Monday 6 July 2015

Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Broken Arrow" (1996)

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Broken Arrow" (1996)

Big Time/Loose Change/Slip Away/Changing Highways/Scattered (Let's Think About Livin')/This Town/Music Arcade/Baby What Do You Want Me To Do?

"The lights turned on and the curtain fell down, and when it was over it felt like a dream. Could you tell that the empty-quivered brown-skinned Indian on the banks that were crowded and narrow held a broken arrow?"

Hopes were high for 'Broken Arrow'. Usually fans had to wait years for a Crazy Horse album and yet here we were, just three years and two records on from the surprisingly excellent 'Sleeps With Angels' with another CD from the group that understood Neil's music and muse like no other. The album was seemingly named after one of Neil's most fascinating and oblique compositions, the 'Broken Arrow' song from 'Buffalo Springfield Again' whose epic collage style is still just about the only genre Neil hasn't given a whole album to at the time of writing (as it turns out 'Broken Arrow' was actually named after Neil's home recording studio, where this album was made, although that was itself named after the Buffalo Springfield song). Neil was at the end of a ridiculously good run which stretched back all the way to 1989's 'Freedom' and his last album, the Pearl Jam collaboration 'Mirrorball' was unfocussed but more adventurous than expected, with another whole batch of experiments most of which worked pretty well. After a rollercoaster 1970s and a destructive 1980s Neil's career seemed back on track in the 1990s and he had the knowledge - rare for an artist of his age and generation - that he could release almost anything and it would still sell.

So what does Neil do? He lets us down, badly. 'Broken Arrow' is a largely failed attempt to return to the long-style free-form jamming of the 'Ragger Glory' CD of 1990 that takes all of that record's problems (the lazy playing, the similarity of the riffs, the lack of excitement in the performances, the fact that each song should by rights run for half the length it does because the band's instruments won't stop blooming feeding back!) without the occasionally interesting songs to go with it. I'll be honest, I wasn't really that keen on 'Ragger Glory' (the weakest of the 1989-1995 run) but at least it had some good moments that sounded 'real' courtesy of 'F!$*)&^&(in' Up' and 'Love and Only Love' in between the unfocussed jams and extended solos. By contrast every track  'Broken Arrow' sounded the same for years to me, with the same ragged, frustratingly empty song structure played in seven different ways and stretched out way past breaking point (all apart from the last, a deliberately poorly played and recorded Jimmy Reed cover that seemed to be here simply to laugh at the fans who'd hung around in the vain attempt the album might finally get going). In 1997 'Broken Arrow' sounded like the most godalmighty mess released by a band who could have done anything and yet chose to release this sloppy disaster as an insult to fans. People magazine nominated 'Broken Arrow' the 'worst album of the year'. For once even I couldn't argue against the tired old claims that Crazy Horse couldn't really play more than a few notes, that the songs were too long and rambling and I even secretly began to wonder if Neil was really as good as I always thought he was.

Here in 2015, after a great long run of weak albums which runs at least until 'Prairie Wind' , possibly 'Fork In The Road' and maybe hasn't quite ended yet depending how I feel, 'Broken Arrow' seems more interesting than it ever seemed at the time. Nearly twenty years of returning to this album every so often (not that often you understand - I'm not a masochist!) has revealed little nuances and subtleties that I never actually heard the first hundred or so times round. Neil's lyrics - so hard to hear on the record and so blinking impossible to read in the chopped up scrawl in tiny print inside the lyric booklet, complete with crossings out - are actually far more revealing than they ever seemed at first. I'm not sure any tracks have quite grown on me to the point where I love them and every single song needs to run at least a minute shorter (with some of them it's more like five!) but a few have slowly begun to stand out: 'Music Arcade' is a lot prettier than the one-note Nirvana-style acoustic whisper that once seemed to offer so little; 'Big Time' is an interesting mixture of one of Neil's most 'tradiutional' riffs and most 'out-there' lyrics; the angry, desperate 'Slip Away' is actually packed with oodles of emotion I missed the first time around - mainly because I was so busy trying to work out why the guitar riff seemed so familiar (it's basically the middle of 'Like A Hurricane') and figuring out what the lyrics actually were. Of course the rest still sounds abominable, with 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?' still the single worst Neil Young moment not to involve a country choir or a hard-thrash metal band or a 'Motorcycle Mama' at the time of writing. But somehow it's slowly turned into an 'abominable' I can appreciate more, partly because at least there's something going on inside this album worth sifting through and looking for; by contrast it's been twelve years of playing 'Greendale' now (about one a year or so, when I'm strong enough - I'm really not that masochistic!) and I still hate the darn thing from squiggly drawn cover to characters I just want to slap to the same song repeated on and on and on. But that's another story....For now, all you need to know is that 'Broken Arrow' still isn't one of Neil's better ideas and only very very occasionally and after a lot of work has something to offer - but I no longer doubt whether Neil was as good as I hoped he was; it's clear that this is the work of a genius at the start of a rare off-patch rather than a nobody who got lucky. 

