Monday 15 December 2014

Neil Young "Storytone" (2014)

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Neil Young "Storytone" (2014)

Plastic Flowers/Whose Gonna Stand Up?/I Want To Drive My Car/Glimmer/Say Hello To Chicago/Tumbleweed/Like You Used to Do/I'm Glad I Found You/When I Watch You Sleeping/All Those Dreams

"I'm bearing my soul to you"

Back in July this year, CSNY were the most popular they'd been for a quarter century or so. As someone who loves this band with every fibre of my being, perhaps even more than all the other great AAA bands we cover on this list, it was a joy to see as reviewers and non-fans fell over themselves to declare how wonderful their box set 'CSNY '74' was (even though CSNY's perfectionism meant they'd sat on it for years, it was only so-so by their highest standards and better recordings still lurk in the archives). Anyway, all four had input into the box set - the first time since the 'Freedom Of Speech' tour of 2006 - and all seemed to be getting along famously. The band themselves may have denied it, but a reunion was surely on the cards, one day, perhaps after whatever the next trio of albums Neil Young had bursting through him. But true CSNY watchers, who've followed this band for some forty-five years now, also knew that this new-found brotherhood could only mean one thing: a bust-up was on the cards. And after getting on better than they had in years, it was certain to be a big one. As every fan of soap operas know (and CSNY is the world's greatest soap opera, if only for having the world's greatest soap opera soundtrack), when things seem to be going perfectly and fans have got used to the idea there's nothing like a nice juicy scandal in the ranks to keep fans on their toes.

With CSNY, scandals and band arguments are usually down to drugs, money, time-keeping, show-boating on stage and/or to Bob Dylan in the dressing room after the gig and  women. This time it's the latter, again. Neil recently split with Pegi, his wife of 37 years, and while the couple aren't 'official' yet it's been generally accepted that the guitarist has been dating actress Daryl Hannah (most famously a mermaid in 'Splash', although some fans have been picking up on her role as Morticia Addams in the third Addams Family film as evidence of her ghoulish intentions) for a while now. Probably decades. Had the pair been unattached it would have been a good fit; indeed is a good fit: Hannah does a similar amount of campaigning, is both musically and environmentally aware and has spent most of her adulthood battling with autism and not being afraid to make it public (like Neil with his polio). You sense from interviews in the past that she's as shy as Neil is underneath it all and unlike most of Neil's girlfriends down the years she knows how to handle fame (and as an extra bonus doesn't seem to like the spotlight much except the extra clout it gives her voice during campaigns). You hope that Daryl likes model trains as well because then the pair could have been made for each other.

However, Neil isn't free and single. He's a married man, with responsibilities to three grown up children, dozens of business foundations that would suffer if he was to move/pay a ridiculous amount of alimony and the pair's co-foundation The Bridge Street School (with concerts featuring many musicians raising money for children with learning disabilities) makes this story a much bigger tragedy than a merely personal one (what will happen to the school? Will the pair be able to work together to run it or will one back out? And if so which one - both are so integral to the framework of one of America's greatest modern charities. Editor’s note: Pegi’s sad death rather put an end to that question, but the Bridge School shows have been on hold since 2016 now). David Crosby for one is furious with Neil and spoke out in a typically no-holds-barred way in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, claiming that while he has done 'many stupid things' in his own life (you're not kidding!) he never walked out on a wife after decades of marriage. He and Jan Crosby, amazingly, now have the longest lasting marriage in the quartet, this after a 1960s when Crosby wrote about free love and ménage a trois. He has a point, though not in the way he made it: he was close to Pegi, probably saw Daryl as an interloper trying to get her hands on the Young fortunes and if I know Neil he’s kept his cards close to his chest for all this time and not even told his close friends about his lovelife. However Daryl is not what people might think she is: she is, it’s true, been hanging around a married man. But it’s one she’s patiently waited for across decades, for the moment when Neil realised that his future lay with her not Pegi. She also has a fortune of their own. Theirs is clearly love – regardless of whether it is a ‘right’ or ‘responsible’ love or not. Neil, in a rather dark place right now, uncharacteristically lashed out and claimed he would never ever work with his CSN colleagues ever again. Crosby, a friend of Pegi's as much as Neil's, is obviously baffled and thinks he's trying to help by snapping Neil out of some mad move: as CSNY fans know, it won't work (Neil takes a long time to make his mind up and if he has then that's it for good). Cue what normally happens when CSN have a row: Nash has stepped in trying to smooth the whole thing down while taking sides with neither (we weren’t to know that he had his own marital problems and would leave wife Susan, whose marriage lasted a year more than the Youngs, for a younger girlfriend in Amy Grantham in 2015 and has his own problems with Crosby via his autobiography ‘Wild Tales’, while Stills has stayed stubbornly silent, no doubt raising his eyebrows over what his colleagues have done now and pleased at not being the cause of all the drama this time around). The CSNY story now looks very gloomy - which as all long-term fans know means there'll probably be another album out next year! (It's happened before, folks!)

