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Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Colorado” (2019)
There is a lot riding on ‘Colorado’ at this point in time, perhaps more than any other Neil Young album since ‘Harvest’. On the one hand it’s the first of Neil’s mainstream releases since the death of his third wife Pegi in January and only the second since Young ended several decades of will-he, won’t-he? by moving in with actress Darryl Hannah. Will Neil return to the guilt-fest that was 2014’s ‘Storytone’ (an album released before anyone quite knew what was happening)? On the second hand the world has gone even more nuts since Neil’s last album ‘The Visitor’ at the end of 2017: it’s now a confirmed fact the orang-u-tang in charge of The White House is an evil dictator hell bent on destroying the world as we know it to all but the 2% of Americans who are still bluntly cheering him on, while Britain’s Brexit somehow manages to make even America look almost sensible. Will Neil record another ‘Ohio’ or ‘Living With War’? On the third hand the world might have finally caught up with the ecological problems writer Neil has been writing about on and off since the days of Buffalo Springfield. Are we going to get another ‘Monsanto’esque diatribe? And on the fourth hand (!) this album is, in all likelihood, going to be the last album to be reviewed in the last Alan’s Album Archives book when it comes out at the end of 2020. Will Neil give us a fittingly dangerous and groundbreaking finale as a reminder that music made by the people who matter can still be the world’s greatest art-form?
Instead we sorta kinda get Neil going back to his roots, the easiest way of making music of the sort most likely to click with his fanbase (it didn’t escape our attention that ‘The Visitor’ became his first album to miss the top forty since the difficult Geffen days of the 1980s). Many a reviewer has already come out with lines about how this is Neil back to his ‘ragged Glory’ days of high-volume low-speed with Crazy Horse circa 1990. Neil’s first fully plugged-in album since 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is also his first since Crazy Horse and the songs largely skip rabble-rousing and self-flagellation in favour of the sort of Dylanesque couplets Neil usually writes when everything is going his way. Oddly enough, ‘Colorado’ is not the first time a member of CSNY has retreated to the Colorado rocky mountains in time of great stress to find soothing comfort and a new revigorated kind of energy (Stephen Stills moved there after his wow-so-this-is-actually-final-then break-up with Judy Collins and ended up writing most of his Manassas masterpiece there in 1971-1972, including a song named ‘Colorado’). However, much as Neil is back on the straight and narrow after an increasingly eccentric set of albums, there’s something a tad uncomfortable about this one too, as if no matter how hard he tries even this safe been-there-for-generations landscape has changed irrevocably forever.
For a start, this isn’t a ‘Crazy Horse’ we’ve ever seen before on a Neil Young album. Guitarist Frank Sampedro retired in 2014 after an eventful forty years that involved broken fingers, drug excess and more hirings and firings for Crazy Horse than the entire Trump cabinet. His replacement is, thank goodness, the only possible replacement: Nils Lofgren was the shiny-faced nineteen-year-old who saved Crazy Horse back in 1971 when Danny Whitten Od’d and after rescuing their first extraordinary album without Neil then rescued the first extraordinary Neil album without Danny, learning to play the piano on the hoof for ‘After The Goldrush’. Nils would have been a shoe-in as Danny’s replacement had his own superb under-rated career not taken off, leading to such pivotal moments as his band Grin’s ‘1+1’ (a true gem of the early 1970s), ‘Nils Lofgren’ (the 1971 version with some astounding bits of songwriting), err ‘Nils Lofgren’ (the 1979 version with ‘Shine Silently’ and various Lou Reed collaborations that really stretched his palette), 1995’s ‘Damaged Goods’ (a groundbreaking dark night of the soul in the ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ vein) and 2008’s ‘Nils Sings Neil’ (a so-so cashing in on Neil’s most famous moments, recycled well on acoustic guitar). Nils also parked his infamous on-stage trampoline away long enough to re-bond with Neil on ‘Unplugged’ (1993) and Neil, Billy and Ralph on Young’s greatest and most personal masterpieces ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (1975) and ‘Trans’ (1982). Nils is now the baby-faced sixty-year-old to his seventy-year-aged cohorts and no one could have filled the huge hole that is Frank so well or so neatly. Nevertheless, there is clearly a difference here – all those years of playing in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band and his own occasional moves over to pop have given Nils’ guitar qualities a ringing, mainstream stadia feel that Sampedro never had, even when playing to Crazy Horse’s biggest crowds. Frank would also happily sit on the same see-sawing riff for several minutes; Nils is one of rock and roll’s most naturally curious guitarists and can’t help trying out something new to curveball his fellow musicians. Harmonically, too, Nils’ sweet tenor sits in the gruff hole where Frank’s vocals used to go and even Billy and Ralph’s ragged harmonies sound sweeter as a result.