I'm intrigued to know what the reception of this album might have been like had it, say, turned up in the middle of the 'Greendale/Chrome Dreams II' patch when fans were desperate for something, anything, as proof that Neil Young's muse was still complete and beating. In the years since this one-take, one-shot album was made (something only tried a handful of times before this, on 'Tonight's The Night' where it works, 'Landing On Water' where it really doesn't and 'Ragged Glory' where it works sort-of, in parts; 'Mirrorball' kinda has this feel but at least Pearl Jam had a little rehearsal time) the 'Broken Arrow' sound has become the norm. Rather than go to the trouble of tidying up the loose ends and losing the spark that made a song great, Neil's just been releasing recordings almost as soon as he makes them, warts and all. The last two decades have given fans like me rather good practice at trying to celebrate the rough with the smooth and 'hearing' what songs might have been as well as what they 'are'. 'Broken Arrow' is one of those records with a lot going on under the surface, if only you're patient enough to work out what that is, even though Neil has left you no clues to where the treasure is and only the vaguest hints that the treasure is there at all. It's  one of those records where I'm oh so frustrated that Neil didn't spend even a week longer making the album, treating the recordings we have here as 'rehearsals' for the proper album to be recorded later. This is an album that's fragile, emotional, actually quite different from the detached fury of 'Sleeps With Angel' (an album that suddenly seemed wildly over produced compared to this one!) It deserves a fragile, emotional centre - the sort of thing Neil used in his Buffalo Springfield days ('Mr Soul' 'expecting To Fly' and funnily enough 'Broken Arrow' all have the same sort of life's-going-too-fast-I'm-going-to-fall feel of this album). It deserves a performance that's as committed and intense as the lyrics are - and a band that know the song's better than merely being given a half-hearted rehearsal and a quick re-cap of what key each song is in. Usually Crazy Horse can just about get away with this sort of thing by holding on to Neil's coat-tails as he pours his heart out and have enough telepathy with him to catch him when he falls - but Neil's not at all right across this record. His vocal is somewhere else, barely mumbling the words and making no emotional connection with any of them. It's no surprise that the live recordings of this record (see next album 'Year Of The Horse') beats this one by miles - many live Neil albums do - but the gap between the half-hearted collapsing songs on this album and the versions on 'Year' are particularly wide. This album demands grit, emotion, pristine sound so we can hear every single intake of breath and thought flickering across Neil's voice, it needs rehearsal time so that the nuanced intricate songs can be given subtlety and justice. It even needs an orchestra - not something I'd say about many a Neil album, but this is one of those albums where Neil needs to sound small against a world that's huge and hitting him, hard. Instead we get an album with two guitars, bass and drums (and then not much for poor Frank Sampedro to do, all too often stuck on the same two notes on rhythm guitar). It needs overdubs. It needs re-takes by the bucket-load. It needs cutting down to manageable size. It needs pristine sound, not the messy echoey sound it gets here (and even more so with the live 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?' recorded at a 'secret', unbilled Crazy Horse performance in California on a hand-held microphone). 'Broken Arrow' should be offering fans peace - instead it's declaring war.

