Monday, 18 September 2017
Neil Young “Silver and Gold” (2000)
Good To See You/Silver and Gold/Daddy Went Walkin’/Buffalo Springfield Again/The Great Divide//Horseshoe Man//Red Sun/Distant Camera/Razor Life/Without Rings
‘I’m pickin’ something up – I’m lettin’ something go…’
‘Silver and Gold’ finally turned up four years after ‘Broken Arrow’ had in 1996, putting an end to all sorts of speculation about what Neil had been up to in the interim. Now that might not seem like much of a gap to you Paul Simon or Pink Floyd gaps but for Neil it was an eternity. Four whole years – I mean, that’s four times the gap of normal! It remains, at the time of writing, double the length of the second biggest gap in his discography since he started releasing albums with Buffalo Springfield back in 1966. Surely after the wait this was going to be the best and most exciting album ever? Well, not exactly. There is, to be fair, a lot of gold and silver sprinkled liberally across this album. Unfortunately there’s quite a lot of bronze and wooden spoon songs too that either try hard but don’t quite cut it or fail utterly miserably. And as for excitement, well, ‘Silver and Gold’ is in many ways the most boring album Neil’s made to date. Every non-fan out there who complains that his music all ‘sounds the same’ clearly haven’t been listening to, say, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ or ‘Trans’ but almost certainly have albums like this one in mind: a sappy, soppy acoustic record where not a lot happens, ten times over. It sounds just enough like ‘Harvest’ ‘Harvester Moon’ and ‘Comes A Time’ to repeat new ground without having much new to say. Neil could probably have gotten away with this at another time in his career and there are some truly lovely moments on this set. Unfortunately, by the time of release, the best songs were already one or even two decades old and we were expecting something new and exciting, not a return to yesteryear where even the new songs sound like old ones.
Even so, there’s a case to be made that ‘Silver and Gold’ is a useful palette cleaner. Released just four months into a new millennium, it feels in retrospect – with so many new ideas and concepts to come – as if Neil is building up his strength for a new turbulent decade of changing ideas and breaking new ground. Just as previous album ‘Broken Arrow’ felt in many ways like an identikit of old ideas in the electric style (named after a Buffalo Springfield song and sounding much like every other Crazy Horse album ever made, if not quite as good), so this one feels like an identikit of every past acoustic Neil Young album. There are lyrical references to an ‘old man’, childhood memories of father Scott Young and a whole song about being in the Buffalo Springfield. We’re so used to hearing Neil ploughing on forward, oblivious to what came in his past, that it’s good to have a reminder of old places already visited and though fans of 2000 feared that albums like this were here to stay, actually it’s the oddball in Neil’s canon of this period, more concerned with looking back than forward. The theme is surely unique for a Young record too, that of sweet nostalgia: this is a record full of ‘distant cameras’ taking pictures of the past, of meeting old friends, of seeing the (red) sun setting over a place you know really well and of celebrating longevity in marriage (even if, typically, ‘Silver and Gold’ is an outtake that days back to the earliest days of Neil courting Pegi in 1978 and when it was written was only ‘imagining’ them growing old together). However there’s something slightly ‘off’ about Neil’s nostalgia, which seems oddly chocolate boxy and ‘soft’ compared to how things really were. ‘Daddy Went Walkin’ for instance returns to childhood in tone and words as well as theme and is the closest Neil has come to writing a nursery rhyme, while ‘Good To See You Again’ isn’t some hoped for take on meeting up with an old friend and confronting the past so much as an eight line song about saying ‘hi’. The worst casualty, though, is what Neil does to his first band Buffalo Springfield: what was once such a turbulent and exciting band Neil quit them seven times in three years has now become a chocolate-box legend where Neil is really proud of what they achieved and would like to see them get together again (but not enough to actually, you know, reunite – failing to turn up to an informal reunion rehearsal that was taking place the year before…In Neil’s own house! He, uhh, forgot he was out on tour that week…Against all odds the reunion will happen but not until 2012).
