Monday 22 May 2017

Neil Young "Landing On Water" (1986)

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Neil Young "Landing On Water" (1986)

Weight Of The World/Violent Side/Hippie Dream/Bad News Beat/Touch The Night//People On The Street/Hard Luck Stories/I Got A Problem/Pressure/Drifter

'Behind these eyes there lurks a stranger wandering through the dark'

There's a famous quote that goes along this album that Neil went to bed one night figuring he was now destined to be a country musician forevermore but then woke up with a rock beat in his head 'like a bear waking up from hibernation'. There's an almost as famous quote from biographer Johnny Rogan about this unlucky, unloved brittle album that 'in fact it was more like a bear being bludgeoned to death!' I put it to you though, dear readers, that 'Landing On Water' is the sound of a bear having a panic attack - not least because he's just that second woken up and realised that he's a bear at all. More than any other writer in history Neil Young likes to follow his muse wherever it takes him, wherever it be down the road, in the next county or on the moon and back from where he's been, if that's the music running through Neil's veins and what he hears in his head then that's what he'll be chasing next, no questions asked. This time though was different. Neil didn't become a country musician (see 'Old Ways' versions one and two, unreleased and released) for the hell of it - he turned to country music because partly because that really seemed to annoy his unloved record label Geffen but mostly because country music seemed to have a better pedigree for middle-aged musicians like himself. Rock music had become corrupt, too many stars had given away to excess drugs and fame and money and power and glory and way too many good men had died - by contrast country music looked 'honest', took care of its own and the apples never fell that far away from the country tree. Country music was safe and - in the middle of the most fractious decade of his life with a poorly son and fading sales - Neil needed safety. In 1985 he was adamant, for perhaps the first time ever, that his genre-hopping days were over and he'd found the subject matter he was going to stick to for the rest of his life.

So his sudden overnight change of muse must have come as a complete and utter shock to Neil in the same way that his changes of muse always came as a shock to the people who worked with (you can almost imagine Crazy Horse giggling when they read that quote). Neil had thought he'd done so well going over to the 'light', but his darker side kept breaking through his sleep and it was inspiring the kind of music he couldn't very well tell with laidback fiddles and guest spots from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. What Neil heard in his sleep was a beat, a primitive primal primeval powerful beat that just kept on coming, going thud thud thud at the back of his head as he tried to sleep. But how could he equate that with his muse when he'd so recently 'escaped' rock and roll music, castigating it for all the sins he'd just criticised and for lacking all the moral scruples he'd turned to country music to in the first place? The answer is the most worried, anxious, stressed album in the Neil Young canon. Whereas 'Old Ways' is the sound of a man content to roll around in middle age and who knows exactly what he's doing (even if what he's doing should actually be questioned in many cases) 'Landing On Water' is the sound of a confused disorientated teenager still struggling to make sense of life and himself, as if a year of playing a 'country' star who had his act together had gnawed away at Neil's 'real' self. 'Rescue me!' screams most of these lyrics, 'I got a problem' or 'I felt the weight of the world' or in the album's one bone fide masterpiece uses rock and roll to explain why (in a twist on the old 1979 tune 'Hey Hey My My') rock and roll will surely die and is eating itself from the inside out ('Hippie Dream').

