Monday, 7 August 2017
Neil Young "This Note's For You" (1988)
Neil Young “This Note’s For You” (1988)
Ten Men Workin’/This Note’s For You/Coupe De Ville/Life In The City/Twilight//Married Man/Sunny Inside/Can’t Believe You’re Lyin’/Hey Hey/One Thing
“Ain’t writing for attention, ain’t writing for love, ain’t writing for divine intervention, ain’t writing for Max The Singing Dog, Ain’t writing for Vimto, ain’t writing for glory, ain’t writing for them – hell no, ain’t writing to help you vote Tory, this review’s for you”
By 1988 the recording industry had gone from being a molehill to being a mountain. The age of Madonna, The Backstreet Boys and, umm, Milli Vanilli that put marketing over music (and which clearly spawned the Spice Girls) was in full swing and you had to be fully involved with marketing departments, make-up men, dance routines and hip contemporary music to be taken seriously. Now a quarter century after many of the AAA artists had found fame, their responses varied from being eaten up by the system and being spit out (CSN look especially uncomfortable as the decade drew to a close – CSNY too given what will happen with the release of ‘American Dream’ later that same year) or chasing it yelling ‘come back, I’m still young and trendy and down with the kids, honest!’ (take your pick from Paul McCartney, The Monkees and even – shock horror – The Grateful Dead, caving in at last with their first ever top ten hit ‘Touch Of Grey’ in 1987). If you weren’t doing what the youngsters did you were nobody. Unless you were doing what Young did, of course. Neil had spent the decade becoming increasingly distant from what everyone else was doing in the rock scene and increasingly reluctant to chase anybody to make music his way. When he wasn’t recording really weird genre experiment albums for record company Geffen, Neil could be found visiting relatives back home in Canada and performing in an anonymous local bar in Winnipeg named ‘The Bluenote Club’ (depicted on the front cover). Neil never appeared under his own name and mostly performed new bluesy songs for free to a bunch of random locals and maybe their dogs. It was, though, the way he liked it.
Inevitably these experiments were going to turn themselves into a full album sooner or later. In many ways it seems strange that it was later; blues is the sort of genre experiment that everyone seems to get round to eventually, even when they really really shouldn’t (what could possibly be worse than Robbie Williams’ ‘Sing When You’re Winning’? Ratpack ‘tribute’ album ‘Swing When You’re Winning’, that’s what. In that scenario everybody’s a loser!) Maybe Young felt that blues was Still’s territory and he just couldn’t compete? However this is a very different album to, say, ‘Stephen Stills II’ where the ‘Memphis Horns’ provide a new epic scale to Stills’ latest episodes in self-destruction and autobiography; by comparison Young uses the horns for escapism, to avoid going anywhere near his ‘real’ self (except for maybe two tracks). Neil too had often dabbled in the blues, going right back to his Squires days. Remember too that back in 1988 bluesy-jazz had probably never been less hip or trendy. While every other act on the planet was trying to sound the same, Neil was digging his heels in and sounding retro; when everyone else was trying to play it big he was trying to play it small, with this album recorded simply and quickly; whilst everyone everywhere else was trying to chase after the big bucks in order to attract a big-name sponsor, Neil was making music just for ‘you’ (well, ‘us’). So far so typical you could say. Neil’s career trajectory has always been like crazy-paving and what happened to be ‘in’ at any one moment is unlikely to bear any resemblance to what he’s up to. Even now fans can’t quite shake off the feeling that Neil is about to return to the genre experiment (although this is the last full album in one genre to date in his catalogue); even after the relatively ‘normal’ sound of ‘Life’ the year before fans heard that Neil was becoming a whole new persona as a bluesman and went ‘yep, makes total sense!’