You can't really hear them and you can barely read them but this album's lyrics are by far its best suit. Yet again (see 'Trans' especially) it seems as if Neil is hiding some of his most nakedly confessional writing in the hope that most fans will be too put off to read them, despite the fact that they are amongst Neil's best sets of words of the decade. Throughout there seems to be the half-theme that Neil is caught up in something he doesn't believe in and wants to escape, which puts an interesting slant on just how deliberately off-putting this album is (he's become too successful and longs to be a cult without the pressure of a mainstream act; 'Sleeps With Angels' was cryptical and confusing and yet too good to truly do the trick, instead receiving reviews about how 'brave' it was). It's the 1990s equivalent of 'Time Fades Away', when travelling down the middle of the road has nothing left to offer any more so Neil heads to the musical ditch, just not the Geffen-style ditch where every street comes paved in different colours. Instead Neil changes his writing structure and production this time around instead of the genre and content. However Neil is also enjoying such momentum that he doesn't know how to stop (which might explain why this record is full of songs that never seem to want to flipping end). 'Big Time' promises to 'leave the pain behind', to 'leave the fools in line' and promises that 'I'm still living the dream we had -for me it's not over!' 'Loose Change' has Neil 'building a road to the promised land, right up to the gate!' but he never walks inside; instead 'there's loose change in my pocket, the future in my hand' and he merrily turns round to explore somewhere new before the gates close on him and trap him forever. 'Slip Away' unites the two themes with a mysterious other who 'lives in such pain' trapped inside her 'stretch limousine' (a source of being trapped for Neil ever since 'Out Of My Mind' on the first Springfield LP, back at a time when no one knew who he was!) but can still escape when the music plays (is this not a character but Neil himself, longing to stop and escape the trappings of fame but still feeling compelled to keep going and searching for something new?) 'Changing Highway's is a simple two-verse song that has Neil trapped 'in heavy traffic' so he looks for a new, emptier, more interesting lane to drive in. Neil even invites the listener along to join him ('Hello stranger...oh, is this your exit too?') 'Scattered' finds the narrator confused, lost as to where his true direction is, but still vows 'when the music calls - I'll be there!' 
'This Town' has one of the shortest of all Neil Young lyrics (a mere 34 words, a fraction longer than 'T Bone') and seem to confess to being on auto-pilot 'asleep when I'm walking around this town'. 'Music Arcade' is a frank confession of where the now 52-year-old singer feels he is with his life and career, inevitably 'rusting' after so many years of trying to stay real and authentic but 'still moving pretty good for my size'. Neil spends this song too walking down the 'main street, dodging traffic with flying feet' but it's clearly not safe for him there and Neil feels uncomfortable when he's reminded what 'real' hunger is when the window-clean comes round to do the windows of his mansion, desperate just to scrape a living ('Does it harmonise with the things that you do?') He sighs at the end too that 'I really didn't mean to stay - so I'll be moving on...') Only the painful blues pastiche of 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?' doesn't fit this album's missive - to run, not walk to the dangerous places where the muse comes quicker and seems more 'real' and yet 'Baby' might well be the most integral song to the album theme: no fan wanted to hear a Crazy Horse cover of a song everybody else did and certainly not one recorded in such awful bootleg-style sound. It's Neil's closing statement that he means what he says across this album - he's heading for the ditch, we can follow him if we want - or not.

