Friday 4 July 2008

Neil Young "Freedom" (1988) (Revised Review 2016)

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Neil Young "Freedom" (1989)

Rockin’ In The Free World/ Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part I)/ Don’t Cry/ Hangin’ On A Limb/ Eldorado/ The Ways Of Love/ Someday/ On Broadway/ Wrecking Ball/ No More/ Too Far Gone/ Rockin’ In The Free World 

'My life's an open book, you read it on the radio'

After 'Life' and the 'blues' comes a sudden brief moment of 'Eldorado' and finally 'Freedom' - the moment of euphoria in which all the threads being drawn together across the many genre-hopping styles of the 1980s finally weave together into the first fully satisfying whole since 'Rust Never Sleeps' ten years before (Neil liked ending decades in a big way - he was probably hoping to be Rolling Stone Magazine's artist of the 1980s with this trick, like he was in the 1970s!) Absolved of the need to cover his emotions up and to keep switching characters as he had throughout the 1980s in the wake of son Ben's illness and no longer having to keep up the charade of pissing off Geffen just for the hell of it, one of the biggest confessional writers in rock suddenly start talking to us again. Neil has so much to say and a lot of it contradicts his stances on previous LPs. The biggest change though is that Neil returns on this album to doing what he does best (i.e. nigh on everything, just all at once for a change!) Eclecticism is the key word of Young’s career and the guitarist’s back catalogue is perhaps the most adventurous and stylistically diverse of anybody still regularly recording over such a long period of time. However - compilations aside and there aren't that many of those – most Neil Young albums tend to show off only one aspect of his muse at a time and the few that don’t tend to divide Neil’s acoustic and electric songs into neat and easily divisible sides. ‘Freedom’ is, to date, the only time Neil has truly consciously messed around with his muse and mushed up the tracklisting, pic-and-mixing his way through crunching angry rockers, warm passionate ballads, epic soundscapes, short and scary bursts of adrenalin plus the strangest Drifters cover you’re ever likely to hear. Unlike many of his 1980s jaunts through rockabilly, country, blues and pounding synthesiser land, Neil sounds like he means what he’s singing here and turns in some of his most autobiographical-sounding tracks to boot.  By giving himself the ‘freedom’ to do anything he liked without sticking to one style or project, 'Freedom' lives up to its name  and sound-bite from 'Hangin' On A Limb' ('There was something about freedom he thought he didn't know'). 

Clearly the record is named to some extent for the fact that Neil is now free of his Geffen ‘cell’. ‘Freedom’ was in fact the second album released under the new Reprise contract  but the first one conceived after the ink on the new contract had dried and as a result it’s a pretty fair pot pourri summary of all of Neil’s adventures with the label during the ‘glory years’ of the 1970s. By comparison to Geffen, who meddled with all but two of the albums Neil gave them (and rejected at least two more outright), Reprise never refused to release a Neil Young LP, however strange it may have turned out, although they did try to bury a few before word-of-mouth between Neil’s many fans led to all but the most wilfully peculiar albums becoming fair sellers. Fans have often wondered since how much of Neil’s career path at Geffen was following his muse and how much was just wilful stubborness. My guess is that after ‘Island In The Sun’ got rejected outright Neil genuinely didn’t know what Geffen wanted and that ‘Trans’ and the first version of ‘Old Ways’ were albums that would have turned out that way pretty much unchanged had Neil simply stuck with Reprise his whole career. However with the next run of albums Neil was deliberately taunting his record company, delivering albums of one genre he knew they would have a hard time selling right up until ‘Life’ finally got him out of his contract. Now that he is back at Reprise Neil doesn’t need to be quite so curmudgeonly anymore and is quite happy to get a hit. Even so, rumours still abounded in the Young community after the bluesy ‘This Note’s For You’ that we were about to get a Christmas record, a crooning record, a new age record and a million and one equally unlikely things besides.

Instead we got the only album Neil Young fans could never have predicted - a 'normal' album that combined the weight of 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere', the gentleness of 'After The Goldrush' and the inner sadness of the 'Doom Trilogy'. It's as if the record needle in the jukebox that played in Neil's head was no longer stuck in a single groove but kept jumping from album to album. My guess is that Neil was at least partly picking up his career from a decade before with ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, his only previous record that successfully divided songs up between his electric and acoustic selves all the way through. This album though is surely unique in that rather than keeping the acoustic and electric sides separate, leaving the original listener to physically turn the vinyl over and put themselves in a whole new mind-set, everything is jumbled up together. It’s as if, after breaking with record company rules Neil is breaking with his own that had always dictated he keep aspects of himself in separate little boxes. Far more predictably, we’ve never had a record like ‘Freedom’ in all the years since either, as Neil branches back out into all-acoustic or all-electric records after this, with the odd genre experimentation thrown in (the closest is ‘Le Noise’ from 2010, a ‘solo’ album without a band played on an electric guitar). Which is a shame - along with 'Decade' (a compilation that does the same thing), 'Freedom' is the best introduction you can get to Neil's work - he's as mercurial as always, but somehow the sum of this album adds up to more than its parts which is better than repeating the sums over and over as on lesser albums. You can feel that new-found confidence oozing out of the album’s every groove on this record, which perhaps not co-incidentally was Neil's longest album to date by a good twenty minutes at the time (and only the over-extended albums like 'Broken Arrow'  'Greendale' and 'Psychedelic Pill' than in truth would have been better cut back to 40 minutes are longer than this album's sixty-one minutes). Neil has a lot to say across this album's hour  and it's a fine ‘welcome home’ party for Reprise's returning prodigal son, who had become older and wiser from the lessons learnt and dedicated to his craft once more. Typically, though, even here a timid diluted but still epic nine-minute version of ‘Crime In The City’ is placed second on the album as if to deliberately put fans off the record.  

One of the reasons ‘Freedom’ is such a patchwork quilt of sounds is that it started life as an entirely different project that – unusually for Neil - even found a release, of sorts. Neil’s first actual release on Reprise post 1981 was a five-song EP of heavy thrash noise named 'Eldorado' that featured three songs from this album in slightly longer edits. All three are the most intense moments on the record: a brittle ‘On Broadway’, a snarling ‘Eldorado’ itself and a downright unhinged ‘Don’t Cry’. Some countries (namely Australia and Japan) were lucky enough to get said EP though Neil decided that he didn’t want the attention of this as a ‘big release’ and blocked it in America and Europe – my guess here is that this was a ‘test’ to see if Reprise really were any better than Geffen (they were puzzled but agreed to Neil’s wishes and he’ll never test them again – well ‘Greendale’ maybe but I think Neil believes in that album even if I don’t!) Most of the world's population simply paid ridiculous import costs and cursed Neil for the privilege of owning one of the world's most expensive yet cheaply-made recordings in rock and roll history, with five songs recorded in a hurry by Neil with the ‘Landing On Water’ power trio team of Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell. That's cheap not worthless mind you: this release often gets lost in amongst the bigger releases either side of it but had the concept for 'Eldorado' stretched to a full album with the same level of quality  it would surely have been a candidate for one of Neil's greatest albums. It is a huge regret that, lengthy and substantial as ‘Freedom’ is, room couldn’t be found for the sessions’ two most chilling songs that also fit the ‘Freedom’ theme: the angry and frustrated [237] 'Cocaine Eyes' (a natural successor to both ‘No More’ and [192] ‘Hippie Dream’ and allegedly a beast-friend intervention-style dig at Stephen Stills’; growing habit despite what drugs had already done to David Crosby) and [238] 'Heavy Love' (a [112] ‘Hurricane’ style song played as a heavy metal thrash that’s surely an early hint at Neil’s growing feelings for Darryl Hannah). Together with the three songs we did get, ‘Eldorado’ is less a utopia than one hell of a draining twenty-five minutes. Maybe, on second thoughts, we should be grateful this wasn't a full length LP after all! 