What is odd about this album, even by Neil standards, is that Young seems to have taken all the usual conventions of the genre (sad songs, slow tempos and cosy intimate morning-after hangover feelings) and subverted them. Every other blues album I own is melancholy – that’s why they call it the ‘blues’ I guess. And yes, there are some sad songs here too. But for the most part this is an unusually upbeat album, where Neil celebrates the fact that he’s bursting with new ideas (‘Ten Men Workin’), that he’s escaped the rat race of his musician peers (the title track), that he’s a ‘Married Man’ and most unexpectedly of all that he feels ‘Sunny Inside’. When was the last time we even heard a happy Neil Young song? (‘Comes A Time’ in 1978?!) Trust it to appear on a ‘blues’ album...The last genre experiment of the 1980s doesn’t have much time to be sad: it’s too busy celebrating the end of a dark and difficult period and getting everything out of Neil’s system before the next chapter of his life. The record was very much created as the kiss-off to the Geffen period, with yet another genre the label couldn’t have been expecting, but in the end it became the first release on Reprise, Neil’s old home, where he’d spent thirteen generally happy years after signing to them post-Buffalo Springfield-split in 1968 and he’s been with them ever since. Manager Elliott Roberts seems to have chased the deal and gone in a bit too early, even for an artist of Neil’s speed and prolificness; as it happens one sorry failed court-case and the poor sales for ‘Life’ later (Neil’s worst selling studio album, even now) the label were only too happy to let him go early.
The Bluenotes are an interesting band, even for Neil. Formed out of old allies and new friends, Young lost interest in them when he realised that he was being sued. It’s a sign of how little interest he really had in the genre that he hadn’t even realised that there was another Bluenotes (Georgie Fame’s band) so for the last few months they were re-christened ‘Ten Men Workin’. At first the new band grew out of the old, with Crazy Horse the nucleus of the band. Only Billy hated the new music and Ralph wasn’t allegedly the right kind of performer to play it (the pair last precisely one song into the sessions, the B-side ‘I’m Goin’). Neil sacked both after the intervention of co-poducer Niko Bolas....and brought in his old Buffalo Springfield mates Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin, who after twenty years of not doing a lot (interrupted mostly by the aborted ‘Trans’ sessions) fared even worse. The third pair did better. Chad Cromwell and Rick ‘The Bass Player’ Rosas were last heard of performing grunge on synthesisers on the noisy ‘Landing On Water’ and yet they sound far more authentic and plausible here, playing slow and funky. Frank Sampedro stayed in the line-up, but confined to synthesiser. The horn section features roadie Larry Cragg and old friend Ben Keith amongst one more sax player, two trumpeters and a trombonist. The biggest surprise though was George Whitsell, who played bass on the tracks that Rick doesn’t, and hasn’t been heard of in this book since a guest appearance on ‘Running Dry’ despite being a member of pre-Crazy Horse band ‘The Rockets’ who often jokes in interviews that he’s still waiting for Neil to return ‘his’ rhythm section after agreeing that he could borrow them for just the one album. The Bluenotes indeed first took to the stage during the end of the ‘Life’ tour where they annoyed Horses Billy and Ralph no end; to them playing around with the blues was inauthentic and staged and the complete opposite of what Neil is all about.
They have a point. The downside of this record is that, however good it is in parts, ‘This Note’s For You’ really isn’t a very important album. Yes some songs on it are deep, but this isn’t a heartfelt confessional album (which ‘Life’ was underneath all the production gloss) and it is low on autobiography whilst it spends precisely one rather disappointing song (‘Life In The City’) even acknowledging that the outside world exists at all (by contrast ‘Life’ spends the first six songs debating Vietnam Vets, unnecessary wars, the collapse of the American dream and even spends one song going ‘around the world’ before a closing duo of songs as honest and direct as any in the Young canon about love and loss). ‘This Note’s For You’ isn’t a record you go to in order to hear what Neil can do – because he’s not really trying to do much at all. There’s precious little guitar across the record (a stinging accompaniment to ‘Married Man’ aside) and Neil’s voice is really not built for jazz-blues crooning, Neil sounding as helpless and hopeless as he ever has as he grapples with a genre that demands he be by turns aggressive and sensual, rather than off-key and shrill. Following ‘Life’, a real turn-up for the Young fan who likes depth and intelligence, it is a disappointment and I can see why Crazy Horse scratched their heads over why people liked this album more than theirs, even on the stage (especially on the stage. We’re used to saying on this site that Neil’s tours were often better than the studio records that accompanied them but here the gulf is silly. ‘This Note’s For You’ sounds rushed and basic, with an odd production that makes everything sound as if it’s been tidied away in a neat little box – the antithesis of what a good Neil Young production does where it naturally spills out from the intuitive music; the live set finally released thirty years as ‘Bluenote Cafe’ in Neil’s ‘Archive’ series, though, is another story and sounds fabulous as a cracking band re-invent old songs in the blues genre and throw in some extras that really should have made the album – ‘Ordinary People’, which finally appeared on ‘Chrome Dreams II’ in 2007 for instance, ‘belongs’ on this album, eighteen verses and all).
