Are you living like you talk?' he urges, 'Can you never get enough of it?' I would normally say he 'snarls' or 'howls' but even for this album Neil's performance is on the sleepy side and instead he drift-sleeps through the song on automatic pilot, clearly not feeling very passionate at all. Neil's not going to get his lovelife back on track sounding like this now is he? (Or is that the point - is he stuck in a rust-covered rut?) As if that wasn't weird enough the second half of the song finds Neil coming as close to rewriting David Crosby's 'Deja Vu' as he ever has, dreaming of a past life in which he was a 'soldier fighting in the sky', an air pilot sending missiles out into the 'darkness' and presumably ending his days in a dramatic fiery death. Next he's a prisoner, 'cleaned up for display', perhaps waiting for the guillotine as he puts on a show and demonstrates to the haughty onlookers why he had to stand up for justice the way that he did, even if it led to his death. No more explanation is given and the song just ends but is the hint here that Neil wants to go out in a blaze of glory but can't? We're back to the twin pulls of 'Hey Hey My My' and 'Sleeps With Angels' again: much as Neil knows that its 'better to burn out than it is to rust' he also knows that to go before your time is up and before you've experienced everything of life (including the parts that get better) is a tragedy. He wants to go for a 'cause' and there are none to be found, so instead he idly watches his life slip by, becoming old and repetitive and releasing albums like this one by clockwork rather than inspiration and watching his marriage fall apart. In context, then, Neil should sound lost and feeble on this track but out of all the songs on this album it's this one the bland and slow performance let's down the most and what should have been a spooky and surreal song in the 'Sleeps With Angels' mould comes over as just another torturous Neil Young ballad where nothing very much happens. I get why Neil did that, but it's still a waste of a good song - a track that's at heart a call to arms to his fanbase to be passionate and make the most of their lives should, after all, reflect a little of that passion too.
Talking about passion, 'Goin' Home' is where the pieces finally slot into place (at least until the unconvincing ending). Neil's on much firmer ground all round, singing his first song about the American Indians since the oddball 'Pocahontas' and backed by the primitive primal fire of 'Crazy Horse' on a song that's a much better fit for the band than most things they get to do (including this album's wretched sequel 'Greendale'). Even though Neil is singing as an onlooker and observer rather than participant this time, he sounds distinctly 'passionate' on this one, his guitar and vocal roaring with all the weight and power of classics of old and his between-verse solos are mesmerising and hypnotic. 'Home' is a double-edged sword in this track, with the Indians routed by General Custer in the first verse and left essentially homeless. A second verse has Neil 'droppin' in' on a friend whose secretly described as 'slime' and made to sign some contract: 'You'd think it was easy to sign your life away' Neil sighs. A third verse then mixes modern-day and history: a prisoner hangs up her one daily call home and walks from cell to cell perhaps searching for somewhere to remind her of where she's just called. Next we're in the middle of the action, trapped on a wooden bridge with a 'thousand warriors' and 'battle drums pounding', the scene pulling back to reveal this to be a 'story' played out over the radio to a woman in a car. Or is it? For a minute there she's right at the heart of the action, 'her clothes changing' as she slowly realises that 'her' home used to belong to a tribe who lost it in the name of greed, colonialisation and avarice. Throughout all these verses are linked by the pained cry 'I'm going home!' - the one place that's 'safe' (or is meant to be), that's 'ours' and belongs to 'us'. This 'Broken Arrow' collage style is an intriguing one for Neil to return to after a thirty-five year gap (another song linked by Indian imagery, of course, despite the modern-day setting of most of the verses) but it works - mainly because the backing sounds just like every other Crazy Horse rocker (but better than average, with a thoughtful riff that has plenty of scope for improvising!) My guess is that Neil is again contemplating his future without his wife - which is why Neil perhaps chose to recycle this song on album where otherwise it doesn't fit (and if the rest of 'Toast' is as good as this then I can't wait to hear it - it would also be typically Neil not to release the best tracks from one of his unreleased LPs after all...) In leaving his marriage in 2014 Neil also left his ranch/home behind - the one he named 'Broken Arrow' after one of the songs that helped pay for it. Perhaps imagining a time when he'd be as homeless as the Indians, something came through his subconscious here and infused the surreal imagery that clearly means a lot to Neil given that he sings with all the passion and commitment we've come to expect from him (but which is a rarity on this album). Note too the references to a heavy wind that the characters all 'feel', which is the closest we've yet come to a 'Like A Hurricane' sequel. The result is a song that's terrific and easily the best on the album - but is itself not without its problems. Like many a Crazy Horse jam there just isn't enough material here to sustain nine minutes and the band are clearly getting tired by the end, slowing down a lot. Much of the last three minutes is just the band recycling the riff and running out of steam, the Horse uncharacteristically falling apart and coming to an ungainly standstill by the end which most groups would have faded or cut. Still, forget the dismount, this is Crazy Horse sounding the best they will in all the years between 1994 and 2012 and it's great to have them back. Of all the bands Neil returns to, this recording is a good example why this one, out of all of them, most feels like 'home'.