I'm still not quite sure whether 'Broken Arrow' offers enough reasons to follow or not. While I admire Neil's courageousness in refusing to deliver another mainstream album, there are a million others ways this album could have been made better. This could have been another 'Tonight's The Night', sloppy but just right, full of wistful glances over the shoulders to fallen comrades and vowing to plough on regardless, whether the band know the songs or not. It could have been another 'Trans' a gorgeous, oh so sad confessional about personal struggles delivered in such a way that you have to have a degree in synthesisers and vocoders to understand the communication problems going on. It could have been another 'On The Beach', a work we weren't meant to 'get' at the time but only uncover in waves, as each layer of surface sound and production comes undone to reveal the dark edges barely concealed underneath. Instead it turned out to be another 'Ragged Glory' - the scene of the Horse's last great triumph - only less interesting. Many fans, remembering the rigid metronomic beat of that earlier album and acknowledging the similarly extended running times merely assumed that Neil was trying that trick again, just with lesser songs. But actually 'Broken Arrow' is potentially a much more interesting album than 'Ragged' - the songs all say the same thing but in very different ways (as opposed to the same song in nearly the same way); the desire to break convention and do something 'real' sits in great contrast to Ragged's belief in returning to where Crazy Horse left off after Danny Whittens' death in 1971, cashing in on their return to a traditional sound in the process. 'Ragged' has the very best songs out the two (though 'Arrow' is more consistent) and by far better the performances, with a committed Neil and Crazy Horse at their angry, loud best whereas 'Broken Arrow' is muffled and mumbled with Neil so desperate to reject any sense of 'top 40 radio' that he seems to turn in a deliberately poor set of vocals (and poor Crazy Horse are reduced to even less rehearsals than before to make sure they play it 'safe'). However 'Broken Arrow' is the more interesting, proof that Neil is a one-of-a-kind performer who'll sacrifice everything to follow that instinct, even when it leaves him recording an album that (at first) appears as 'bad' as this. In times to come Neil will release albums that really are devoid of inspiration and sound as scrappy as this one is intended to (see 'Greendale', if you must, and 'Chrome Dreams II' in particular) - but 'Broken Arrow' is the real deal, the moment when Neil turns his back on his hard-fought successes and makes true to his promise to never ever sell out. A worthy album, then, but admittedly a difficult one to sit through.

One last thought: why is this album called 'Broken Arrow?'It surely can't just be the official explanation that the album was recorded at Neil's studio of that name or 'Ragged Glory' and several others would sport that name as well. Neil's never been short of album titles in his career ever (apart from 'Neil Young' perhaps) so it seems strange if he just went for the nearest name to hand. Back in the Springfield day he said that a broken arrow was an Indian symbol of 'peace' - that you couldn't be shot at by an arrow if your enemy had broken it as a sign of friendship. Does Neil think of mainstream music as a 'war'? Are the mainstream arrows fired in our direction (some of which stick and get under our skin) a war between the mass conglomerates for our soul? Is this why Neil 'breaks' his arrow and decides to play no more part in that battle (a battle in which, so far he's kept his word). Or have I been at the wine-gums again? Note though the album cover which seems to unite the twin album themes - a public schoolboy, whose clearly being taught to play music the 'mass market' way at some posh school, has his picture transplanted onto some Indian tepees (and, if your eyes are really really good, some Indian dancing around them in the dark). Is this Neil refusing the mainstream society ways and returning to his Indian instinct heritage (a 'one take' recording technique he's used on almost all his records from this one to the present day). The two seem to tally up, with the wonderful innovation of not actually printing the album title on the sleeve: instead there's a simple picture in red of an arrow, broken. (For years I wondered about the signifigance of the 'N/P/R/B' and list of songs in the top right and then it struck me: it's Neil's, Poncho's, Ralph's and Billy's song choices for the upcoming 'Year Of The Horse' tour - Neil wants to play 'Like A Hurricane' among others, Poncho has the most interesting list including 'Losing End' he didn't even play on, Ralph favours 'Barstool blues' and good on you Billy for suggesting the revival of 'Dangerbird' which is the highlight of the entire tour!) However before I get over-confident I haven't got the foggiest what Neil's drawing on the back means (a person with his hand over his eyes, pointing - it's not recognisably like Neil or any of Crazy Horse, though to be fair my pictures never look like the people I want them to either and perhaps Neil's just bad at drawing). Is he pointing away from the highway? Is a car crash about to happen in the middle of the road if he doesn't get out? Is he warning fans to skip this one and wait for his muse to stop beating him over the head about authenticity and he'll be back to normal later? Whatever the cause, the quiver is empty and the banks that were so crowded and narrow are parting now, all thanks to 'Broken Arrow', a weird and largely unlistenable yet strangely compelling CD.