You certainly get the impression that, like so many of the 1990 albums to come, most of this album has been ‘busked’ at the last minute before the band went into the studio, because most of the songs can be summed up in one line, sometimes not even that. Ten men have a job to do – make you dance! Hey hey – my woman looks good to me! I’m a married man – back off! I’m feeling sunny inside – because I’m in love! Life in the city – it’s ugly! I can’t believe you’re lyin’ – literally that’s it, for a whole song! Of these songs only ‘Sunny Inside’ is a song you’ll ever want to listen to again and that’s more because you go ‘woah, what’s that sound? Oh yeah, it’s happy Neil, I’d forgotten what sounded like’ rather than any merit in the song itself. Thankfully even this lesser part of the album has some life to it – the horns are a novelty, even if they’re slightly under-used and the gutsy performances (especially on ‘Life In The City’) almost make up for the emptiness of the material. Even so, in compositional terms it’s probably Neil’s least creative record so far, barring the deliberately shortened covers fest ‘Everybody’s Rockin’. Only the sheer bravado humour of the title track, the sense of loss and despair on ‘Twilight’ and the simple but effective ‘Coupe De Ville’ (the one song her to make great use of the horns the way they should be used, as an emotional tearjerker rather than a mass choir) really stand out on this bunch. Three strong songs out of ten seems like pretty good odds from Young records nowadays but back in context of what came before feels like a disaster.
Still, this record isn’t one of those total Geffen-era disappointments and surprised many when it came out by how good it was, after the groans that greeted the idea of Neil warbling the blues. The LP succeeds – just about – because it rarely takes itself seriously, without ever being completely disposable either. Some Neil Young albums really are out to change the world – but this one is so merrily drunk on happiness it can barely remember how to tie its shoes. The song kicks off with a song about having a ‘job to do’, but it’s interesting that Neil should choose not to save the planet or attack Monsanto or rage against an illegal world war (and God knows there were lots of those to choose from back in 1988) but to ‘keep you all from feeling the blues!’ The key theme of this album is escapism, as Neil hides behind his horn section and parties. Even so, this isn’t as dementedly empty an album as, say, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ or ‘Re-Ac-Tor’, filling up time where the ideas should go because Neil doesn’t want to face them yet. You can feel parts of the ‘real world’ oozing through this album at times that offers just enough of a hint of depth to get you through the record’s rummer moments. ‘I try to tell you one thing but you don’t listen – I try to tell you one thing but you don’t care!’ sighs Neil before heading off to yet another party. ‘Can’t believe you’re lyin’ might well be a ‘real’ song hiding in plain sight, a typical bluesy song that’s actually the first sign of the cracks in the Neil-Pegi relationship. And was there ever a sadder Young song than ‘Twilight’? The highlight of the album by far, it’s a song that yearns for something that never could be over a sad slow relentless beat that’s clearly at one with the sadder songs from the end of ‘Life’. Is this album our first insight into the relationship with actress Darryl Hannah, a decade on from his marriage to Pegi? Neil spends this album trying not to listen to his conscience, trying to drown it out, occasionally lapsing into self-pity over what can never be while disappearing into endless parties and fun. ‘Married Man’, meanwhile, seems to be a coded message, turned into a comedy song so nobody got the ‘wrong’ idea (which wouldn’t be the first time Neil’s done that).
