Monday, 3 July 2017
Neil Young "Chrome Dreams Two" (2007)
Beautiful Bluebird/Boxcar/Ordinary People/Shining Light/The Believer/Spirit Road/Dirty Old Man/Ever After/No Hidden Path/The Way
'I want to be on this windy road for eternity...'
How very Neil Young: this album is a sequel to an album that nobody can own - because Neil never released it. But whereas the original 'Chrome Dreams' from 1977 is hailed as one of his masterpieces after being cut into bits to form the backbone of four separate albums ('American Stars 'n' Bars' 'Comes A Time' 'Rust Never Sleeps' and 'Hawks and Doves'), 'Chrome Dreams II' is itself a hodge-podge of songs not considered good enough for release on albums stretching back to the late 1980s. While there's still a hole in our collections even now where 'Chrome Dreams' should be - one of Neil's most beautiful albums - instead we get 'Chrome Dreams Two', an album designed to be ugly from the hurried slapdash sessions through to the close-up of the hood ornament on Neil's car which is easily his most horrific album sleeve (and there's been a lot of hideous sleeves to be fair). A lazy slow collection of ballads, this album got lost sandwiched between the angry zeal of 'Living With war' and the short funky simplicity of 'Fork In The Road' and is far less immediate than either of them. But there's also a case to be made that 'Chrome Dreams Two' is one of the most 'special' Young albums of the 21st century, in terms of songs at least if not performances or production, an under-rated beauty that's trying to peek out from under the surface noise and lack of finesse to paint a more interesting portrayal of where Neil's head is at than perhaps any of his other period albums.
Why this album now? The wheels were slowly falling off the wagon, in both a personal and career sense. On the one hand Neil is in a creative slump, having written 'Living With War' in a week and still fallen behind his usual regular one-album-a-year slot. That album was Neil's most divisive record, angering as many Republicans as it delighted Liberals with its damning portrayal of George Bush Junior's policies and it's scrappy as-live performances. Most fans loved it though, even if the general public hated it, which might be why this album is so 'fan heavy' for them, with much-delayed recordings of popular songs dropped into set-lists down the past twenty years and then never heard of again. And again, in Neilk's home life, things are getting difficult, with Neil facing that choice between the known (a thirty-year marriage to wife Pegi) and unknown (an almost as long relationship with actress Darryl Hannah) that was getting nearer to the point where Neil would have to make a 'choice' between them every day. Neil, famously, doesn't like telling 'us' his fanbase, what's going through his heart until he's ready - and he clearly wasn't ready to talk for so much of his career. So far Neil has coped with this distraction by disappearing (the long gap between 'Broken Arrow' in 1997 and 'Silver and Gold' in 2000), recording autobiographical songs masquerading as genre-experiment blues songs ('Are You Passionate?'), a soap opera about fictional characters ('Greendale') and an anti-Bush rally ('Living With War'). So far only 'Prairie Wind' has come from the heart or more directly the brain, a suite of songs inspired by Neil's brain aneurysm that gives him a whole new way of looking at the world that doesn't involve love and girlfriends but friends and family. What does Neil do next? He has a rummage round his discarded box for some oldies, while dropping the odd hint about what's 'really' going on in there for us too, hidden so we can't find them (heck one of them is even called 'No Hidden Path' just to draw our attention to the fact).
This album is named after 'Chrome Dreams' not because the songs are similar (there's nothing as inventive as 'Pocohontas', as daring as 'Will To Love' or as thrilling as 'Like A Hurricane') but because Neil is at a similar point in his life to how things felt when he wrote that first album back in 1977. He's just started a relationship that brings him comfort and joy and is preparing to commit (the Pegi-tribute album 'Comes A Time' and marriage came next) but isn't quite ready to bask in the sunlight yet, with the last hangover of nightmares from past relationships still haunting him. The lyrics to both albums have Neil sounding a little lost and looking for guidance - unsure whether to embrace his homing instinct for love like the 'salmon jumping upstream' or whether to escape the hurricane that keeps blowing him away. Here, too, Neil looks for guidance but seeks it from outside sources more than himself, looking for his 'spirit road' as he searches for a 'shining light' and after forty years of skirting the question finally admits to being a 'believer' in...something (later albums have Neil admitting to being a 'pagan', with 'nature' his 'God'). The 'chrome' part on both albums seems a bit of a misnomer (the 'idea' of the title on the original is that beauty comes from unlikely sources, including Neil's beloved man-made cars - but here the title seems to be more to get a picture of Neil's car on the front and to explore the half-theme of being on a 'journey'. It's the 'next' album 'Fork In The Road' that again ignores what's on Neil's heart and mind in favour of a concept album about his new electric hybrid car).