For now, Neil resisted the temptation to re-form one of his old bands and instead set about crafting a new one, a power trio featuring the debut appearances by two future Young sidekick regulars Danny Kortchmar on drums and Rick Rosas on bass. Younger than the average Neil Young sidies (again perhaps in deliberate contrast to hanging out with country musicians ten years his senior), the pair make Crazy Horse look like Mozart, paring Neil's already pretty basic songs down to a proto heavy metal thrash and sounding throughout as if they're playing these songs with mallets. No wonder the opening song is titled 'The Weight Of The World' - Neil had never sounded 'heavier' than this (and not in a philosophical way either!) As for the songs themselves 'Landing On Water' is ten different ways of having a nervous breakdown, all caused by different facets of modern society. 'Weight Of The World' finds Neil crushed by his fears, his loneliness, his despairs over the state of the world and his intense agony over rejection. 'Violent Side' hides the secret killer Neil feels lurking in his soul, added to in private with every extra misunderstanding in his 'real' world and every time he feels unloved. 'Hippie Dream' basically puts an end to all utopian ideals and hope, taking David Crosby's hopeless state in the mid 1980s as a sign of everything he ever believed in being extinguished (I'd love to hear a sequel one day, now that Crosby is arguably in better health than Young!) 'Bad News Beat' despairs of little things in life going wrong. 'Touch The Night' spends four minutes foaming at the mouth because of a simple traffic jam. 'People On The Street' reveals a fear of being made homeless and thinks that a lack of things to do for the young leads to a rise in violent crime that could easily be curbed. 'Hard Luck Stories' relates how every time Neil is feeling on top of the world something happens to rip his heart to shreds. 'I Got A Problem' is actually putting it mildly - Neil has several and they're all following him around like a shadow. 'Pressure' shows how responsibility is bringing him down and ends with a manic painful scream. Only 'Drifter' sounds like the usual kind of Young song, celebrating being footloose and fancy free, but perhaps because for once in his life Neil had his future all mapped out it's sung through gritted teeth, a song that tries to celebrate being free and actually sounds more trapped than ever, the narrator destined to live out his days following a whim he doesn't really understand.

If there's a theme on this album it's that it sucks to be Neil Young in 1986 and that he's heading for a fall in a bad way. Though the front cover is regularly voted somewhere near the top on 'ugliest artwork ever put towards a mainstream release' actually it's close-up take on what to do in the event of an emergency (if your, erm, hovercraft runs into trouble) makes perfect sense for an album that screams 'help!' from first note to last. In fact I'm surprised it wasn't titled 'Crashing Into Concrete' - the idea of landing on water seems too 'soft' somehow for an album that repeatedly takes a sad song and goes out of its way to make it worse. Even better is the blurry photo on the back cover (so different to the one on 'Old Ways') which shows a sweating, shaking Neil in an aeroplane seat braced for an impact he fears is about to come (oh and as a quick aside did you know that bracing yourself like that would be no hope to you at all in the event of an emergency? I mean seriously, if the plane's falling apart or crash landing it doesn't matter how you sit death's gonna get you so you may as well get comfy and put your feet up on the seatrest: the only reason airlines ask you to 'brace' is so that your teeth have more chance of surviving a fireball and being checked for identity. See, we told you this was an unhappy paranoid album didn't we? It's even got me at it now!)

There is you see no love on this album, no warmth at all and - unusual for Neil - no light-hearted novelties, dips into the archives or jokes about plastic bags to get us through. Instead 'Landing On Water' is unrelentingly, unremittingly ugly. Life has never sounded as dark to Neil Young fans as it does on this album and the arrangements truly reflect the subject matters, full of angry staccato, shrieking demented vocals and performances so basic everyone in the room probably failed to get grade one anything in their music exams. That's why, to this day, 'Landing On Water' has the reputation of being the nadir of Neil's catalogue, frequently pilloried (even by the sort of fans like me who quite like weirdo LPs like 'Trans' and 'Hawks and Doves') and generally on sale for half the price of the rest of Neil's catalogue just so the shops can get rid of the flipping things its reputation is so low. I'd never claim for a second that this is a good Neil LP - the only great song on it is 'Hippie Dream' and that's a song so far against the grain of my hippie principles I still wish it didn't have to be written - while repeated playings are guaranteed to give you, at best, a headache, at second-best depression and at worst suicidal tendencies (seriously, this is an album to wait to listen to until you're feeling strong). But 'Landing On Water' gets a bad and unfair press I feel. By Neil standards it's a pretty consistent piece of writing where every song is variations on the same bleak theme, the performances are focussed (if basic) and there are some intriguing lyrics in here, written far more from the heart than the 'real' nadirs of Neil's catalogue ('Everybody's Rockin' excused as it was meant as a 'joke', 'Old Ways' excused as it wasn't meant as a joke but is a pretty good one and 'Greendale' which I was convinced just had to be joke but apparently isn't one). Don't come here looking for uplifting effervescent tunes, hummable melodies or lyrics you can really understand and get into. But do come here if you're feeling fed up and that the world is using you as a punching bag, because chances are Neil's feeling the same as you, only worse.