It’s Neil too, though, who delivers an album quite different to his usual big ‘return to Crazy Horse, straight-and-narrow’ streams-of-consciousness. While the music gets simpler and is played in even less keys than usual (and with even more blatant recycling: ‘Rainbow Of Colours’ is a direct steal from George Harrison’s ‘Behind That Locked Door’), the lyrics to ‘Colorado’ are some of Neil’s most obtuse and obscure. ‘She Showed Me Love’ in particular is not the simple sweet love songs it sounds. Instead, over thirteen epic minutes, Neil agonises over all the themes we drew out above without lingering on any of them. His new wife, his family, his fans, mother nature – they all showed him love in their own ways, so which one does he pay attention to first? This rambling song moves from tender to concerned to downright angry as Neil pays his gratitude for everything and wonders how he can find the time to save them all. Equally ‘Rainbow Of Colours’ is a stream-of-consciousness lyric that finds Neil looking over and above it all, escaping the petty feuds of mankind for a bigger picture of the universe, ‘losing track of memories’ as he dies, goes on an acid trip, suffers an epileptic fit or all three at once. ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’ meanwhile has Neil wondering if he can stay there because all that noise and colour is somehow safer for him than this confusing world that’s ‘always working on finding my weakness’. ‘Can’t forget!’ is this album’s latest agonised and oft-repeated Young cry as he hauls himself out of his peaceful little love cave to face his critics who hate his music, his politics, his love life, his need to tell the world that it’s about to end. ‘Not for me!’ is the rejoining cry as Neil tells us all that he’s doing this for us – so why won’t somebody help him?
Oddly, perhaps, that’s the only real moment of tension or chaos across the album. Neil sounds happier than I would have expected him to given the sad events of a year that saw him move in with a new love and lose the mother of many of his children (which does sound like a Machiavellian pact). Rather than the guilt of ‘Storytone’ though Neil feels free to write his new wife love songs quite openly for the first real time and as a result there’s a sense of contentment and domesticity that we haven’t heard since 1978’s ‘Comes A Time’. In the middle of this turbulent record made in a hugely turbulent era personally and politically Neil can sing of rainbows and love with an innocence seventy-four-year-olds don’t normally have. Neil pays Darryl her own tributes in the way he once did with wives Pegi, Carrie and Susan, with the line to sum up her take-no-prisoners righteous soul ‘She walked like she knew where she was going’ to match the stability-and-brooms of ‘Harvest Moon’, the lust and confusion of ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ and the awed love songs of ‘Neil Young’ respectively.
Darryl brings light to a world of darkness, a rainbow of colours to an Earth that seems to exist in black-and-white and hope to a life that thought it was over and done already. Darryl is painted here time and again as a fierce fighter who knows her own mind but brings Neil a peace and tranquillity he hasn’t felt for a long time and a fairytale as she waited all those years to be with him without being disappointed in him. This album is very much her album in the same way that ‘Neil Young’ was for Susan, ‘Harvest’ was for Carrie and ‘Comes A Time’ was for Pegi, but naturally for such a known eco-warrior who knows her politics, it’s a record that’s concerned with the outer world as well as the inner world.
One of the big announcements made during the press junket for ‘Colorado’ was that, after fifty years of being a dual citizen, Neil is now officially an American. This is, if he doesn’t mind me saying so, a weird time to do just that. The official line is that Neil ‘got tired of not having a say’ in American politics and fed up of lambasting critics who wondered why he cared so much about Trump if he was Canadian. It is, I fear, a sign of the times. Nobody questioned Neil’s right to write about whomever the hell he wanted when Nixon was in the White House and even as recently as 2008 George Bush Jnr was fair game; it’s only now the Trumpies are in the house that people are as likely to check stranger’s citizenship rights and birth certificate before they check out your record collection. It seems odd, too, that Neil of all people should stoop to caring what the public thought of him just two years after gleefully kicking off ‘The Visitor’ with the line ‘I’m Canadian by the way…’ The politics of what’s happening to the world runs through the veins of ‘Colorado’ in more ways than just the title, even if it’s softer than the Trump pot-shots of the last couple of CDs. For starters, Trump doesn’t get a specific mention this time around though that’s clearly who Neil is aiming at with his tales of biased television reports and angry unthinking supporters.