The other inspiration is that Neil has been confronted with his past a lot in this period. One other release that overshadowed poor 'Chrome Dreams' (an album seemingly deliberately 'hidden' and obscured) was the much-delayed release of 'Archives', the box set first discussed around the time of 'Decade' back in 1977! The set had really gained momentum in the late 1990s and every year since 1999 had been promised, then delayed, then abandoned, before being resurrected in new form. Putting the set together had entailed listening to all sorts of songs from Neil's 19663-1973 period and must have felt a little like Groundhog day as Neil went over the ground of his Buffalo Springfield, 'Goldrush' and 'Harvest' years before ending up at the start of the 'Doom Trilogy'. Knowing Neil as we do - never one to sit still - he was probably already planning 'Archives II' (although if he was it's a set that still hasn't come out yet) and this album sounds very much inspired by the 'next' decade of 1973-1983 when Neil loses his band, his second wife and his reputation before regaining multiple bands, his third wife and ending up voted 'Rolling Stone' magazine's 'artists of the decade' with his comebacks of 1977-1979. This album feels like Neil on the cusp of a similar wave, the music slowly flowing through him again as he allows himself to embrace his complicated love life and wonder about his future all over again.
Musically, though, this sounds more like his 'third' and 'fourth' decades, from 1983-2003, filled with songs that for whatever reason never made an original album in that period. 'Beautiful Bluebird' is the oldest album song, written for the first abandoned version of the countrified 'Old Ways' back in 1983 which may well have been inspired by the birth of Neil's youngest child Amber Jean (clearly on his mind after her inspiration for 'Sun Green' on 'Greendale'). 'Ordinary People, a highlight of the Bluenotes shows from 1988, would have jazzed up the 'This Note's For You' album no end (as well as nearly doubling it's running time!) 'Boxcar' would have soundbed very out of place on 'Times Square', the sort of 'halfway house' between the 1988 EP 'Eldorado' and the eventual LP 'Freedom', a low-key country blues about identity. These three songs, stuck at the beginning of the album, sound like a 'mini EP' apart from the rest of the record. Though all three were re-recorded at the album sessions ('Ordinary People' with much the same band who would have expected to play on it back in 1988), they don't feel like they 'fit', coming from Neil's younger sweeter side or his angry pondering styles rather than the more confused tone of the rest of the album. Frankly there are better unreleased Young recordings around than 'Boxcar' and 'Bluebird' (two songs that are amongst his flimsiest and most one-dimensional) and 'Ordinary People', while a great song and still the highlight of this album, is a pale substitute for what could have been (especially as Neil will release a late 1980s live recording shortly afterwards on the 'Bluenote Cafe' double disc in 2015). Neil said that he wanted to wait for the 'right time' before recording all three and that the songs all slotted in well with what he was writing 'now' - but they don't. 'Boxcar' and 'Bluebird' are an obvious shoe-in for the acoustic sound of 'Silver and Gold' but would have sounded out of place on any album after that (but especially this relatively complex one). Whereas 'Ordinary People' is an obvious candidate for 'Living With War' with its tale of how the rich and elite thrive while the poor suffer and struggle to survive, while it's angsty vulnerable vibe makes it ripe for plucking on other albums like 'Prairie Wind' and 'Are You Passionate?' far more than this one. I put it to you instead, dear reader, that these songs are here placed at the front of the CD in order to cloud the issue, to 'hide' what Neil is really up to on this album - and how lost he sounds on the other seven songs newly written for this record.