The one part of this album I can't handle is the synthesiser work. This album should be direct and simple, timeless in the way that only a 'garage band' set up of guitar, bass and drums can be. But Niko Bolas' production (with Neil and Danny's help) seems to think that more is more and the trio of musicians all get to add their own branch of bleary weary synthesisers which bleat across most of these songs. That's a little like asking The Human League to add some heavy synth overdubs to AC/DC or Motorhead: mid 1980s synthesisers don't sound great at the best of times but here especially the pair mix about as well as oil and water, or paint and custard. The producers also seem to have done something weird to Danny's drums, making it sound as alternately as if he's breaking rocks on the side of his head or fighting a gorilla with drumsticks. The drums are louder than anything else on this album - and Neil's vocals and especially his guitar are quieter. The result is an album where everything sounds like a battle. Neil's fighting to be heard at all, while the drums and fighting with the synthesisers to see who can make the biggest, ugliest noise. That's fitting to the subject matter maybe, but it's also very very tiring for the listener, with even the ballads (relatively speaking) made to sound and feel like a punch to the stomach (the rock songs, meanwhile, sound and feel like a punch to the head). 'Landing On Water' is one of those AAA albums I hope and pray gets a re-mix job once day, because I'm willing to bet there's more of interest here than anybody has really realised over the years. For now, though, 'Landing On Water' is one of those albums your neighbours dread you listening to because even on quiet levels the bass and drums still thud through mega-thick walls and sign petitions about.

The album's greatest strength is (typically) the part you find hardest to hear: the lyrics. And then not all of them: good luck trying to find depth and poignancy in 'I Got A Problem' and 'Bad News Beat'. But elsewhere it's fascinating to hear Neil so in touch with his darker, angrier side. Neil begins on 'Weight Of The World' by telling us how much he used to live inside 'darkness' and his revelation that that's all over now he's found love is fooling no one - this is still a quivering bag of nerves of a song, desperately pleading to do anything not to get trapped back into the black box all over again. 'Violent Side' first imagines Neil losing control and doing something naughty before a second verse tells us how easy it would be to break into our house when we're not in. Erm, thanks for that Neil. 'Hippie Dream' takes everything that CSN once made great (the hope, the optimism, the ideals, the peace, the equality, the mass escape on 'Wooden Ships') and turns it ugly (the hope's gone, the peace never arrived, there can never be equality and global warming means we would all die out at sea), with David Crosby a 'flower child going to seed in an ether-filled room of meat hooks!' 'People On The Street' shows that modern living is getting under our skin, with a world of constant alarms and sirens and dodgy subways and bad news on TV and not wanting to go home but not having anywhere else to go outside of mindless mechanical work is turning us all into zombies who've lost the power to feel empathy and affinity with fellow men. 'Hard Luck Stories' spends the whole song refusing to tell us what's on Neil's mind but somehow we get there through inference anyway - his girls' left him and he's feeling so lost and helpless. 'I Got A Problem' sounds like the narrator is a victim of domestic abuse, but in a twist he's the one whose been dishing it out and he's not quite sure why except that he must be sick, driven deeper and deeper into the dark and dangerous side he tries to keep hidden away. 'Pressure' is one long scream set to music: job responsibility, family responsibility, the need to keep up with the Joneses, the need to keep getting up and doing the same thing again when you hate it, the endless depressing news coming from the TV, even searching out bargains because of tight finances: everything is a pressure and there's no escape, no time off, no way out but - according to the final scream (only Roger Waters has ever screamed this violently) - madness. 'Drifter' is perhaps the only song that's personal to Neil rather than his everyman characters, but the lyric for this track too is fascinating: determined to go where his wants to take him, a sudden thought has just hit Neil: what if his heart doesn't know where it's going? He sees himself drifting aimlessly into space, with all his usual reliable friends and family removed, abandoned and isolated with nothing else except the nasty voices in his head. This album isn't a pleasant place to be at all - but it's a fascinating one to read about, especially following a run of albums that either play it safe and cosy ('Old Ways') or pretend there's nothing happening at all for escapist purposes ('Re-Ac-Tor' and 'Everybody's Rockin').