Equally the ecological themes aren’t shouted from the rooftops the way they have been on so many recent Young CDs. ‘You might say I’m an old white guy’ Neil jokes at the start of ‘She Showed Me Love’, joking that he’s part of the problem not the solution, but on other tracks he’s the one who helped create the legacy that people are leaning on. ‘Shut It Down’ is the only track that goes all full-on Greta Thunberg as Neil laments a ‘blindness that cannot see’ that seems to have infected half of the world come crunch time. ‘Olden Days’ does, though, lament the fact that the 1960s hippies didn’t get to save the world the way they’d hoped, as Neil looks over his shoulder to count another tally of friends and comrades lost to time. ‘Where did they go?’ he sighs. Nevertheless, there’s a hope that the younger generation are finally picking up where Neil and co left off circa 1969, that the world may yet be in safe hands with the new batch of hippie protestors in control rather than the tin soldiers of bureaucracy and control. ‘Green Is Blue’ has Neil sighing over ‘so much we didn’t do’ as the grass and fields of his childhood become gradually reclaimed by the sea as the ‘weather changes’ and there are ‘fires and floods’. But it also has him seeing hope where others see chaos and destruction, that even while other people get depressed about the future he sees bountiful fields of plenty now that humanity is finally getting its act together. Even while Neil is telling us all how bad things are, with our biased news channels and extinct species, he can envision the Earth a few decades down the line when getting angry about all this is normal and people care about more than just their own narrow views of their lifetimes and start worrying about their children’s. One of Neil’s most beautiful songs in a long time it’s everything that’s best about the complexities of his songwriting, as Neil is angry and sad and content with each change of the chords and every quiver in his voice.
If there’s a key theme for this album, then, it’s division as Neil goes to war with himself over swapping his old love for new with tragic consequences, the patriotic Trumpies fight the rest of America over what is ‘fake news’ and half the world get passionately behind a schoolgirl taking time out from her childhood to tell the world what it should have already known while the rest honk their horns in annoyance because yet another protest mean they will be late for work making money to spend in a world that might not exist much longer. Neil, so often an architect of division himself in his ‘Ohio’ and ‘Living With War’ days, just wants peace and the world to heal. No wonder he’s retreated to the Colorado mountains to think the next part of his life through: he needs to help heal his family, his newly adopted country, the decaying planet and you sense himself. Thankfully Neil has the answers as well as the questions here though and after a decade of feeling faintly scared and perturbed after playing Neil Young albums (‘Fork In The Road’ with it’s last-gasp hope for change, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ with it’s eerie ‘life will never be the same’ stance, the guilty ‘Storytone’, the angry ‘Monsanto’ and the troubled ‘Peace Trail’ and ‘The Visitor’ which start off with a war against Trump and a protest on an Indian pipeline before closing with ‘Forever’, a frightening song about the world packing ready to leave a scary place before finding there is nowhere safe to move to and might never be again) ‘Colorado’ finally brings comfort and healing and closure. ‘Think Of Me’ answers ‘Forever’ by having Neil a bird in the sky who can spread his wings and adapt to wherever he chooses, while he’s ‘gonna live long and I’m happy’. ‘Shut Down The System’ is the most positive I think we’ve ever heard Neil in an ecological sense as he sees change finally happening and wanders dangerously off-key to tell us that ‘When I look at the future I see hope for you and me’. The finale has Neil finally putting down the weight of whether he made the right decision to leave Pegi for Darryl by effectively giving a new set of marriage vows in ‘I Do’. Even the album cover is a neat collage of the old and new, as we get another of those made-to-look-vintage American Indian style silhouettes of a ‘crazy horse’ (as per the packaging of ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Year Of The Horse’) with a very modern digitalised soundscape of EQ levels for one of the songs (‘She Showed Me Love’ at a guess, given that it’s the song here with the greatest range of dynamics). The two seem odd bedfellows at first but sort of work after a while, not unlike the album as a whole, amounting to the grand contradiction that in order to maintain traditions you have to alter the future from a course of killing itself and thus wiping history away.
This is not, then, your average reunion with Crazy Horse. There’s no crunching simplistic rock and roll as per ‘Zuma’, no ready-made anthems as per ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, no drawn-out love songs as per ‘Ragged Glory’ and no pocket-and-epic ruminations on autobiography as per ‘Psychedelic Pill’. ‘Colorado’ is truly an album that could have gone in any direction from guilty ballads to triumphant love songs to concerned political and ecological rants and Neil gives us all of them here, along with a trio of songs that defy explanation or understanding. I’m not quite sure ‘Colorado’ is the huge return to form that – yet again – every reviewer has been talking about (‘The Visitor’ was a mighty under-rated album, groundbreaking in its twists and turns while ‘Peace Trail’ had the best songs, ‘Monsanto’ the best concept and ‘Storytone’ the most importance in Neil’s 2010s canon, while ‘Psychedelic Pill’ arguably made better use of Crazy Horse). Not all of it is wonderful: the sea-shanty ‘Rainbow Of Colours’ is hideously embarrassing (so of course Neil made sure it was the album’s first single!) It is, however, another strong CD that could so easily have taken the easy way out but decided instead to sum up just what a schizophrenic, confused period this is in Neil’s personal history and for us as a world. There’s a bit of everything here and most of it is good, while the typical one-take Crazy Horse performances sound tighter and more complex than normal without losing the urgency of an album made at speed. Much of the credit for this goes to new-old-boy Nils, but Billy and Ralphy too play quite brilliantly at times across this album, while Neil somehow manages to overcome a mix that ducks his vocal lower than any other sound by making his performance central to the record. It might not the full-on ecological protest many hoped for, or the melodic collection of love songs, or the fascinating autobiographical guilt confessional or the anti-Trump polemic the world (well, most of it) is still desperately waiting for. But it is a great sampler of what it is to be Neil Young in 2019, loved yet hated, despondent yet hopeful, lost yet confident.