Neil said that this album as a whole was concerned with 'the human condition', which is interesting and fits with 'Ordinary People' but doesn't really fit with the rest of the album. Actually 'Chrome Dreams' is perhaps the first since the escapist rockabilly of 'Everybody's Rockin' not to be concerned with the 'human condition' (unless you count Betty Lou getting a new pair of shoes) because it's an album that's primarily about spiritualism. Neil spends whole realms of his autobiography 'Waging Heavy Peace' returning to this theme, going over and over the same ground to try to work out just what he really believes (paganism is his final answer, but not his first thought). Not since 'Natural Beauty' in 1992, not even on the near-death songs of 'Prairie Wind' does Neil spend this much time questioning whether he's on the right path and what his maker might have in store for him during this lost, soul-searching part of his life. Neil doesn't get the answers on this album and merely asks the questions, but what an interesting batch of questions they are for an artist traditionally as rooted in the 'Earth' as Neil is. 'Shining Light' is the other album highlight, a gorgeous vulnerable ballad that has Neil admitting that, deep down, he knows that 'you' always guide 'me' but that now he is 'lost', asking for a light to guide him through the darkness so he won't feel quite so alone. Next Neil tells us that he's a 'Believer', which will come as a shock to anyone whose ever sat through such anti-religious songs as 'Soldier' or 'Yonder Stands The Sinner' and yet doesn't sound out of place at all, given that Neil has always had a sense of wonder and awe about the world around him, especially since his children were born. As that comparison with 'Natural Beauty' or even 'When God Made Me' makes clear, Neil's never claimed to have been a non-believer - he just doesn't believe in the way that people around him traditionally believe. 'Spirit Road' has Neil actively searching for his true path, entering a 'long highway of your mind' that sounds like a cross between 'The Long and Winding Road' and 'Let It Be', a 'speck of dust alone in this giant world'. He still hasn't made it to the path by the end of the song though, despite it lasting six minutes. 'Ever After' finds Neil asking more questions, Neil reduced to the idea that 'the only faith you're keeping is the faith that you still got', that believing gets harder with age not easier, again finding spiritualism through nature ('The trees is where I do my prayin'). On 'No Hidden Path' Neil sets off for a walk around his beloved ranch - something he knows he will have to give up as part of any alimony cases to come - and just for a moment feels like 'the chosen one' and that 'you're' walking here with me'. We don't hear who this is, but the lyrical references to 'wind', as on 'Prairie Wind', are clearly equated with loss. So is this Neil looking for guidance from his dad, Scott? (If so then it seems father and son talked a lot more in death than they did in life). Neil too is preparing for death, referring to his life as 'distant days' and wondering what comes next - signified by the most typically Neil moment with a howl from his 'old black' guitar that makes it clear he isn't heading into the next world quietly. This troubled searching album then ends, much like 'Prairie Wind' and 'Living With War' before it, on hope, certainty and a choir. On 'The Way' Neil is no longer choosing between two paths but has one he's sticking to (or does he? 'Fork In The Road' suggests more procrastination on the 'Darryl Hannah' front) and urges the listener that if we're 'lost and found' the way he is then all we have to do is a bit of soul-searching and we'll find the answer eventually. It's not a case of getting no answer so much as asking the right questions. It's an oddly triumphant note for such a subdued album - and yet this song too features a mightily subdued production, one that's muted to the point of being hard to hear, as if the 'Neil' whose recording this isn't anywhere near as sure as the 'Neil' who wrote it!
Lyrically, then, this is a strong return to form, second only to 'Prairie Wind' as the most interesting Young album of the 21st century so far with a series of songs that come from the heart and which are all long enough to properly explore their surroundings, with lengthy verses rather than repeats or guitar solos. This is, you could say, an album with an awful lot to say and an impatience to say it all. And yet that doesn't make it one of Neil's best albums even then. The melodies across this album feel familiar and often sound the same, so that (like 'Greendale') you're never too sure where one song begins and another ends. Too many of these songs sound rushed still, rigidly sticking to the same chord changes over and over instead of being inventive or exploring somewhere 'new' ('No Hidden Path' which runs for fourteen minutes, doesn't do much at all across any of them, while on the eighteen minute 'Ordinary People' the relentlessness and conformity of the song is the whole point but still not a point made for easy listening). On some Young albums this doesn't matter. 'Sleeps With Angels' for instance, gets much of its spooky ambience from its repetitive restlessness, as if Crazy Horse are so spooked by the outside world that they're afraid to leave even their central key. 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' too would have been a far worse album had it been cut up with middle eights and choruses. And yet 'Chrome Dreams Two' is an album that cries out for a bit of variety. It's a record about asking questions and sifting through answers after all - so it's a shame that so much of this album has Neil asking from questions at the 'same source'. This may be some high-falluting concept that Neil knew what the 'answer' to his troubles was all along (being with Darryl) but it's such a shame that such an inventive and sparky album lyrically ends up sounding so boring musically.