Later sessions added several songs that had been kicking around for a while - decades in the case of 'Too Far Gone' (which was given a hokey country-rock setting that's very different from the original pretty folk version played back in 1976), a year with ‘Crime In The City’ (which was originally part of Neil’s ‘Bluenotes’ set). As with 'Stars 'n' Bars' and 'Hawks and Doves' Neil recorded a new bunch of acoustic sessions with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, back for the first time since 1972 and 1977 respectively. The difference is that these songs aren't sat together in a block of similar sounding songs but scattered across the album - the slow, soft, soothing moments that make the anger and grind of the harder-edged tracks all the nastier (the 'Eldorado' EP tracks somehow sound much more raucous and wild here, even though most of them have been diluted for easier listening - simply because one noisy track after another is not the same as a noisy song after a quiet one). These are more than just palette-changers though - each one is amongst Neil's loveliest moments, like the similar acoustic songs on 'Harvest Moon' but prettier. 'Hangin' On A Limb' recalls the sweeter and more vulnerable songs on 'Zuma' such as [89] 'Pardon My Heart', 'The Ways Of Love' adds a touch of 'Harvest' style philosophical prettiness  to an album that's otherwise more about the heart than the head and 'Wrecking Ball' is arguably the best of Neil's occasional piano-based ballads.

Even these weren't enough though and Neil booked more session time with Frank Sampedro and Ben Keith fleshing out the Rosas-Cromwell partnership (so much stronger and melodical compared to ‘Water’ to the point where most fans would swear the electric ‘Free World’ is a Crazy Horse performance – it isn’t, apart from the two guitarists). As well as this reprise to a song Neil had taped already on his solo acoustic tour earlier in the year the quintet come up with some impressively different sounding songs: the slow brooding anger of 'No More' (very different to the aching intensity of the 'Eldorado' brand of rock and roll), 'Crime In The City' (which would have been better if it had been recorded that way instead of as the soft lounge jazz we get here), the overly commercial 'Somedays' which returned to the 'digital' synthesised feel of 'Life' and two versions of 'Rockin' In The Free World', one taped solo in concert and another in the studio with an electric band. The fact that so many of the players (especially Frank) keep turning up on every song also gives 'Freedom' a cohesion it might have lacked otherwise as these recordings feel like they belong here rubbing shoulders together (and unlike 'Life' and 'This Note's For You' each band feels properly cast, with Neil getting the most out of his pals on a song by song basis. Only poor Billy and Ralph from Crazy Horse are conspicuous by their absence, still in an understandable huff over how Neil has nicked their other guitarist for his Bluenotes band). The result is an impressive array of talents which show just how good Neil can be when he has a great rocking rhythm section behind him – but also proves on some of the more sparse acoustic tracks that he doesn’t actually need anyone else to make good music either. For the first time in a decade Neil is going where his muse asks him to, chopping and changing direction as the mood takes him and the usual sound he hears playing in his head turns out more like a multi-disc jukebox than a radio station for once. Neil no longer has to worry about what character he’s playing – all of these are Neil and it feels as if the only way to get enough of Young’s character on record is to give him the eclectic range he has here. That alone makes ‘Freedom’ one of his greatest, most interesting and exciting LPs, a rare record where you truly don’t know what’s coming next the first time you hear it. 

However, freedom comes at a price. This isn't just a pretty, 'highlights' style album designed to restore Neil to the top of the charts as so many fans assume - in actual fact it's one of his albums that couldn't care less about commerciality. 'Freedom' might be the most listenable Young album in a while but it still comes with fangs, being one of his gutsiest and most emotional works too. Nothing is diluted for radio play here as per ‘Life’, there’s nothing cutesy about the performances as per The Shocking Pinks and this is one of those albums that’s proud not to be swamped with the strings of ‘Old Ways’ and would rather die than be compromised in the final edit. You can generally tell how much Neil cares about a project he's working on by how committed his vocals are and these are some of his best as across the course of a hugely intense hour he pleads, screams, cajoles, whispers and cries out lyric after lyric that are profound and brave. Sometimes these songs take the angry approach, with 'No More' a worthy slow-burning sequel to 'Needle and The Damage Done' and the fast-burning 'Crime In The City' Neil's most badass sarcastic song (albeit watered down greatly here - it's the bootlegs of this you want to hear!) Neil rages with fire and smoke and scream and everything he's got several times across this album, especially the ‘Eldorado’ songs where in one breath and the time it takes to play a grungy version of the riff ‘On Broadway’ goes from being a novelty song about failure to a matter of life and death and ‘Don’t Cry’ is even now perhaps the biggest sucker-punch emotional song Neil has ever written.  In the Young catalogue overall only 'Weld' is a more intense listen and that's live recordings of mainly older stuff; 'Freedom' is the album that spends more time inside Neil's heart than any of his other albums as he continues to mourn Danny Whitten and lost loves and the hopelessness he feels raging against the dying of the light in a society where nobody cares and where even his music doesn't count because Young isn't 'young' and sellable anymore. But, being Neil, he makes his music count anyway and is no longer hiding behind characters, all that pent-up rage exploding in the loudest and yet also the quietest, most deranged yet also most musical, most straight-laced yet ground-breaking deeply contradictory album of Neil’s career. Many artists have not so much middle-aged crisis as moments in middle age when all their youthful drive and ambition to break new ground meets their wiser head that just knows what worked in the past. 'Freedom' is that album for Neil, at the age of forty-four, even if he's confused as anyone about how he got here. 