'Big Time' is, just about, the highlight of the album. This one comes with an actual bona fide melody and an intriguing chord change that would normally feel 'sad', slowly sinking inwardly into itself as Neil's crunched guitar lines pull against the prettiness of Sampedro's rhythm and giving the feeling of tension. But lyrically this is the happiest Neil's been in some time - he's looking forward to a 'holiday' of sorts as he plans his journey in 'an old black car' and travelling out to goodness knows where with the hope of 'getting my feet wet in the ocean'. But it's not your typical holiday and Neil isn't heading towards the 'big time' (a line that's only a minor part of one line of the song) but away from it - as fast as he possibly can. Neil stares out at the ocean, watches the big liners passing and contents himself with the fact that he's not travelling where they're going anymore 'kinda like a wave confused'. A fiery guitar solo that isn't so much played as thought comes next, loud and angry, as if Neil can't believe he sold his soul for so long. A third verse then tells us about walking away from the 'gold mine', the 'rich vein' he knows is there in the highest mountain he'll ever see in his lifetime but how scared he is by that side of himself - scared of 'that enemy inside of me'. Throughout the song keeps breaking off for a curious chorus that seems to sit outside the song: 'I'm still living the dream we had, for me it's not over!' At first I assumed, much like everyone else, that Neil was back to singing about romance here - but is Neil singing about the dream of not rusting like everybody else his age? 'For me it's not over' he screams before heading into one of the strangest and most unmusical guitar solos, every single time. Note the fact that the song doesn't end - it slumps, finally crashing in on itself after running out of lines - this is a journey that hasn't reached its destination yet and Neil can't tell us the 'resolution' because he's still living it. At the time this album first came out 'Big Time' seemed like a disappointing attempt to match the grandeur of the longer Crazy Horse jams without the material - a weak-kneed 'Down By The River' or a 'Change Your Mind' without the spookiness. But I've come to appreciate this song more the more I've got used to the album: it's a song that's forever in search of the chord that will 'resolve' the song and make everything alright but despite nine fierce minutes of rocking it never quite finds it; instead we get a Neil who longs not to jump through hoops anymore informing us that he's given up on his career. It's a watershed moment this song, setting out the course of the next two decades and counting of Neil Young releases, but at first it doesn't seem like a big moment - just a Neil Young extended jam that never quite connects.

'Loose Change' has been accused of ripping off 'Creedence Clearwater Revival' (specifically the song 'Down On The Corner') and it's certainly one of Neil's laziest moments with a simple doo-doo-doo-da-dum dum riff repeated throughout for nearly ten full minutes. Neil again sounds so disinterested he might as well be reading his shopping list and his Bob Dylan style harmonica playing has got worse, not better, with age. There are lots of reasons not to like this track in particular - and yet once again I've come to appreciate it's slinky groove a lot more with the passing of time and the lyrics are amongst the best on the album. Neil is looking forward to the future, the loose change collecting in his pocket so much more rewarding than the millions he was making and 'the future in my hands' - he's fulfilled all his obligations and is now working for himself, the 'house of cards' of beliving his own stardom now merrily crumbling behind him. As ever with Neil he compares his life to a series of roads: some worked out, on some he 'crashed and burned' and lately he's been down a cul-de-sac but he's back on the road now and is thrilled to explore the end of it, unsure of where it leads. The lyric booklet includes some fascinating fragments that never made the song that point further towards Neil's state of mind: 'Take me round the corner, take me up the road, take me in the back door!' Had Neil performed this song with a hundredth of the enjoyment with which he wrote this song could have really been something, but he sounds zoned out of it and even some rare double-tracking doesn't help the words become any clearer. As for poor Crazy Horse they clearly don't know this song very well and are too afraid to stretch out in their usual style, the planned solo from Neil ended up being backed by a band who stick religiously to the same chord for five full minutes, too afraid to go anywhere else. You can see why Neil should want to perform this song with the same wild abandon with which he wrote it, but this is not how music should be made, with a band who don't even know the song yet. Like many a track on this album, the natural end point comes a mere 3 and a half minutes into the song, whereas the band play on for a further six, not to any great result.