It's a great shame too that these performances are as lacklustre and messy as they are too. My intuition tells me that this is, on some level, deliberate: Neil doesn't want this to be a 'hit' album, even if it's one that had more chance of this than others of late, because that means people would be talking about this album and asking questions and he'd rather fly underneath the radar. A case in point is the one song that hasn't been mentioned yet. 'Dirty Old Man', which is kind of to this album what John Entwistle's were to Pete Townshend's on mid01970s Who albums. It's a big joke, taking the mickey out of Neil for thinking that he's doing anything spiritual or deep when he's just 'trying to make a living' and earn some money to 'go out and get hammered'. It's a little like George Harrison's post-Patti, pre-Olivia albums too, caught between immersing itself in the 'spiritual world' on the one hand and too empty and hurting to cope without the stimulants of the 'material world' on the other. But this performance is scrappy in the extreme, unfocussed and raw to the point where you wonder if the rest of the band were even taught how to play the song once before recording it (traditionally Neil's way of working). This is a particular shame when the same approach is taken to other songs that deserve far more love, care and attention. 'Shining Light' could have been truly beautiful if Neil had only sung it on key (and if he hadn't ripped off the melody to 'Memory' from Andrew Lloyd Webber's only decent musical 'Cats' along the way). 'The Believer' needs to sound proud and stand tall - instead it sounds like it's got a country-gospel hunch throughout. 'Ever After' sounds less like the polished country-rock of 'Harvest' 'Comes A Time' and 'Old Ways' than the one-take bar-room brawls of 'American Stars 'n' Bars'. 'No Hidden Path' spends more time hopping between two chords than even 'Like An Inca' with a less arresting song to go with it. And at least 'When God Made Me' and 'America The Beautiful' sounded sweet and sincere; the chirpy children's choir on 'The Way' just gets in the way of a good song (remember, the only time Neil ever used the services of a children's choir was when they were chanting 'gotta gotta control the violent side!' like a bunch of maniacs; that line oddly sounded less out of place than this song does).
Overall, then, it's yet another latter-day mixed bag for Neil. he sings in the last song that his critics say he has 'nothing in store' and that he is 'washed up and done' and to be honest nothing he offers here goes that far to undo this feeling. The opening two songs, simple to the point of stupidity, don't help and nor does 'Dirty Old Man', a song written for fun but which sounds deliberately ugly. Two songs that clock in at ten minutes longer than they need to don't help either. But as so often happens on Neil's most interesting albums ('Trans' or 'Sleeps With Angels') this is all smoke and mirrors to hide what's really going on here. Neil is in love again and has found true beauty and wants to embrace it - but dealing with the last few responsibilities before he can fully walk into his new life are ugly, so this album ends up being a beautiful album about searching for direction and finally finding it that's more inspired and spiritual than any we've had in decades, turned inside out to become an ugly album about nothing much at all. The truth, as so often happens on these sorts of Neil albums (including 'Broken Arrow' and 'Time Fades Away') somewhere in the middle: 'writer' Neil hasn't been this inspired for ages, but 'performing' Neil has rarely sounded more as if he's lost the plot. The result is an album hard to listen to and not always worth the effort - but if you can 'read' this album rather than hear it and have the patience to go where Neil is taking you, however ugly it sounds, then you will find beauty at the end. Maybe that ugly album cover wasn't quite so ugly after all - and yes you can always find beauty in the strangest of places!
'Beautiful Bluebird' is an odd place to start, given that it doesn't sound like an 'opening track' or like anything else on the album. Indeed for the longest time it wasn't - Neil heard a playback of the album where this song and 'Boxcar' were the other way around and switched them at the last moment. It's a bad move, making an album of muted interest sound deeply dull from the first, as indeed is resurrecting this song at all when there are so many better Neil outtakes out there to revive (including many better ones from the original 'Old Ways' where this song would have been easily the worst). It's a song of loss from years past, as a real bluebird flies into shot and makes Neil's mind wander to seeing one before, perhaps inspired by first wife Susan or second wife Carrie, but taken from the perspective of a man whose now happily married and can indulge himself in how great his other past loves were removed from all the dramas. It feels woefully out of place here on an album about moving on from love three (Pegi) to love four (Darryl), like a man counting his eggs before he's even bought his chickens (or bluebirds) yet. Or was this song always about Darryl and their first meeting, a long time ago even in 1983, luring him on to the 'top of a hill' when they can be together, all their troubles over? (Portraying girls in song as different types of 'bird' when you don't want ther world to know about them just yet is a very CSN thing to do. Indeed Stills had already used the talisman of the 'bluebird' for Judy Collins several times by 1983. Which brings me on to theory three: is this song about the fractious relationship between Stills and Young, finding something to make them 'smile...after all these years?' Unfortunately 'Beautiful Bluebird' is more fun to discuss and dissect than it is to listen to, being the single most hokey hackneyed recycled Neil country-rock song since the 'Silver and Gold' album (where all the songs sound like this). A description of a bluebird in flight is also no substitute for real storytelling, especially as Neil stops himself mid-thought as he comes up with the far more interesting and entertaining question of what hurdles he has been through since the last time her saw 'her' fly. An odd and unconvincing song, easily the worst on the album.