What could have been a sloppy mess that didn’t fit together becomes one of Neil’s more cohesive statements thanks to the similar theme running through these songs, however different they may be. Throughout this record we get eleven slabs debating what it means to be ‘free’ and whether the price is worth it, many of them relating to past classics in the Young lexicon and others more contradicting them. Everything in this world seems to stem from Neil’s frustration with the Republicans and how the years of Reagan and Bush Senior have hurt the poor most. Everyone is disconnected on this album and struggling, caught adrift in a world (or at least an America) that no longer cares about them. Central to this is the album’s best known song ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’, a song that the first time you hear it, being performed as an intense acoustic blues, sounds like a plea but by the end of the album is deeply sarcastic rock and roll. Interestingly Neil’s performance on both is similar – it’s the one additional verse in the ‘second’ version and the context of the other eleven songs that makes you assume that he is now being sarcastic, that the world isn’t free to rock in anymore. ‘Crime In The City’ is one of Neil’s most brutal songs but in an entirely different way to normal. Instead of the burning anger we’ve heard so many times before Neil is dispassionate as he raps out one verse after another about a world in disconnect where people no longer feel as if they have anything in common with each other. Then the album gets more personal, showing what this means to the people who live in this world: the characters in ‘Don’t Cry’ going through a bitter split have no self worth, no sense of family values. ‘The Ways Of Love’ openly discusses an affair. The characters in ‘Eldorado’ metaphorically fight a raging bull everyday. The addicts try to blot out the harshness of the world with any fix they can get their hands on in ‘No More’. The wannabe star who thinks he can make it on his own against all the odds is driven insane in the angriest punkiest ‘On Broadway’ you will ever hear. Even the sweeter songs here, ‘Someday’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ are utopias that sound futile, more like the release of death in [84] ‘New Mama’ than the hippie heaven of [32] ‘After The Goldrush’, as the narrator of the former ends up settling for a nothing job after his big dreams and the latter is a romance so impossible it only takes place in the afterlife. Every character on this album hurts, the ripples from the people who don’t care at the top filtering through to a society of distrust, divorce and settling. All the characters dream of their own ‘Eldorado’, a day when they don’t have to fight anymore, but the only ‘freedoms’ they find are ones that hurt other people or – via addiction - hurt themselves.  

I have a theory as to why we got this particular album now – and as much as it has to do with Neil being free to speak his mind post-Geffen or a sudden conversion back to being a democrat, as other reviewers have written about, I think that’s only part of the story. ‘Freedom’ is the first album to have Darryl Hannah’s fingerprints all over it, the earliest album following their meeting where her allure isn’t tempered by songs like [214] ‘Married Man’ that treat her as something that can never be or is just a bit of colour to dress up a quite different sort of album (as Wrecking Ball’s prequel [208] ‘We Never Danced’ is to ‘Life’). Neil met Darryl on a protest march and her lefty politics clearly makes Neil, the very definition of a ‘swing voter’ who ebbed and flowed party allegiances across his life, into a true blue Democrat. ‘Free World’ and ‘Crime In The City’ are Neil reconnecting with the real people of the outside world again after years of being locked away in an ivory tower thinking about people as a sort of mass conglomerate mass. ‘Don’t Cry’ is the first of many a trial run wondering how bad the fallout of an affair might be to his wife, Neil sounding guilty as hell. ‘Hangin’ On A Limb’ rescues the marriage at the last minute, being one of the sweetest and most healing of all of Neil’s songs, a track that picks up a single quiet note from the horrific intensity of the previous track and finds new beauty in it. ‘The Ways Of Love’ is perhaps the most telling song here, alternating between a happy-go-lucky chorus where ‘we’ve had too much fun’ and a horrified chorus that recalls ‘how someone else will sleep with tears when she hears what we’ve done’. Neil, though is addicted, blown away [112] ‘like a hurricane’ and can’t stop himself, leading to [52] ‘Needle’ sequel ‘No More’, a song of addiction that comes with a lot more heartfelt revelation than the tut-tutting of seventeen years before.  Even ‘Too Far Gone’, a song from revived from 1976 and the year Neil first met Pegi, seems deliberately placed here, with what was once an intense song about someone saving Neil from the edge now a hokey country hoe-down he isn’t truly listening to anymore. The family man Neil of the 1980s respected his family and his happy home was sacrosanct. But the ‘new’ Neil sniffs danger and blood and excitement and craves freedom from his responsibilities. Yes it will take a full twenty –seven years of ‘will they? won’t they?’ till Neil finally makes his move and other albums will ebb and flow on Neil’s commitment to new love Darryl and wife Pegi, but this is the start of a long run of albums that are either dominated by this theme or conspicuous by how character-driven things get again as Neil backs away from making so many of his feelings open. Neil is at his best when talking from the heart though and in retrospect ‘Freedom’ seems like one great first outpouring of something that has been on Neil’s mind a lot without him yet being brave enough to quite admit to it. That’s the ‘real’ Freedom of this record if you like – the chance to make music that’s authentic again.     

It's more than just a generic idea of 'freedom' though, something which unites almost all 'charity album' projects and multiple albums anyway. As on 'Life' the theme of this album is confusion, but it's a less direct mix made up of despair on the one hand and whole-hearted sarcasm on the other. It's more than that too - this is an album about the price of freedom, not what freedom means or what it brings. All of these characters are struggling, but not all of them are down and out and another big album theme is stubborn-ness. 'On Broadway' might have Neil starting again at the bottom ring of the ladder of fame, but you believe him when he hollers that he 'won't quit' until he's a star. The key words in 'Free World' aren't that gloriously sarcastic take on a world that clearly isn't free but the 'keep on' bit - there's too much suffering to put right for Neil to fade away quietly repeating himself. 'Eldorado' is a tale of betrayal and death that looks as if it’s heading for a [86] ‘Tired Eyes’ style loser ending, but it ends with the bullfighting drug dealer somehow getting through unscathed and 'living another day'. 'Crime In The City' has Neil doing what he's done his whole life long, 'sassing back' to the powers that be and refusing to do what they tell him, even while all his peers give in and even if the last verse has him grow 'old' and rusty after all, he still fights his fight to the very bitter end. So far being stubborn is a good character trait - but then there are the other songs: 'No More' is about that desire and hunger that needs to be fed that's taken one stage too far to death; 'Too Far Gone' has the narrator so 'far gone' (whether in drink. drugs or ambition) that his bride to be is a million miles away and 'too far gone' the next morning; 'Don't Cry' has the girl being stubborn as Neil tries to get her to change her mind and realise that 'nothing we say is written in stone' - but nothing doing, as she answers his pleas for a second chance in the most brutal door-slamming way possible. 'Freedom' is possible, but only if you chase it with everything you've got, relentlessly - and even then you can lose it if you chase too hard. Freedom, on most of these songs, doesn't come easily and it certainly doesn't come for free. 'Keep on rockin' in the free world' this album begins and ends, that phrase tinged with bitterness, sarcasm, rage, frustration - but also hope. 'Freedom' isn't impossible, but it is unlikely and very hard work.

And yet 'Freedom' isn't some bleak album about hopelessness where everything has gone wrong - even compared to 'Life' it's happier that there are chances to make something of yourself and small moments in life when things all come together. The nervous narrator of 'Wrecking Ball' - which sounds from the title like it ought to be the most destructive moment of the album and of his life - is actually rewarded in death for denying himself in life and for getting the courage up to ask when his lover agrees to dance. Though a couple's love was 'hangin' on a limb' they have the presence of mind to realise why they came together in the first place and crawl back inside back to stability, wiser about what's at stake nowadays when they row and risk losing it all. 'Someday' dreams of the better future in the worst possible conditions as a chain gang cries in the background and recognises that even 'heroes' have off-days and 'sin' - but all are drawn by the thought of a better time 'someday'. 'The Ways Of Love', meanwhile, jumps back and forth between stubbornly playing things safe in an existing cosy relationship - and stubbornly reaching out for something better. Hidden away at the 'heart' (or at least the middle of this album), this song is what true 'freedom' means - it's recognising when to reach out for something more and when to quit and it's a hard juggling trick to get right. In fact Neil can't get it right - that's why he winds up at the end of the album back where he started, still trying to shock and shame the 'free world' into doing something, this time with the confidence of a band behind him but still no more hope that 'freedom' is even possible. 