I for one was expecting ‘Colorado’ to be about death. Neil has, after all, lost a lot of people close to him lately from his ex to the bass player who played on more of his albums than any other Rick Rosas. Instead the only song that touches on death is opening track ‘Think Of Me’ and it’s not exactly what I was expecting. Neil bids us to think of him once he’s dead and gone in a similar way to the songs on ‘Prairie Wind’ but asks us not to be sad about it; he’ll be free of his shackles at once and flying across the sky in Canada like the big birds that once reminded him of home on ‘Helpless’. Neil’s suddenly become a big believer in reincarnation (it fits with the ‘pagan’ stance he talked about on ‘Psychedelic Pill’) and sees death in the very Neil Young sense as a chance to do something different and be someone else for a time, ‘living long and happy’ as he swoops high and dives low the way he did as a human being. Worryingly, after years of records telling us that he ain’t going yet as he still has work to do Neil says that ‘I’ve got to finish up and get out of here right now’ but he still promises rather sweetly to be there for his fans when they get desperate and need comfort (‘when you cross your heart and you hope to die and your dreams come tumbling down’). All he asks is that fans think of him from time to time, which we surely will. More than one fan out there has seen this song as the album’s only reference to Pegi and that this is a message from her that was ‘channelled’ by Young into a song (and what better way for Pegi to return to life than music?) The nature imagery works just as well for her as for Neil and it makes perfect sense she would return as something graceful moving fast (indeed this song is lyrically not that far removed from the music Pegi was making in her own right with its references to wildlife and fate) so it could be that Neil sat down to actively write a song in her style to say goodbye. If true, though, this interpretation gives that last painful verse a new meaning, as she surely instructs her ex to remember him the next he promises something he can’t keep, ‘cross your heart and hope to die’. Anyone whose been following the last batch of twenty AAA Neil Young album reviews will know how Pegi’s suspicions that Neil had found another love and her heartbreak on learning it unfolded and the dark humour and irony in that statement sounds much like Pegi too! However this is not an angry or a guilty song. There’s a whole sky to fly in, a whole new life to uncover and explore and a lot of new memories to gather. How could we possibly forget? The poppiest song by far on the album despite its subject matter, Crazy Horse are impressively light on their feet here sounding better than many of Neil’s acoustic bands do at this sort of thing and with Nils shining on some lovely harmonies.
‘She Showed Me Love’ is by contrast the album’s epic, not so much a free-flying goose as a snake that keeps shedding its skin as the song changes what it wants to be. It starts out as an ecological protest, Neil naming himself as ‘an old white guy’ irrelevent in a time when people are exploring views by women and ethnic minorities. He agrees with what the young girls of the world are saying though: it’s something he’s been saying for decades now, that old white guys like him are ‘killing mother nature’. As with his anthem for ‘Mother Nature’ Neil knows the planet can heal herself and that she’s only showed people like him great love, bountiful produce and life. He has a vision of mother nature ‘pushing the Earth in a baby carriage’ offering nurturing love even though her off-spring have turned on her. Neil also knows he’s had it easy being white and male, ‘a few bricks short of a load’ compared to some of the people he sees at the protests with Darryl Hannah and probably finds it strange to see faces like his on their protest boards. No one else Neil’s age does what he does and he finds himself a lone voice in this sea of faces, telling his audience he thinks might look a lot like him that ‘if I tell you where I been you might think I lost my mind’. Neil uses what last bit of standing he has to tell his fans of where he’s been and what he’s believed though, offering up his wisdom as someone whose ‘been down a few roads’. By the end of the song this more of your usual love song – Neil might not have been to these protests without Darryl there to get him out the house and by the end this song has become a hymn to femininity, to a more caring world males have ignored for far too long. By the time this realisation comes we’ve just hit the six minute mark and Neil’s run out of words, but he’s making up for all that lost time with a humdinger of a guitar solo that rises out of nowhere to dance around the song’s main unbending riff, showing the world that people can change with the times and dance to a new beat. While Nils does his best to follow the Sampedro method of sticking to a tight fixed groove, Neil stretches out further, slowly dropping his early intensity into a sublime melodic ringing of notes that cut through the dense fog of a Crazy Horse jam like a lighthouse in stormy weather. As Crazy Horse intone ‘she showed me love!’ over and over the song slows down, stutters and falls and hits the point where most producers would have been on the talkback feed telling the band to stop several times over. Somehow though that last stuttering just about keeps going until Crazy Horse pick things up out of the debris and start up again, the song gaining momentum at the eleventh hour the same way that the planet still might after all have a chance. By the time we reach that final full stop with a ringing chord drowned in fe3edback with a wash of Molina cymbals, it sounds like a victory. More interesting than many recent extended Crazy Horse jams if nowhere near as inspired as ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, it’s notable again how happy this song sounds despite the dark subject matter.