'Boxcar' is at least more 'Neilly' even if this song too sounds uninspired and vaguely familiar (being not unlike the melody of 'Old King' matched with the lyrics to 'I'm The Ocean', although this song came first, dating back to 1988). Neil, for the millionth time in his career, equates his long wandering musical path to a mode of transport but a 'box car' (ie a goods wagon for European readers) is one of his dumbest. Unfortunately the melody does too good a job of sounding like a lumbering van winding it's slow painful way up a steep hill, while the lyrics portray Neil in an oddly passive way, the 'passenger' to where his muse takes him and refusing to let him off to greet friends, family and bandmates or stay a while where he feels comfortable. Neil could have gotten away with this if this song had been as inspired as we know he can be, or as out of left-field as he often was and is, but no: this song sounds like 'Southern Pacific' only not quite as well-written (and that song wasn't great!) Along the way Neil tells us that he feels like an eagle, a snake and a 'black white and red man' (striped?!) but won't tell us why, instead running through a list of metaphors that spring to mind at random. We've already had the one central metaphor with the 'boxcar' and really don't need anymore. 'It doesn't matter where I get off' sighs Neil, aware his best work is behind already (and this is back in his forties), 'It doesn't matter where I lie'. And that's the problem with this song: it doesn't feel like it matters at all. No wonder it was dropped from 'Freedom' - it's one of the few unreleased Neil songs heard in concert fans weren't clamouring to hear again, so of course it's one that Neil had to revive sometime!
Fans were however longing to hear 'Ordinary People', which is like a bluesy first draft for 'Crime In The City' in both length and observation. It is indeed a powerful song and by far the best of the three revived for this album, with a series of characters all struggling to make ends meet whilst doing super-human things, like a Bruce Springsteen song but without the patriotism, pride or hope, just some mournful bluenote horns. It's a tale of America too and the falsehood that mankind has evolved along with his technology, people working in a busy bursting competitive factory where they used to fight out duels in the Wild West, 'fighting' to make 'parts to go into outer space' when they haven't learnt the first thing about being kind or creative or equal yet down on Earth, our horizons as narrow as they ever were whatever the technology we build. A second verse has a fat cat with a cigar staring out the window bored, earning millions an hour while his underlings all squabble and rush around to make ends meet, everything he gained inherited from a crime syndicate that went wrong full of people also struggling to make ends meet, 'skimming the top off when there's no one around'. Next we get an antiques dealer whose shop is just a front for selling weapons and who keeps five pitbulls at night to scare off intruders looking for somewhere warm and empty to spend the night. By this point Neil is getting lost in his own desolation so froths at the mouth on the next verse 'It's hard to say where a man goes wrong...' his idea of 'wrong' being not the petty thieves or starving workers napping on work-time but the greedy fatcats who exploit them. Instead Neil imagines a 'vigilante people' taking matters into their own hands (this song is pretty neatly times for the UK poll-tax riots), 'conscientious people' working things out democratically next time, 'cracking down on the drug lord's lair'. By the next verse though things are still helpless: there's a broken window at the factory the employees have to pay for, smashes by the people who used to work there and now sleep there homeless because they have nowhere else to go, while a downturn in the way America treats her employees starts a vicious circle where they can no longer afford the goods made which means more people have to be laid-off...The song ends with Neil both celebrating and patronising the 'ordinary people' who let it happen: 'Some are saints' he declares 'and some are jerks!' before moving on to three whole verses about trains and cars that don't add up to much. Impressive as this song is, in terms of length and un-relentless if nothing else (plus it's nice to hear the horns on a Young song again after a twenty year gap), this version is a pale facsimile of the hardened, angry versions heard on Bluenote live gigs. Though clearly revived because of the credit crunch, Neil seems less engaged with the song this time around, sleep-walking anonymously through the lyrics (even double-tracked!), which makes a mockery of just how heartfelt the lyrics are meant to be holding a mirror up to society and encouraging people to break out of their little boxes and see capitalism for the fraud it really is. The result is eighteen very long minutes where not much happens and where the characters are less strongly drawn than on the similar rant on the full-length 'Crime In The City'. Still, it's nice to have one (any!) version of this key Young song on the shelves at last after hearing about it for so long. It's just a shame that 'Ordinary People' is so, well, 'ordinary'.