In short 'Landing On Water' is the most 'real deal Neil' LP we've had in chronological terms since 'Trans'. Of course this one-dimensional angry ugly bloated and so of it's time album can't help to win out against that multi-lingual hey, vocoders are another language!), sweet, poignant note-perfect and incredibly timeless record but then, hey, it wasn't supposed to: 'Trans' came with a 'message' from the heart about family and technology and maybe, just maybe, a better future. 'Landing On Water' comes with a confused garbled account of modern-day living that's too scrambled to be a message and comes unedited direct from the nervous system about how definitely, most definitely, the world is going to hell and there's nothing we can do to stop it. But on its own terms 'Landing On Water' is more substantial than the records in between where Neil has just been 'playing' with us and toying with where he might go next. Notably there were no new 'characters' invented for this album, the way there were for the Shocking Pinks or the 'country music guy'. This is so far from Neil at his best and is indeed his ugliest, most mechanical and musically and production-wise least interesting album of all. But then it's also an album full of the 'weight of the world' that couldn't truly have sounded any other way except ugly and on which some of the ideas (if not all) are both revealing and interesting. 'Landing On Water' is an under-rated work; not a great one, not even a good one and at times a very incompetent one. But get yourself into a mid-1980s mindset, lower your expectation of finding any beauty or delicacy get out the lyric sheet so you can read along and you might just find a poetic take on the horrors of modern-day living from a writer who knows just how to make them as horrible as can be. Bare it may be, 'bear' Neil might have felt like (all big and clumsy and terrifying), but bear with it if you can: there's something in this album, not quite sure what, but it's there all the same.

'Weight Of The World' has Neil sounding at his reediest, weediest and most vulnerable. No surprise, really, given that he's stalked by the mother of all drumbeats and a synthesiser having a nervous breakdown all at the same time. The song itself is more interesting than it's given credit for, though, despite the monotony of the surroundings. This is, believe it or not, a happy song about how the narrator found love when he was convinced he was going to be alone forever and no longer had to carry the weight of the world around with him - he's free. But the song doesn't sound like that: the hook line is the title sung over and over in ever more threatening ways and a second tag that comes in when the song finally drops it's tough-guy act and goes all soft: 'I was alone for all of my life...' So far in the 1980s Neil has either been ridiculously straightforward ('Re-Ac-Tor' and 'Everybody's Rockin') or wilfully obtuse ('Trans'). This song is a welcome return to his 1970s method of Neil giving us the opposite of what we think he's giving us at first, with a sweet love song of dedication and tribute turned into an agonising song with a hint that the narrator would be condemned to a very sad and lonely life without his 'girl'. The second verse is particularly strong, returning to the old Crazy Horse idea that dancing equating to 'feeling free' and that 'When You Dance I Can Really Love', but this narrator isn't built for dancing - he's carrying such a heavy weight that  he can barely move, never mind be free. What is a shame about this song is that it's so relentingly heavy - even the sweet middle eight that offers a contrast is the saddest, loneliest part of the song repeating 'I was alone for all of my life' over and over like a mantra. Like a lot of 'Landing On Water' this song is crying out for some variety, some freedom and light - instead all we get is an aural slap in the face and a sample of Neil speaking 'world' electronically treated and buried deep in the song.