‘Olden Days’ is one of Neil’s occasional songs of nostalgia for times past which sounds oddly out of place on this album of looking ahead to the future. Unlike many of Neil’s songs it’s hard to pinpoint who it was written for too: Neil has lost so many people lately it’s hard to keep up. It does sound more like a friend than a lover, though, and someone whose alive just not around so that rules out many. There’s also the line that, much like Neil, his friend has moved on ‘with your new love’ and doesn’t have time to call round much anymore. My guesswork has narrowed it down to two: Graham Nash and Frank Sampedro. Interestingly both men have moved address lately which fits Neil’s lyrics of ‘having moved away when I needed to talk to you today’, Nash from Hawaii to New York and Poncho, funnily enough, from New York to Hawaii. Neil’s always been the kind of person who will drop people without notice or apology but gets apoplectic when they aren’t there for him or something goes wrong. Did he want to reunite CSNY or Crazy Horse and found to his horror nobody was picking up the phone at their old number? Maybe this goes deeper too: Neil’s slightly cross with both men at the moment: Nash for some of the comments in his autobiography ‘Wild Tales’ (though Young seems to be less cross than Crosby was) and Sampedro for some of the comments made to Rolling Stone Magazine after the last tour in 2014 (poor Poncho was still recovering from smashing up two of his fingers on the tour bus and wanted to take things easy, but Billy got sick with a stroke and without him Neil decided it wasn’t the Horse and threw in lots of other material Poncho just didn’t know how to play, much to his frustration and physical pain). We can also only guess at what the ‘bad thing that happened yesterday’ was for Neil (with shades of the old song from ‘Mirrorball’) but my guess is that it’s something to do with Pegi, either her divorce or her death. Much as this song starts off as a song about the good old days, it’s really about Neil’s panic in the present as he calls up an old buddy to share news and realises they’ve disappeared from his life, perhaps alienated like all the rest. Neil has rarely sounded quite this alone and sounds fragile even for him, wobbling off the notes wildly while Nils desperately tries to keep the song afloat with the first piano he’s played on a Neil album since ‘After The Goldrush’ (an album to which this one is oddly similar, with its sense of things ending and beginning, a tragedy infused with hope). In the past Neil might have turned this into a full-on angry rant a la ‘Hippie Dream’, but in this short and simple song he’s content to go back to remembering better days, with an unexpected key change back to the major suddenly pushing this song to be happy, to find his peace with the world. Inevitably though the song kind of sinks in on itself instead as we end up back in the most self-pitying verse we’ve had from Neil in a long time: ‘Where did all the people go? Why did they fade away from me? They meant so much to me…’ An old softy who can still bare his false teeth, this is perhaps the most Neil Young moment on the record although it’s notable that this song doesn’t quite sound the way a piece like this would have done on a past record – Neil is trying to stay in a dark place but Crazy Horse are trying to make things beautiful and to lure him out of this lonely place.
Inevitably given the events of the past year Neil needs some escapism and ‘Help Me Lose My Mind?’ is it. An angry churning riff makes this the album’s true odd-one-out, especially as it does Colorado’s trick in reverse by being set to the happiest lyric on the album in many ways, at least at first (‘Nothing bothers me ‘cause I’m so happy’ is indeed the song’s opening line). Neil jokes with us that he’s ‘got a face that gets me in trouble’ even when he’s trying to do good and keep the peace, before turning on the voices of guilt he hears in his head. ‘I gotta win somehow’ Neil laments ‘It’s always working on my weakness!’ By the chorus Neil is moving on past his problems, ‘moving along till I’m new again’ because he doesn’t like the person he’s become. Distracted he spends his money buying a new TV and a new sound system but it’s clear that he’s just in denial, trying to be told something comforting that isn’t true. Like ‘Dangerbird’ we’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown caused by something simple and meaningless as Neil goes to pieces trying to re-set the picture size on his new purchase so that, in the album’s best metaphor, it can ‘make the sky look like the Earth is flattened’. Neil is suddenly helpless, aware of how much he depends on other people and how they just aren’t there in his life the way they were. ‘Won’t someone help me lose my mind?’ Neil calls out over and over like a wounded animal while old black spits out sparks of venom and frustration. The surely deliberate irony is that this is the most ‘Crazy Horse’ like song on the album, Neil’s lost soul made to sound really big here (or are the band meant to sound like the ringing in his ears as he loses his marbles?) Neil stretches out to throw a few notes into a solo but he stutters, struggling with the notes that would once have come easy as his notes sink into the storm of the Horse at their rawest and most simplistic. By the end this song has become much more than a faulty setting on a TV – it’s the weight of a man who needs to distract himself and once some sudden phasing comes in during the middle (a very rare tweak of production values on this album) it sounds like the acid trip from hell. Powerful as the song is, though and as right as Neil was to let this song out in its raw barely-rehearsed state it lacks the invention of similar songs like ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and feels as if it runs for much longer than the 4:15 it actually lasts.