Anyway, the news has explained a lot about Neil's releases across the past thirty years or so. We commented in our review of 2012's 'Psychedelic Pill' that Neil was 'finally back' after a Geffen-era like period where Neil seemed to be releasing covers album (like the most peculiar 'A Letter Home' from earlier this year), sub-standard albums largely improvised on the spot or dedicated to outside themes like cars and the fictional town of Greendale (sadly without Postman Pat, but with a bandit, a grandpa and an annoying teenage hippie protestor). 'He's hiding something' we claimed, recalling those years in the 1980s when Neil recorded in every genre under the sun because music was secondary to his responsibilities looking after son Ben. What could it be? I mean, surely after ‘Greendale’, that amount of guilt and delaying tactics meant at least murder, surely? Suddenly 'Fork In The Road' in particular takes on a new meaning: we didn't know what the 'forks' were then (except something vague about mankind choosing electric cars over petrol fumes), but this is a kind of 'Chosen Fork In The Road' album, with Neil now very much heading in one particular direction. Going back through these other albums, dating right back to ‘Life’, possibly ‘Landing On Water’, suggests that Daryl has been lurking in the wings as an alternative. Neil has got used by now to hiding his love life in plain sight. We’re so used to hearing ‘breakup’ songs on Neil Young albums (notably ‘Ragged Glory’ and ‘Are You Passionate?’) that in many ways ‘Storytone’ seems old hat. The difference, though, is that Neil is now out in the open about his feelings, he doesn’t have to hide behind a smokescreen and he knows that in the wake of news about his split with Pegi everybody will be going through his albums for clues. 

As a result it’s good to hear Neil so thankful, rather than angry. We’ve had the ‘Gee, I wonder how that could have been in a parallel life?’ record (‘Life’). We’ve had the ‘treat the whole thing as a joke and pass it off as a piece of escapism’ record (‘This Note’s For You’). We’ve had the tug-of-war records where Neil has to balance one sweetheart with another (‘Freedom’).  We’ve had the ‘where did it go wrong?’ record (‘Ragged Glory). We’ve had the ‘I never meant it and I’m going back to my wife’ record (‘Harvest Moon’). We’ve had the ‘mysterious forces are dragging me back’ album (‘Sleeps With Angels’). We’ve had the ‘am I really strong enough to do this for real?’ records (‘Mirrorball’ ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Silver and Gold’). We’ve had the ‘temptation was too strong I couldn’t stop myself’ record (‘Passionate’). We’ve had the procrastination record (‘Greendale’), the interrupted-by-life-events records (‘Prairie Wind’ and ‘Living With War’) and ultimately the ‘ask for spiritual guidance’ record that will I think come to be seen as the real turning point of Neil’s fortunes (‘Chrome Dreams II’). Usually when songwriters make a big life decision they have to discuss it out loud (as Graham Nash will two years later on his return to form ‘This Path Tonight’). But  Neil has already said just about everything regarding his new relationship he possibly can do – and so he looks back to the old one. Neil could have been mean to his ex. He could have compared his loves alongside each other and found Pegi wanting. He could have given endless discussions to his fans about the life decision he made. And instead Neil is just thankful: his parting messages to his ex is that she was wonderful, that he misses her deeply and that his current love reminds him of the ‘glimmer’ he once felt from her. It doesn’t change, of course, the fact that Neil ultimately chose his young lover over his wife and kids, even if it took him thirty years to make his mind up about it. But at least he’s kind. For all its inner sadness ‘Storytone’ is a sweet album, a domesticated set that recalls the Pegi-praising of ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘Comes A Time’ rather than the agonised rants of [243] ‘Love To Burn’ and [247] ‘Love and Only Love’. 

To be honest, 'Storytone' wasn't quite the album I was expecting, with or without orchestra. usually when Neil has made a decision to move on with his life he tends to be happy - especially with a new woman by his side. I was expecting 'Storytone' to be a whole album of happy sappy love songs in the vein of 'Comes A Time'. Instead it's a dark, guilt-ridden message to Pegi, her face popping up everywhere as Neil tries to forget what a mess he's making of his life. Throughout this album Neil addresses his ex-wife while she sleeps, afraid of the bad news he has for her; he sees a 'glimmer' of their early life together every time he finds himself laughing and falling in love with his new partner, he even sees her ghost in the car seat next to him, where she's sat for over half his life, disappearing into the rear-view mirror (Neil keeps his cars a long, long time - that's a Neil Young watercolour painting of one of them on the front, but sadly sans ghost). Finally he addresses both of the loves in his life in the song 'I'm Glad I Found You', thanking his past soul mate for keeping him good and honest and sane for all those years and to his new partner for making him feel happy again. The result is a record with several quotable, poignant lyrics: Neil apologising to 'Mother Earth' for accidentally picking 'plastic flowers' from her bounty of love because he so badly wanted things to work out but realised that he just wasn’t in love anymore. Neil reflecting of his new love that 'your inner spirit is a peace sign to me', as Daryl raises hell on the activism scene. Neil reflecting on all the dreams he once had of growing old and happy in the same relationship that 'will never be now'. Neil is often described by critics as sounding like a lost and vulnerable little boy - even the rocking epics (which sound like a vulnerable little boy plugged into the mains and resurrected with rock and roll). That description has never been more true than on ‘Storytone’, especially the 'solo' half of the record where the naked backing makes it sound like Neil is singing to you, right there, face to face, no hiding this time, the first for a long while (even his last 'solo' LP 'Le Noise' surrounded Neil's voice and guitar in floating feedback).   

Is it the right decision in Neil’s love life, the fork in the road he was meant to take? Well, Neil himself doesn't know yet and his umming and aahing even now clearly shaped a lot of this album. The bad news is that Neil seems inevitably to be entering another dark period because of it, forced to confront one of the most difficult decisions of his life and everything a break-up usually entails. The good news is that Neil's darkest times tend to be the best times for his art and so it proves here. 'Storytone' isn't the greatest of Neil Young albums but - along perhaps with 'Psychedelic Pill' - it is easily his best in a decade (since the similarly dark 'Prairie Wind', written on the back of a brush with death and the loss of Neil's dad). For a start it sounds like Neil has spent some time on this record - the words are carefully composed, the music is subtle and inventive (except the bits that sounds like something else...) and the performances sound more heartfelt than usual, with and without an orchestra. This is the 'real' deal Neil at last, or at least as close as we've been allowed to be for some time and you can almost hear the relief in Young’s voice as he can tell us directly about his true feelings at last. In the unusually open sleevenotes Neil even said ‘the resulting music is from my heart, directly to you’. In all the pages in this book I don’t think I ever remember him saying that before; ‘Goodbye Waterface’ and the serenity prayer in Latin yes, but fuzzy emotional statements, no. 