'Violent Side' is another deliberately torturous song, but again one that's undervalued and would be much enjoyed had it been set free from its mid-1980s container. Neil sings about 'the darker side of me' once hinted at in 'Lookin' For A Love' without any pullbacks to sweetness or light. Neil sings from the point of view of his 'real' inner self for the only time on record, complaining that this self is 'hidden so deep inside no one can see' and equates this part of himself to a 'stranger wandering through the dark'. A second verse then tries to rob 'us', equating our souls to a house left empty with the lights on all night and burglar alarms turned off, a target for people who want to take advantage of us, which includes Neil's narratr. Unusually, especially for this album, Young plays it cool and detached for the most part (it's hard to hear him above Danny Kortchmar treating his drumkit like a punchbag anyway) before finally giving way to his primal senses in an angry punchy tag ('Gotta gotta control!') Not till 'Don't Cry' will we ever hear Neil quite this unhinged again. What's weirder is that he's joined by an all-boy's chorus, intoning 'gotta gotta control the violent side' with the purity and innocence of youth. Is this another lesson in contrasts? Neil claiming that when he's being pure and vulnerable he's actually being dark and manipulating? Or are even the angels he walks with by now so overcome with desperation that they've turned over to the 'dark side'? The result is another of this album's songs that are lousy to listen to but actually pretty interesting to think about when the tapes have stopped whirring. The song is arguably a verse away from greatness too, with only two of them here, but then given how bleak, depressing and loud it all is perhaps that's actually a small mercy.

Clearly in another league is 'Hippie Dream'. Rick Rosas plays the 'bass riff of doom', slowly plunging down into the ground, Neil's guitar tries to provide the colour and fizz but is all too often beaten into submission by Danny Kortchmar's drums. That's just the music: the lyrics are even darker, ever more desperate. Taking David Crosby, then in a courtroom awaiting to be sentenced to a Texas penitentiary on a drugs and guns charge, as his starting point Young returns to sticking the boot into what he sees as the woolly hippie philosophy of 'Woodstock' last attacked on 'Roll Another Number' a decade before. Like much of the 'Tonight's The Night' album drugs is the darker side of the freedoms of the hippie world and after losing Danny Whitten to them Neil is so scared of losing another close friend. His love and disgust come over in equal measure on a tug-of-war between his two sides, the hippie idealist who wants to believe everything will be OK and the realist pragmatist who knows that human beings are too weak, too cruel, too greedy for the utopia his CSN colleagues believe in ('Take my advice' Neil starts, 'don't listen to me', not wanting us to be disillusioned too but duty bound to tell the truth as he sees it - and in 1986 the truth is ugly. Usually I hate these kind of songs from Neil ('Roll Another Number' is too mocking, 'Long May You Run' too unnecessarily cruel, 'Thrasher' too smug and 'The Old Homestead' too weird in their similar takes on why time stands still for CSN but Y can never run away fast enough) but this one is genius. It's a song performed through gritted teeth, each line ripped against Neil's better judgement, as the singer struggles to keep calm and level-headed only to be overwhelmed by the end all the same anyway. The result is unrelenting misery, again, but with more purpose than the rest of this album, with Neil replacing the 'sails' on the 'wooden ships' of one of his colleagues' most beloved songs with 'screaming sheets' and comparing an overflowing river of creativity to one artificially built up from excess drug stimulation (Neil's clearly been listening to Crosby's stuttering creativity as so much of this song takes its cues from 'Delta', Crosby's equally river-based final song before his prison sentence, released on CSN's 1982 album 'Daylight Again'). Even so, Neil isn't ready to give up without a fight, a double-pronged guitar attack (one all fizz and fire and energy and effort; the other trapped and relentless) leading to a middle eight where he pleads with himself 'Just because it's over for you don't mean it's over for me!' I'm less sure about the line about 'please don't kill the machine' (is Neil imagining Croz on life-support?) but never was CSN better summed up than with the line 'it's a victory for the heart every time the music starts'. Reverting back to his traditional appointment as the 'darkness' to CSN's 'rays of sunshine' is a clever stance for this song, which is actually a lot kinder and more sympathetic than what Nash was writing about his former partner in this time ('Into The Darkness', again from 'Daylight Again'). The result is the album's one lone masterpiece, a song of helplessness, rage and frustration that updates 'The Needle and The Damage Done' for a more mechanical, brittle, darker age and is clearly performed with an awful lot of love along with the anger.