There is, I sense, another couple of reasons why this album sounds so familiar – and why Neil waited so long before making it. Thought the world didn’t see it until 2009, the much-delayed Neil Young box set ‘Archives One’ was worked on most during this period before Neil tweaked it, put it on the back burner and waited for technology to catch up. Neil being Neil he didn’t enter the past as a passive souvenir-hunter interested in releasing a greatest hits set but as an active participant, eager to change our view of what the past looked like from his perspective and with as much unreleased material as released (at least until Neil started releasing standalone ‘concert’ sets in the 21st century). Neil heard pretty much everything he ever wrote or played on between 1963 and 1972 and it was a lot. No wonder, then, that this album suddenly makes Young sound ‘old’ for the first time, really, as he comes to terms with the fact that he does have a past and a legacy and no wonder after hearing so many ‘old’ songs that the past keeps cropping up in this music. What’s a shame is that Neil tries to ignore this rather than confront this head-on. How much better, for instance, would ‘Razor Love’ (itself an old song) have sounded if Neil had painted himself out as the ‘old man’ more with newcomers taking over the role he once played in 1972, as the eager young rockstar waiting to become a custodian of the ‘old ways’. Or how much better might ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ have been if Neil had looked at his younger troubled self with older, mature eyes and tried to get inside his psyche? How does Neil feel when his ‘daddy’ goes out walkin’ knowing he might not be able to walk much longer? (his author dad Scott died in 2005). We don’t know as Neil won’t tell us – ‘Silver and Gold’ is one of his ‘descriptive’ albums rather than one of his ‘deep’ ones. Instead ‘Silver and Gold’ deals in metaphor, intellectual concept and imagery rather than heartfelt emotional release or self-questioning.
Or maybe Neil’s writing was just going through a bit of a crisis in this period. The one album that had broken the four year quiet spell was the second CSNY reunion ‘Lookin’ Forward’ and it seems to be a project that took Neil off guard. At first he was only a ‘guest’, Nash ringing him out the blue to ask if he’d be interested a distinctive guitar part to his new and rather drippy ballad ‘Heartland’. Neil, in his new mellow stock-taking mood, decided that he still had things to say with ‘his’ old band and hung around, impressed that they were financing this trio project themselves without a record label and inviting the others to take their pick of the songs he had begun stockpiling for this album. For once CSN’s taste let them down: poor as many of the songs on this album may be, most are still better than what they chose: Neil’s soppiest song ‘Lookin’ Forward’, the confusing and obscure ‘Slowpoke’, the out-of-tune ‘Out Of Control’ and the deeply irritating ‘Queen Of Them All’ (which sounds like a mobile phone slowly running out of charge while being swallowed by a whale). How much better that album might have been had CSNY finished their cover of ‘Silver and Gold’ with some beautiful harmonies (as heard on bootleg) and why didn’t they choose the sweetly nostalgic ‘Distant Camera’ which sounds perfect for a reunion album? With CSN on less than stellar form too that album got jumped on, with critics merciless in their comments. Neil doesn’t often talk ‘up’ his songs but did for that project and the reaction seems to have taken him by surprise. Surely ‘Silver and Gold’ – the project from which those songs were intended – was a doomed project now? Oddly, though, Neil didn’t do what he normally does when some tiny thing goes wrong and simply jump ship to the next one. Instead he persevered with this album, but the loss of four songs (However wretched) clearly set him back a lot and ‘Silver and Gold’ took much longer than most rash-dash Neil Young projects to come together.
Was it worth it? Well, ish. ‘Silver and Gold’ is a useful 20th century summary not just because of its themes but because of its quality. Every side of Neil’s writing style is here: good, bad, ugly, indifferent and weird. Though sonically this record often sounds gorgeous (Neil sounds best when his backing band actually get to know songs before they record them, as opposed to playing in one take songs that Neil wrote in his car on the way to the sessions) and feels as if it fits together as a recording, as a series of compositions this album is all over the place. Never has Neil been more irritating or trite than he has on ‘Good To See You’ ‘Daddy Went Walkin’ or the horrid ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ (where the extent of our understanding of one of the most exciting bands of their generation is the couplet ‘I was in a band – but they broke up’). Rarely have I been as bored with a Neil Young album closer as I have with ‘Without Rings’, a song that more literally should have been titled ‘Without A Tune’. Rarely have I been as confused (and not in a good way) as I have with ‘Horseshoe Man’, which sounds like ideas for a dozen different Neil Young songs that got stapled together and given the first, most simplest melody that came into Neil’s brain. Not for nothing do a lot of fans call this album ‘a really good EP’ because it may well be Neil’s most inconsistent record (other albums are far better than this – and others are far far worse. Who mentioned ‘Greendale’?!)