Interestingly ‘Storytone’ ‘sounds’ the way you’d expect a ‘romantic’ album to sound, which given the circumstances is what many fans assumed they were getting. The songs are almost all slow ballads, played solo and intimate (at least on the first ‘better’ pass on this album, taped by Neil in Capitol Studios). Neil then decided to have another go, figuring that these songs sounded as if they needed an orchestra – again something usually reserved for romantic albums which is why so many of us heard the news that Neil was working with a string quartet on the MGM sound stage and assumed it would be full of lovey-dovey songs after Neil’s feelings were so long in hiding. But no: it’s a collection of last love songs to Pegi because Neil knows he will never get another chance to sing them, all of them dipped on this second disc (or only disc if you own just the ‘plain’ version of this album) in the same bowl of saccharine as [258] ‘Such A Woman’. Neil was clearly excited to be back working with a huge orchestra again and using one for a whole album this time unlike the part-measures of his Buffalo Springfield days, first solo album, ‘Harvest’ and ‘Harvest Moon’. Heard on their own these arrangements are rather interesting: they have a lot more counterpoint than most rock and roll arrangements which tend to think ‘hey, dumb rock fans wouldn’t be able to cope with more than a single line!’ (something that happens more often than you may think) and if anyone involved in this album deserves a pat on the back it’s arrangers Christ Walden and Michael Bearden. Unfortunately, Neil’s voice isn’t one made for bells and whistles and the problems Jack Nitzsche had in thinking ‘big’ when it came to Neil’s songs happens here – everything sinks under the weight of the strings, the horns, the timpani, the extra sodding choirs (again – hadn’t Neil learnt from ‘Living With War’?!?) It’s just too much and sounds alien in Young’s world, where everything is heartfelt and most everything good comes from a first or second take. You can’t make something raw and honest better with an orchestra, only something epic. And these songs aren’t epic. They’re simple. One wonders why Neil bothers with the expensive orchestra other than using it as a ‘gimmick’ or his genuine excitement at being in Hollywood and using a microphone last held by Barbara Streisand: we fans and the critics seem to be united for once in thinking that they're just not needed; that Neil has already loaded the songs with such passion and emotion that adding a schmaltzy orchestral effect sounds 'wrong'. That's not true of the entire CD - 'Who's Gonna Stand Up?', the one 'outward' rather than 'inward' song here sounds nothing on the 'demo' but quite convincing with an orchestra. ‘I Want To Drive My car’ is a dumb blues song without the orchestra and a big band minor classic with it. The opening to ‘Glimmer’ is suitably haunting and poignant.  However the rest of the record is tough going: Neil only needs to sing in that voice and we’re feeling out heartstrings being tugged already; adding an orchestra just makes this feel like a bad film score telling us what to think rather than showing us. 

For the first time in ages I'm pleased to report that a good half of this album is terrific and part of the rest merely very good. What's more the best half of this album feels like a 'unit' - something we haven't had for a while, unless you count songs about motor oil - and unusually the songs seemed to be linked three ways: the Earth Mother, the plagiarists' son and the Holy Ghost. The word for most of these songs is 'haunted': Neil is seeing ghosts everywhere he looks and, like 'Tonight's The Night' he feels personally responsible for not doing something about it all sooner. Alongside this - and two albums on from telling us proudly that he's a 'pagan' ([381] 'Driftin' Back) -  Neil also adds a few earthier references that keep turning up on this album (Neil seems to be looking to nature for a sign this relationship is 'ok' and he's doing the right thing). Thirdly, Neil does what he always does when stressed: rips off earlier songs, some by him and some by other people ('I took this tune from the Rolling Stones, too wasted to write my own' he sings on [79] 'Borrowed Tune'). As ever that doesn't actually matter: this record is still one that couldn't have been made by anyone but Neil. Opener 'Plastic Flowers' is one of those powerful songs that stays in the mind long afterwards, even if its melody steals from Neil's earlier [275] 'Philadelphia', Neil 'having no business' in a relationship he  always thought wouldn't work, but as he puts it, despite all this, 'we lasted quite a while'.  We've heard many a time from Neil that [96] 'love is a rose' - this sequel to what must have been virtually the last song he wrote before meeting Pegi admits that Neil went into it with the wrong intentions, holding 'plastic flowers' that could never have bloomed. 'Glimmer' is a similarly gorgeous song, even if this time the melody is stolen from [59] 'Journey Through The Past'. Neil tries to escape into 'new love' but keeps finding 'my feelings coming back to you'. This time love is a 'tree without leaves', a relationship that only has a 'glimmer' of what it once had (although it's also a 'glimmer' that's powerful to take on its own form, Neil thinking he sees it in the windshield of his car). 'Tumbleweed' is another natural manifestation in an otherwise ghostly song (which this time around steals from The Everly Brothers' 'Walk Right Back'!) A second chance that never came to pass, Neil considers 'picking up sticks' and reflecting on the 'strange delights' even a fading relationship has. 'I'm Glad I Found You' rips off Elton John, worryingly, but is sweet all the same, Neil bidding goodbye and saying hello in the space of the same song and being thankful to both loves of his life. This time the earthy reference is to a 'seed'. Finally, 'When I Watch You Sleep' hovers between waking and dreaming, reflecting that when asleep his partner has 'nothing left to hide'. In one of Neil's career best lines he contrasts her sleepy state with her daily state: 'Without thinking I'm going there too - these are the promises you make when your eyes are blinded by love and the history of fate'. This time the song doesn't steal from anything specifically, although there's definitely an air of [45] 'Bad Fog Of Loneliness' and [67] 'Deep Forbidden Lake' about this song, misery stretching out for eternities.
However, as always it seems, there's a few flies in the ointment. 'Say Hello To Chicago' is an awful song, the [123] 'Motorcyle Mama' of this LP that just doesn't fit, especially when dressed up to the nines with a godawful big band orchestra but in the solo recording too that sounds like every bad song you’ve ever heard played by every rotten jazz band. How very Neil, to waste his biggest production for years (1983's 'Old Ways'?!) on a song so flimsy. Mournful blues song 'I Want To Drive My Car' works better than it did as a solo piece but even then sounds like an outtake not good enough to feature on 'Fork In The Road' (and did you hear what some of those songs were like?!?), Neil banging on about his bleeding car again (he's even got a book of watercolour drawings of them all out now, like the one on the cover: the result is *read out in a Jeremy Clarkson voice* 'like an episode of top gear drawn by a four-year-old with Parkinson's Disease along with the animators of Roobarb and Custard'. Incidentally, it's still way better than anything I can draw). 'Whose Gonna Stand Up?' - the one track where the orchestra embellishes rather than distracts from the song - similarly sounds like an outtake from 'Living With War' that got laughed out the room when CSN and/over the choir got in on the act ([363] 'just singing a song won't change the world' he sings in a direct steal from 'Fork', but again Neil offers no solutions or hope; of course music can change the world - hasn't everyone noticed how much better it's been since The Beatles came to power and how rotten life has been since The Spice Girls first arrived? -  it's just that progress is slow). 