The album’s greatest masterpiece is surely ‘Green Is Blue’, the loveliest Young song in ever such a long time. A truly lovely descending chord sequence on the piano sounds like many a past ballad, but this one has the melody and words to back it up as Neil digs deep to count his blessings and impart his wisdom on what must be the most beautiful song about a work-life balance ever written. Neil admits to being distracted in his quest to tell human beings that they were destroying their planet, messed up by all the events going on in his personal life that he lost sight of the bigger picture. By the same token now Pegi is gone he wishes he had spent more time with her and less worrying about the future so that he could have more memories. ‘There’s so much we didn’t do’ sighs Neil in the chorus which could be about either or both, adding for good measure that there should have been another way, that ‘we fought each other while we lost our coveted prize’ (marriage and a liveable planet). Neil comes close to saying ‘sorry’ here as he begs forgiveness and wonders why green turned to blue so easily for the Earth (the land swamped with the sea) and for his marriage (where a land of plenty ended up making them both sad). By the last verse both strands of the song are neatly entwined: Neil saw the warnings, he felt the weather change and ignored them, until what was good and natural in his life was becalmed on an ice floe facing extinction. ‘We knew what we had to do’ Neil summarises. So why didn’t they do it? Why is the planet dying and why has he lost his soulmate? Neil is even more vulnerable here with nothing much to distract us from those staccato piano chords, but this isn’t purely a sad and angry song. The moment when his piano chords stop stabbing and sweep into a truly gorgeous rounded melody and Crazy Horse sweep in to provide some gorgeous harmonies, cymbal washes and some clever subtle Nils guitar somehow makes everything sound right again, as if Neil is saying ‘it’s too late for us – but not for you’. A haunting, exceptional song.
‘Shut It Down’ picks up where the last song left off, urging humanity on as it wrestles with perhaps one of the great turning points in our civilisation. The sort of protest Neil once dreamed of and supported in small pockets here and there has finally become mainstream but Neil knows how short our attention span is and how quickly we can turn away from our last chance to secure our future. So here he bids us to not just protest and go back to our own lives but to shut down an entire system that isn’t working. Sounding not unlike the wide slashing basic chords of ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ Neil seems to apologise for pushing so hard for American industry in the past and go for the jugular. ‘It’s the only way we can be free!’ pleads Neil as he describes what the industrial revolution has grown into: people living in ‘meat factories’ bred to make the rich and greedy more money. He snaps angrily at the obstacles in our way: the people making the money pretending to be ‘one of us’ in their ‘cool climate change t-shirts’ (with yet another irony being that nothing is ‘cool’ about making the planet hotter in every sense of the word) and the ‘blindness that just can’t see’ the bigger picture and the people who think as long as they get their pay cheques on time everything is fine. ‘What about the bookshelves?’ Neil pleads, aware of how much will be lost if the species goes under, ‘what about the history?’ Notably, though, while the lyrics are as gung-ho as anything on the similar ‘Fork In the Road’ and ‘Monsanto’ albums Neil doesn’t sound quite so confident in his performance and again sounds strangely vulnerable here. Rather than the man of ‘Ohio’ who knew how to make the world a better place here Neil sounds a lone voice lost in the crowd he knows no one will ever listen to (because he’s an old white man who had his chance to save the Earth half a century ago perhaps?) There’s something about this song that doesn’t quite hang together, most notably the cop-out ending that fades just as it’s yearning to become another epic (when did a Crazy Horse track last fade? I can’t think of any. Did they mess up really badly?) However rarely has Neil’s guitar arrived with such a crunch as it does in this song’s opening bars and the Horse’s harmony vocal is once again a thing of sweet ‘n’ sour beauty. Full marks to producer John Hanlon who does a much better job of capturing Crazy Horse ‘in the wild’ than he did on ‘Ragged Glory’ – his method of treating the band ‘like an orchestra’ with a handful of microphones over the top rather than musician by musician has rarely paid off as well as it does here.