'Shining Light' is the album's quiet highlight, often overlooked due to its low-key nature after eighteen minutes of blaring horns. Though once again the melody is recycled ('Philadelphia' via Lloyd Webber - if 'Cats' had featured 'Buffalos' this couldn't have been more like 'Memory'), as on 'Borrowed Tune' that somehow doesn't matter: this is a song that had to be written in a flash of inspiration before it got forgotten and doesn't matter if it was written to another tune. Neil's been wondering for a while about what he truly believes spiritually, especially since nearly dying in 2005. Lost and confused, dazed by the pull and tug on his emotions from his readymade family and the lure of the new, he asks for direction and a light in his darkness. Neil asks for love, compassion, kindness and asks how he can 'stand in your glory', in such marked contrast to all his youthful anti-religious songs. 'Shed your light, show your love' Neil calls, sounding more than ever like a wounded animal with his voice high and trembly, while playing a sad and mournful minor key refrain that only finally finds peace on a resolution to the major key when the song slowly, painfully, makes its way to safety by the end of the track. Though the performance could have been better (there's too much going on and the backing band - made up of old friends Ben Keith, Rick Rosas and Ralph Molina - clearly don't know this song at all yet and are hanging on for grim death, there's a real sweet toughness to the playing and the backing choir made up of friends, wives, half-sister Astrid and all sorts is quite beautiful. Many past Neil Young songs have asked for redemption but this is, to date, the only one that seems to have found it, with a quiet peace and inner strength that will be repeated again across the 'Storytone' album when the split is made for real and Neil is similarly lost, worrying if he's done the right thing. This song 'wins' though, ebing one of the more under-rated and emotional moments from Neil's last half dozen 21st century records.
'The Believer' sounds more ordinary and earth-bound, even though these lyrics too talk about finding salvation and light in your darkest moment. The tune is one of Neil's chugalong songs, a so-so country-rock song played on acoustic with heavy plodding over-simplified drums (poor Ralph gets all the worst jobs in the Young catalogue!) and a tune that doesn't veer far away from two chords throughout. The lyrics are more interesting, again seeming to deal with Neil's muse, this time arriving in the form of a 'songbird', perhaps the bluebird from the first song. Neil still has the faith in his subconscious really, talking to himself about the 'long windy road' he's walked simply because of believing in the music pouring through his head and never daring to shape it. Sounding much like an outtake from 'Prairie Wind' Neil reflects on love and loss and the 'wind' from the afterlife that's getting stronger (though not yet 'like a hurricane'!) and remembering telling his mum Rassy once that he was going to live forever - perhaps a childhood memory of when he nearly died from polio. So, this is a song not just about living long but staying creative to the end too, Neil searching for 'faith' that this will happen and imagining 'keeping the church bells ringing' in his mind's eye. Intriguingly he also promises to 'make the changes' - was this to his diet and way of living after being so poorly? (there's a lot more of what Neil was told to do in his autobiography, though he hasn't written it at this point just yet). The song isn't great then and loses out thanks to yet another overly sloppy performance, but the lyrics about pure faith without proof are unusual for Neil and thus of interest to fans trying to follow his mindset. The song also makes a neat rejoinder to 1970 track 'I Believe In You' which, of course, was about not actually having enough belief to say 'I believe in you!'
'Spirit Road' is another of the album highlights, the only song here that really lets fly with the electric power Neil is forever associated with. It's gutsy, earthy, rootsy, recalling everything from 'Change Your Mind' to 'Down By The River' via 'Like A Hurricane' with a similar crunch that sounds physical and tough. However the lyrics are again ethereal and other-worldly, imagining a pathway of the mind that Neil walks down to find redemption. The twist is that he'd already found it once and lost it (when was this? When he first met and married Pegi?) and that gradually he's isolated himself to the point where he only his tired overworked brain for company. Neil sees himself 'painted into a cold, dark place', imagines himself as a 'speck of dust' in a 'giant world' and most oddly of all 'surrounded by snakes' who 'pinch your shoes and cut your nails!' He's desperate to find his true path and drive out of his scary place but even his faithful car that's in his mind with him won't start: he's 'lost the keys' and is 'down on his knees', searching for them whilst praying for forgiveness. Throughout the band's faux Crazy Horse style (with the right drummer but the 'wrong' bass player) is deliciously claustrophobic, adding the tension not through fast flourishes or show-off passages but through a gradual build-up of noise and oppression. Neil's guitar solo, much delayed compared to how the other 'templates' of this song work to a minute before the end, tries hard to dance around the situation, looking for a solution everywhere but he's trapped on the same single chord, this track recalling 'Like An Inca' in the way the band are locked in place for the whole song groove. The result is an impressive song and recording, Neil sounding committed even as he speak-sings the many Dylanesque words though with an emotion quite different to Bob's intellect. Rarely has Neil ever sounded so desperate and the fact that he sounds pinned down to one relentless chug actually works well in context, the song also (comparatively) short and spiky too at six minutes (if this was 'Psychedelic Pill' or 'Sleeps With Angels' you can easily imagine this song being stretched out to twenty!)