That’s the ‘silver’ though – the ‘gold’ is a half-album that glitters just as beautifully if more subtly as any other album in the great man’s back catalogue. The title track itself is gorgeous, one of the very loveliest love songs Neil ever wrote and though it would have slotted in even better on Neil’s most hopeful LP ‘Comes A Time’, unlike some other revived oldies on Neil’s albums it works well here too. This is, after all, a song about love being timeless, so it makes sense that Neil re-records it here, on near enough his 22nd wedding anniversary, as a tribute to how love never changes (even if it seems even odder now that we know what was going on behind the scenes with Neil seeing actress Darryl Hannah this whole time). ‘The Great Divide’ is a lovely Dylanesque image-filled piece about a cowboy and a cowgirl riding towards each other, the gulf between them getting smaller each day and updating Neil’s traditional image of himself as a ‘loner’. The cute Celtic throwback ‘Red Sun’ is one of Neil’s rare successes with country-rock as he does the very Neil Young thing of glancing back over his shoulder and looking forward to the future simultaneously. We never learn if this song is about a sunset or a sunrise – chances are its right slap bang in the middle of both. ‘Distant Camera’ is a sweet, thrilling, vibrant song that manages to juggle several balls at the same time: a ‘song of love’, it also touches on Neil looking back on his whole life (listening to a first draft of ‘Archives’ maybe?) and accepting that change is inevitable and that ‘new things and old both disappear’. The metaphor that we take photographs so that we can remember certain times in our live – and to allow us to move on to make new memories, which can be photographed before moving on again – is so very Neil that it’s surprising that he hadn’t come up with it before. And then there’s 1980s outtake ‘Razor Love’, an outside shot for appearing on the 1987 album ‘Life’, which is one of the better Young songs that fell through the cracks, a direct tale of the intensity of a relationship that shaves away the years by sounding as if it belongs at home on this similarly direct and acoustic album.
That contradiction is at play on the album’s cover too. At first I hated this CD’s album cover, which is one of the daftest and most hideous of all the AAA records out there. The shot was taken by Neil’s then seventeen-year-old daughter Amber on her Gameboy handheld device and it’s wretched: that familiar gait of her dad is reduced to a handful of pixels that could be anyone, all tinged a hideous shade of brown. But as the years have gone by I ‘get’ this cover more: that Gameboy wasn’t meant to be a ‘modern’ device but a retro one that harked back to the 1980s when computers were ‘new’ and was a very jokey ‘throwback’ of nostalgia to a generation not quite old enough to be nostalgic yet. Here Neil is, now feeling like an old man, in a photo taken by his teenage daughter on technology that comes from the generation between them: it’s the perfect metaphor for the passing years. And then Neil has tinged it all sepia-brown to make it look like a ‘really’ old photo, even though it isn’t. It’s the perfect cover summary for this album and a very clever idea – even if it still looks pig ugly (Paul McCartney used a digital watch camera, equally low on pixels, to shoot the cover of his ‘Driving Rain’ album in 2001).
The one throwback to this album that works really well is the sound. So many old friends are brought out to play on this album and all sound fabulous. Ben Keith’s pedal steel is all over everything, after sitting out a couple of Crazy Horse albums and one featuring Pearl Jam and Ben’s sound and style, reflective yet biting, is such a part of this album that Neil even gives him the credit on this album of ‘inspiration’. Other musicians include familiar faces from the ‘Harvest’ days including pianist Spooner Oldham and drummer Oscar Butterworth, who both sound much better here than they ever did in the 1970s.The backing singers date back to two different eras too, though in truth they don’t get much to do on this album: Linda Ronstadt was last heard of on ‘Harvest Moon’ in 1992 and Emmylou Harris dates back even further as a collaborator, to ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ in 1977. Neil had never worked with drummer Jim Keltner before – even though pretty much everyone else had. The bassist is an unusual choice: Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn is a new figure in Neil’s life and the pair’s friendship will rope Neil into recording the depressingly ordinary ‘blues’ album follow-up ‘Are You Passionate?’ in 2002 with ‘his’ house band ‘Booker T and the MGs’. This, though, isn’t some young upstart Pearl Jam-style band but Otis Redding’s backing group, survivors who are still rocking over thirty years after the Gentle Giant died in a plane crash who were making music even before Neil was. New and old, that’s the theme of this record and this oddball combination of musicians who for the most part had never worked together before really ‘get’ these songs, their youthful energy and hope, mingled with the tears and regret of old age and worries about the passing of time. This is an album of contradictions that in truth don’t often work: some songs are too simple and others too complex, whilst others hark back to the past as a ‘golden era’ even when it wasn’t and others assume that peace and happiness are due in the future not the present. But the players on this album really nail Neil’s vision: they’re simultaneously happy and sad, hopeful and bitter, at peace and at war.