'When I Hold You In My Arms' was always going to be the album's weakest, clunkiest, most clichéd song with its walking bass, slow tempo and meandering soul-style lyrics. Heard after the roar of 'Goin' Home' it sounds ten times worse and the two songs don't fit together at all. For the most part this is an ugly song about how love makes Neil feels better - but whether he's singing that to his old faithful wife or his new romantic sparring partner is, perhaps wisely, left unsaid. There are, at least, a couple of things that make this a tiny bit more palatable than, say, anything off 'Greendale'. One is the second half of the lyric which seems to guess that this song has little to say and instead turns again on Neil and his generation for their 'rust'. 'We've still got something to say - but we better say it fast or get out of the way!' Neil cries, before going against the usual message in his songs (mankind is temporary, nature is permanent) by having relationships and people as permanent while 'old buildings going up, old buildings coming down'. The other is a short bluesy guitar piece that's a whole lot more convincing than the similar stabs on the 'This Note's For You' album. However even then this effect is spoilt by a hideous croaky backing vocal from not only wife Pegi but half-sister Astrid that makes the pair of them sound like grizzled bluesmen. I'm not sure I'd want to hold in my arms a singer who'd just made me out to sound 103! (although if I was 103 then maybe 'Archives Four' would be out and I'd get to hear the other songs off 'Toast'?...)
I have mixed feelings about 'Be With You'. It is, after all, what this album badly needs: a bit of energy and what's more a bit of energy as advertised on the sleeve, being the Motown-branch of soul that's energetic and upbeat and out of all the songs here is the one Otis Redding would have had most fun grooving to. However it's also a song that demands to be tight and disciplined and instead is one of the roughest and readiest on the record, with Neil at least two octaves higher than the point at which human hearing stops and The MGs sounding as hopelessly lost as they would if Neil had just given them the keys to 'Greendale'. The lyrics too aren't exactly poetry; 'Got a simple plan, oh yeah baby, I gotta hold on, I gotta be strong!' You can almost heard the MG/Sampedro enhanced backing vocals turn into The Four Tops as they parrot 'hold on, be strong!' The result is the recording which your trigger finger gets itchiest to skip the quickest. However again there's a good song in here somewhere. The riff is a good one (even if again it sounds recycled and isn't that far removed from the same 'Time Is Tight' riff heard on the opening track - did Neil only own one MG single? Did he never even hear the Percy Sledge-style B-side 'Johnny I Love You'?) Some of the lyrics too have their moments, Neil sitting 'fishing' to get away from his cross wife and working out how to get back into her good books a strong detail (which sadly he never returns to in the rest of the song) and his conclusion that it shouldn't be 'hard' to live with someone so wonderful so maybe the problem lies with him? Neil practices all the things he's going to say to his wife when he gets home and they sound far more convincing than the hollow promises of 'Differently' or the self-pity of 'Quit' somehow, Neil praising everything he learnt from being in this relationship, the need to 'trust' and 'give' and never 'give up'. It's kind of a soulful update of one of Neil's earliest songs for Pegi 'Staying Power' so perhaps in hindsight it isn't quite as much of a surprise that the couple stay together for another twelve years after this point despite the song titles 'Quit' and 'Mr Disappointment' elsewhere. Overall, though, the end result is still a mess and one that could have been easily fixed - one more take, surely, would have turned out better than this however badly it came out?