And this may be what Neil is running from. 'Dirty Old Man' also features just one gruff riff and maybe three chords at best this time, but is a jokey jovial song that sounds proud of the fact. Neil sounds proud of what an unemployable slob he is, fired for dinking on the job, hammered on Monday morning because he 'can't wait for Friday night' and 'sleeping with the bosses' wife in the parking lot', the attached word 'again!' saying everything about this unsavoury character. The song is clearly not true (though Neil had his boozy moments, especially around 'Zuma' time, he never got this out of control), but feels like it could be: Neil, pressurised by the marital problems he's facing, imagines himself ever further out on lost Human Highway rather than the Spirit Road and can only see a future where he gives in to all his worst excesses and drinks himself under the table. The thought may have been inspired by his gloriously unhinged riff too, which sounds like a more inebriated version of 'Prisoners Of Rock and Roll' via 'Piece Of Crap'. Many of Neil's more serious albums have a 'jokey' song to break the tension; this song's presence here reveals how serious this CD actually is (even if Neil downplayed its significance like mad at the time it came out and called it 'just another album') and fits better than most similar jokey songs do on his albums, this being the logical extension of his devilish ways if he moves too far off the spiritual path he yearns for on the other album songs. It's far from the best song on the album, with a deliberately ugly chorus repeated too many times for comfort and a suitably blurry-eyed performance which means the band don't get the best out of even this deeply simple little song. But it's the sort of track that kinda had to be here, to tether Neil back down to Earth after so many tracks spend searching for inner peace through his mind.
'Ever After' is back to the country-rock, with Ben Keith's pedal steel wailing nicely in the background for the last time (Ben will pass away in 2010, spending his last years on Neil's ranch). Though the sound is rooted to the Earth, however, with a slowed-down waltz, the lyrics are more existential questions from Neil, who sighs that 'the world is full of questions and only some are answered' before figuring that everyone who has faith has it within them already - it's only what happens to them in their lives that brings that side out of them. We never find out what Neil's 'faith' now is and he doesn't sound quite sure either, but he senses it 'in the air' whenever he hears music or people laughing. A weird verse then compares his searching self to a 'man with dozens of boxes' who wants to know what's inside them but knows life will never been the same again after finding out, so he keeps the box closed (which, if nothing else, tells us what Neil would do on 'Deal Or No Deal' - appearing on TV quiz shows in the genes after all given what Rassy used to do for a living!) Next Neil goes on a walk 'through the forest' to work things out in his mind, telling us that right here in nature is where he does his 'praying', but even then Neil backtracks and tells us in the next verse that the only truth he can count on in his search for answers to his questions 'is a wish in a song'. The song ends with Neil meeting his maker at last, who is both a real human being and female. Is this Darryl, calling him to him from beyond his current grief and confusion and leading him on to 'the ever after' where she lives, the 'next world' not found in death after all but in the rest of Neil's living. This is a fascinating song to study, but like so much of this album is less palatable to actually listen to, the lyrics really not going with that Johnny Cash boom-chikka-boom riff at all. The performance is also very sloppy, although the Crazy Horse-style sweet and sour backing harmonies are impressive in a sloppy kind of a way.
At fourteen minutes 'No Hidden Path' is the second epic on the album, but somehow it feels more like a summary of the album rather than an actual song in its own right and really doesn't deserve to last this long with its 'Song X' style sea shanty rhythm actually quite off-putting. Neil's out walking through the trees, he feels a spiritual light calling to him and is surrounded by a wind. However this time he isn't in his own mind but meeting a real person (Darryl?), enjoying the fact that with this mysterious other he can be his 'true' self, revealing everything good and bad about himself, 'no hidden path' as he talks about his failings and addictions as well as his desires to rise above them. This meeting is enough to inspire the best Neil guitar solo on the album, something which works well against Neil's own slashing rhythm part and the Rosas-Ralph bass drum plod. It runs for several minutes by which time Neil is emotionally spent, enjoying the free-flow flight above the basic backing underneath him to finally let loose on this troubled album and enjoy a bit of fun. On other album tracks that would be where the story 'ends', but here we get more extras after the guitar solo, a gospelly part as Neil pleads with his girl (and maybe his God) to 'show me the way' out of his current darkness. There's also a verse about how everything in life 'changes' when he's near her, how she's 're-arranged' the way he once used to see the world and that their union is marked by mystical signs including the 'Northern Lights'. By the end Neil is 'trying to hold onto the threads of time', willing his vision of the future to become reality in the present and wondering whether the Northern Lights will fade again this time the way they always do when he goes back home to his 'old life' or whether they'll stay put in the sky this time. We really didn't need to go through the houses all over again a second time (this song has a natural end point about five minutes in), but this is, after all, a song about obsession and Neil's reluctance to swap the vision he longs for over duty and responsibility back home so at least it makes thematic sense why this song should ramble on as much as it does. The first half of this song though is pretty thrilling, especially the instrumental passage that portrays in music what Neil is struggling so much to tell us with mere words.
