The ever prolific Neil Young has released his latest long player, a live album with nature sounds. No really. That’s what it is. An environmentally conscious album by an ever-increasingly environmentally conscious musician. A live album recorded while on tour last year with The Promise of the Real, who Young credits with re-vitalising him and re-connecting him with music. A live album which had its premiere in the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. But enough about that. Whats the album like?
13 tracks spread across two discs, with one song running to an ear-watering 27 minutes (with more endings than Return of the King). No digital release forthcoming or promised (well, PONO, if that counts). I had to give this one a spin in the old CD player – at this stage almost like watching a film on DVD.
For many years now Neil Young has been singing about the environment. Throughout his career, in his extensive and varied catalogue, there have always been one or two songs here and there that you could point to, and in latter years, his protest albums (Living With War; The Monsanto Years) bore the brunt. Of course as you would expect, it is The Monsanto Years which forms a good third of this album with four tracks selected from it. Three from Ragged Glory and the rest from various other albums. You might say that these are the deep cuts, not the hits, and while there isn’t really a problem with that, there is a problem with how the album sounds. And it’s not even the animal / insect sounds. The nature soundbites at the start are interesting and after a while you forget they are even there, maybe it’s because they aren’t there as much on some songs as others, but every now and again they squawk up to remind you they are.
The problem is with the mixing here. There is little to no low end. Having seen Young live, his show can be equal parts beautiful and terrifyingly aggressive at times, with him coaxing all manner of noise out of ‘Old Black’ (his guitar), but it’s always the sound that smacks you in the face, the sound that puts an arm around your shoulder, it draws you in, it catches your attention. It’s a powerful, muscular sonic affair, but the quiet to loud dynamic used to such devastating force on other classic Young songs is largely absent here. Here the sound is patchy. It’s a live album so you would expect this and forgive it to some extent. But some of the songs just ring dull. They float by on a wave of treble. With no low end, no big bass there to underpin the whole thing Young’s voice becomes disembodied and even disinterested. It’s too sonically far away from the rest of the music going on around it. The same damage is dealt with the harmonies, great as they are, but they sound like they belong on another record when you hear them. When it’s good though, it is very good. Tracks like ‘Western Hero’, ‘After the Goldrush, ‘Human Highway’, ‘People Want to Hear About Love’ and the first quarter of ‘Love And Only Love’ are some definite highlights.
For the concept, Young is to be applauded. For auto-tuning the hell out of the word GMO every time it occurs in his lyrics on this album he should be applauded. For his output and restless creativity he is to be applauded. He has always divided opinion and he will continue to do so. That’s what artists do. But it’s the execution and mixing of this record that lets it all down. At times it sounds like Neil Young and at times it’s like guys in a room having a jam, playing some old songs and trippin’ out on animal noises. But maybe that’s what he wanted it to sound like. The man continues to confound.
Neil Young photographed for State by Mark Earley.