Alas 'Bad News Beat' is perhaps the album's lowest point. As the title suggests there's not much except for a beat and an occasional keening minor key melody that keeps tugging at the sleeve of that relentless drumbeat as if pleading with life for a bit of love and warmth and colour. The lyrics are just dumb: Neil's lost the love of his life to another 'guy' and spends most of the song equating this to news headlines to tell us: 'I got a bulletin of blues' 'It's a late breaking story I don't understand' 'I got a man on the street telling me what I don't want to hear'. This is hardly an original 'story' though or a track that has any sense of autobiography to it at all: by this time Neil and Pegi are about to celebrate a decade together and their marriage was never stronger, back in the days when Darryl Hannah was still just an actress playing a part Neil hadn't even seen yet, never mind understood. The only real lyric of interest is the line 'I've got an eye in the sky', suggesting that Neil's narrator is hopping mad enough to stalk his ex (well, he's done worse on previous songs!) and referring to the then very modern phrase which sums up the 1980s well (he basically means a satellite, as used occasionally by media outlets to get 'stories' and spy on people - if Neil had recorded this song twenty years later he'd have fitted in a reference to 'Google Street Maps'!)

My idea of hell is, well, actually it's The Spice Girls making me sit a science exam while singing while I'm trapped in a nightclub and made to drink and dance. A close second though is a traffic jam (travelling doesn't do my m.e. any good at all; travelling stop-start fashion for a few extra hours is agony). Worse than both these things is being stuck in an endless traffic jam with 'Touch The Night' on repeat, another of this album's deeply unlikeable, deliberately ugly songs. Neil's in a traffic jam leaving an ex, imagining her moving on with her life while he's stuck there in his, caught up in traffic, caught up in chaos, locked in and hemmed down for the rest of his life. He looks out to the sky for some hope but a line of ugly metal cars blocks it out (and you know Neil is in a bad mood when he's badmouthing his cars - usually he's trying to fill the sky with beloved pieces of metal!) Working against this sensible if boring song is a chorus that really doesn't fit. One minute we're stuck in traffic counting our losses, the narrator remembering walking past some street lamps - the next Neil's wishing that 'everyone' could 'touch the night'. Given the context (night-time, a pair of lovers meeting undercover of darkness, Neil singing via his 'darker' voice again and a fascinating return of that oh so innocent children's choir) is Neil seeing a prostitute here, a 'lady of the night'? If so then this lyric is even weirder than it seems on first hearing: by wishing 'everyone' could 'touch the night' Neil seems to be wishing everyone to a sexless marriage so they can mess around with 'those who've loved and lost', all of them doomed to seek refuge in relationshipless sex. The kindest thing to say about this song is that Neil's narrator clearly isn't thinking straight: heartbreak causes him to sound even closer to the brink of a panic attack than normal on this album and the result is an agonising series of booms, hollers and crashes. As graceful as a hippo playing table-tennis, this is another album song much better to think about than to actually listen to.

'People On The Street' seems like a safe place for a Young lyric: we've been here before and will be later on songs like 'Crime In The City' and 'Ordinary People'. But this odd song tries so hard to be a juvenile delinquent you don't know whether to take it seriously or not. On the plus side the Kortchmar-Rosas vocal chorus is surprisingly delicious, contemporary and yet pure and angelic too in the grand old Crazy Horse tradition. The claustrophobia inherent to this album also sounds perfect for a song about gang warfare and 'muffled screams' that come hand in hand with living in a big city full of danger. There's a good line too when in a repeat of an old classic an ambulance can only go so fast, when a 'siren wails as the system fails', youngsters driven to crime and violence for something to do and without any release for the aggression of the world they live in. Working against that is a synth so hammy it sounds like it belongs in 'The Kids From Fame', a silly bass beat and an ugly set of chord changes only a mother could love. Neil doesn't sound as if he cares that much about this song either, while his claims that you got to 'walk with the beat' to survive also seems uncomfortably close to period 1980s pop single fodder. The result is a song that had it been by most anybody else in 1986 might have sounded rather good, like everything else around at the time but a bit better - but this is Neil Young, who makes a career out of never sounding like anybody else.