The album then ends on five minutes of 'The Way', the most gospel-themes song in the Young canon. A children's choir chirp merrily alongside Neil on a song about being found after fearing you were lost forever. After an hour or so of looking for the light, Neil has found it and wants to share it with us, telling us that if we feel the same then we already have the answer buried deep within. Once again we get more lines comparing life to a 'series of highways' and paths that are rightly or wrongly travelled. In his life Neil has been everywhere, down more roads than most and u-turned more than the average human being, his critics telling him he's been everywhere useful and is 'washed up' and 'should run'. But 'they just don't know' because they can't see what he sees: this road's never been open to him before and it feels right and different, spiritual and peaceful in a way he's never felt before. So far so good and this song sports one of Neil's prettiest melodies that's bouncy and childlike, but in a very likeable kind of a way rather than a cutesy 'top forty' song. But who invited the choir? And if Neil had to use them why does he have to mumble alongside them in a way that really doesn't fit? 'Chrome Dreams Two' may well be Neil's subtlest album, even for a writer whose generally subtle (unless he's trying to scare Geffen or recording noisy synth songs as per 'Landing On water' anyway). But there's nothing subtle about this song, which so heavy-handedly makes the point about Neil having found redemption that it might just as well have come with the cast of 'Sister Act' in the background! This is a shame because, more than most, you feel this is the song that 'got away' on this album, a track that should sound beautiful and haunting rendered ordinary and unlistenable. Still for a second there Neil sounded as though he found the answers - and after so many albums and so many recordings that in itself is worth a celebration, just not this one!
Overall, then, 'Chrome Dreams' is a real oddball of an album. We're not meant, at least back in 2007, to know what was going on in Neil's mind when he wrote and released it. We're meant to be left scratching our heads as to this sudden lack of faith, this need to experience pastures new and be deliberately fooled by the opening twenty-five minutes which have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the record. That album title too is a red herring (it's only loosely connected to the first 'Chrome Dreams' in as much as it's about a new relationship flourishing, but even then 'Zuma Volume Two' would have made more sense of this, being the 'real' crossover point between Carrie and Pegi), as is the album cover (never has an album cover this ugly and metallic been used for an album that's at heart so spiritual and ethereal). If puzzles are your thing, though (and as a Neil Young fan they probably are) then this album might still fire up your engine and leave you with more to go on than most of Neil's recent other albums, a discussion of the 'self' that also borrows heavily from the 'past' in direct opposition to the recent 'Living With War' about the outside world at a particular recent point in time. To be brutal the melodies on 'Chrome Dreams Two' aren't as memorable as on that album, the performances are scrappy and messy and Neil sounds half asleep (he sounds better foaming at the mouth on that record) and Neil has lost the consistency with which he made his last two records. But there's an inner peace and a spiritual heartbeat on 'Chrome Dreams' that makes it pretty much unique in the Young canon ('Are You Passionate?' tried to go there too, but that album's performances were even worse!) and enough pieces of the jigsaw are there for us now to go back in time and connect the dots. You'll have your work cut out on this album and Neil doesn't make it easy for us to see how good this album really is, but there's a strong half album in there somewhere, a rare concept album about being lost, then found, saved not by Geffen court-cases, drunken wakes or robotics this time but by faith and spiritual healing. A deliberate 'fork in the road' next aside, this is Neil having finally worked out where he's going after a rocky fifteen-year period and as such 'Chrome Dreams Two' will, I think, be seen as a key cornerstone of the Young canon in years and decades (and 'Decade'-style compilations) to come, even if for now this is the Young album hardly anybody remembers and even fewer fans talk about. Which is, you sense, exactly how Neil wanted it at the time. A great album? No way. But a special one? yes, most of the time, with a sense of space, of healing and hope that makes it amongst Neil's most uplifting, soulful works, whatever the gritty grotty sound of some of the performances.