‘Freedom’, then, is a fabulous album that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, overshadowed as it is by the better selling ‘Ragged Glory’ and ‘Harvest Moon’ that appeal more directly to the ‘rock’ and ‘folk’ sides of Neil’s audience. However even this record isn’t quite perfect (no Neil record ever is). Great as the two songs are, for decades this was the only way to legally hear what must surely be the two most inferior re-recordings of any of Neil’s unreleased songs: 'Crime In The City' was remarkable when howled out in solo acoustic form yet sounds rigid and lifeless as lift music here on record, whilst 'Too Far Gone' it a truly beautiful song given an ugly makeover it doesn’t deserve. Fans of these songs are encouraged to look for every other version around they can, including the ‘Jones Beach’ DVD and ‘Bluenote Café’ versions of the former and the ‘Songs For Judy’ version of the latter (plus some even better performances on bootleg that will hopefully make ‘Decade Three’ one day, if we ever live long enough to see it). Another thing that doesn't work is the front cover: a nasty cheap tacky picture of a suddenly middle-aged looking Neil (who still looked pretty sprightly the last time we saw him on the 1987 album Life) playing an acoustic guitar, with the title of the album scribbled in chalk above his left shoulder. The back-to-basics scrawl of the cover seems to be the norm for all Young CDs nowadays and thankfully far more time appears to have been spent on this album’s contents as opposed to its packaging. However it's typical of Neil that he should deliver his most commercial album in a decade - and then send it in with a dust-jacket that made it look un-sellable. Just to prove that it isn't the Reprise art department and they haven't just lost their touch, there's a far nicer photo from the same sessions as a pull-out poster (the only one in Neil's canon?) 

In every other way, though, ‘Freedom’ is a success, one of Neil’s most courageous and yet accessible records that for the first time since ‘Tonight’s The Night’ adds up to something stronger than the sum of its parts. Neil really is trying to get his star back on track with this record, admitting that after years of comparative failures with Geffen he wanted to make an album that ‘could be heard on the radio’ from beginning to end with ‘a different sound every cut’ and indeed listening to this stylistically variable album is a bit like hearing local radio – it seems like there’s some unity here, but when you study it closely it actually takes you in several quite different directions over the course of an hour. The clever running order makes the most of this hodge-podge of material too, the point where many similar albums in this style fall down, ebbing and flowing between snarling angry menace and peaceful meditative spaces. Other Neil Young albums have better individual tracks and nearly all Young albums have similar emotional peaks, but this lengthy album has a consistency and range that does the man credit. It's that eclecticism which is this album's greatest triumph, with 'Freedom' stuffed full of some of Neil's greatest moments of the period. He deserved his return to the chart highs with this album, even if in truth this moment of glory was slightly over-indulged by critics who assumed that as this album was so good 'Ragged Glory' and 'Harvest Moon' would be too, boosting Neil's popularity for most of the next decade that arguably Neil didn't deserve on his new material alone. However unlike the two bigger sellers to come 'Freedom' really is the return to form that everyone said it was and it remains one of Neil's greatest achievements, an unfairly ignored return to form equally recommended to fans old and new. 

The Songs:

Neil had spent most of the 1980s wrapped up in his own problems, be they his love life, his court-case with Geffen or his family. Neil’s first return to the outside world on [200] ‘Mideast Vacation’ though was at best ambiguous: do we side with the war veteran who was ‘feeling like a fight’ or recognise that its American gung-ho mentality that has caused the divisions in the wider world. On [226a] Rockin’ In The Free World Neil has his cake and eats it, on one of his most popular modern-day songs that manages to straddle the thin line between being heartfelt and sarcastic. It’s the perfect meeting of the two Neils at work here, the one who voted for Reagan and the Republican party because it was practical, but who still wants to believe the Democrat dream. The song started life when Neil tried to book what was left of The Bluenotes once he’d shorn them of their horn section onto a world tour – a true ‘world tour’, one that would involve playing behind the Iron Curtain for the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Some bands (including, famously, Lindisfarne) got in – others were rejected, Neil included. A dispirited band met up in a bar after a gig having heard the news that the Russian leg of the tour was cancelled and Neil asked his bandmates for their advice. ‘There’s only one thing we can do’ mocked Sampedro, ‘keep on rockin’ in the ‘free world’. The phrase got belly laughs from the band and really tickled Neil; just what did his bandmate mean by ‘free’? Was capitalism really so special? Neil, a definite news junkie, must have been aware of just how much crowing went on in the Western world when Russia collapsed, with the sub-plot that it was a moral as well as economic victory and that everyone was happier in a dog-eat-dog society. Neil was less sure. While a world tour opens eyes to how better your standard of living may be in so many ways, it also shows up where ity went wrong and the late 1980s was a bitter time for many in America and Europe, a time when the ‘rich got richer and the rest of us just keep getting old’ to quote from old rival Stephen Stills.

At first this song is pure late 1980s: it’s triumphant, easily Neil’s catchiest song since [210] ‘This Note’s For You’ and has a chorus that delivers the same adrenalin rush of joy as [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’. If you squint a lot then this first recording of the song, taped alone at Jones Beach on a particularly good night, could be genuine; certainly it fits with what lesser bands were writing around this time with its big power chords and sense of indestructibility. In a way it’s much like Bruce Springsteen’s work, of little heroes defying the odds to become winners (Bruce was even a guest at this show, making you wonder what his re-action to a song that almost parodies his own work really was)  However ‘Free World’ switches the usual genre on its head and makes this song about losers, not winners, typically Neil characters who are usually sort of bumbling by but are now utterly crushed by the system. Neil sees red white and blue on the streets, but its not from the flags – its from the brightly coloured coverings the homeless wear to keep them warm, bought when they were idealistic and naïve before the system brought them down. Neil walks down it, rich, one of the few people for whom the American Dream actually worked and it panics him as ‘I don’t feel like Satan – but I am to them’, a product of the idea that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough which is blatantly no longer true anymore. Where near hears triumphant yells of living in a ‘free world’, all he sees are people wishing they had the only freedom open to them, to die. Unlike [84] ‘New Mama’, though, these aren’t addicts in waiting who had some of choice in how their lives took out but the human sacrifices at the altar of capitalist conquest, cast aside more brutally than in any Aztec or Mayan culture. 