'Hard Luck Stories' is a little more interesting, with a synth that sounds like a croaking frog having a heart attack and an actually pretty decent melody in there somewhere, at least when Neil isn't singing along to it in a most uncomfortable falsetto voice. The lyrics have the narrator in denial again, snapping 'don't tell me hard luck stories and I won't tell you mine' to a world that's sad and suffering and hurt, Neil's empathetic nature already overloaded by his own 'weight of the world'. As the song progresses, though, Neil gets more into the spirit of things and turns into a more likeable lovable hapless loser. Every time something goes 'right' in his life, whenever he feels happy, suddenly the phone will ring and it'll be bad news at the end of the line. He goes to a loved one for comfort and all she does all night is use him as a shoulder to lean on as she pours out her own hard luck stories, all of which Neil could solve in a heartbeat if she actually listened to him and took his advice. So he goes to see a friend, whose down in the dumps because a girl's just abandoned him - Neil's less than helpful advice was that 'you got what was coming to you too'. Neil goes back home, his troubles still bottled up, feeling himself 'slip away' and 'wondering what went wrong to the love that you once knew'. But the angry relentless beat of the song won't let him slip away - he's pinned in place, rigidly confined to a world of tight restrictions that won't let him properly grieve and cry, with the narrator getting more and more overwhelmed by the suffering of all the people around him by the end of the song. The good news is that Neil provides a perfectly suitable claustrophobic arrangement to this song that's snarling and ugly - unfortunately that's the bad news too, with one of the least melodic songs in the Neil Young canon twinned with his single most 1980s arrangement of the lot. No wonder this song is a legendarily hated one amongst fans, even if the ideas are actually rather good.

'I Got A Problem' starts with a Danny Korthcmar scream (at least, it isn't Neil and the level-headed American Indian Rosas really isn't the type) and immediately takes us back to miserable city (a place probably not twinned with Pleasant Valley Sunday). 'There must be some way out of here but I can't find it yet!' fumes Neil as the power trio turn in the closest thing to heavy metal in the Neil Young catalogue until the 'Eldorado' EP of 1988. This song is raw in the extreme, with everything in your face and hurting as a four-note riff plays over and over across three painful minutes, nailed into place by a relentless Kortchmar drum track twice as loud as anything else here. As for the lyrics we never quite find out what the problem is that Neil has. What we do learn is the many effects it has on him, bringing him out in a 'cold sweat', leaving him to stare his 'shadow' in the face in recognition of the evil it brings out in him and the friends who try to communicate with him but find him too far gone in his cocoon. The problem seems to be not the 'problem' so much but talking about it - especially with the loved one who seems to have caused it. The narrator seems to realise that his marriage is going wrong but he doesn't have the heart to go through all the sadness badness and madness of a divorce so instead the tension builds, leading him to get more and more trapped within himself. Many songwriters use their writing as therapy sessions without the need to pay analysts, but Neil seems to be using this one as his own personal asylum.

Album highlight 'Pressure' is the one song on the album that sounds all the better for the tightly disciplined, angry  confined space of an arrangement. Turning new wave, Neil drills the band trio through a fast and angry song with a clever, pretty guitar riff while Kortchmar plays cat and mouse and Rosas jumps up and down on a trampoline. Neil gets more and more carried away, fighting to gain control of his own body as he feels a panic attack coming on. He's onto a losing battle though, with those drums getting louder and louder across the song (or is that a conjuring trick?), symbolising the 'pressure hitting me in every way'. What pressure? All sorts: the 'video jocks' who won't play his latest promos (Neil dismisses them with the line 'that could even be you up there', as if they have no talent whatsoever), the need for 'peace on earth' during the peak cold war era, too much 'trying to get your money's worth' in a society where nothing comes for free, the holidays, the car - and perhaps most tellingly 'the job security that never ends'. Neil needs to be challenged, his muse forced into unlikely places to keep him alert and focussed, but he's become complacent and 'rusty', his world too 'safe' and comfortable to truly tap into the darker side heard in some parts of this album. Interestingly he also feels this pressure in a 'TV way', cartoon-like by the sound of it, exaggerated and in technicolour and quite probably with an anvil to the head by the sound of the thunderous backing. By the end Neil realises that everything creates pressure, whatever the intention and pleads with his lover never to feel pressure from him - he loves her too much for that (a rare moment of beauty and support on an ugly album). Even so, the pressure builds and Neil worries about his health, adding that 'one of these days I'm going to go out like a light!' (was that brain aneurysm of 2004 already in play here one wonders?) It sounds that way too, this relentless mad adrenalin rush ending in a fury of wild guitars and more Kortchmar screams. It's a scary end to a scary song on a scary album, but the difference is this song is quite fun too in its own sweet way if read that way and for once the ugly brittle setting enhances rather than detracts from the song.