One thing that 'bothers' me about this album is that title; 'Storytone'. What does it mean? Like many fans I assumed at first Neil meant that they have the ‘tone’ of a fairytale? Except they don’t – this is a scary world full of heroes making mistakes, lost lovers fading into the distance and of all the Young albums out there only ‘Time Fades Away’ and ‘On The Beach’ sound as if they had less love in their lives than this one. Is it a red herring to detract us from the fact that the last few albums have indeed been 'stories' full of fictional characters while this is the 'real deal Neil'? Is the saccharine orchestral backing intended to give a 'storybook' tone to the album? (It sounds like a Disney film where Bambi's mother dies every bleeding five minutes!) Is it a reference to how any reality looks like a 'story' when turned into 'art' (just look at the big rusty car on the cover - clearly a 'real' car and clearly well loved and worn but drawn with such dainty squiggles it might not be?) Ignore the title though: this really 'is' Neil (or as close as any artist's work can be to describing their ongoing life story accurately) and it should be filed away alongside similar autobiographical albums like 'Tonight's The Night' 'On The Beach' 'Comes A Time' parts of 'Rust Never Sleeps' 'Harvest Moon' and 'Sleeps With Angel' which, not coincidentally, are generally regarded as being Neil at somewhere near his best. This album may lack the drama of all of these - and in many ways is the 'farewell' yin to family life that was 'Comes A Time's 'yang', with a 'middle aged crisis' to run alongside the 'middle aged contentment' of 'Moon' - but it remains as integral to Neil's career as any of these earlier classics, a cornerstone when art mirrored life and Neil has far too much to say for one LP. Hold on your seats - Neil was never going to head into old age gracefully and after a bit of a bump in the journey it looks like an interesting ride is coming our way once again. 

At one stage Neil sings 'tonight I paint my masterpiece'. 'Storytone' is hardly that: not with such familiar-sounding tunes, variable lyrics and an orchestra that's the worst bit of mis-casting since posh unfeeling millionaire Ian Duncan Smith got put in charge of welfare reform. ‘Storytone’ is in many ways Neil’s most inconsistent album since ‘Passionate’ (at least ‘Greendale’ was all bad!) But it is very much a step in the right direction, Neil going back to being honest with himself and exploring his troubled psyche, instead of rattling on about cars and politics and activists with funny names (welcome as they are in brief). Ignoring the orchestral version for the moment (which is in danger of turning this rather deep and thoughtful record into just another 'what the?' Neil Young  experiment album of the 21st century), this is the best solo acoustic Neil Young album for ever such a long time: 'Harvest Moon' (1992) perhaps. It's the record 'Silver and Gold' nearly was before it started singing nursery rhymes and what 'Le Noise' could have been without the songs getting lost in the feedback. After finding his way back to full rock and roll health on 'Psychedelic Pill', this is the other half of what Neil does so well: simple-yet-complex songs full of moving imagery and sung as if we're the only person in the room during a musical confessional. Neil isn't quite back to full musical health yet, but the signs are good with half an album of some quite extraordinary songwriting. It's just a shame that once again it took a sad, unfortunate, painful turn of events to get Neil back in touch with his muse. Let's hope all three members of this love triangle (six if you count hang on, knowing what Crosby used to be like let's not go there!) find happiness in the end: they all 'deserve' it (although as this album is clear to point out there are no angels or devils and there is usually right and wrong on every side). So 'Storytone', what's the story? To be judged by judge and jury. Here's our verdict...