Neil follows one character in particular, a familiar trope of late 1980s American songwriting. A baby has just been born to America: surely the baby is born to succeed? But no: the birth comes not in some grand hospital but ‘under an old street light by a garbage can’, quickly forgotten as the mother rushes off to ‘get a hit’. She doesn’t have space to love her child, or hope that he will ever get anywhere in life – instead she ‘hates her life and what she’s done to it’ and now has passed this on to her child. Neil’s anger spits over into a glorious re-make of Stills’ ‘Word Game’ here, complaining ‘there’s one more kid who will never got to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool’. Instead it’s a kid who could have been the making of us all doomed through the lack of love and understanding in their lives. This first acoustic version of the song then ends there, with by the sound of it, half the audience getting this song as they fall silent in pure horror compared to the opening yells while the other half scream on, an audience in as much disarray as the country. Neil’s performance here is brilliant, treating this song like a 1960s folk lament that comments on current times and every note is perfect, his vocal the very sound of as wounded animal, the sights of this random walk down some random neighbourhood still very much in his eyes and his ears. Neil will never be the same again and he will never believe in ‘freedom’ quite so readily. It’s an astonishing song, one that causes his audience to pick sides and ask questions, as only Neil at his best can. However much he moans about being linked to peace and love and the hippie Woodstock generation, Neil is at his best when inspiring groups of people with his ‘humanitarian’ writing as on the classic CSNY single OhioFree World is one of Neil’s best modern examples of this theme, a charging anthem that many will agree with and others who don’t get all the many layers of this song will still be more than happy to whistle along to. Notoriously anti-singles, at least since 1978, Neil never released this sure-fire hit as one but the song took off by word of mouth anyway and by its appearance in several film soundtracks over the years (most notably in Farenheit 9/11 where this song’s contempt-just-below-the-surface made it the perfect finale to this Bush-bashing film) grew a new life away from the late 1980s setting. As great as rock and roll gets, Neil finally returning to what rock and roll was designed to do. If Geffen wasn’t looking over at this track enviously then he had even less idea about rock and roll than we thought. Trump, who by his own admittance is ‘not into music’ (of course he isn’t) completely misunderstood this song and used it during his 2016 election campaign. Neil, who following Geffen said he was done with lawsuits for life, sued his ass off and gave the money to Bernie Sanders’ campaign instead. Sadly it wasn’t enough – something that seems bitterly prescient about the horror in this song.

That’s not even the best song on the album – that accolade surely belongs to [227] Crime In The City (60 to 0), a long and rambling song cut from the same cloth where Neil walks around a town (un-named this time unlike [53] ‘Alabama’ or [83] ‘Albuquerque’, perhaps because every city now looks the same) and notices the same disenfranchisement with society everywhere. As with ‘Free World’ this isn’t quite the song it seems on first hearing either: though the song features may a down-and-out and criminal, the song sides with them and not the smug looking people in charge who don’t get their suffering because they don’t know what it’s like to be cold, hungry, desperate or ‘far from home’. Across multiple verses we get similar tales of suffering, with nobody granted the power to solve the problems at their root cause and everyone assuming they’re doing the right thing only making events worse. Everyone has an ‘awakening’ in this song that what they were taught their whole lives is wrong (so much so that I wonder if Neil is atoning for his pro-Republican statements here, perhaps after his contact with Darryl Hannah showed him what his vote and support really meant to the poor and impoverished). We start with a policeman doing what he was trained to do: track down bank robbers and shoot to kill. However he later learns that the robber was his best friend, his wife and children were in on it too – all he can do is look on in horror as ‘the TV cameras roll’ and he’s forced to support the narrative that criminals are bad guys who deserve to die even though they have threatened nobody. Next an ‘artist’ and a ‘producer’ realise that they have produced precisely nothing: they have a slick backing track but that’s about it. To make them money and to keep up their lifestyle they need a ‘song’ and send out for ‘someone hungry’ to write it who can be treated as a commodity alongside the saxophone overdubs, asking for it in the same breath as a request for ‘a cheeseburger and the new Rolling Stone’. A third verse takes us back to the police who are now in the pay of gangs who give them a better wage than their salary with an understanding that they will never be caught. All these kids are younger than the policeman in the song, paid by a ‘ten year old’ – the irony is that ‘he looks up to me’, presumably for his stability and desire to play by the rules; if the kid lives to do that himself in this community he’d be dead by now. Then we get the payoff: that it isn’t just the characters in this song who are splintered by society but Neil himself. In the most autobiographical verse since [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’ Neil tells us that he’s the product of a ‘broken home’, taking parental love down a phoneline and realising that his  true friends have all moved on to their lives without him. Neil defiantly tells us that ‘I’m doing my own thing’ but it’s the only time in his catalogue this cry of following the muse above all else sounds hollow: you know this narrator would trade it all in for a chat with dad or a chinwag with a close friend. Neil hasn’t finished either, stealing from Bob Dylan as he tells us that he’s ‘getting younger’, acting more and more like a teenage rebel with age and refusing to settle down and be what others want him to be. He’s always been like this – he fights his mon, his teachers, he gets thrown out of Bible school ‘for giving a finger to the preacher’ (sadly not true, but its still one hell of a great line!) Neil does the only thing he can do with his personality as an adult: he becomes a ‘fireman’ setting off on an extended metaphor for putting out the burning fires of injustice and healing with his music where he can. But even he is doomed to fail in a society where everyone fails but the rich and privileged: he ends up an outcast, sentenced to ‘life without parole’ and is left to howl his last words of warning to us: ‘I wish I never put the hose down – I wish I never got old!’ Even the contradiction with what was said just one short verse ago doesn’t matter: Neil feels  younger but his age is against him, irrelevent now to the ‘don’t trust anyone under thirty’ brigade because for all his hard work and spirit the establishment got him too.  

This stunning song is clearly an important one in Neil’s catalogue. I would go so far as to say that bootleg versions of it (where Neil first titled it ’60 to 0’) are amongst the greatest moments of them all in Neil’s back catalogue. The tragedy, though, is that Neil went and re-recorded this song to make it ‘establishment’, even though it is the one track he clearly should never ever have done that with. Though at nine minutes this song feels epic, it’s a kitten compared to the tiger that used to roar across twenty minutes and often as many verses, with extra lines covering: [14] ‘Loner’ who feels judged by society and whose emotions ‘go from 60 to 0’ whenever he feels people staring at him, a ‘rich old man’ who’d ‘been a miser since 21’ who suddenly has a conversion and gives his cash away after ‘not making anyone happy in the way he lived his life’, a judge whose respected and ‘pretty good with the gavel’ if ‘a little heavy on fines’ who doesn’t understand the pleas of a rock guitarist who, while rehearsing, ‘blew someone’s ears off because his amp was too large’, a jailhouse riot after a ‘gate was left wide open’ by a careless guard who then gave orders to shoot every prisoner to cover his carelessness, pulling his trigger ‘through intimidation and fear’ and American Indians in Dakota who ‘lost all their land’ and a girl who dreams of being president but can’t even get into her local basketball team (‘That’s the nature of politics, that’s the name of the game, it’s how it looks on the TV!’ spits Neil at one point). While none of these missing verses add up to the powerful autobiographical one at the end all are quite quite brilliant and really add up to a sense of absolute power and corruption going absolutely wrong that is missing from this shorter version of the song. The tempo too is awful, slowed down from an urgent chord-slashing act of desperation to a muzak waltz where my allergy to saxophones has never been stronger. The musicians too suck at this arrangement even though the majority of them have been playing it live for a year – on the stage this song, performed both acoustically and electrically, is basically a duet for Neil and drummer Chad Cromwell at his absolute powerhouse best, but here everyone is playing pat-a-cake with this song. While fitting with the idea of feeling further apart from society the more you protest, how I wish Neil had stuck to his guns and given us this song the undiluted angry way it was meant to be. I know a songwriter who sadly cared too much about sales, even on one of his best song that was right in every rant and every wail, he softened it for a public he’d lost by degrees, but surely must have known it was too high a price to be free, for what we have got here ain’t a good track but I do love the vocal and I do love the song, hell I wouldn’t mind if it filled up half the album this track could never be too long, it’s a crime in our city that they silenced out town crier, but even at half-speed this track puts out many a fire. Instead of ‘Freedom’ I recommend fans turn to ‘Bluenote Café’ for the definitive version of ‘Crime In the City’ currently out, but even then there are at least half a dozen better performances of this classic song around on bootleg.   

