Music Review: Neil Young Chrome Dreams ll
Some musicians are as comfortable as an old favourite sweater. You can count on them to deliver the same thing consistently. There are no surprises when you get one of their new recordings, in fact you can predict what will be on an album before you buy it. While that might be boring it has the redeeming quality of being a certainty.
Then, there are the musicians who change each time. Each recording is so different it's a crapshoot whether you're going to like what they put out each time. They are always exciting and challenging, and guaranteed to make your life more interesting. In a world where pop music plays it as safe as possible, they are like a breath of fresh air, no matter how jarring they can be at times.
There is a rarer breed of animal then either of those two, the performer who has managed to combine both of those elements. You get the same guarantee of certainty that you did with the guy who does the same thing repeatedly and the excitement of the one who always changes. Unfortunately, there aren't too many performers in popular music that can wear that mantle; in fact, I know of only one.
I can't remember a time in pop music when Neil Young wasn't recordings. From the time, I became aware that there was such a thing as rock and roll; he's been churning the stuff out. From his early days at The Riverboat in Toronto Ontario, showing up in California driving a hearse and becoming part of Buffalo Springfield – to the retired country farmer that he seems to have become as he's aged, Neil Young has been continually lurking around the edges of stardom.
But that's not something that's likely to ever happen in the "celebrity" sense of the word, as he's just far too uncompromising when it comes to his music. He does what he feels like, when he feels like, and with whom he feels like doing it and has his whole career. Whether working with his band Crazy Horse, touring with the Shocking Pinks performing rockabilly, or even that scary period when he put out Transformer where he played with electronic music, he's never given a rat's ass for whatever any one else has thought.
In spite of that, he remains a constant in a world of inconstancy because of his individuality and the distinctive sound of his voice. It doesn't seem to mater if he's singing one of his folk songs like "Sugar Mountain" or burning the roof off with something like "Down By The River". In the last few years, he's spread his artistic wings even further by getting involved with making movies based on song cycles he has created.
But music is still what he does best and while there are those who will probably disagree with me I think his latest Chrome Dreams ll is one of his better efforts in years. Last year's Prairie Wind was a step in the right direction although I found it a little too sentimentally nostalgic and lacking the bite that normally elevates his acoustic work above the norm. Although considering the year he had come through (surgery for a brain aneurysm and the death of his father) it's more then a little understandable.
Chrome Dreams ll sees Neil still working the quieter side of the street, but the lyrics have a lot more too them on this occasion. In some ways its the equivalent of the novel where the characters go on a long road journey but the real road their travelling is the one inside where you figure out things about yourself. Road and travel imagery abound in the songs on this disc, to help explain the inner journey needed to get back home to yourself.
From the bluebird who always looks like she's flying home in the opening track "Beautiful Bluebird", the spirit road in your mind that you have to find to get you home in "Spirit Road", to the fact that it's not that big a mystery on how to go about being like the bluebird on "No Hidden Path". Young talks about the importance of taking the time to get to know yourself and the world about you.
Spirituality is not something that people are comfortable talking about in our society, but Neil doesn't share that reluctance. Heck I've always found "Helpless" to be one of the most spiritually moving songs I've ever heard in the way it evokes the power that memories have on the spirit. So it shouldn't surprise people to hear Neil advocate finding your spirit road or talking about praying among the trees. But then again it might.
Neil is one of the few folk who can actually write a musically satirical song, maybe it's his voice, or something to do with the way he can control his inflection. "Dirty Old Man" is a typical example of his best satire. What sounds funny and glib on the surface is really a criticism of those people who find those sorts of attitudes funny. There's nothing funny about people who are drunks and piss their lives away, yet you can already hear the idiots cheering when Neil sings "I love to get hammered on a Friday night, but sometimes I can't wait and Monday's alright".
"Dirty Old Man" is the path most often taken by people in North America instead of trying to learn how to fly like the Bluebird and make their way home. In the last song of the disc, "The Way", when he sings, "we know the way", he's only speaking the truth because we do all know the way. The trouble is most of us aren't interested in doing anything but becoming a selfish, self-indulgent, dirty old man.
For those of you who wonder what new thing Neil Young is going to throw at them with his latest album the answer this time lies in the content. By far the most introspective recording of his career, Chrome Dreams ll may be a little more disconcerting then his recordings that were musically challenging. It happens far les often these days then it used to that someone puts out a recording demanding the listener listen to the lyrics in order to fully appreciate it; at least not with the level of intelligence and intensity that is displayed on this album.
It would be easy to dismiss Chrome Dreams ll as the consequence of a near death experience and the death of somebody close to Neil Young's heart. But that would be a disservice to his creative power and his commitment to his art form. Of course the events of last year will have affected Mr. Young, but this recording goes far beyond being merely a reaction to life – its a guide to life and getting the most out of it.
If you want to check out some of the songs on the recording you can head over to Neil's Youtube site where they have four songs in rotation.