Is that enough to satisfy the Young faithful? Maybe. ‘Silver and Gold’ is one of those pretty but also pretty boring Neil Young albums that’s too good to dismiss, but not interesting enough to talk about and analyse endlessly the way we do some other albums (I could – and have – spent far too long debating the merits of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Trans’ and ‘Prairie Wind’ because those albums feel as if they have more to offer somehow). This record is by far the weakest in Neil’s ‘acoustic’ series, oddly lacking in the misery of ‘Harvest’ or the sheer exuberance of ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘Comes A Time’. Instead it’s oddly neutral, with no real emotions running through it anywhere in comparison to the days of old, just images and metaphor, with the occasional pang of nostalgia and blessing counting. However in many ways this album has a better claim to being another ‘Harvest’ referencing album than even ‘Harvest Moon’. This is very much an album about reaping what you sow, of the passing of the seasons and your changing perspectives as you grow older, only this time Neil is an even older ‘old man’, with a lot more past to look back on and trying to remember it all. The moments when Neil deals with the past that he carries around with him like a weight head-on (as on ‘Distant Camera’ or ‘Red Sun’) are delightful and very fitting for a ‘new millennium’ style album – it’s just a shame that despite going back to the past Neil has forgotten how to add ‘bite’ into his music, losing the energy and insecurity of youth for an album where even one of the most talked about splits in rock and roll is dismissed out of hand and one of the most interesting upbringings of any AAA member (with a sports journalist dad and a quiz show host mum, interrupted by polio) becomes a cutesy time where with the distabnce of time everything seemed perfect. A few more of those imperfections would have made this album better still – but then this is, after all, a record that promises ‘Silver and Gold’ and for now has forgotten how to scramble in the dirt of the ‘ditch’. Better than Silver and Gold? Not a chance. But better than nothing – and in terms of the rushed Neil Young albums to come, rather better than some.
‘Good To See You’ announced Neil in this breezy opening song. Fans thought the same after the four year gap. For the first thirty seconds or so that feeling was heartfelt: Neil provides a breezy upbeat quirky country-rock melody and a walking pace stomp that instantly recalls the better parts of ‘After The Goldrush’ But ‘Silver and Gold’ is, alas, from after ‘after the goldrush’ and the lack of creativity compared to Neil’s golden years is striking. Just check out the first verse: ‘Good to see you, good to see you again, good to see your face again, good to see you’. Four lines in to this album and we’re already getting repeats. To be fair the rest of the song is better, with a second verse that opens up into Neil embracing his listeners as if he’s travelling with ‘us’ on part of our journey we can pick up or put down as we choose (referring to himself as ‘the suitcase in your hallway’ and ‘the footsteps on your floor’). But this song simply goes back to repeating that not terribly inventive chorus all over again and ends with a puzzling last verse that harks back to ‘Human Highway’ without being even that interesting. Neil ends the song with the promise that he’s going to ‘make up for lost time’, but that’s what’s ‘wrong’ with this song: despite the long time away (by Neil standards) he has nothing new to say and no real new way of saying it. This is the sound of a man on auto-pilot – admittedly a talented creative man whose delayed making clones of his older songs where possible, so even this song’s slight return to a ‘Harvest’ feel with many of that album’s backing musicians catches the ear. The harmonica puffing for the first time in a while is a nice touch too. But this is auto-pilot all the same: did we really wait four years for this? It’s good to see you too Neil, but we wanted to hear all about what you’d been up to when you were away, not a song that’s effectively a postcard saying ‘wish you were here’ and not a lot else.