'Slip Away' is a third lengthy song in a row - between them these three songs make up a full twenty-five minutes of the album's forty-seven running time. It sounds more substantial than most on the album though, with a lovely series of chord changes and a similar sense of drama and claustrophobia to 'Cortez The Killer' and 'Like A Hurricane'. The lyric is fitting to the melody too, forever starting over in the dark and the minor key and only gradually stumbling it's way to the 'light side' when the chorus starts up and the music causes Neil's character to 'slip away'. This is after all one of Neil's most descriptive, image-filled songs. Like many of Neil's characters, this girl is hurting, she's living in a 'tv sky' (she has a satellite dish? Or a much wider comment about having her head in the clouds of mass media?) in 'such pain', 'hides' herself in a limousine. In verse two there's an abandoned baby crying, lost at the bottom of a valley where a wind turbine flies on top, as far away as it can be from where the 'power' is, struggling to communicate. This could be a reference to the gulf between the rich and poor and yet how both are dead miserable - or possibly a comment on how Neil can 'see through' the riches because they nothing to his poorly son Ben, struggling to make his voice heard. Both are seemingly only healed by music, by 'slipping away' into some sense of 'other' out of body experience that can help them forget their woes (shades of Neil's epilepsy here again perhaps?) and which is open to rich and poor alike, the two characters having more in common than they thought. The way this section takes away the sting of the rest of the song so subtly, like the sun coming out from behind a crowd, is the musical highlight of the record and Crazy Horse's off-beat summery harmonies rarely shimmer more prettily than here. So why isn't this track always nominated as one of Neil's best? Well the problems across the rest of this album go double for this track. It could have really been something, but the instrumental passages between the verses and choruses are about as boring as Crazy Horse ever will be and Neil again sounds as if he's intoning these lyrics, not singing them from the heart. The ending instrumental finale makes it's point early on and then can't get away from it, taking all that golden possibility of music 'healing' and going anywhere on a journey - and then staying repetitively in the same neighbourhood, never leaving the one chugging chord for the entire second half of the song. This is perhaps the song on the album that most 'slipped away' as it were - I'd love to hear it re-cut by an on-form Crazy Horse now that they understand the song better and the live version from the 'Year Of The Horse' album is so much better in every sense, crackling with the electricity and life this studio version hasn't tapped into and explored as yet.

'Changing Highways' is an ugly song that says what the rest of the album says in short bullet point form and a melody ripped off Neil's own 'Motor City' (already not one of his better moments - on the plus side at least this song isn't quite as insulting and racist though, but at least if you're going to rip yourself off Neil rip off your better songs!) After three epics the song's brevity comes as something of a relief, but it also means that this song has an uphill battle to sound anywhere near as substantial. Neil fits in a quick few verses telling us about being stuck in a traffic jam and wanting to be free and his decision to turn into another lane - but this isn't some life-changing moment as the lyrics would hint but simply swapping one chugging sped-up 12 bar blues for another. Neil might be looking for spiritual guidance in the second verse or even the support of his 'core' fan base as he says 'hello stranger, is this our music?' Is this your exit too?' although it would have been nice to have actually heard the 'relief' at the end of the song when Neil gets to his destination (trust to decide to depict the sluggish relentless traffic jam instead!) There's a nice burst when Neil starts playing the harmonica (properly this time) and there's a great unexpected chord change - but then we're back at the first verse and as trapped as ever. Don't change highways, just change the track instead...