 [228] Don’t Cry really doesn’t take any prisoners though, the first song here taken from the ‘Eldorado’ sessions and shorn of around a minute of knee-trembling goose-pimpling nerve-shredding feedback (the jury is still out as to whether this is a good thing or not). Though dismissed at the time for being a heavy metal wannabe, this song has so much more heart than that and may well be Neil’s most emotional, rawest song. Over a grumbling Rosas bass riff, desperately trying to keep both song and relationship alive, Neil tries several times to end it. he pleads, he begs, he orders, he growls, he beats himself up,  he spits dirty great feathers with ‘Old Black’ having what sounds like a nervous breakdown, but he needs this thing to be over. The irony though is that while he asks his girl not to cry, he weeps great buckets himself on a vocal best described as deranged, Neil’s usual primal howl stretched far past breaking point. For all that, though, Neil can’t bring himself to end this song – every time his primal forces are unleashed and he gets out his emotion he finds himself back in the riff that’s been circling him all this time, settling back onto the cute ‘ping’ as the song carries on as if nothing just happened. He also admits that ‘what I say isn’t written in stone’ and that he’ll hold on to his wedding ring. I’ve often wondered if this is Neil either after telling Pegi about Darryl or perhaps practising for the day that he does. While not immune to writing ‘character’ songs that have nothing to do with his real life, this one just hurts too much – even by neil standards its as if he’s told the power trio of Rosas and Cromwell to go as far out with him on a limb as they dare and everything in the song has been mixed low to compensate for his loudest, angriest, grungiest guitar playing. Forget ‘Ragged Glory’, which is a middle-aged album compared to here – this is the true moment when Neil becomes the ‘godfather of grunge’, as close to suicide as we ever hear them, kicking himself for doing wrong and how ‘your disappointed eyes are haunting me like my big eyes’. The ending, when Neil walks his ex with her things to her car pleading with her to keep in contact only for his guitar’s feedback to finally get out of control and end up in the door slam crash of Cromwell’s cymbals, leaving him with nothing after all that noise and mayhem, is my candidate for the most moving moment in this book. A most under-rated, haunted, harrowing track. 

Matched in many ways by its polar opposite,  [229] Hangin’ On A Limb which is similarly intense but also barely a whisper as Neil promises to give his marriage one last chance over a golden acoustic setting – Neil’s first since 1980 and ‘Hawks and Doves’. Dancing is a key image of many Young songs: it’s clearly linked to sex and dating in Neil’s head as the only way he could hold a girl in his teens without getting attacked or locked up and plays a part in many of his songs (most recently [208] ‘We Never Danced’, a tale of regret for Darryl Hannah). However, in this song, it’s Neil who finds himself out of love, ‘rooted like a tree’, while praising his wife for having ‘taught him how to dance and start again’. Even the fact that Neil is singing in the third person suggests that this song is too personal to sing. Slowly the song bursts to life again as it unfurls bit by bit, with guitar parts and Linda Ronstadt’s pretty vocals added one by one, to the point where this song grows from nothing into one of Neil’s most beautiful songs. Some of the lines are fascinating: where once Neil felt silence in his marriage, now he hears a ‘melody’ that ‘whispers in the halls’ until ‘we played it through the night’ while realising that his decision might have been wrong, that freedom wasn’t necessarily moving on to someone else the way he’s always done but re-kindling it here (‘there was something about freedom he thought he didn’t know’).  The result is a truly gorgeous song, perfectly placed on the album, a healing balm of love and tenderness that kick-starts a run of new love songs for Pegi that will become some of Neil’s best known. I still prefer this tribute to anything on ‘Harvest Moon’ though – it comes with bags more heart and Neil’s voice in duet with Linda’s is the best use of this oft-done Young trick of them all, a song that just has to be a duet made up of mutual love and respect. That’s four strong songs in a row now, all of them as different to each other as could be. What can possibly go wrong?

On any other album [230] Eldorado would be a winner too, but it is perhaps a little too constructed for such an emotional album. This is one of those Neil songs that comes in metaphors and allegories and while there are many great songs along those lines this one only half-works. Musically its great: lighter than the other ‘Eldorado’ songs but still kinda heavy, it has plenty of room for Sampedro’s flamenco guitar and some manic moments when Neil suddenly turns his electric on full power to wake us all up.  The lyrics though are obtuse even for Neil and I’ve never fully seen anyone describe what they mean: they seem to imply a bullfight but that only erupts in the last verse after several previous signs that seem like outtakes from Neil’s ‘Journey Thru The Past’ film: crystal balls, gypsy riders on horseback, ‘riders on the hill’, a poker game across a ‘gold table’ and a Mariachi band who arrive out of nowhere to designate some big cosmic event. My guess – and I stress this is only a guess – is that Neil wrote this song about the rhythm guitarist to who he gives the main riff: Frank Sampedro. This was the period when the two men were the closest they had ever been, having played for three tours solid (with a fourth, ‘Ragged Glory/Weld’ to come) and more than being musicians and bandmates the two were drinking buddies. This song sounds like a typical shaggy dog story about Sampedro’s wild youth, complete with run-ins with the law, gambling and illicit drug dealing. The song is, after all, Spanish (so is Frank via his ancestors – which oddly has never seemed strange even for a band whose most famous song, [94] ‘Cortez The Killer’ actively hates the Spanish of the past).  It’s also colourful but non-committal, an odd combination for Neil (who can be either but never both) unless of course he was trying to protect someone and not give too much away (had this been Neil’s own story we’d have got way more detail and the bull would have started talking!) If my theory is right, though, it’s a pretty great tribute that’s perfectly in keeping with this album’s down-and-outs: despite this heavy background, despite coming from the wrong side of the tracks, despite being scary in his ‘first’ life, Sampedro is now a hero whose welcomed every time he comes ‘home’, defeats another bull and ‘lives another day’. And what better metaphor can there be for a band of bucking broncos like Crazy Horse than a bullfight, taming the untameable and risking being gored by the monster they unleash every single time? A most fascinating track but - due to a combination of the lack of certainty in the lyrics and another EP mix that has to duck everything in order to allow the guitar to sound quite so loud – a harder one to love than some of the other songs here.                                                      