The Songs:

[389] 'Plastic Flowers' starts off with the same hammered blows of a tack piano-style piano riff last heard on the creepy 'Sleeps With Angels' album. The resulting song is much more personal and blunt, though, less surreal and ethereal, Neil surrounded not by angels or with visions of a pretty afterlife but his own guilt here in the present. It is, I think, the tale of Neil first meeting Daryl. The pair 'came together' because of a 'a threat' that ‘came to harm something we loved’ (they shared several political activist aims and met at a protest against oil corporations putting pipelines through Native American owned land – see much of the ‘Peace Trail’ album to come). Neil reflects sadly 'I thought she liked my style’ and figured that would be it,  flattered at the attention, admitting ‘I had no business thinking that, but it lasted quite a while'. However he came on as if he was more available than he was: he kicks himself in the present day for the hurt he’s caused by holding out a vase for ‘plastic flowers’, because he couldn’t take real ones – they belonged on wife Pegi’s table. What was he thinking? One of the two was always going to get hurt eventually, but somehow he couldn’t help himself as the affair unfolded naturally. The next verse gives us a snapshot of their first ‘date’, holding hands along a riverbank, nothing too serious, just oh so glad to be alive as Daryl unknowingly turns Neil on with her deep connection to the Earth, ‘scooping some river sand she held it in her hand and sang a little song’. It wouldn’t be my perfect date, but for Neil it was exactly what he was looking for – indeed it recalls the description of Pegi on her Harley Davidson in [252] ‘Unknown Legend’. Still, Neil can’t quite bring himself to fall in love – because he’s already in love at home. Or is he? The doubts keep creeping towards him – how can his heart possibly have room to love another if his wife was the one he was meant to be with for the rest of his life? ‘I was doing well’ Neil tells himself repeatedly, but it’s a mantra he doesn’t quite believe: yes he’s won this new love over, but his heart is not his to give. He isn’t doing well at all but doing wrong and deep down, however ‘right’ this feels, he knows it. The result is a pretty song, at least in the 'solo' version, where Neil's keening voice is just the right side of shrill, innocent despite the lyrics and bewildered by the strength of stumbling across an attraction this strong without expecting it. Like [275] 'Philadelphia', the song this piano ballad most musically resembles, this is a sweet piece about an usually unspeakable subject, relayed in such open vulnerable and honest terms that you can’t help but see things from Neil’s point of view, however crooked it may be. Alas the 'orchestral' version tries to turn this into a sickly sentimental piece, an impact doubly unfortunate given that Neil has to shift his vocal down a tone to better fit with the orchestra – even if the fact this makes him sound less sure of himself fits the sentiments of the song, it’s a struggle to listen to. 

[390] 'Who's Gonna Stand Up?' is a return to the more socially aware Neil of the past few albums, harking on yet again about a need for solutions to petrol-driven cars and fracking. As a result is sounds more like ‘Neil’; than anything else on this album but really doesn’t feel as if it belongs here. Sounding like a 'Greendale' leftover, Neil tries to urge the public to stand up with him, taunting 'this all starts with you and me' and that in the album’s clumsiest couplet that we all have a responsibility to ‘stand up to oil, protect the plants and renew the soil’. The trouble is that, by Neil's standards of ecological songs, this one isn't all that great. 'Whose gonna stand up and save the Earth, say that she's had enough?' sounds more like something a weak Jefferson Starship effort would sing than the man who wrote, say, [256] 'War Of Man' or even right back to [20] ‘Here We Are In The Years’ and there's nothing here that hasn't been said before. There’s not much else in the lyrics: hopefully by now the only people who don’t think the Earth worth saving are the sort of people who won’t be persuaded by a song but by big hard cash. Neil’s attempts to ‘save the world’ are, alas, fifty years too late to do much good and had CSNY performed a song this trite and simple they’d have been routinely pounded and laughed off the stage (Neil’s past courage seems to give him an extra suit of armour that avoids such critical backlashes even though his songs can, on occasion, be just as woolly-headed and empty as any of his peers). Neil's 'solo' version doesn't give the tune much room either, being banged out throughout with a bit of simple banjo strumming, but for once on this album the orchestral version is rather lovely. The riff is one much more suited to strings than a banjo and the grandiose gesture (there's even a harp in there for goodness sakes...) fits the epic scope of this song more than the smaller, humbler songs of the rest of this album. Or at least it does till the yukky choir start up, instantly turning this track into bad charity song fodder, although thankfully they don't turn up till near the end. It would have been nice to have heard something earthy here too - that banjo would have done fine - but even so this is the track on the album where the orchestra makes the most sense, moving this similar song as far away from the grungy 'Fork In The Road' feel as it's possible to get. Not one of the better album moments though, in either version. 

[391]  'I Want To Drive My Car' is so 'Fork In The Road' you wonder why Neil felt the need to write an 11th song on the same theme (no one was exactly clamouring for a sequel, although I'm one of the few fans whose actually quite fond of that album). Like that record, the 'car' is merely a metaphor for Neil feeling rather 'lost' - he's looking for 'my way' and searching 'further and further on down the road'. This is the first ‘blues’ song we’ve had since the ‘This Note’s For You’ album of 1988 (which is more or less where the cover-up about Daryl started, interestingly) and while this song suggests Stephen Stills won’t have too many sleepless nights over the competition as CSNY’s bluesiest member, the style does at least suit Neil’s deeper, huskier voice. Lyrically too this is deeper than it perhaps needed to be: yes Neil repeats himself over a simple riff the way all blues songs seem to, but he fits a full story in there too. He’s out of control, he’s lost and alone, he no longer has anywhere he can call home and the best he can hope for is to ‘carry on further and further on down the road’. By the end of the song he’s given up looking for love and is merely out for survival, looking for ‘fuel’ that will help get him down other nicer better life roads in the future. This nicely bluesy song would never win any awards for lyrics (there aren't many, with the same words repeated over and over) but there's a nicely authentic feeling to the solo version (mainly 'bounced' between two notes on 'Old Black'), which is slow and earthy. The Dixie land jazz version has really come to grow on me too, sounding like an entirely different song with its oompah celebratory horns and Neil aping Slade in his guitar work rather than BB King. The backing band turn in some manic energy and given that they’re the same nameless ‘film score’ orchestra used to doing work with MGM rather than playing jazz clubs they sound rather good, especially the blaring horns which out-sock the Bluenotes. Neil puts in a fine fiery guitar solo which isn't on the 'solo' version. To be honest, though, this whole motor metaphor thing was running on fumes by the end of the 'Fork In The Road' record, never mind now...