This odd mix of the serious message delivered in an inconsequential way is best summed up by the title track, a rare ‘hit’ for Neil (even if the music video is more popular than it is solely as a song) and a rare example of a typically Young song striking a chord with a mass public. The video is infamous: banned by MTV for parodying so many of the institutions they showed every night, it features a Michael Jackson lookalike getting their hair set alight (which really happened on a Pepsi commercial – Wacko Jacko’s autopsy later revealed that he was bald, almost certainly because of this event; in yet another legal battle he threatened to sue but was too busy collecting gold encrusted llamas for his Neverland ranch and dangling his children out of hotel windows so never got around to it). The video, shot by Julien Temple (who’d been ‘discovered’ by Ray Davies), it’s nicely in tune with the Young ethic, especially the spoof of the beer commercial ‘This Bud’s For You’ where Neil stole his title. Banned by MTV (‘Does the ‘m’ stand for music or money?’ Neil fumed when he found out)., but the most requested video on Canada’a sister channel MuchTV, thankfully the video giants learnt from Geffen and backed down, first screening the video when it won an award for ‘best video of the year (Neil’s first award of any sort for a long long time) – ironic given that they hadn’t actually screened it till the award ceremony! The song marks an upturn for Neil’s fortunes and the start of a golden seven-year patch when he began to look cooler than what the big boys with bigger budgets were doing, staying true to his principles rather than chasing a distant desperate dream of stardom. Though it’s not his greatest song, it is one of his bravest songs and certainly one of his funniest and thankfully leads to the start of a whole trend of deeper, darker songs that pick up this same theme: that the world is a daft and dangerous place and you need to be true to your principles. It’s the start of a theme that, in more serious fashion, will end up being the backbone of future career highlights like ‘Crime In The City’ ‘F!#in’ Up’ ‘Peace and Love’ and most of the ‘Sleeps With Angels’ album.
In other words, like much of the record, it’s a stepping stone kind of a piece. Neil hasn’t yet built up enough bees in his bonnet to work to his best and this is kind of a forgettable record, but he’s not in a bad place and has enough inventiveness to get by. The kind of record that’s low on ideas but is so high on energy it makes up for it (although again I like this album much better after the ‘live’ versions of it). ‘This Note’s For You’ is less courageous than ‘Trans’, less funny than ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and less eclectic than ‘Old Ways’, but what it does have going for it is a sense of style and fun, a title track that’s hilarious and an album track in ‘Twilight’ that’s deep enough to stop the whole album getting ridiculous. Neil never quite nails the blues-jazz technique, coming off like some stoned hippie tribute act and the Bluenotes are too disciplined to groove as much as they should (odd that for an artist who adores doing things in one take – or less, given how many ‘rehearsal’ performances have been released down the years). Many fans are probably deeply relieved that this is the last of the 1980s experimentations – with the exception of ‘Old Ways’ and perhaps ‘Landing On Water’ it’s probably the worst. But you can hear the upturn in Neil’s belief across the set after the melancholia-fest that was ‘Life’, the joy in his voice and the enthusiasm in the room for doing something that not even Neil Young has ever done before. That alone makes it worth hearing – if not always remembering.
‘Ten Men Workin’ is a particularly limp place to start. The track sounds to me like a re-write of B-side ‘I’m Goin’ made in a hurry to pad out the album. It’s one of those ‘introduction’ numbers designed to introduce the band ‘Sgt Peppers’ style and doesn’t really say a lot else except that the band are ready to rock and it’s their ‘job’ to entertain you. Which would be ok if they did, but this is a clumsy groove by Neil’s standards and as hard as Rick swings on the bass, everything else comes off as a plod. Neil seems to be testing his guitar for sounds during the solo in the middle rather than flying and the Bluenote horns get stuck on the same ‘ba-da-bahhhhhm!’ groove over and over for what feels like hours, with only one of them (Ben Keith?) getting the chance to actually ‘solo’. The whole construct of the song is that the band are playing so well we can’t help but ‘dig the groove’ or keep our feet still, but with so little going on across six painfully dragged out minutes even the good bits (the bass, the chaingang cries of ‘Ooh! Aah!’ later recycled on ‘Someday’, Neil’s increasingly histrionic vocal, the sudden pause before the horn section sweeps in again) get boring before the end. Neil revealed later that he did indeed write the tune for the song in a hurry and that it all arrived so quickly he didn’t even have time to find one of his own guitars – instead he borrowed wife Pegi’s that just happened to be lying around. He admitted too that the lyrics had been cobbled together in the studio when he spotted that the engineer had a t-shirt with the road-sign slogan ‘Man At Work’ on the front. Alas Neil’s ‘mission’ went unfulfilled – the groove is a good one, but here it goes on too long played by a band who clearly don’t ‘feel’ it yet. A disappointing start.