'Scattered (Let's Think About Livin') starts off so promisingly: the catchy riff, so similar to 'Alburqueque' but happier, suggests a classic in the making and the lyrics - easier to hear than others on this album however much Neil growls - seem at last to be dealing with deeper subjects. But while 'Scattered' is another of the album's better moments it does far too good of sounding as scatterbrained and unfinished as the subject matter. Neil's 'a little bit here, a little bit there', a 'little bit high, a little bit low' and as knocked off his feet by life as he ever was in 'Like A Hurricane'. Now that we know a bit more about his history and love life (kept quite from us for so long) it seems likely that this is an early song about his affair with Daryl Hannah and the confusion about whether to break away or not, a theme that will crop up many a time across the next few Neil Young albums until the relationship is made public in 2014. Neil is looking for signs about what to do and seems to find one in a shaky yet beautifully haunting middle eight where 'like a comet painted on the sky, like an old soul over darkness you'll fly'. Note that word 'like' though - this isn't a sign from the heavens but Neil interpreting what he sees before him. Neil hears music when 'she' (although it could be a 'he' the ambiguous way the song is written) walks in the room and takes that as a sign of 'no more sadness, no more cares' in the hope that they'll be together in the future. Once again though the song doesn't make the best cake out of the excellent ingredients it's been given and clearly hasn't spent anywhere near long enough in the oven. Neil's vocal is pencilled in, sketched before a 'proper' vocal is laid down which never came. Crazy Horse stick a little too religiously to the repetitive rhythm and only really find their groove when the middle eight drifts in out of nowhere. There's less drama to this song than there should be, the journey from A to B sounding workmanlike instead of the revelatory experience it ought to be. At least looking at the positives this track ends when it should, stopping when the track naturally reaches a conclusion rather than rambling for another five minutes. And yet this is a song that should be rambling - it's another track all about the joy of exploration and trying to find the right answers to a complex problem that then doesn't bother going any further out of doors than it needs to for the full course of the song. The track makes much more sense in concert where even the appallingly performed version on 'Year Of The Horse' makes more sense stapled to the similarly scatterbrained epic 'Dangerbird'. The difference between the two, though is, that 'Dangerbird' sounds overbearingly hopelessly real and 'Scattered' sounds like an audio experiment that doesn't quite go anywhere. 

'This Town' is another minor three minute song based around a simple chugging riff that ought to be beneath even Crazy Horse but the shortness and simplicity of the song and the directness of Neil's voice for a change does at least make the song stand out across the album. Again, though, it sounds unfinished - the verses end naturally at the chorus which peals off with a glared 'Thissssss Towwwwwn!' as if it's some big revelation but we don't know what the revelation means. After all, it's not like we're given a map or anything - this town just seems to be a metaphor for how trapped Neil feels. There's an intriguing lyric in the first verse which is never really taken up: Neil's only 'awake' when he's dreaming and making big plans - all that day to day stuff has him on auto-pilot, walking in his sleep round town. At the time this album came out I assumed this song was another one about Neil wanting to follow his muse instead of his bank a balance, doing only things that really excite him and it could still be that of course. But is there a bit of Daryl Hannah in this song too, the feeling that Neil's head is in the love-clouds when he's on his own, but he's having to 'act' in his every day life? Whatever the source, this is another track that might have done better with a bit of drama and Crazy Horse achieve all too well the sense that they're sleepwalking their way through this clumsy-footed song. Unlike most tracks on 'Broken Arrow' there aren't any fiery solos to make this track sound more substantial and not even a proper chorus this time. Instead the song just kind of ends.

'Music Arcade' is another album highlight, a stark whispered song that features just Neil and a guitar pouring his heart out late at night. 'Have you ever been lost? Have you ever been found out?' he sighs, 'Have you ever felt all alone at the end of the day?' Simple as the song is, it contains some of the biggest ideas on the album, Neil talking again about how confused and isolated he feels, unsure of what to do for the best. Comparing his current stare with a 'trip through the laundromat' he's all jumbled, left alone with just his thoughts and a mirror full of Neil staring back at himself and a 'TV screen' randomly showing the distortion he feels in his head. A second verse wakes him out of his slumber with the arrival of a window cleaner who looks hungry and cold and sad - much more so than the superstar Neil who shouldn't even be thinking about what would today be dismissed in a twitter hashtag as '#firstworldproblems'. However Neil's feelings are 'real' and he can't escape them - his momentum has flung him out to goodness knows where, much further down the road of success than he ever thought he'd be, and the cars trying to overtake him are 'flying fast' - one of them is going to crash and burn, probably into himself. So Neil takes the conscious decision to slow things down and get out from the high street, cashing in the winnings he's made 'at the music arcade' as this game of a career turned out pretty good financially for a few more years. There may be shades of Darryl Hannah in this song too as he sings again about a 'comet' keeping him company, whizzing through his life at a quite different speed to his own slowed-down life and the line 'have you ever been found out?' hints at guilt about something. Surprisingly intimate and direct, after an album full of so much mis-direction and 'hidden' lyrics, 'Music Arcade' is simple yet haunting, with Neil turning in by far the best performance on the record, sounding very much like he's recording the song during a drunken stupor at silly o'clock in the morning. The song is easily the most successful on the 'Broken Arrow' album, the best mixture of melody, lyric and performance on the album even if it again features only the very barest of bones of a proper tune and it's lyrics aren't actually as deep as 'Big Time' or 'Slip Away'. If Neil ever decides to make an album for Halloween this would be the perfect way to do it too: his whispered vocal is really creepy!