Thankfully [392] 'Glimmer' is one of the album highlights, a lovely ballad where Neil turns hopeless bar-room confessional. Neil's now travelling alone in his car, after so many years of having a 'passenger' in the seat beside him, and for a second there thinks he sees Pegi's reflection in the windshield, 're-awakening' lots of old feelings and memories just when he thought he was over her. A poignant ballad with shades of [59] 'Journey Through The Past' about it, this is a clever song where the 'glimmer' Neil sees of his old love matches the 'glimmer' he feels with his new love of what their love was once like ('New love brings everything back to you'). ‘Tough love can leave you almost alone’ sighs Neil, ‘but old love can bring the feelings back to you’ as he knows Pegi and what she can give to him, even if they have hit a rough patch. Neil throws in a few poignant reminders about how you can never truly break free from any important person in your life no matter how much you try not to think of them ('like the light that still leaks through whenever you close the door') and interestingly chooses the line 'like the day I couldn't find you' to vocally break down, suggesting this was a real occurrence (was Pegi having affairs too? Or was Neil simply afraid that she was? Or was it Daryl getting tired of waiting for him and refusing to answer her phone?) Funnily enough - and whether on purpose or co-incidentally - this song uses near enough the same chords as [116] 'Comes A Time', the 'hello' song for Pegi to this track's 'goodbye', with two moods that couldn't be more different. This time around the orchestral version isn't so bad: this is after all a very emotional song anyway and the increased running time of five minutes gives Neil's sentiments more space to mingle in the brain. However the solo version is still the one to have, with some more of Neil's ever-lovely piano playing and a much more powerful vocal that, well, ‘glimmers’ with an emotion Neil has been waiting oh so long to release. 

[393] 'Say Hello To Chicago' is the album's big mis-fire. Neil sounds as if he's just remembered to book the jazz band and thinks he'd better give them something to do so he offers up this cod 'This Note's For You' blues song which is overblown even in the solo version. This is another 'memory' song, about walking through rainy American streets waiting for a jazz band to come on, although if I've got my 'clues' right this is a more recent song than it sounds. Did Neil meet Daryl a second time at a jazz night? The narrator's promises to meet up 'near an old theatre where soon I will be playing' and lines about how 'friendship is everything if love is to last' suggests they did sometime early in their sort-of courting. The lines about 'being here once before' when I was 'younger and stronger' also suggest this recent visit was, well, more recent. Neil might also be couching his guilt in terms of blues songs and jazz, genres which were hardly strangers to songs about divorce and mistresses, taking comfort from the idea that in Chicago's long history plenty of people have been through similar and lived to tell the tale. Neil chats up a ‘stylish girl’ but ‘doesn’t know what would be coming my way’. For now, though, he plays things ‘cool’, asking for them not to be ‘strangers’ and that to have any chance at romance they first have to be ‘friends’. Without the context this is a very dumb song that says nothing; in context it’s still Neil only hinting at this big change in his life rather than truly coming out and saying it. Alas what could have been a decent song is ruined by the rather bland melody and the rather lacklustre way with which it's performed in either version. Once again the arrangements mean these two songs couldn’t be less like each other. The full jazz band version is upbeat and loud and just silly: the horns don't go well with Neil's fiery guitar and even compared to 'This Note's For You' Neil is well out of his comfort zone as a blues singer, though the horn arrangement itself is rather a neat one. The solo version on piano is far worse, downbeat discordant and rambling way too much as Neil vamps on the piano, all too obviously a demo this time instead of a performance of equal merit.

[394] 'Tumbleweed' is another special song though, though the 'premise' of it is one of the daftest since Neil was a salmon ([111]); basically Neil has burnt all his bridges and found himself so alone that the only thing that will listen to his problems is a passing tumbleweed.  Which is odd because, when it starts going, this song is about as close as Neil comes on this album to giving Daryl a true bona fide love song. ‘Life is full of strange delights’ he sighs as ‘in the darkness we find lights’, hinting that he hadn’t really considered his new beau a realistic proposal until things truly went wrong with his wife (though all Neil’s records since ‘Life’ in 1987 suggest otherwise). Neil even gives his new girlfriend a nickname, ‘Flower Moon’, tying together two of his favourite stock images. Delighting in his new partner's 'inner peace' (signs of Neil's book 'Waging Heavy Peace' there), this is Neil's tribute to the ever changing world of nature, where nothing is forever but where we can always 'pick up sticks' and try again no matter how bad things get. A pretty, carefree song quite unlike the rest of this rather tormented album, this song acknowledges the fact that such a move is 'going to hurt' but is having such fun that Neil tells fate to bring it on, to 'bite me now'. The best melody on the album is nicely handled on the solo version, with the first ever appearance of a ukulele on a Neil Young album. He's rather a good player for someone so new to the instrument and the sound really suits the sing-songy nursery rhyme flow and the feeling in the lyrics that such a meeting was destined in the stars and goes back through the ages. Of course, the orchestral version has to go too far and the melody doesn't sound anything like as good slowed down and played by violins and harp. If Disney ever need a writer of incidental music for their next film, though, they know where to look...