The album highlight by a country mile, title track ‘This Note’s For You’ takes the album’s weakest suit (unlike Neil’s other genre experiments, this album is clichéd and repetitive and sounds overly familiar) and turns them into a strength. You could imagine all sorts of other bands from Georgie Fame’s own Bluenotes to Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, playing this big funky groove, with a noodling horn part, massed spoken-sung cries and lots of spaces between the notes. But no other band would dare to perform this lyric which damns every other band of the era for selling out and getting sponsorship (Neil must be the last of the big names to stand against this trend in the music business; his only real rival is Paul McCartney who allows charities to ‘sponsor’ his tours for ‘free’ so they can the resulting publicity where a sponsors logo should go). Neil wrote this one in his tour bus where, after watching a video of Michael Jackson sponsoring Pepsi, he came up with the ‘ain’t singing for coke...makes me look like a joke!’ line. Fleshing out the song, he turned it into a ‘pact’ between himself and his audience that the upside of following a mercurial songwriter who never stood still or gave you what you wanted was that he would at least always be true to himself – and us. This song is surely Neil’s funniest, with some very witty lines in there: while other artists sing for ‘money’ or ‘cash’, Neil sings from the heart because he has to; this is his ‘real’ job, not the ‘get you dancing’ inanities of ‘Ten Men Workin’. He swaps beer sponsors ‘Bud’ around with the idea of being sponsored by potatoes (‘Ain’t singin’ for spuds!’) and throws in the idea that he won’t ‘sing for politicians’ (interesting that Neil should make this comment here, back when no politicians are using his work; however a year later both sides of the political spectrum will try and ‘borrow’ his song ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ for their campaigns, something that happens every so often since too). Instead Neil promises us ‘the real thing’, over a playful ‘this note this note...’ groove that sounded particularly fun on the ‘next’ tour, a solo acoustic one from 1989 and sounds so deeply seriously committed in his vocal that it just makes the whole thing even sillier. The only downside to all this is that the best groove on the album is the shortest, reduced to barely past two minutes when it could have gone on for much longer. As with so much of the album, the live version runs for much longer and is vastly superior, released on the Geffen ‘Lucky Thirteen’ compilation in 1992 (as strictly speaking Neil was still under contract on that tour) as well as ‘Bluenote Cafe’. The result is still the album’s triumph though. Neil proving that he can do what all the other bands of the day could do better and make money from it if he wanted to – but he didn’t, with bigger fish to fry during his career than caring what sponsors he got or what his fanbase thought of him. This song is Neil Young to a tee and is all the better for it.
The real meat of the album comes with the first of the slowies. ‘Coupe De Ville’ sounds like the ‘real’ Neil peeking out from underneath the genre experiment and filler material, a sad and lonely song imagining the future where he loses everything. My guess is that he’s playing out in his mind here what might happen to him if he runs off with Darryl and leaves Pegi – it certainly sounds as if it’s more than just acting and imagination here as Neil gets into the mindset of this song more than the others, singing with a trembling sigh that’s really effective. Another clue about how ‘real’ this is is the car mentioned in the title (Neil isn’t joking when it comes to his cars in song), one of those designs with an open-top for the driver and a canopy for the passengers, perhaps symbolising his being cut off from the missus he used to drive everywhere with. Neil’s narrator has paid a high price for a ‘few cheap thrills’ and he’s now a stranger in his own home, which is indeed no longer a ‘home’ but just where the bed is he sleeps in at night after a day of avoiding his former lover. ‘How long can I carry this monkey around?’ he pleads, bluesman style, a ‘monkey’ being usually a drug but in this case more of a weight on the narrator’s back that those around him can’t see. Neil, it seems, so in control across the rest of this album is in trouble. ‘Woke up this morning’ he sighs ‘and I hit the wall!’, longing to turn the clock back to a time when he felt part of a ‘couple’ – instead by chasing a second girl he’s been left with neither. He’s never sounded so sad or lonely and the horns are at their best across this song, floating across it in gentle sighs and whispers, hinting at the beauty and spectacle that could have been while humming sad minor key riffs of melancholy back to us, the very sound of devastation. Tom Bray’s trumpet part, especially, gives you the chills, openly mourning in colour what Neil can only hint to us at in black-and-white. What’s clever about this song, though, is that Neil still plays it ‘cool’, just about keeping things together: he doesn’t go OTT anywhere and every time the song threatens to fall into painful self-indulgence he ‘bats’ the depression away with a simple guitar riff that keeps coming throughout the song. Neil says he wrote this one while out on the road and staying in a hotel room, getting sick and dizzy as he tried to eat his breakfast before another busy day and realising that his poor tired body couldn’t take anymore, that he’d ‘hit the wall’ and that he felt better after an extended sleep. I put it to you, though, dear reader, that this is more about hitting the wall emotionally than physically – that there’s something in this uncomfortable song that hints for pretty much the first time that Neil’s marriage isn’t as concrete as it appears to be and that his heart is being torn in two different directions.