‘Milky Way’ is a moody song even for Neil and even for this album. It’s a sort of love song (the closest the album has anyway) of the day when Neil first met Darryl, a rare ‘day without a cloud’. Annoyingly for our book timeline he still won’t tell us when this was! However whereas Pegi brought out the realist in Neil’s romantic (all those songs about doing the school run and driving Harley Davidsons) Darryl seems to bring out Neil’s more cosmic side. ‘There’s no moonshine’ on this special night (always Neil’s symbol for his feelings for Pegi) but there’s plenty of other astral phenomenon as Neil finds himself ‘sailing in the milky way’ as ‘stars collide with memory’. This is no casual fling but something huge and seemingly pre-destined as Neil tells us how overpowering it was and he sounds as surprised as anybody that ‘somehow I survived’. Even though Neil had a happy life he’d worked hard to get he feels the tug of love so strong that it wipes out his memories of his ‘other’ life and that he only realised in retrospect that he had been desperate for someone like this to come along having been at ‘the end of the line’ (whether this is the end of his artistic crest – my guess is that Darryl arrives somewhere around Neil’s re-birth with ‘Freedom’ in 1989 and possibly ‘This Note’s For You’ and its tales of impending divorce in 1988 – or death or something else is left unspoken). Throughout the song is the feeling that this was meant to be, whatever ripples ensued from it. Neil starts it by recognising Darryl in the crowd (at a protest a happens) because she looked ‘like a friend of mine’ (maybe one of his ‘type’ of people in this life or a memory from a past one). It’s a strong verse and the slow spooky melody (a sort of ‘Trans Am’ as played by The Bluenotes) is impressive, wholly different to anything Neil’s given us before, while the verse about Darryl ‘walking like she knew where she was going’ is a classic. However there are some clumsy images here that don’t work as well and just prevent this song from being another late period classic: there’s a ladder that doesn’t lead anywhere with ‘no one climbing’, an ‘ocean liner in the stars’ and I’m not sure if I was Darryl that I would be flattered to be referred to as ‘a mermaid in the milky way’.
‘Eternity’ is this album’s joker in the pack as Neil recycles the riff from ‘I’m Glad I Found You’ for another Darryl love song where everything in Neil’s life is suddenly filled with love: his house, his car and – this being Neil – even his model train set! It’s been so long since Neil sensed this in his life and he now knows he’s made the right decision as he records in joy the first time he did things openly with his new life that meant so much to him: walking through the forest on the Broken Arrow ranch, driving to see the relatives in Canada and pausing his car at the lights on the railway to hold his lover’s hand and gaze into her eyes. It’s lovely to hear Neil this loved up and so sure of his future happiness that he sings about this wonderful thing in his life lasting not just for a little while but ‘eternity’. Neil’s in such a ditsy mood he even gets Crazy Horse to mimic the sound of the railway which is delightful (did Nils realise on getting the call to rejoin the Horse that he was going to spend one of his first recording sessions going ‘click clack clickety-clack woooh’?) The main refrain of this song is ‘Train Of Love’ but ‘Eternity’ doesn’t have much in common with that past song from ‘Sleeps With Angels’ (generally reckoned to be a song of bonding with son Ben); instead my guess is that Neil has been doing more than a little bit of listening to his old pals in CSNY with this song a dead ringer for Graham’s loved-u song for Joni Mitchell ‘Our House’ (via, perhaps, a 1990 Nash song ‘House Of Broken Dreams’ which feels much the way Neil’s house used to feel judging by the lyrics in this song). Short, simple and undistinguished it may be but ‘Eternity’ is so sweet it’s hard not to fall in love with it’s cute lyrics, bright-eyed dancing melody and bushy-eyed performance from a really on it Crazy Horse.
Alas ‘Rainbow Of Colours’ is wretched, a sea shanty for a sinking boat. At their best Crazy Horse can do ‘slow’ like no other band – the sheer noise of the playing means the last note is still playing when the next one rings adding up to a wash of colour and a wall of noise that no one (no even Oasis) can match. At their worst though they can be the most interminably boring band on the planet (well, after The Beautiful South or Coldplay or Radiohead or something like that) and rarely have they been more boring than here on a song that would still be slow if taken at twice the speed. There’s no invention here at all hardly: the tune sounds like another one of Neil’s occasional Dylan rip-offs (until I realised it was actually George Harrison ripping him off on a song he wrote about Bob) and the lyrics are another Rolling Stones rip-off (this is ‘She’s A Rahhhhhnbow’ with the psychedelia taken out and replaced by grunge). It’s an ugly song that harks right back to the right-wing politics of ‘Hawks and Doves’ – no, don’t worry, Neil isn’t becoming a Republican or a Trumpie, but he is waving his American flag and telling naysayers who badmouth the country to get out because ‘you’ll never whitewash those colours away’. Thank goodness a second verse softens the stance, Neil arguing with the people who say ‘there’s no room for all’ because immigration is what makes his newly official home beautiful and there’s nothing left for them back home ‘where their lives lie broken with no chance left at all’. By the end of the song Neil has turned this song into a rallying cry where he and his kind have kicked Trump out, ‘when the people have spoken and the walls are strong’ ending another song with hope. Once again, though, it’s notable how unconvincing Neil sounds when compared to, say, ‘Living With War’ (where you would never doubt George W’s word against his or his choir) or even as recently as 2017’s anti-Trump song ‘Already Great’ (where Neil was cackling with glee that Trump was about to fall). By now Neil sounds like the rest of us, tired and weary at the fighting to get Trump impeached and kicked out of The White House and his flag sounds less beautiful and more tarnished from the events of the past few years.