[395] 'Like You Used To Do' is another blues song, played as a low-key two-fingered twelve-bar-blues on the solo recording and as full band extravaganza blues on the 'orchestral' version. Neither version quite comes off, with this rather ungenerous kiss-off to an old lover again sounding like a weak-kneed 'This Notes For You' 'outtake'. Neil is at his most honest here, admitting that 'I couldn't satisfy you - couldn't show you my love' and that even though he kept on trying to do what wasn't easy for him 'as time went by you just didn't want it no more'. He’s also at his harshest, complaining that ‘I got my problems, but they mostly show up with you’. It is the one song here that’s a little like what fans would have expected, the painful goodbye that paves the way for the ‘hello’ of someone else. Interestingly Neil isn't ready to throw in the towel yet though, zealously stating that despite the very definite end to the relationship 'some day you'll want me...some day you'll see me like you used to do'. A few more lyrics would have gone down well (this song is just three short verses long and none of them say very much), but the solo version is pleasant enough if you like blues pared down to the bare bones, Neil's vocal and harmonica puffing getting the down-yet-defiant mood just right. Alas the orchestral version is just overblown rubbish and the worst perhaps of all the arrangements on the ‘orchestral’ side: Neil tries to be a blues singer but is badly mis-cast, while the blaring horns don't quite know what to do behind him, over-written for a song this simple. Everything is just too smart and tidy, inevitably given that everything is being performed by an orchestra who are used to taking emotions and sticking them into colourful boxes.  

[396] 'I'm Glad I Found You' is though the clear album highlight, another beautiful song of goodbyes that points towards the inner turmoil in Neil's mind. You might have been thinking, on Neil’s last twenty odd records in general and this one in particular, that the whole Daryl relationship was just too much trouble, that Neil should have cut his cards and run. But that would have been to miss out on one of the great flings of his life and in this one track Neil takes his lover aside and tells her that despite the chaos, the broken hearts, the brickbats in the press, ‘I’m glad I found you’. In this song Neil says that he knows how rare and special a connection like this one is, ‘in a sad world where so many things go wrong’. It’s a sweet gesture from a man not known for his romantic songs, easily the equal of [49] ‘Heart Of Gold’ [89] ‘Pardon My Heart’ and [62] ‘Love In Mind’, the quiet still beating heart of this album where Neil sounds at last as if he has found peace. Perhaps pre-empting the field day the press and more especially his band-mates have been having with his divorce, Neil informs us 'so many people don't understand what it's like to be me' before adding that just like everyone else he wants to be loved. While the rest of the song descends quickly into sickly romantic love song area, some of the lyrics are quite clever: referring to Daryl's shared loved of protesting and activism, Neil promises to 'shield you from the things we both see', while referring to press and David Crosby-like outrage with the line 'I'll protect you from the things that come'. Universal in appeal and swarm of heart, it’s a rare Neil song you could imagine someone else doing – but unlike when that sometimes happens ([118] ‘Lotta Love’) it feels right as part of Neil’s catalogue as well, as the guitarist finally comes out and gives a love song to the person whose been on the periphery of his writing for nearly three decades. The moment when Neil pushes up a key unexpectedly on the line ‘you’re like a lifeline to me’, raising the emotional stakes as his voice strains under the effort, is particularly affecting: this isn’t some cosy cute romance that’s going to last a day like [24] ‘Cinnamon Girl’ but a hard-fought for love he’s already been through hell to win but which was so utterly worth it. The result is a rare Neil Young song that will break your heart and make you cry. The solo version is nicely done, Neil's vocal fragile but in no way sentimental and his block chord piano playing has come on leaps and bounds since the last time we heard it circa ‘Silver and Gold’. If only we could say the same about the orchestral version, which sounds like Mantovani doing lift music while Neil seems to be getting a cold and gets the mood hopelessly wrong. Just like his 'Harvest' days, Neil Young and orchestras do not go well together.

‘Storytone’ makes it clear though that this decision wasn’t as clear-cut as leaving one love for another and Neil still finds it hard to let go. [397] 'When I Watch You Sleeping' is one of the most remarkable Neil Young songs in years, with an honesty we haven't heard for a long long time. Which is apt for a song that's all about the fact that two lovers can only be 'honest' with each other when they're 'asleep' as ‘there’s nothing that you hide’ when you sleep, no mind games, no insults. The pair have been fighting all day and will no doubt fight again all day tomorrow, which is their last day together as man and wife, but for now there's a calm before the storm as Neil watches his love in their familiar bed and remembers the good and the bad of their time together, remembering her as a ‘kitten and a lion’ at different times in their lives together. Neil's wordplay as his ex wakes up is exquisite, punning on the 'breaking of the day' when she wakes up and they begin their rows all over again and he feels her ‘stirring’, a pun on the word for causing trouble. Neil sings later that the crows have joined the blackbirds in a dawn chorus, a symbol of death to most poets (Ted Hughes never wrote about anything else!), wondering where they came from. Neil remembers the promise he once made at a wedding ceremony to keep his loved one safe and still feels the pull of it on a wedding day ‘when your eyes are blinded by love and the history of fate’, a ‘dream’ that ‘rumbles’ on beyond them even though both partners have stopped believing in it long ago. Neil vows to ‘never hold you down’ as he remembers the ‘long road’ that took him to this person in his life and on to the next one. Strangely, though, Neil's most honest song in years ends with him hiding away yet again, quickly hiding the smile he wears on his face at how silent and gentle his partner suddenly is in what's quite a cruel and uncharacteristic final verse ('You will never see that! They are inside with my fears, in a place that's fading away and taking on the years'). Instead Neil battens down the hatches, getting ready to fight again, but remembering anew what made him fall in love with his ex in the first place. The result is a stately last long glimpse goodbye from Neil to his partner of nearly four decades and a last lingering lookback before the final shift that's eerily realised, especially in the stark solo version. It just feels so alive and real this song, after so many songs of Neil trying to pretend that all is ‘normal’. The solo version is perhaps the greatest triumph of the album from a songwriting and performance point of view, an impressively courageous and believable song. Alas the treacly orchestral version just makes the whole idea seem yukky and tacky, being about as 'honest' as a David Cameron election manifesto. The result is still a staggering song, though, with an excellent vocal from Neil on what must have been a difficult song to sing once, never mind twice. 