'Two Old Friends' is the 'grower' on the album. Even compared to the rest of this album it got kinda lost on my last few hearings, being slow and repetitive and everything else that's problematic about this album. But the more times I hear it the more interesting it sounds, with the single most memorable chorus on the album ('Hear no evil, see no evil, fell no evil in my heart, in my aching heart!') and perhaps the most interesting lyric too. To date Neil's been pretty one-sided in his view of religion: basically it sucks (see 'Soldier' 'Yonder Stands The Sinner' 'Let It Shine' 'Song X' and a million more, while the future 'Driftin' Back' concludes that Neil's probably a 'pagan'). This song, though, is much softer. The preacher in the song actually meets God and asks him basically if the hippie dream of love and peace can ever happen. He gets the sad message 'No my son, that time is gone', referencing when the pair 'met' around the time The Band were singing in 1970 (is this song actually about Bob Dylan's conversion to Christianity?) but also that 'there's things to do'. The preacher asks to be 'lifted up' and he and his God go on a walk, ending up on a mountain that's so beautiful and perfect it makes him feel better. The pair know, however, that the time has come to part and they do - the preacher just can't believe in religion when so many people suffer without intervention and God shrugs his shoulders and walks away. This sounds to me like Neil is thinking more about the ethos of his generation than any direct religion and is maybe returning with softer eyes to the days of the 'Hippie Dream' than he had in 1986 (and will later with 'Walk Like A Giant' in 2012). Neil's too much of a punk realist to be a hippie - and yet he also believes in peace and love and forgiveness and understanding. In a way this complex song is a 'conversation' with multiple parts of himself, perhaps a reply to David Crosby's similar 'Tracks In The Dust' from his 'Oh Yes I Can!' album of 1989, in which he also came to no conclusion about how to make the world a better place when everyone is right and no one is wrong. This song kinda comes to the conclusion that we can't wait for peace and justice to come to us - we have to actively promote it - but Neil sounds lost how to get that, in comparison to his pro-Reagan mid-1980s years or his forthcoming anti-Bush years of 2006. In a way this song is Neil giving himself the mandate to talk about a world that doesn't care what he thinks about it - he still has lives to save, missions to complete and injustices to fight although he's no longer sure how to fight all this. This isn't really, then, about two old friends at all but a generation made to feel increasingly ill at ease in a modern landscape of random mass terrorist attacks and the years of scapegoating that come with them afterwards. Neil years to embrace the hippie spirit but know it has no time or place anymore - but, as with so many hippie things, it sounds so good!
The album should have ended here - instead we get 'She's A Healer', which is the surreal elongated ending akin to 'Last Trip To Tulsa' or 'Like An Inca' in the past. This song is too boring and one-dimensional to match the former though and too unlikeable and poorly defined to match the latter, as Neil tries to offer up a song that's closest in feel to the solo Booker T groove - and badly fails. Neil sings that the touch of his blue-eyes woman can 'soothe my soul' and that she 'heals' him. Interestingly both Pegi and Darryl have similar blue eyes, although my guess is this song is about the later given that Neil spends the song in pursuit of her, a long way from home, with the most memorable verse one where he's 'slapping plastic at an Esso station, about a thousand miles from my destination'. This isn't a linear, sensible lyric though but a surreal, fragmented one. 'All I got is my broken heart and I don't hide it when I play my guitar' runs the chorus, which leads into a brief howling moment of real noise and purpose around the 3:30 mark when this song really comes together. That ten glorious seconds apart, though, this is another one of those Young songs that just goes on too long, taking an age to get going and running out of interesting ways to get there before much time is up at all. This recording's saving grace is Frank Sampedro, who finally gets something to do after an hour of sitting largely on one chord and some beautiful trumpet from Tom Bray that turns this song into the closest any Young track has yet been to jazz. However this song is too uptight and rigid to be 'proper' jazz, sitting in one compact Donald 'Duck' Dunn groove and Steve Potts drumbeat throughout nine painful minutes. The actual 'song' part ends before we even reach four, by the way. The result is rather painful, which seems ironic for a song named 'She's A Healer' and typical the longest song on the album is the one that probably deserved to run the shortest!
Overall, then, 'Are You Passionate?' has passion galore - we just don't get to hear much of that hidden behind sometimes impenetrable lyrics and frequently slapdash arrangements and performances. It also has ideas - more than usual for this period in Young's history with some complex ideas, only unfortunately so much of this album sounds off-putting that you don't really connect with this album enough to care. What this album needs is an extra week of rehearsals, a different backing band (The MGs are as great as any Neil's worked with but should have been hired for a spooky, slow-burning album of mystery like Sleeps With Angels' or 'Broken Arrow', not this record of painful hidden depths and surrealism) and the courage for Neil to come out and admit that this was a 'real' album, not another 'experiment' which automatically flavoured the way many of his fans and critics viewed it. Even then I suspect this wouldn't be a classic album and only 'Goin' Home' comes close to matching Neil at his very best - but there is something going on here that makes it more interesting than two-thirds of the albums its sandwiched between 'Silver and Gold' and 'Greendale'. More interesting than the packaging suggests (why the clouds on the inner sleeve by the way? They should at least be storm ones in the distance in keeping with the album mood!) and more entertaining than critics often give it credit for, 'Are You Passionate?' is also, sadly, a lot more boring than it sounded during early reports and a lot less interesting than parts of this review probably made it sound. Is Neil passionate? The jury's out, but for the most part the answer seems to be: no. And honestly that's the first Neil Young album (maybe 'Landing On Water' aside) that you could honestly say that about. Once again, I'd like to shake your hand Mr Disappointment and with 'Greendale' on the horizon this time most certainly won't be the last...