Thankfully following on from Colorado’s worst song we end on one of the best with the beautiful and haunting ‘I Do’. Way back in 1971 on ‘After The Goldrush’ Neil was sighing over another impending divorce (to first wife Susan Avecedo) asking ‘am I lying to you when I say ‘I believe in you’? By now the famously untrusting Neil has found someone worthy of his belief and tells us that he’s ‘not worried’, which must be a first for him! Neil whispers ‘I do’ as if he’s taking Darryl’s hand in marriage all over again, but in context he’s celebrating all the things they have in common. The biggest of these is that ‘you ask all the questions I do’. Neil is learning from Darryl and her knowledge of the environment and asks her to take him on a visit to all the places she loves. Oddly enough they’re ‘real’ places he’s loved to, in his song lyrics: the big birds flying across the sky (from ‘helpless’ again) and the fish swimming in a crystal clear stream (once a metaphor for Neil’s need to keep pushing on and searching for romance on 1977’s ‘Will To Love’). What usually scares off lesser mortals only leads Darryl to get closer to him as she takes his hand and tells him that they’re safe, that they will always be there (both, perhaps, the natural animals and his own songs). Neil doesn’t usually take comfort from other people, but there’s something in the way she says it that leads him to trust her in a way he never has before, a belief that doesn’t come easy. At last, after forty solo albums and side adventures with CSNY and Buffalo Springfield, Neil sounds at peace and in a whole new level to the naïve hope of ‘Neil Young’, the fireside hats of ‘Harvest’ or the domestic bliss of ‘Comes A Time’. Neil sounds as if he can finally share the heavy burden he’s been carrying around all his life with someone. This song’s melody is as beautiful as the subject matter but it’s played so delicately with nothing above a whisper as Ralph gets out his brushes and Nils gets his turn to sit at the famous pump organ. All this means that when Neil finally sings head-on about his new love, without it being couched in metaphor, it truly sounds like the sun coming out, with a half-hint of the melody from ‘Harvest Moon’ recycled here in a new era of cosy domestic bliss. Simply beautiful and another of Neil’s best and most poignant songs in years.
Thankfully Colorado’s two most beautiful moments and the more complex but similarly inspired songs from the album’s first half make up for a couple of the lapses on Colorado’s second. It’s been a long old time since we last had a Neil Young album that was great all the way through (2005’s Prairie Wind’? 1995’s ‘Mirrorball’? 1994’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’?) and we still aren’t there yet, but you have to say that overall ‘Colorado’ continues the long slow climb upwards during the past decade following a difficult 2000-2010. Neil is finally at peace in his love life after a series of anguished albums wondering if things will ever work out and even though he’s aware of the world going to hell outside his front door he knows that we’ve been the before politically and ecologically and always found a way through. Neil’s new love brings him hope that maybe there will be a fairytale ending after all – something which comes truly as a shock from the man who once brought us the pe3ssimism of ‘On The Beach’. This time, though, the water’s good and the springs are clear and even the thought that the water is lapping around our feet now on what used to be land isn’t enough to wipe the smile off Neil’s face. The result is a sweet album that has it’s head in the clouds but still has time to tell it like it is in a way that only Neil can. Crazy Horse too sound mighty fine for a band fans had long since assumed had gone out to pasture along with Frank Sampedro and the hiring of Nils Lofgren was the only sensible choice, more than proving his worth here as if those last fifty years without him were just a dream. Ralph and Billy, though, too more than play their part and Talbot especially has a great album – all the more so considering his own health issues since the making of ‘Psychedelic Pill’ (including a minor stroke in 2013). ‘Colorado’ is Neil’s album though – or perhaps more especially Darryl Hannah’s album – and it finds him on fine form, speaking from the heart about all of human existence (his own and other people’s), embracing the good, the bad and the ugly. I can’t wait to see where Neil’s muse takes him next, into the following decade and beyond. On the evidence of this album – and the last half-dozen before it – it’s going to be quite a trip!