‘Silver and Gold’ is a beautiful song though and an album highlight, a song that all too clearly dates from perhaps Neil’s only ‘happy’ period circa 1978 and ‘Comes A Time’ (even though, weirdly, the copyright date in the CD’s handwritten notes where Young scrawls like a doctor with a scratchy pen throughout is listed as 1982: was this song revived and copyrighted for use on the aborted ‘Island In The Sun’ album that became ‘Trans’?) What sounds on bootlegs of the time like a bouncy joyous number (not unlike that album’s title track) has by 2000 mutated into a mature, reflective song about longevity and safety. Neil has simplified the arrangement down, paring it down to its bones, so that the simplicity of this song is now a good thing, unlike the stupidity of the last track. This love, for wife Pegi, brings Neil greater things than the most precious of jewels. Everything else in his life is ‘seasonal’ (it was intended for an album named ‘Comes A Time’ after all) but this love just keeps going on and on, never growing old, even after several years of back-breaking work ‘every day’ and a sense that time ‘just slips away’ and takes away all the narrator’s other dreams. A second verse is a cautionary tale in the manner of the ‘doom trilogy’: Neil is offered a ‘treasure chest’ full of every golden bauble he could ever want to have. But trying to take it away with him was impossible, it got too ‘heavy’ and he had to ‘rest’ and in the end he realised that he would take love over gold anyday. Simple as this song may be, it is highly effective and one of only a small handful of Neil Young compositions you could imagine being sung by other artists. Unlike though, say, ‘Lotta Love’, this is a song that also suits Neil Young and this performance is lovely: prematurely aged with a delightfully husky weary take on his usual style, but with enough glee bouncing on Neil’s lips to suit the song’s beauty. Neil complained later that this song took a long time to get ‘right’ – actually the 1978 version and the 1999 CSNY re-recording with some truly gorgeous harmonies would both have been amongst the best things in their respective eras too. But this more ‘timeless’ recording is pretty special too and even though all we have is Neil and a guitar that’s all we really need, for songs like this never seem to get old – they’re better than silver and gold.
A sign of how late in the day this album was put together is demonstrated by the fact that you have to turn the CD booklet over to near the end to get third song ‘Daddy Went Walkin’. Another overtly simple track, this one sounds suspiciously like a re-write of ‘Old King’ from ‘Harvest Moon’ with its bouncy acoustic gamble and another appearance by a dog. However its notable that Neil’s tribute to his old hound-dog in 1992 is sung with much more care and devotion than this album’s tribute to his dad. By 2000 Scott Young has dementia and it must have struck Neil as particularly sad given that his dad was such a huge, overpowering figure in his life and yet still needed care (Neil, of course, was sickly his whole life through and often needed care through his childhood). Instead of exploring his fright at how things are ‘now’, though, Neil dwells on how it used to be in the past. This song is the first of a run of snapshots of Neil’s past that’s run through the 21st century all the way to much of ‘Psychedelic Pill’ and ‘A Letter From Home’ but unlike those albums this song is a visitor, not an inhabitant of past times. All we get is some weird words about Young senior taking a walk: we learn what he wears, what he walks past and what dog he takes with him, but nothing more. Neil offers up this memory without comment, no reason why he’s telling us this and as left here this song is deeply boring. There’s no hint of the real drama in the Young household (would Rassy, Neil’s famously feisty mother, really have greeted her husband with a kiss? A slap in the face seem more likely having read the biographies), no sense of any great discovery in this song and notably no appearance of Neil in this song at all. Is this a wish-fulfilment of how Neil wanted his childhood to be, perhaps? Interestingly, though the song refers to ‘daddy’ in the chorus and the title most of this song uses the phrase ‘old man’. The phrase ‘Old Man’ was one Neil came up with to describe his old ranch-hand Louis Avila on the song of the same name, his ‘substitute’ dad figure now that Scott was only a distance presence as Neil hit his twenties. In many ways ‘Old Man’ is who he wanted his dad to be, but many people (Scott included) assumed that it was a song genuinely written for Neil’s dad. Is this Neil trying to redress the balance and write his dad a ‘real’ song this time, as his time runs short? However the timing is off: Neil’s parents split when he was tiny. If his dad is really an ‘old man’ in this song he wouldn’t be kissing his mother, which suggests that rather than pay tribute to his ‘real’ dad with what ‘really’ happened Neil is again playing games with us, making us think that he’s writing about his ‘daddy’ as he was rather than who his son chooses him to be. With its nursery rhyme gait and endless repetition, however, ‘Daddy Went Walkin’ is a song that’s far more interesting to think about than it is to actually listen to.