‘Life In The City’ is the ‘odd one out’ on this record (there’s always one song per Young album, occasionally two). It’s the most aggressive song on the album by far and the only one that doesn’t reference writer or audience. Instead it’s the first stirrings of Neil’s interest in what is happening in the outside world since son Ben got poorly, the first song since ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ to damn the growing inequality and discontent in the outside world, something that will lead to much better songs than this (‘Crime In The City’ ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and ‘Ordinary Peo-le’ among them). Neil’s astonished at how little people care about the strangers around them, sleeping in the sidewalks ‘on a rainy day’, farmers ‘starving in the city’ as their livelihoods get taken away and ‘murder in the home and crime on the streets’. The 1980s saw a big rise in, if not the actions of violent crime then the reporting of them, with the introduction of 24 hour news reports. What with the end of the cold war too it seemed as if the world was going mad and Neil briefly returns to his ‘Landing On Water’ style screech here, confined by pressure and hemmed in by empathy. Chad Cromwell is much more at home on songs like this and his heavy thudding drumming works much better here against the horns than it ever did on that earlier album. Neil’s vocal too is superb, somehow both icily cool and detached and yet full of such wrath and anger that it soaks through into the song, though his guitar solo is a tad anonymous. Unfortunately the song, which starts out as promising, soon goes downhill, ending up another of those curiously empty Young rants (think ‘Motor City’) that has no answers, only attacks. ‘Doesn’t that trouble you sister, doesn’t that trouble you pal?’ sneers Neil. Well yes, of course it does, we’re only human – human enough to buy a Neil Young record because we want to reach out to people like this. But what do we do about it Uncle Neil? Are you going to hand over your royalties from this song or album to the homeless? Are you going to show us how to make America great again? And how did we get here so we can make sure we never ever get here again?! There are no answers here, just shouting, unlike the build-up of tension of future songs that at least try to offer comfort or direction or even sarcasm. Even the ‘life in the city’ chorus sounds unfinished, ending mid-sentence on a riff that sounds like ‘This Note’s For You’ again anyway. Still, a fiery performance and another excellent use of the horn section overcomes the disappointment of the material.
‘Twilight’ is the final album highlight to close out side one. It’s a tightly packed dense claustrophobic track that conjures up film noir and seedy nightclubs that pulls off the old Young trick of putting two different opposing elements against each other. Neil’s vocal and guitar and the horns (so similar to Otis Redding’s Bar-Keys horn section) are slow and sweet, oozing romanticism on a song that’s clearly written for Pegi, whatever was happening in this period. But against that Chad Cromwell’s tapped percussion sounds like the countdown of doom and he’s joined by an explosive Rosas bass part that’s waiting in the shadows to pounce whenever this song lets down its guard. The lyric sounds like Neil has just walked off stage for the last time in a while, his work done as the twilight falls and turns into daytime, ending his time of isolation out on the road and he can’t wait to run back to his wife. However, he’s also talking about the fall of dusk in bigger terms than these: he is, to quite a future album almost all based around this theme, at a ‘Fork In The Road’, a fog that has gripped his mind for too long slowly disappearing as the sunlight beckons to him and shows him his true path. He knows that his lover is as sad and lonely as he is and he yearns to be with her, ‘making love with you while time stands still’ in as graphic a line as any in the Young canon. However an extended ending brings out the inner spookiness in this song, as instead of going straight home Neil seems to end up in a scary world where the metronomic drums keep ticking and the horns keep blaring their worry and the bass keeps pouncing on him as he plays his greatest guitar burst on the album, like a slightly less troubled and intense version of ‘Like A Hurricane’. Suddenly all the comforting words he once gave his wife (‘You’re the best thing that I ever had’ ‘The sun is setting on the long road home’ ‘Don’t be sad’) get repeated in a new, scarier setting, suddenly sounding false and mocking. The song itself bounces between major and minor keys throughout, as if Neil is trying to live two different lives, but notably ends with two whole minutes in the sadder, scarier minor key before finally closing on a death-rattle. This might well be the album’s most emotional moment as well as one of the best, with for once the Bluenotes spot-on in their arrangement and performance and Neil’s vocal, one the edge but never going over, one of his very best too.