 [231] The Ways Of Love is another track that is perhaps more interesting to analyse than it is to listen to. Musically it’s a cute but oddly un-sexy love song that combines a cute waddle of a chorus, a marching band-style drumming, some surprisingly tight vocals between Neil and Linda once again and lyrics that are Neil’s single ickiest since [118] ‘Lotta Love’. It sounds, though, as if Neil never quite wrote the sweet tender love song he intended when he first sat down: this surely is another tribute to Pegi, a similar treatise to ‘Limb’ in the way love ebbs and flows and a confession about how Pegi is was and always will be ‘my special one’. However there are many recycled Young tricks of the past here designed to make us listen past out first response: that eerie middle eight for one, which plummets to a minor key full of worry over ‘how someone else will sleep with tears when they hear what they’ve done’; also the electric guitar that seems to have been added later and really seems at odds with the cute acousticness of the rest of the song as if mockingly commenting on it; also the rat-a-tat drumming which sounds like a ticking clock. It ,may also be significant that this song keeps looping round, the sad parts leading to the happy parts and back to the sad as if Neil can’t make his mind up; we end with the halfway hybrid that is the chorus (a pretty and hopeful sound still in the minor key), the song dropping away mid-transition. Neil’s always followed his muse and his most natural course, but here he’s met his match with two loves he holds dear. What decision will he make? Only time – and twenty-five whole years of it at that – will tell. Oh the ways of love indeed. If you  don’t know the story behind it though this song is a little - *gasp* - boring by Neil’s highest standards.   

 [232] Someday, on the other hand, tries just a little too hard to impress us with it’s lovely but strangely sparse and dragged out tune and confused imagery involving Rommel the fighter pilot, a TV preacher and workmen at an Alaska pipeline. This is, I think, the album’s intended pop song and potential hit single, sadly smothered by an indifferent arrangement and performance that doesn’t get the most out of what could have been a charming little track. At heart, though, it’s a sweet little number and a rare Neil song about being happy and positive – but decidedly not in the normal American pop song way. There the narrator was, locked up by his own guilt and a feeling that only he had ever done any wrong. But now he sees sin everywhere: every man he thinks (there’s no mention of women, interestingly but he could mean ‘mankind’ here) will face a time when they have to make a hard decision and when temptation will get the better of them. He sees it in supposedly celibate preachers, in war heroes having extra-marital affairs, in oil riggers away from humanity who flee to escape their troubles and ultimately in himself, asking his lover to hold him tight and give him the strength to make the break he needs to make. Everyone in the song, though, has a second chance – perfect for the album theme of down-and-outs. For ‘smog can turn to stars’ and even confusion can be replaced by the certainty that at last you are doing the right thing. This is, perhaps aptly then, the moment when Neil’s quite brilliant and direct lead vocals across this album give out, as if he can’t quite look us listeners in the eye yet and tell us that he’s made his final decision, because he hasn’t. He’s still too torn by his ‘old’ life’ and clearly no longer believes in this song as much singing it as he did the day he wrote it. Another ugly saxophone break, massed vocals that are meant to sound like a chain gang (’praise the Lord who praises me! Hah!’) and an awful dated sounding synth (which comes along just as it seemed that Neil was the only AAA musician not to fall into this trap somewhere across the 1980s – damn, so close!) also make this track sound needlessly ugly and overblown. A remix or even a live revival in a new form would though I think rescue this song from being the weakest on the album – someday.    

Neil is known for his occasional unexpected cover songs but few were surely as unlikely as The Drifters’ [233] On Broadway. Even more unlikely is that it works, this final ‘Eldorado’ track taking a novelty song about naïve charm and hope and channelling it through the thunderclap of rock and roll distortion and noise. On the original you’re meant to laugh – at the song’s good-time waddle, at the narrator’s naïve attempts to be a star when everyone else is busy doing the same, the fact he’s aiming for the top from the first rather than, say, signing up his town or village’s acting school. Neil’s arrangement, though, is a howl of pain: that waddle becomes self-loathing, that naiveté becomes a desperate struggle to be more than just another 9-5 office worker (no no no!) and the narrator is aiming at the top because the pressure he feels makes only the top seem like success. The moment when the song explodes, Neil angrily shouting back at everyone whose ever told him ‘no!’ with the line ‘they’re dead wrong, I know they are, ‘cause I can play this here guitar!...*crunch!*) is delicious, Neil setting off one of his best and most bonkers guitar solos, desperately pummelling away at such an unlikely thing as success. The guitar part on the original was by producer Phil Spector after a regular guitarist cancelled at the last minute – to say the two are different is like saying Neil uses the same style every album! Throughout Neil tries to fly, to live out his dreams, but Rosas and Cromwell’s tight bass and drum playing keep him honest until the end when Young pretty much explodes, howling the  words as if its last chance at success and revealing why so many people become so addicted to blot out the pain (‘Gimme that crack!’ he demands from the listener, to drown out the pain, before screaming all over again). Though dismissed by many as this album’s latest novelty moment, this all sounds harrowingly real to these ears and proof that even the unlikeliest of songs can move you to tears if it’s played authentically enough. 

 [234] Wrecking Ball is the tonic the album now so badly needs and its soothing tones make it one of Neil’s prettier, more straightforward love songs, melody-wise at least. Lyrically this song is not quite so simple, veering from the seemingly autobiographical first verse and the doubts raised later in the song to a generic meeting between soul-mates already covered by just about every writer under the sun. Better known as the title track of an Emmylou Harris album (on which Neil plays), Wrecking Ball isn’t the heavy-handed curdling destroyer the title makes it sound, but simply the unlikely name for a ballroom where two lovers meet. Or at least, they nearly meet – Neil’s narrator is too shy to actually ask his friend to go and hides from the ringing telephone ‘in case you might say hello’, with the romance-from-afar not as sweet as it first sounds as it is seriously turning the character into a nervous ‘wreck’. A sort of sequel to [208] ‘We Never Danced’, this sounds like Neil letting Darryl go but promising that their ghosts will look each other up in the afterlife. My guess is that Neil got spooked hearing the earlier song (something of a radio hit, though never a single) and how close to the bone it cut, telling the listener that after calming down it felt right, that ‘my life is an open book – you read it on the radio’. Neil references back to past songs, as if dropping listeners clues here (ones which I admit I didn’t pick up at the time): as with [112] ‘Like A Hurricane’ this lover comes with ‘smokey eyes’ and Neil tells us a second time that ‘I’ve seen that look before, shining from star to star’. This romance is a hurricane about to bring destruction on their happy homes – and yet for the two lovers at the heart of it, this love is pure, innocent (she even wears white to dance), quiet, right. It’s certainly amongst Neil’s more open and naked works, with nothing to distract us from his soft and tender vocal and his block piano chords (so like parts of ‘After The Goldrush’). As with some of the other later recorded tracks on ‘Freedom’ it might be a little too muted, a throwaway performance of another astonishing song that could have done with a little more – as shaky as Emmylou’s vocal is (on a song she patently doesn’t understand, full of in-jokes and references), Neil’s arrangement on her record is by far the better, with room for two vocals really making this a dance and the fuller band sound all committed to this off-beat waltz. One of those classics-in-waiting that sadly got away.   