The album then ends on 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?', a recording and performance so poor that it beggars belief how anybody thought releasing this live cover song was a good idea. To be fair, that's probably the whole point - Neil relates with glee in the 'Shakey' biography how 'not too many people were telling me this was their favourite song on the album!' and coming after another seven sloppy songs about how Neil needs to break his commercial momentum, now, it seems like a perverse attempt to say 'hey, there are no rules now, I can deliver you anything!' I've never understood why Jimmy Reed's song has been covered as often as it has (The Byrds alone performed several versions of it, whilst Elvis just won't let the track die during his '68 Comeback Special, reviving it several times across the full recording). For me 'Big Boss Man' was always the better Jimmy Reed song, with a similar riff but more of a sense of outrage and commitment and a better tune - this song, like Neil's other Jimmy Reed cover 'Bright Light, Big City' (from 1983's 'Everybody's Rockin') just drifts along on a lazy blues. Many bands speed the song up, but Crazy Horse perversely slow an already too-slow song down so that it's even more of a crawl, Neil fitting in a few fiery guitar improvisations to brighten things up but again performing his vocal like some disinterested farm hand at an auction. Even the audience at this little club in California don't seem to be enjoying the unbilled performance much or even know who Crazy Horse are, chattering loudly throughout the entire show (the cry at around the three minutes which sounds like 'I hate this - where's the door?' is priceless though!) As for people who've paid a fortune for the CD to hear the horse in crisp digital sound, it's a real slap across the face from an artist trying to prove a point: this is where those of you who want to get off the bus can get off now! Not as many fans hung around for the next album 'Silver and Gold' and 'Broken Arrow' is the start of a commercial decline that will only be reversed once Neil starts releasing his 'archive' sets. For once on this album Neil achieved what he set out to do only too well and some fans still haven't forgiven him yet.

Overall, then, 'Broken Arrow' is a deliberately muddled and confusing album. There's a really strong message at the heart of this record - escaping from expectation and doing what Neil wants to do - but because of the very theme being about doing the unexpected Neil throws everything at this record to make it the most unpleasant listening experience since his 'Doom Trilogy'. Like those three records (especially 'Tonight's The Night') there's a weight behind the audience-teasing, though, which means that this album has actually aged better than any other Neil Young record of the 1990s, less tied into the fashions of the time or the weight of expectation that an album with strong sales can bring and with each and every listen to this fascinating album bringing up even more to listen to. That of course assumes that you can be bothered enough to find this fairly obscure CD and then most likely file it away for years until it finally germinates and blossoms. And even then you have to put up with some of the most badly played, poorly thought out over-extended Crazy Horse jamming sessions of their history in order to uncover the nuggets at the heart of this LP. Like many fans, I agree that this album would have been better released as an EP (containing just 'Big Time' 'Slip Away' 'Scattered' and 'Music Arcade'). If you only want to buy the very best selected Neil Young tracks rather than own everything then arguably you don't even need this much. 'Broken Arrow' is not really made for pleasant listening and despite the peace-bearing title is actually more about declaring war on all fans and forcing them to accept something they don't really want. But unlike some Neil Young records that try a similar trick and then don't yield up anything ('Greendale' the worst of several similar albums in the 21st century) there is treasure buried at the bottom of this album and if you follow the clues it all makes 'sense'. Or as much sense as any Neil Young album ever makes anyway. Caught halfway between the cashing-in brilliance of what came before it and the drudgery of what's to come after 'Broken Arrow' is a really challenging, often badly played yet frequently fascinating much misunderstood album that may yet age to the state where it becomes one of Neil's best, with many more layers to uncover than with his better known records like 'After The Goldrush and 'Harvest'. 

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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