The album ends on 'Drifter', the closest thing to an epic on this most compact of albums. Neil might be 'drifting', directionless as he waits bear-like for another genre to come out of hibernation with, but that doesn't make the music any less relenting. Boom-boom-THWACK! this song goes over and over until your migraine synchronises with it. 'I'm not a quitter' snarls Neil as if to prove his point, but that's not what this song is at all. Lyrically this is a song all about embracing the unknown, of being responsibility free ('Did I ever take a thing from you?' Neil asks his audience) as Neil tells us (and maybe Geffen, at the end of their court case for Neil recording 'unrepresentative albums') 'don't try to fence me in, don't try to slow me down, don't try to speed me up or tie my feet to the ground'. The odd thing is, though, this much dismissed song is one that's also crying out for some discipline and routine. Much as Neil's narrator sighs 'don't rescue me!' that's exactly what he needs and he adds in another middle eight that he likes to drive because he's fully in charge of steering, unlike his own directionless life (he's clearly been listening to Crosby again, this bit a direct steal of Croz's 'Drive My car', first recorded in 1979 but not released till comeback 'Oh Yes I Can!' in 1989). Maybe that's why the music is so overpowering, even for this album, Neil trying to play one of his typical scattershot solos but it's not happening, the sound of his manic invention drowned out by that drumbeat, a funky repetitive bass riff and the same synth notes going round and round to infinity (or so it seems). Again, though, this song is a much more interestingly structured piece of work than any fan ever gave it credit for at the time, a rigid song about breaking free or a limitless song about a love of routine depending on how you look at it.

The end result then is a difficult album to love. 'Landing On Water' is the sort of record that knows it's going to come in for a bumpy ride, from the curious title (not mentioned in any lyric) and the weird warning packaging down to the nitty gritty of the depressed characters living in their depressed world and the depressing way these songs are realised on album, all tinny mechanical factory fodder, is enough to make you depressed even if these songs had been light and happy. There are lots of reasons why most Young fans would run a mile from this record - and yet to dismiss it as just another weirdo unlistenable Neil Young project would be unfair. This album is indeed unlistenable for many reasons, but that sounds like a deliberate policy to me. This is the sound of someone reluctant to go 'backwards' to rock and roll, to dark and edgy songs, to a nasty world where danger lurks round every corner and characters get hurt - and thinks that if he has to suffer writing these kind of songs because of the world we live in then his listeners have to go through it with him. It's a fascinating concept this album, seeing just how much Neil can get away with as he tries to convey his battered and bruised feelings into equally battered and bruised sounding music. 'Landing On Water' though has a softer, gentler heart hiding behind all this 'machine gun hand' malarkey. Many of these songs cry out for help and - on 'Hippie Dream' and 'Pressure' particularly - Neil tries hard to find a way to offer it to 'us' too. Though many fans wonder why Neil ever had to wake his inner 'bear' up if he was going to make a record as scrappy and ugly as this one, that's the thing with bears if they get woken up too soon, whether it be by injustice or 'hunters', they're going to growl a lot and give you a headache. 'Landing On Water' isn't the prettiest of Young spirit animal albums, but it is perhaps the most primal, the most basic and - if you can only suffer this album's relentless boom-crash for long enough - one of the most revealing. 

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