I could say the same for ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’, a track named for that band’s middle album, during which Neil left the band three whole times! You wouldn’t guess that from this song though which is the most disappointing moment on the whole album and turns what could have been an excuse to tell the story from Neil’s point of view into an oddly un-Young like account that’s as sanitised as they come. ‘I was in a band’ sings Neil, ‘but they broke up’. There’s no mention of the screaming rows with Stills, Neil’s paranoia of fame and its trappings or his desire to write more songs than Stephen and sing more than Richie rather than Young’s original role as ‘leads guitar player’. On this song all that youthful angst seems a long time ago as Neil sighs that he’d ‘love to play with those guys again’. We’d love you to as well as Neil. So why won’t you? Why did every single attempt to revive the Buffalo Springfield name halter across the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s? We don’t know from this song as Neil’s not telling. I could forgive this song if it tried to remember what the early groovier days were like when the world was at this band’s feet. But we don’t get that either: if Neil is remembering any Springfield tune with this sappy country-rock song then its what Richie Furay and Jim Messina were doing together in the band’s name for ‘Last Time Around’ long after Neil had left (though this song is nowhere close to being as good as ‘Kind Woman’ and only really on a par with fans’ least favourite Springfield song ‘Carefree Country Day’). The only decent parts of the song are Neil’s cutting line that ‘we were young and wild – it ate us up’ which is as good a description of what happened to the band as any and the clever ear-catching acoustic flourish that ends each chorus. However everything else is so un-Springfield as to be making a point: the trio of albums Neil’s first band anybody outside Winnipeg would have heard of are overflowing with creativity and full of multiple part-suites and excess overdubs, gloriously exciting and frequently brave. This song is soft and soppy and Neil’s comment that this track is inspired by ‘hearing an old song playing on the radio’ suggests he wasn’t listening very carefully and by the year 2000 has forgotten everything that once made him tick and the hunger to want to send his songs out to the wider world. What a tragic shame. Neil’s similar CSNY tribute, ‘Walk Like A Giant’, is much more accurate than this sorry mess.
So far the only thing this album’s tracks have in common is the acoustic sound and simplicity, but the CD suddenly changes format with next song ‘The Great Divide’, which ushers in a number of deeper songs. Though the melody is a direct steal from ‘Dreamin’ Man’ from ‘Harvest Moon’ the lyrics to this song are amongst Neil’s deepest and most thoughtful in a long while. This spooky song has a man and a woman (husband and wife?) wondering their own lonely treks apart. They’re separated by a canyon, a valley, a desert – they don’t ‘belong’ together and everyone around the couple tells them (one of them or both, we don’t know?) ‘you don’t fit in too well’. But that sense of being outsiders is what brings the couple together – at first. A second verse sees the couple uniting, riding alongside each other like horses on a carousel, each one helping the other ‘up’ when they are ‘down’. Neil, sounding as happy as he ever does, tells us that ‘life is going well and anyone can tell we’re in love’. Even though his voice doesn’t change, though, the third and final verse is a sad one: these two riders are going their own ways again, riding apart from one another and the ‘great divide’ that once united them split them up anyway, ‘you and I’ finding themselves ‘lost down there’. Along with some of the more turbulent songs on ‘Broken Arrow’ this is our first hint that the Youngs’ marriage was falling apart, although there’s no hint at a shadowy Darryl Hannah character beckoning on the horizon just yet. Instead this sweet-sounding song sounds designed to hide the inner sting and bite, Neil writing from the heart but praying that his wife and fans won’t notice this just yet. The sting is easy to miss though on what’s one of Neil’s prettier songs that works well as a kind of sequel to David Crosby’s ‘Cowboy Movie’ but this time with the ‘cowgirl in the sand’ a metaphor for a marriage not a band (this could be ‘Young Billy, though, Neil’s character from Croz’ song). An excellent song, one of the album’s best and so very Neil, guarded and revealing all at once.
I’m never quite sure what I think of ‘Horseshoe Man’, a song that melodically recalls the open-heartedness of ‘Philadelphia’ but lyrically sounds more like one of those stream-of-consciousness rambles like ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’. A couple’s marriage is in trouble so they turn to the ‘horseshoe man’ for help, hoping he’ll bring his brand of ‘luck’ to them. The hint is that the ‘Horseshoe Man’ is less cupid and more God, a figure who is ‘everywhere’ and can change fate with a wave of his hand. But the mysterious figure leaves heartache in the world because it’s the best teacher of what love ‘really’ is – that if it was too easy to gain people would take it for granted. Oddly the lyrics describe him by saying ‘he doesn’t care’, but he’s a God that dishes out love – surely, nothing says that someone cares more than passing on the secret of love to humans? Like ‘Natural Beauty’ Neil seems to deliberately play with the contradictions in this song, but rather than ‘persevering a monument to nature’ that was only ever designed to be fleeting, this song asks where the line is drawn between love being natural and artificial. When does love stop being real, even if both couples are looking at an outside force to intervene. This song sounds like a more realistic re-write of ‘Love Potion Number Nine’, arguing that if it has to come out of a bottle or some outside source, then it isn’t really love, just an illusion (Neil will return to this theme on ‘Plastic Flowers’, unsure for years as to his true feelings and keeping them buried when things go wrong in his marriage). This song, oddly irritating with its schmaltzy backing and a vocal that’s high even for Neil sounds as if it’s just going to irritate, but then it all comes good in the middle eight, held back until right near the end. ‘Love don’t care if you’re wrong or right, love don’t care if you’re black or white, love ain’t looking for perfection, love’s the answer – love’s the question’. This is one of Neil’s best couplets, finally answering a nagging question about what love is that’s been bothering him for a long time: love is everything, love is everywhere and love is an emotion that doesn’t have human restrictions of age, creed or nationality. Love has no boundaries – you don’t think it, you feel it. The revelation sounds like a really transformative moment and is a key one in Neil’s canon, perhaps paving the way for him to embrace his growing relationship with Darryl Hannah a full fifteen years after these words were written. However it’s very Neil that this really moving part of the song comes after an artificial story about a ‘horseshoe man’ who creates love artificially, Neil effectively arguing with himself on this song about what love ‘really’ means. An odd song that somehow comes right at the end, just as you’ve given up hope.