The album ends on a third strong song in a row with [398] 'All Those Dreams', as Neil waves goodbye not just to the life that was but the possible futures that might have been. Picking up from the last song, he creeps off into the night while his ex lies asleep in bed, haunted by memories of what they had planned to do together at this stage of their lives. In a sense he’s also waving goodbye to his old home, realising that this is the last time he is going to see all sorts of milestones in nature that he’s got to know instinctively from his ranch. Alas, though, while the last two songs were timed to perfection, Neil goes a bit too far with his imagery at times here. Neil gets rather fixated with stopped clocks and spends a whole verse painfully exploring the metaphor of a melted snowman which seems to have wondered in from a children's book ('His smile is a twig, his nose a cucumber' - trust Neil not to go the traditional route and use a carrot!) ‘Nothing can bring him back now’ sighs Neil, a punchline you saw coming as long ago as Spring. At least the verses about how he'll miss seeing the usual geese (‘honkers’) travelling back home that Winter (as heard on ‘Helpless’ flying the other way) is poignant stuff, Neil knowing that he won’t get to see them fly in the other direction because in six months’ time he’ll be gone. In many ways this and the last song sounds like an extension of [35] 'Till The Morning Comes' from 'After The Goldrush', with Neil even using the phrase 'when the morning comes' in this song, although the mood is far less happy: the next morning arrives with dread, not with anticipation and excitement. This might be a more deliberate juxtaposition than you might think: my guess is that song was all about getting first wife Susan to move out of Topanga Canyon and move to the ‘Broken Arrow’ ranch, an ultimatum that he was moving and she could come too but if not then they had to part as he wasn’t staying. This time, though, the ultimatum is Pegi’s not Neil’s and Young knows that his time on the place he’s called home for some forty-five years is coming to an end, that morning coming at last. By now the solo performances are beginning to get a bit on the nerves and actually the orchestral version of this song doesn't sound too bad by comparison, perhaps because the orchestra is there for colour rather than as the whole track. This is, at least, a powerful song to end on even if it lacks the oomph of many a Young finale. 

The end result is an album that I think will come to be seen in future decades as something of a milestone: the moment Neil regained his muse by being able to sing directly about what was on his mind. The fact that this album’s twin sequels have shunned this approach reveals, perhaps, just how hard it still is for Neil to confront the life changes he’s made in recent years. That makes ‘Storytone’ a largely unique album, as ‘real’ as it gets from an artist who specialised in authenticity but who has nevertheless been juggling his lovelife somewhat out of sight for a long time till now. So far the poor re-action to this album by most fans and critics seems telling: the distracting orchestra certainly doesn't help but most people seem to hate this record simply because people mostly side with Pegi and Neil’s guilt mixed with genuinely touching songs about the life he let go don’t cut it. The public aren’t ready to redeem a guilty man and Neil’s already burnt his goodwill with the music press after a bunch of increasingly esoteric albums. ‘Storytone’ though isn’t one of them – it’s a step back towards the path Neil always used to take, when he treated his albums like his diaries, keeping fans up to date with what he was feeling and thinking and it’s a joy to have that back again after so long away. The bad news is that 'Storytone' is often  as heavy going and low on flashes of inspiration as any of these other recent albums: 'Le Noise' 'Fork In The Road', especially 'Greendale', with a curious trio of blues songs that sound as if they’ve flown in from some different album altogether. The orchestral accompaniment makes a fairly sugary set of songs sound far too sickly to taste too, not so much a [49] ‘Heart Of Gold’ as Heart Of Gold-plating. The good news is that the songs that do work are quite brilliant with and especially without an orchestra, with five maybe six truly sublime compositions that also bring out the best in Neil as a vocalist, as his voice is finally allowed to quiver without giving the game away. It might be significant that the last time Neil released a 'bluesy' album (which admittedly this is only in part) he followed it up with a cracking run of some of his best loved LPs ('Freedom' 'Ragged Glory' 'Harvest Moon' 'Sleeps With Angels'). There's certainly enough promise in 'Storytone' to suggest that the glory days may be here again soon and the ragged majesty of the 'solo' recordings of the better songs here really do suggest that Neil is back to pouring his heart out and telling things straight, after hiding behind characters and snatched cameos of autobiography as per most albums recently. In short, I rather like it - I don't love it the way I love 'Tonight's The Night' 'Trans' and even 'Prairie Wind', but the creative breezes are blowing in the right direction and Neil's honesty and poignancy wins my respect far more than the last decade or so taking it easy. 'Storytone' sounds like a hard album to have made, confronting a lot of difficult home truths, and on that level alone it's a 'landmark' album, even if creative inspiration isn't quite here with the plentiful abundance there used to be. Admittedly we said this first after the release of 'Le Noise' and have said it again every review since, but I await the next Neil Young record with great enthusiasm as the signs here bode well: will a fourth career peak be in sight the next time Alan's Album Archives reviews the latest release by our most prolific star?

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