Alas side two just can’t compete. ‘Married Man’ is a noisy shouter with a funky sped-up twelve bar blues riff and a two-note horn riff played over and over on different chords. This lyric is a little bit too much of a parody, with Neil the hard-working bluesman who ‘works all day and takes my money back home’ beating off the groupies who want him to party. ‘I ain’t got time for you no more!’ he snarls, which could well be a coded message to Darryl to back off (if so she doesn’t listen). Neil sounds as if he wrote this one for laughs like so many of the period (check out ‘Doghouse’, his second funniest song, performed on the Bluenotes tour and which is on ‘Bluenote Cafe’) but somewhere along the line it became ‘real’ to him. The wedding ring on his finger isn’t something that Neil can just ignore. ‘Don’t tempt me baby!’ he yells as if repelling every woman within a thousand miles of his wife and with the passion reserved for his ‘real’ songs not his ‘jokey’ songs. And yet the song has it’s silly moments too, such as the Bluenote ‘finger-wagging’ riff that waggles after every temptation. Alas though this song needs something extra to really make it into a song rather than just an idea and the performance is one of the album’s weakest, with the horn section reduced to repeating themselves over and over and everyone else playing such a generic blues arrangement this might as well come from the ‘Blues Brothers’ film soundtrack.
‘Sunny Inside’ is an oddball. The riff is ‘stolen’ (I know it’s a traditional tune or a nursery rhyme or something but I can’t work out from what), the lyrics are clueless and stupid for the most part (‘Though we walk in the rain my heart feels sunny inside!’) and the song as a whole is as clichéd as they come (‘Long long hair, blue blue blue eyes, now c’mon honey, please don’t cry!’) and yet there’s something about this song that makes it more than just more mere filler. Written in the ‘Trans’ period of 1982 (perhaps for ‘Island In The Sun’, the aborted romantic album that got replaced by vocoders), it’s clearly written for Pegi and is a joyous return to the contentment and pleasure of much of the ‘Comes A Time’ album. We’re so used to Neil sounding sad even when he’s trying to sound happy (‘Can’t relate to joy, he tries to speak and can’t begin to say’ is how Neil described being too in love to get the words out on ‘Out On The Weekend’ sixteen years earlier) that it’s a shock to hear him singing about feeling ‘sunny inside’ all the time because he’s in love without a twist or a sting in the tail somewhere down the line. In an inversion of The Hollies’ 1974 hit ‘The Air That I Breathe’ Neil sings about how, since finding love, he can do without drugs or money and that the feeling of romance has shaken him to the core. There’s a fun playful rhyming couplet of how ‘with our love taken care of’ there’s so much stuff that he’s no longer ‘scared of’ and this song works well as a cute playful song about joy. It’s just a shame that the band don’t seem to have grasped this song as much as it’s writer has (with another great lead vocal), the lack of guitar and that horn riff which is so naggingly familiar it hurts and which slows the action right down, sounding as if it belongs to another composition all together. Still, my heart still feels sunny inside whenever I hear it.
‘Can’t Believe You’re Lyin’ is the third of the album’s slow weepies and easily the weakest. Sounding like the riff from ‘This Note’s For You’ tacked onto the feel of ‘Coupe De Ville’, this is an oddly clichéd and forgettable track that doesn’t have much to say or many ideas how to say it. Neil’s narrator has lost it all again, both his job and his woman as ‘there’s another guy working in my place’, but this song feels less realistic somehow, less factual, more generic. Really it’s just an excuse for Chad Cromwell to get his brushes out and for Neil to pick out an oddly tentative guitar part that sounds less like a ‘solo’ than a few meandering picked out notes. The one part of this song that does work, though, is the al-too brief chorus, where ‘you have changed my life in so many ways...’ which sounds melodically like the sun coming out before it darts behind a cloud again on the lines about how his girl is ‘lying’. Sadly though the song’s biggest weakness is that it is ‘lying’; this is the one sing on the album that absolutely definitely is a work of fiction and it sounds it too: Neil doesn’t mean it, the band don’t know it and ultimately the listener doesn’t really care about it. Neil said later the song came in a rush and took ‘about five seconds or something’. One wonders what he was doing for the other four seconds!