‘Red Sun’ is another song that feels like a step backwards, reuniting Neil with both Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on a track that sounds like the woozy boozy first side of ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ (sadly his key collaborator on that album, Nicolette Larsson, had died in 1997 at the tragically young age of forty-five – this song sounds like a ‘tribute’ in many ways). Though the song is perhaps a bit too country, with the country pedal steel, Gaelic marching band and organ part perhaps one too many, it is one of Neil’s best stabs at the idiom, turning the usual convention on its head. Almost all country songs are ‘breakup’ songs, sad bitter melancholy tracks about lost opportunities, broken hearts and dead dogs that often use imagery of sunsets – Neil even wrote a few of those himself on his all-country album ‘Old Ways’ in 1983 (Notably ‘California Sunset’). But Neil being Neil change is as much a force for good as it is for evil and despite the very country trappings he’s straining at the leash to embrace the new. He promises to always be ‘by your side’ even though his feelings have changed (is this another message to Pegi?) and that whatever changes life has in store for him (‘the one who is coming arrived here at last’) he’ll always have something to write about. Needing comfort, Neil again reaches to the past, dreaming of his mum and dad ‘being there’ and remembering ‘the wind blowin’ through your hair’ of his lover, which sounds like the first stirrings of ‘Like A Hurricane’ when he first met Pegi. Neil, though, isn’t bound to the feelings he once had for someone but to those feelings and ends the song merrily wandering down the road, wondering where fate will take him next and where he can discover those feelings he once had all over again. That’s understandably a blow for his wife, but its good for Neil’s songwriting and though the song opens with a ‘sunset’ it’s also a sunrise, the good things outweighing the bad as Neil embraces the carnage in his life and waits for change. Typically, though, Neil writes his love-song to change in the most traditional, conservative and unchanging format he ever used. Oddly this song’s bounce really suits this song’s ragged melancholy though, sounding like a song that’s playing in slow motion, both happy and trapped all at the same time.
‘Distant Camera’ is one of the album’s best songs too, a gorgeous paean top growing older and looking backwards that recalls both The Kinks’ many songs about photography and David Crosby’s CSN song ‘Camera’. Instead of one snapshot in time, though, this song embraces everything, Neil’s narrator looking backwards at all aspects of his life, a heap of images randomly flicking past his eyes like a hurricane rustling through a photo-album. Neil’s trying to make sense of it all and what his past has taught him and the closest he can come to an answer is that ‘life is changing’ and you ought to embrace every twist that life throws at you. A poetic second verse has him slumped on the floor of his ranch, surrounded by photographs, the light ‘dancing’ from a passing window as he stares at his collection of photographs surrounding him. Neil is confused by what he sees and what he feels in these images of long ago. He may be talking about his marriage again as he sings about ‘sweet surrender’ and a ‘dream’ that ‘should have ended there’. And yet he also vows to be there long-term, claiming that both sides are onto something so special that ‘they can’t let it go’ and that despite the confusion he feels all he wants is ‘a song of love to sing to you’. A very Neil metaphor then rounds off the song, Neil seeing life as nothing special, a ‘fleck of dust floating in the mirror’, as his real motives and feelings don’t actually matter that much in the grand context of space and time. A very clever, complex song about the passing of time and the difference felt between young and middle age, this is Young embracing becoming Old in the best way possible, with a lovely haunting tune that covers more notes than most songs. The song keeps leaping high or growling low but always keeps coming back to where it’s ‘safe’ and cosy, right in the middle, Neil ending his wandering for a quite beautiful chorus where time stands still for his reflection over a ‘song of love’, the one thing in this hazy, crazy song that seems to make sense. Beautiful.