 [235] No More is Neil again returning to a favourite theme, that of addiction. Rather than directly mourning Danny Whitten again, though and looking on omnipotently as per [52] ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’, this is Neil recognising that there for the grace of whoever his maker is goes he and that addiction can happen to anyone.  Though Neil’s epilepsy meant his drug habit never got dramatically out of control, he clearly has an addicted personality and re-writes this lyrics to the point where the addiction could be about anything: drugs booze, maybe even music, possibly his new love which he knows he has to say goodbye to but can’t bring himself to lose. The most traditional sounding rocker on the album, cut by his ‘new’ team rather than the power trio heavy metal thrash of ‘Eldorado’, this song is darker and edgier than it sounds, seducing us with its clever riff and ear-candy chords. The song starts out like so many rock and roll songs with an act of defiant drug-taking too before it gradually sucks us in and gets darker. ‘I feel the way you feel – for not so long ago it had a hold on me, I couldn’t let it go, it wouldn’t set me free!’ sings Neil, still smiling and making us think that we haven’t quite heard him right. Then the song pulls up to a dramatic full-stop, recalling [65] ‘Last Dance’ in the way it plummets down a cliff and slides to a full stop. This is a stark warning about how easy it is to lose control over anything, perhaps an intervention which Neil promptly ignores because it doesn’t seem too bad. By the second verse Neil is fully in its throes, in a great line having switched from ‘searching for  quality, having to have the very best’ to ‘now scrounging for quantity, haven’t got time to take the test’. While I know the feeling having tracked down every last Geffen-era Young record not to mention ‘Greendale’) this song really packs a punch given how many people close to Neil had either died or were dying (Crosby and Stills really weren’t good in 1989, as Neil knew well after making ‘American Dream’ with them in 1988). Neil tells us though that he can’t stop looking even when he can’t bear the ending, that he can’t ‘put it down till the last page’. The result is an excellent song that like many on ‘Freedom’ is under-rated against the all-singing all-dancing tracks on albums to come but which has some great moments amongst it. Again, though, the ‘Freedom’ re-recording with its fake smile can’t live up to the ghostly acoustic blues from the 1989 tour where Neil is so intense it hurts, the way a song like this is meant to.  

The album slows down again for [236] Too Far Gone a 1976 refugee that sounds rather good as the opening track of archives set ‘Songs For Judy’ but is decidedly unspectacular here. My guess is that this ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ honkytonk soundalike is one of Neil’s first love songs for Pegi but was left on the shelf because it is at best a backhanded compliment: Neil loves his new missus as much because she keeps him sober and the demons at bay than because he feels any great romantic connection. He does sniff his ‘empty pillow’ with his lover’s perfume on when she leaves, as if to console himself that she is really real, which is amongst the sweetest Young moments of them all, but alas its fleeting in the context of the song. As with much of ‘Freedom’ the music and lyrics are telling us two very different things: though it sounds at first as if Neil is just over-committed and ‘too far gone’ in the sense that he’s scaring his girl off (‘In the morning I knew I wanted to marry you!’), the song goes on to talk about addiction yet again (‘We had drugs and we had booze and we both had something too lose!’) The pun in the title then is what does the narrator really mean: is he too far gone and inebriated to think straight, blinded by love rather than drugs? Neil may well have been reminded of this song thirteen years on because, even though it’s for a different muse to most of ‘Freedom’, it sounds very much like his recent songs for Darryl Hannah. The narrator is confused, unsure as tpo whether a union is a good thing or bad and could either be reminding himself of how much his wife means to him or consoling himself with how his longest lasting marriage also seemed alien and strange at first. Alas time has softened this song’s original blow to the point where its now a hokey country knees-up, polished off by Neil and Ben Keith on their only joint performance outside [71] ‘For The Turnstiles’ as a sunny song that doesn’t even hint at the dark thoughts lurking underneath the surface. While making old songs sound different in a new era is par for the course with Neil, alas this song is a little bit too far gone in the opposite direction compared to the charming and sweet foggy confusion of the original. 

‘Freedom’ then ends where we came in, with lessons still to learn via a frantic, chaotic electric re-arrangement of [226b] Rockin’ In The Free World. This intense cod-Crazy Horse workout (with Rosas and Cromwell doing a great impression of Billy and Ralph) is one of Neil’s most beloved moments of old as its intense even for this album. There is by no question that the sentiments of the opening recording are sarcastic: there’s no mercy in this song and this is no longer a mere protest but a war. Neil is as angry as we’ve ever heard him, his messy double-tracking slicing its way through the rest of the backing as ‘old black’ shreds through the backing like a knife. There’s even room for a third verse cut from the acoustic version, one that updates the sentiments to the present. ‘We got a thousand points of light’ is a line that would have been familiar to Americans in 1989 after being quoted by Bush Senior as a reference to how many reasons there were to feel joyful when he came to power and how everyone was going to be well taken care of. Neil though is in a dark frame of mind, watching these same points of land fall on the ‘homeless man’ who need food and shelter, not rhetoric.  The famous line about a ‘kinder gentler machine gun-hand’ is perfect and returns to the ‘American intervention’ theme of [200] ‘Mideast Vacation’ (namely ‘how can you get peace by fighting wars?’), sung by Neil as if it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. In concert Neil would adopt his closing lines to reflect whoever was in power in any era (where over Rosas’ throbbing riff ‘got a man of the people says keep hope alive’ becomes ‘yes we can yes we can!!!’ for Obama for instance), before the song ends on a ninety second guitar solo that finally lets leash all that pent-up frustration of the rest of the record. It’s an intense finale that’s one of Neil’s best-loved for many good reasons, tough uncompromising and fed-up.  

Overall, then, ‘Freedom’ is something of a neglected classic. Though at the time it was hailed as a major return to form, the mega sales of the two albums that followed it rather stole its thunder amongst the general public, the same way that only true blue Neil fans really know about ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ compared to ‘After The Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’. It remains even thirty years on one of Neil’s most thrilling rides, an album that manages to sound both more musical than anything from the Geffen 1980s years and yet braver too, with several moves that other singer-songwriters just wouldn’t have been brave enough to try. Though the moods of the eleven songs in here are all very different across a sprawling hour, ‘Freedom’ also fits together better than almost any of Neil’s albums with a similar sense of frustration, chaos and yearning. You would be hard pressed to imagine almost any of these songs on any other Young album and yet they all fit here, regardless of their date of recording, styles or backing musicians (something that didn’t quite come off when Neil tried a similar trick on ‘Stars ‘n’ Bars’ or ‘Hawks and Doves’). The result is a triumph that meant that, after a decade of excuses, Neil fans like you and me could finally sit back and say ‘I told you so – I knew he’d be back!’ The success, more of ‘Free World’ than the album as a whole, also saw Neil hailed as the ‘godfather of grunge’ instead of the ‘narrator of noise’ who’d been dismissed for much of the previous decade. You can see why: you don’t need an excuse to enjoy ‘Freedom’ as it just works from star to shining star. This is Neil back to his best, celebrating the ‘freedom’ his changes in circumstances over the past few years had given him. As a snapshot of a multi-talented writer and performer waking up from hibernation and suddenly excited by all the possibilities out there for him to follow, ‘Freedom’ is hard to beat, pointing in several different ways at once just where exactly Neil’s new-found muse will take him (answer: everywhere). In short, ‘Freedom’ gave Neil back his freedom to again be who he wanted and for that reason alone it’s a monumental album in the guitarist’s ridiculously large and fantastically varied canon.

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

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