‘Hey Hey’ is more bland filler, uptempo this time as Neil gets way too OTT in his vocal. A snarling put-down of women everywhere, this is a mean-spirited song about how the ‘fairer sex’ are out to take their men for a ride always. ‘They want a piece of the action, but they don’t let you roll the dice!’ he fumes, before adding about how his girlfriend is never up for sex when he is (‘She don’t want to wear me out!’) and yet jumps around with every other guy she sees. And then suddenly the song switches: ‘My girl knows how to please me!’ Neil boasts, before telling us how she loves him too much to lose him. It’s odd to hear Neil boasting in song anyway (he’s much happier playing lovable losers), but after such a vitriolic pair of opening verses it seems all the stranger. Next we’re being urged to dance in a return to the album’s opening two tracks: ‘Get offa that couch, turn off that MTV!’ Neil demands, a bee in his bonnet yet again as he urges us all to exercise. Alas this song is as wrong-footed musically as it is lyrically and it’s a hard song to groove to, always chopping and changing styles, while Crowmwell’s drums play in counterpart to what everyone else is doing, emphasising the ‘wrong’ beats. The result is, in truth, all a bit of a mess and should have been re-titled ‘So So’ rather than ‘Hey Hey’. At least the Bluenotes are having fun squealing on the horn solos though, sounding like Yoko Ono stuck on a spin cycle.
The album then closes on one of the earliest songs recorded to the album, one with Ralph still on the drums (and he sounds fabulous, even if no one else does!) and George Whitsell, oddly, playing bass rather than his usual guitar (making this a two-way Rockets reunion, though both men will be long gone by the time the sessions reconvene). ‘One Thing’ is a final slow weepie in which Neil recounts how much a love in his life is falling apart. Two lovers don’t listen to each other anymore and there’s coldness and distance where once there used to be passion. ‘I think we’re heading for a heartache’ Neil complains, sounding as if he’d doing the usual blues cliché of drinking at the bar late at night to drown his sorrows. But he sounds less than convincing and is clearly playing a role of a narrator ‘feeling empty...with no love inside’, while the song is just too slow to take seriously. What does work though is the space for the horn section as the saxophones sound mightily good, pouring out sad slow mournful riffs before the trumpets and trombone come along to wrap the song up in a cocoon of brotherly love. The result is an oddly anonymous song to close out the album on, even if in many ways it sticks closer to the generic blues ideal than the other tracks on the album. Like the first song this is also hopelessly overextended, to a full six minutes, when there is only really enough material for three at best.
Overall, then, ‘This Note’s For You’ is a peculiar album. Some of it works really well, some of it works really badly and for every right step there’s one wrong-footed move that sends the album collapsing like a pack of cards. Many fans will tell you it’s the best of Neil’s genre experiments, but I’m not sure that’s true: ‘Trans’ had a lot more up top and even ‘Landing On Water’ had panache and spirit while ‘Misfits’ from ‘Old Ways’ was better than any individual song on this album. Even so, it’s better than in many ways it has any right to be. Unlike some of those other albums (‘Trans’ aside) it does feel like the ‘real’ Neil is speaking to us on occasion cross the record. The Bluenotes are one of Neil’s better bands too, even if they needed a lot more rehearsal time to really get to grip with these songs. Had this record stayed as strong and consistent and emotional as it is on the first side I’d have been more than happy, but an entire second half of filler really brings the statistics down. Certainly this album pales in comparison to ‘Freedom’ to come, an album which does better things with horns and then adds another half a dozen more suitable Young styles into the mix as well. Even so, this is a long way from being a bad record. The humour of the title track and the seriousness of ‘Coupe De Ville’ and ‘Twilight’ are strong enough to paper over many of this album’s holes and while there’s regrettably little inspired guitar playing, in terms of Neil’s lead vocals this set is a revelation, testing him in adrenalin, joy and spookiness he doesn’t always get a chance to use. This isn’t one of those essential albums you need to own and if you’re like me you might not bring it out of its box to play too often. But when you do it’s a nice surprise and – oddly for a blues album – destined to put a smile on your face from its sheer spirit and joi de vivre. I just wish there had been a few less notes in ‘generic blues stylings’ and a few more notes for ‘us’ in there.