‘Razor Love’ is a reminder of one of those ‘songs of love’, written somewhere around Neil’s tenth wedding anniversary back in 1987. Too thoughtful for ‘Life’ and too ‘normal’ for ‘This Note’s For You’, this song is perhaps Neil’s last true 100% love song for Pegi and as such makes sense on this album about overlapping relationships. Goodness knows why Neil never returned to this lovely song before as it’s a sweet one about commitment and honesty. Whatever else goes wrong in his love-life, whatever arguments and disagreements he has, the overpowering feeling of love ‘cuts clean through’ his feelings. The song starts with another reference to an ‘old man’ which refers to Neil this time (odd as he was all of forty-two when he wrote it) and his ‘faith’ for his love which sees him not only live with the love of his life but even put up with his mother-in-law! (I’ve assumed given the era that this song is for Pegi but this line recalls first wife Susan whose mother all but lived in Neil’s first house with them!) For the most part this song is full of the rosy glow of romance, with a delightful shuffle beat that sounds like the rain playing against the windows as the lovers wrap each other up in their cozy love. However there’s an urgent second section that lurches unexpectedly to a minor key and injects some doubt into the song. Neil is troubled by something he doesn’t quite understand, spying a ‘silhouette’ from his window (Darryl Hannah?) and ‘tryin’ to find something I can’t find yet’. He’s torn between losing what feels so good in the present for something alluring he hasn’t found in the future that might be better still, but for now warns himself to watch out ‘for the greedy hand, greedy hand’. It’s only a fleeting moment of doubt, quickly set right when the song reverts back to a major key where it feels safe and comfortable and Neil is back to embracing an ‘honest’ love that feels so warm. But somehow that one fleeting moment unbalances the track: is this really as honest a love as it seems at first? Is it actually dishonest as Neil stays with someone he feels comfortable with but doesn’t love in the same way as the silhouette that haunts him? Another clever, complex and often beautiful track that marks a real upswing in this album’s second half.
Alas hopes for an equally worthy closer are dispelled by ‘Without Rings’, one of Neil’s husky low-key album closers. Though nowhere near as bad as the ‘what the?’ moment of the grotty bootleg rendition of ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do?’ on ‘Broken Arrow’, this track seems equally designed to put listeners off actually listening to the record again. A re-write of another track from that album. ‘Music Arcade’, by now Neil has lost his shock factor and this song says even less. Neil feels an outsider, ‘like a visitor from space looking for a place’ and equally feels out of touch with his ‘job’, joking with his contemporary peers that ‘my software’s not compatible with you!’ Neil is putting down any idea we might have that he holds any answers: he doesn’t and is as confused and helpless as the rest of us, ‘an angel without wings’ whose brain is ‘at war’ over what he’s feeling. Neil almost growls this song, sounding deeper than ever and it sounds very much like a ‘morning after’ kind of a piece, the guilty hangover that follows having too much fun. Only Neil isn’t ready to tell us what makes him feeling this way yet and instead simply sings about the confusion he feels, letting something go and picking something up without telling us what they are. Like ‘Distant Camera’ we get sudden flashes of images from his past, but we fans have even less keys to unlock these images – what do these poppy fields, electrical energy and ‘fighting drugs with pain’ amount to? A strange, spooky, obscure song it’s hard to work out what this track means or indeed if it means anything at all and it makes for a very low-key end to the album.
Overall, then, ‘Silver and Gold’ is a mixture of the inspired, the tired and undesired. You never quite know what you’re getting next with this album, which varies between good times, bad times and confusion as to which of those is which. At the time we hoped that ‘Silver and Gold’ was a stepping stone to greater things, that maybe Neil would get a bit quicker and more consistent as the 21st century beckoned and this album brought him further down from his mid-1990s return to form. But be careful what you with for: the similar ‘Prairie Wind’ aside, would that any of his modern albums contained any of the thought or beauty of the best of this quirky little album. Half a great record, half a travesty, ‘Silver and Gold’ is an odd experiment in alchemy, one where half the jewels glitter with true beauty that only Neil can provide and one where the other half takes what Neil can usually do so well and turn it back into ugly base metals. If, as this album says, life is a photograph fading in the mirror then in truth ‘Silver and Gold’ isn’t one of the more memorable images in Neil’s career. However no Young album, even ‘Greendale’, is completely disposable and there is much to like on ‘Silver and Gold’ – but only, perhaps, if you’re prepared to ‘dig’ for it.